In my first college-level philosophy course, the course which changed my course of study from chemistry to philosophy, I remember one of our first readings was the Gorgias by Plato. Gorgias features a number of debates between Socrates and various Athenians, and one debate changed my perspective entirely.
Socrates and Callicles are discussing the pain versus pleasure formula that best leads to the good life, and Socrates employs an amazing analogy for how he believed the good life was attained. He states,
“Suppose there are two men, each of whom has many jars. The jars belonging to one of them are sound and full, one with wine, another with honey, a third with milk, and many others with lots of other things. And suppose that the sources of each of these things are scarce and difficult to come by, procurable only with much toil and trouble. Now one man, having filled up his jars, doesn’t pour anything more into them and gives them no further thought. He can relax over them. As for the other one, he too has resources that can be procured, though with difficulty, but his containers are leaky and rotten. He’s forced to keep on filling them, day and night, or else he suffers extreme pain.”
This analogy of the two jars illustrates two different paths humans take to try and reach fulfillment: hedonism and eudemonism.
Socrates’ leaky, hedonistic jar is the Ancient Greek version of what we call the hedonic treadmill today. Our desires are filled and, like a colander, the fulfillment empties as soon as it fills up and we need a continuous intake of pleasures.
Demetri and I have discussed the objectively bad nature of the hedonic treadmill on multiple occasions (link Hedonic Treadmill episode), but I believe this analogy offers a new light for thinking about hedonism as more than just consumerism.
To understand hedonism, we must understand Socrates’ other jar, the Jar of Eudemonia. The jar of Eudemonia is not empty or overflowing with milk or honey, but simply filled with no further thought given to the matter. It does not take up the complete rejection of pleasure by fasting itself of any contents, like Jainism or other extreme ascetics, and it does not continue to punch the pleasure button like the hedonic jar does, constantly asking for more pleasure.
The Jar of Eudemonia calls us to Hippocrates’ warning, “everything in excess is opposed to nature.” By realizing the eudemonia is finding that Aristotelian ethical balance between vice and virtue reminds us that hedonism toes the line and sits at the borders of true happiness at all times.
Hedonism is not just being overly greedy or power-hungry, but it morphs itself into minute, subtle forms as well. You may want to make an impact with your YouTube channel, blog, or digital product, but checking views, click-through rates, and sales feed the leaky hedonic jar because these numbers will never fulfill you. Of course, statistics are valuable feedback and a great springboard for reflection and system improvements, but stats without action make them vanity metrics — hallow numbers that do nothing but feed your ego.
You may believe self-care is important, but overflowing your jar with endless meditation, journaling, yoga, skincare routines, juice cleanses, candle lightings, and warm baths is not eudemonic in excess. Too much in-flow of self-pleasure loses sight of the motive behind self-care: to restore your energy levels and clear your mind so you can perform at a higher level come time for the next workday.
And so, it is the balance of all things that Socrates calls for in this passage, and to close I want to finish with Callicles response. Callicles, the hedonist he is, states, “The man who has filled himself up has no pleasure anymore, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much pleasure flow in.”
While this critique of living like a stone is enticing call home to hedonism, I along with the Stoics must ask: what is wrong with being like a rock?
As Epictetus states, “Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves — that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?”
To be a stone means to be indifferent and impenetrable to the lightening, rains, and winds life’s storms throw our way, it means being constant and strong for one’s friends and loved ones, and it means being still, understanding, and forever patient with the passing of time and fearless in the face of death. While the stone may never know the highs of fortune and fame, the stone too will never face the inevitable fall from the stratosphere and crash back down to Earth. Instead, whether it be the stone or the sound jar of Eudemonia, knows contentment exists right where it stands and looks no further than inward for fulfillment and meaning.
Have an awesome week!
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