“We recognise pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.”
Pleasure, decadence, hedonism – this combination has served as some unholy trinity to the ‘weaker’ part of the human condition ever since our early ancestors managed to store enough bison in the back of the cave to gorge themselves silly. It is a theme to which we return again and again and which has been present in the world’s oral and written story traditions from the first pictograms of the Indus valley and the captivated faces around the campfires of Homeric Greece to the glossy columns of magazines and revered travel writers of today.
Probably the earliest exponent of the systematic pursuit of pleasure is the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The statement at the top of the page is from one of his few remaining primary sources, the Letter to Menoeceus. I first became aware of Epicurus as a first-year undergraduate. The bar in the student union building was called the Epi and the Freshers’ edition of the student newspaper, Epigram, explained its etymology. At the time I was fascinated by a system of philosophy based on the pursuit of pleasure, surrounded with its living and breathing manifestation in the form of the student body. Circumstance thrust me toward it– my friends and I were studying New Testament Greek, devouring Donna Tart’s Secret History, and giving talks in the Theology department on how raves represented the rebirth of the Dionysus rituals. As time went on, and my contemporaries grew a little older, this seemed to dwindle. I assumed this must be something to do with the inevitable quieting of the human spirit and the tendency to become increasingly conservative with age; that was until I began to embark on significant amounts of travel.
The first resurgence of pleasure seeking, or hedonism, is a relatively obvious one and people tend to pursue it more actively when away from home. It is not necessary to travel far to find a giggling couple or group of people who are away from home and, as a result, feel in possession of some license to be more hedonistic than usual. This can happen as near to home as the next town where there is less chance of being rumbled by whichever authority - spouse, friend or official - polices our behaviour.
Of course, the most obvious example of this principle is the package holiday in the sun. Holiday makers become hedonistic before they even get on the plane. At the airport salaciously entertaining books are bought, perhaps also some uncharacteristically sweet snacks for the flight. The bar is full of people supping pints whether it’s evening, afternoon or two hours after breakfast – we’re on holiday! Everyone’s smiling, songs might be sung, worries are left at home with the cat.
Once we’ve actually reached our holiday destination there is serious potential for anarchy. We find ourselves indulging in hedonistic behaviour in ways often previously unseen. We have a tendency to sit in idleness around the pool for countless hours, gorge ourselves on food and drink, behave raucously in bars and clubs, flirt outrageously with total strangers – we can even abuse the law of the land. All this from perfectly respectable members of society – administrators, I.T. engineers, teachers and lawyers.
Historically, this Jekyll and Hyde behaviour was less apparent. Those few people who were travelling before modern times had distinct reasons for their hedonistic behaviour and felt comfortable with it. The earliest people on the move were often soldiers or trading folk who lived a life which lent itself to hedonism. Later, when tourism first began with the Grand Tours, the only people who could afford to undertake them were of wealthy descent and quite used to the luxuries of life. Later still were the wanderings of more creative types --artists and writers--whose hedonism and decadence was marketed as a prerequisite for their creative output.
The contemporary traveller is a more complicated beast. What is it that makes usually respectable members of society behave in a less respectable manner when away from home? It is at this point that the themes of ethics and morality begin to emerge. Clearly there is something in the psyche that is being repressed during the other fifty weeks of the year and which feels the need for release. We somehow feel too intimidated while at home to bear witness to this hedonistic impulse. While at home it feels wrong.
Without wanting to read like a sociology text book, I suspect it has something to do with the historical remnants of the class structure. It may be that there is still a perception that we have a certain position within society and that it is somehow our hidden responsibility to maintain that position and its relation to others. When we travel away from home this unspoken contract is temporarily suspended and we can behave in ways which we consider more fitting to our inner selves, albeit with the rebellious subtlety of a teenager left home alone.
This theme becomes more acute when you consider the economics of travel. When on a package holiday we usually have pockets fat with spending money. This isn’t necessarily because we are wealthy, but because we have saved for the occasion. Our temporarily suspended contract with society is now compounded with an uncharacteristic wealth which skews even further our natural behaviour. Our knee-jerk reaction to this new-found wealth is not to suddenly become more philanthropic, but to be more hedonistic. Spend it! Everything must go before we reach the far side of duty free.
Further still in this economic equation is the increasing factor of third-world travel. In Europe and America we are used to paying such large amounts for everything that as soon as we step onto another continent we are automatically wealthy, fueled by pounds, euros and dollars. We can do things that we would never dream of at home – walk into restaurants without checking if the menu is too expensive, take taxis everywhere, assume that when we enter a shop or boutique we are worthy of the attendant’s attention.
It is this worthiness that can undermine our usually upstanding morals. When we are on a package holiday to a similarly wealthy country we feel wealthier because we have spending money to burn. When we are in a significantly poorer country we know we are wealthier. Further still, most of the citizens of the country we are visiting know we are wealthier to the point where we stick out like a sore thumb. In these circumstances our contract with society is not temporarily suspended, but altogether transcended. We now have a responsibility to maintain the norms of a totally different set of values, which appear unavoidable. There are two main ways to address this new-found responsibility, both of which have questionable ethical consequences.
The first response is one of ‘ethical responsibility.' A good example of this is someone who travels to an underdeveloped community with the intention of giving a helping hand and sharing their skills. While this person’s intentions are undoubtedly good it is impossible to escape the fact that they are not subject to the same variables as the people they intend to help. This person enters a community healthy and well-fed, their backpacks probably stuffed with treats and travellers’ cheques. Their time in the community is finite and they know if anything really starts to go wrong, they can go home. At worst this person is something of a voyeur, at best a well-meaning patriarch. Both of these interpretations are riddled with hedonism, either the voyeuristic hedonism of feeding upon someone else’s circumstance or the moral hedonism that comes with feeling some good has come to pass by our influence.
The second response is to succumb, to a lesser or greater degree, to the temptations of having more than the average person and revelling in it. And tempting it is; I have been surprised both by my own experience and that of others how quickly we can become comfortable with our new-found lifestyle. It seems to suit us all. We become compelled to fulfill an archetype of the decadent traveller.
It begins with the simple enjoyment of our new-found wealth, of the goods and services in which we indulge, the like of which we probably could not seriously contemplate at home. This is perfectly reasonable in itself, but it is the quiet before the ethical storm. At some point during or after these indulgences a paradigm shift can take place. More than just the simple enjoyment of the finer things, we begin to readjust how we see ourselves in relation to the others around us.
Perhaps ironically at first, we identify certain colonial trends emerging in our thoughts. We see ourselves as apart, like a different breed, us and them. This process of separation can act as a justification for decadent and hedonistic behaviour. At this point we begin again to buy into the historical remnants of the class structure, but this time from the other end. Fate has twisted and we find ourselves with a better, more fitting, hand with which to play; and we choose to play it. And who, after all, are we to question Fate?