Your Greatest Pleasure
I want to introduce you to an excerpt from the novel Picture of Dorian Grey, written in 1890 which, sums up the mood of Hedonism during the mid-1800s quite nicely:
"No, you don't feel it now. Someday, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? ... You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don't frown... You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won't smile.... People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.... Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.... Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don't squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar...Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.... a new Hedonism-that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season...But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!"
Oscar Wilde's portrayal of Dorian Grey represents our innocent nature conflicting with the intoxicating experience of unrestricted pleasure. The Picture of Dorian Grey is an exquisite look into why we restrict ourselves from pleasures. Wilde redefines Hedonism to fit his novel but his definition is not far from the Greek Cyrenaic Hedonist ideals. The Cyrenians believed that life must be lived to the fullest. But, Dorian questions this lifestyle, rightly so, for a life lived with little restrictions eventually catches up with you; as seen during the climax of the book. The Cyrenaics have little regard for tomorrow, i.e simply take in the pleasures of the body as they come to you. But, as we see with Dorian, too much of one drug dulls the senses, and you must push further to a new drug, or to a new pleasure. The quest for more is stronger and more dangerous, perhaps leading to your own death. Of course, the Cyrenaic believed death was of no consequence, for what would be a life without the pleasures of the senses be but a condition of a corpse.
In the book, young Dorian Grey is bewitched by Lord Henry, a skeptical cynic, who believes life's too short for reason and logic. He encourages the impressionable Dorian to seek only pleasure and never fear the outcome.
Picture of Dorian Grey was scandalous for its time, and famously asked the question, 'if you could do anything you want, and never suffer the consciences, would you?' So, would you?