Party People and Epicurean Hedonism

Hedonism is the philosophy that pleasure the highest good.  A hedonist is a pleasure-lover.  Often, this philosophy is associated with people of the party spirit; those drunken carousing revelers who roll in at dawn and wake up at noon.  The Epicureans show up in Acts 17 and question Paul with significant interest.  The Epicureans are perhaps most famous for their hedonistic ethical philosophy so, in trying to understand who these people were, students of the Scriptures often will jump to the conclusion that the Epicureans were the party people.


This leap is probably a mistake.  The Epicurean philosophy of ethics is more nuanced.  Epicurus seems to have recognized that people are happy when their desires are fulfilled.  Yet, it seems that some of the pleasures of life bring pain later which outweighs the pleasure which was initially derived from them.  In fact, what Epicurus realized is that wisdom is the highest pleasure and thus based his philosophy off the pursuit of wisdom.  In a letter to Menocenes, he wrote the following:


“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menocenes)


Interestingly, the Scriptural philosophy of ethics seems to have more in common with Epicurus than it does with the party boy.  1 Cor 1 says:


22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.


I believe that some have misinterpreted this to say that wisdom-seeking is bad.  The Jews are seek signs of power and the Greeks seek wisdom, but Paul gives them what they did not seek, that is, Christ.  But is that really what Paul is saying here?  If he meant to contrast Christ with wisdom is verse 22-23, why would he spoil it in verse 24 by making them equal?  Rather, I think Paul is giving the Jews and the Greeks what they seek, yet they still stumble because of their blindness (in fact this is said explicitly in the following chapter).  It isn’t Christ versus wisdom and signs of power. Christ is wisdom and power.  For those Greeks and Jews who are able to see, “to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  For those Greeks who are called, for those Epicureans who are called, Christ fulfills the desire for wisdom because he is wisdom.  There isn’t any other wisdom to be found.  Col 2:3 says that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  The Epicurean, the pleasure-seeker, the wisdom-seeker, is also a Christ-seeker if God calls him, because he realizes that wisdom cannot be based on human principles but must be based on the revealed Logos of God.

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