Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mediterranean Sea: Hedonism vs. Tragedy

We had a very interesting discussion on hedonism in my French class this week.  The chapter titled "Plaisirs" in our textbook contains a segment introducing French philosopher Michel Onfray, who is described as a hedonist, atheist and anarchist.  It's been a long time since I last heard the word hedonism in any context and I could not immediately define it if I had to, but I would certainly link it to pleasure.  The revelation of what the word means in different cultures was intriguing and thought-provoking.

The American students in the class commented that "hedonism" has a negative connotation in the United States because it describes the tendency to put one's own enjoyment before duty and responsibility, in the extreme cases doing it at the expense of others. 

The French teacher was incredulous. She said the word is very positive in France where it describes people who pay attention to beauty and generally want to make the world a joyful place.

Onfray, quoted in the textbook from a radio interview, said that a pessimist sees the world worse than it is, an optimist sees it better than it is, and a hedonist sees it as it really is, which is tragic.  Therefore, Onfray said, a hedonist is better equipped to offer antidote for the tragic.

After this lively discussion, I proceeded to my office where a plethora of bad news awaited: bombings, killings, water shortages, and the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea, where on that particular day 400 migrants drowned while the luckier ones just barely made it to the Greek and Italian shores.  


No sooner did I finish my story, than 700 more drowned off the coast of Libya in an attempt to cross the sea to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

"Vergogna" wrote my Italian friend Antonio Guizzetti on his Facebook page. "Shame! The Mediterranean Sea which was once a cradle of civility, where the Greeks and the Muslims came to trade with others, today is a deplorable cemetery with thousands of dead at its bottom," he said.  "Meanwhile, the Italian government is spending billions of Euros to buy U.S. F-15 war planes and EU leaders are blackmailing Greece for a few billion in debt." 

I used to think of the Mediterranean as an ultimate hedonist paradise - a place where one sits under a palm tree with a cool drink, breathing in the pine-scented air, while Zephyrus sends gentle breezes from the sea.  The region is now increasingly linked to the images of death and suffering.  What is a hedonist's antidote?  Surely not blotting out the dark side of the region's dual reality?  Is it possible to enjoy a pricy cocktail at a French Riviera bistro, knowing that not too far away people are dying of thirst in some rickety boat.  And how enjoyable is dipping in the sea with thousands of dead bodies at its bottom?  

Quoting 18th-century moralist Nicolas Chamfort, Onfray said the imperative of hedonism is to have pleasure and give pleasure to others, without hurting anyone.  Our goal should be to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain for ourselves as well as for the others.  It seems that many would-be hedonists today conveniently forget this important stipulation - "as well as for the others."  

Yet, when you come back home, exhausted from work and burdened with your own problems, how much mental and physical energy do you still have to dwell on the troubles of others? Don't you need to blot out the negative and seek at least a little peace if not outright pleasure? Many Greeks and Italians rightfully ask who is going to take care of the immigrants in the countries that have their own problems to worry about.

European Union leaders are planning an ad hoc summit to discuss what can be done.  Angela Merkel said the bloc should go after the smugglers who put people's lives in danger, and work to alleviate the problems that cause mass migrations from some parts of the world.  

Most urgently of all, she said, Europe has to stop the dreadful deaths on its own thresholds. Her plan is good, although it reminds me of a quote from the Bible saying "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."  It would take a lot of flesh to stem the widespread poverty and violence that cause people to flee their homes and risk life and limb on a journey into the unknown that can take more than a year.  

Around the world, more money and effort is spent on wars and the production of arms, including improvised explosive devices, than on education.  Philosophy, which is still taught at high-school level in many European countries, is an unlikely subject in the countries beset by violence.  Onfrey's and Chamfort's ideas have little chance of taking root in sub-Saharan Africa or in the Middle East.  But Plautus's "homo homini lupus" seems to be widespread, especially among those who have never heard the phrase.  

To end on an encouraging note, hedonism in its real sense is not completely dead.  Here is a heartwarming example:


When next I enjoy a cocktail under a pine tree on the Dalmatian coast, it will be in the hope of getting inspired to do more to alleviate the pain of others.

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