In Praise of Hedonism

Trigger Warning: For any poor sensitive souls reading this essay let me warn that it eschews political correctness, and additionally, contains a lot of nonsense!

How wonderful it is to live in a modern democracy like ours where so many people are concerned for our welfare. By and large, these all-knowing benevolent folk, not only prescribe for us how we must think, but also how we must speak, eat, drink and relate to each other. This is a marvellous service that they provide us because it relieves us of the burden of having to think for ourselves.

It is a wondrous thing to be so guided because without such help we might offend others, and most likely harm ourselves by becoming obese, drinking too much, and overindulging in sugar, fat and right wing politics.

I know under the strictures imposed by these marvellously helpful people I am not allowed to think for myself (what a dangerous aberration that would be!) but I often (surreptitiously of course) question some of their recommendations.

For example they often propose that their recommendations make us healthier and therefore reduce the impact on the public purse. But in fact there is surely a great advantage in having our profligate ways shorten our lifespan. If we die prematurely from the complications of obesity from eating too much, cirrhosis of the liver from drinking too much or from lung cancer from smoking too much then surely we are contributing to the public good, not having to rely on government funding to treat our maladies into extreme old age.

Some call this state of affairs the “Nanny State” but of course my politically correct friends point out that this is a misogynist, diminutive pejorative, not to be used in polite company!

But being the person I am with a great affinity for creativity and the Arts, I again am driven to question the wisdom of such an approach.

I have been contemplating how the strictures of the Nanny State might have adversely impacted on history.

Consider, for example, one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Schubert was a prolific composer. He habitually started work composing at 6:00am and worked through till 1:00pm, chain-smoking all the while. After lunch he might take a walk or visit friends but would soon take to drink and spent many a night carousing. Not only was he a prolific composer but could play multiple instruments including the piano, organ, cello, viola and guitar. He was also a competent vocalist.

Before devoting his life’s work to music he worked in his father’s school as a teacher and for a time studied law. Unfortunately before his thirty-second birthday he was to die, most likely, according to current day medical authorities, from syphilis.

So viewed from the perspective of public good, Schubert lived an exemplary life creating a huge catalogue of wonderful music and dying early thus not being a great imposition on his community!

Consider also the example of the poet John Keats, one of whose masterpieces, Kubla Khan, on his own admission was written whilst under the influence of opium. Keats conveniently died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 26.

Perhaps we should take a quick look at Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate and someone who enjoyed a drink.


Hemingway lived a fabulous life. He was an ambulance driver in the latter years of World War I, and a war correspondent in World War II. In his colourful life he went on African safaris, went big game fishing, survived two plane crashes, dallied in Cuba awhile and had more marriages than any sensible man should contemplate.

He was a wonderful writer, gifted with the skill of writing terse but insightful prose.

Nevertheless he enjoyed his drink. He wrote to a friend:

I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane than whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does? I would sooner not eat at night as not have red wine and water.

And of course he then obliged society by committing suicide in the summer of 1961 at the age of 62 ensuring no further demand on the public purse.

Hemingway’s enjoyment of alcohol is not uncommon among literary giants.

One of literary’s stellar performers in the drinking stakes was Brendan Behan who is acclaimed as one of Ireland’s most accomplished writers and poets. Behan’s drinking episodes were legendary. He rose to fame on the production of his play The Quare Fellow. In a subsequent BBC television interview Behan appeared on camera obviously intoxicated. Instead of his drunken appearance resulting in opprobrium it only served to enhance his reputation. (That’s the Irish for you!)

Behan was a diabetic. His condition wasn’t helped by the fact that his favourite drink was champagne laced with sweet sherry! Again Behan was no great burden on the public finances. He died at the ridiculously young age of 41. His funeral was provided with a guard of honour by the IRA and was one of the largest in decades.

Kingsley Amis was a prolific novelist but also a renowned drinker. In his prime he maintained a regime that separated his writing from his drinking. He religiously applied himself to writing every morning and wouldn’t partake of alcohol until he had written at least 500 words. Amis’s favourite watering hole was the Garrick Club. Christopher Hitchens, who was rather well acquainted with the bottle himself, maintained that Amis’s drink bill at the Garrick, even when drinking alone, was regularly more than a table of other members and guests. Amis once wrote a book that he titled Every Day Drinking. His publisher, feeling that his might scandalise many of the public, retitled the tome Everyday Drinking!

But it is not only those from the literary and musical fields that have indulged in these hedonistic pleasures. It is edifying to take a look at the world of politics.

A prime example is Winston Churchill. Churchill was something of a polymath. Whilst he is most famous for his role as prime minister of Great Britain during the darkest days of World War II, he was also a war correspondent, a historian, a writer, an army officer and a passable artist. As many of his photos attest, he was rather fond of cigars. He also had a reputation, which he did nothing to try to dispel, for drinking. He once famously quipped that he had taken more out of alcohol than alcohol had taken out of him. He seemed to drink copious amount of whisky, enjoyed red wine, champagne and in the evenings, fine brandy.

His private secretary reported that Churchill had been taught by his father to have contempt for people who get drunk. Churchill seemed to have a huge capacity for alcohol. It is reputed that after a night with Churchill, when he felt obliged to match his drinking, President Roosevelt took three days to recover! Churchill seldom seems to have appeared inebriated even after copious drinking.

On one occasion Lady Astor reportedly told Churchill, “You, Mr Churchill, are drunk.”

Churchill famously replied, “And you, Lady Astor, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning.”

Of course even our own Bob Hawke had a reputation as a drinker well before he made his mark as a politician.

So the thesis I want to advance is that hedonists have made a disproportionate contribution to the quality of our society.

We frequently see pleas from governments and the medical fraternity for such people to moderate their hedonism. This is usually supported by reams of data showing the supposedly huge cost society bears as a result of this aberrant behaviour. But of course this is all economic piffle! In carrying out such research these do-gooders always have a thumb on the scales.

Typically their arguments are made on the basis of lost productivity or increased medical costs. A rigorous cost-benefit analysis is never properly carried out.

Not being a smoker or a recreational drug user, I can’t comment on the benefits accruing from such hedonic experiences. However I have been known to have a drink or two so let me advance the argument for the benefits of alcohol consumption.

There are few experiences to compare with the conviviality of sharing time with friends and family accompanied with alcohol sensibly consumed. If the consumption of alcohol shortens my life, let me say I would willingly sacrifice a few days of abstinence for a mellow evening spent with friends and a good bottle! So it is time that the economists put something on the positive side of the ledger in recognition of the pleasure that alcohol consumption might bring.

(Of course there are times when alcohol is not sensibly consumed. Often young men, and unfortunately now young women as well, imbibe with the sole objective of getting drunk. It is hard to see how this contributes to anyone’s well-being. They should heed the advice of Winston Churchill’s father.)

Then again when weighing up the economics the medical fraternity makes much of the extra health costs that over-indulgence causes. However they always neglect to take off the reduced costs to society of the shortened life span of the chronic abusers.

So then let me summarise my thesis.

  • Hedonists make disproportionately greater contributions to the quality of our lives than wowsers.
  • The benefits of hedonism are suppressed in traditional economic analyses.
  • The costs of overindulgence to society emphasised in traditional economic analyses are outweighed by the benefits to society of the reduced lifespans of those that overindulge.

Let me finish with a little reference I think I may have shared with you before.

My father was always impressed by a particular poem by Thomas Edgar Spencer entitled Rum And Water. This lovely poem tells of a disputation between a missionary and a drinker. Tellingly the drinker repudiates the missionary’s admonition about drinking by referring to the Old Testament. In particular he instances the Flood and God’s determination to exterminate unbelievers by drowning.

Famously he asks:

Which has caused the greatest slaughter? Was it rum or was it water?

And he goes on to argue convincingly that indeed we should be more afraid of water than rum, which over the course of history has caused more misery than alcohol.

So my heartfelt plea is, that before we are too critical of the lifestyles of others let us at least look objectively at the full cost-benefit analysis of hedonists. If the real benefits and costs were to be properly assessed we might even conclude that their profligate lifestyles might even have a nett positive effect on our society!

I think I might just have another drink whilst I contemplate that.

11 Replies to “In Praise of Hedonism”

  1. Well Ted, I was a non-imbiber when I first met you back in the early 1980’s, however after many years of enjoying conviviality with you and your wonderful fellow employees, accompanied by excellent wine and conversation, I think I need to thank you for my subsequent life of sensible hedonism. Many thanks – and thanks for so many great and sensible blogs, obviously the juice of the noble grape has not dulled your mind or damaged your compassionate spirit. I am just now filling my glass with a well matured red to drink a toast to Ted – many other readers, I am sure, will join me in that toast — to Ted

    1. Well I guess it was a fair exchange Phil -I taught you how to drink and you taught me how to think!
      After which we were able to drink whilst talking about our thinking. How convivial is that?

  2. I think it was Groucho Marx who remarked that he could live to be a hundred if he gave up all the things that would inspire him to do so.

    1. And of course, Mark, it was George Burns in the latter stages of his long life who declared, “If I knew I was going to last this long I would have taken better care of myself!”

  3. Hi Ted, Once again, thank you for your many essays of worthwhile and commendable examinations of our social mores. However, forever the pedant that I may be, I must pick you up on your comment about Kubla Khan. It was written by Coleridge, not Keats. Yes, Keats did die in his 26th year, but Colerige, the opium taker, lasted until he was 62.

    Please keep up the good work, you help shape our lives.


    1. Oops – how embarrassing Brian! You are of course right! One of my favourite books is “The Road to Xanadu” by John Livingstone Lowes. It is subtitled “A Study in the ways of the imagination”. The book is a remarkable analysis of the way in which Coleridge’s imagination worked to create both “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. In fact I devoted an earlier blog essay to some of this material. .

      I don’t know what I was thinking. It must be senility because I know it couldn’t be the wine!

  4. i shall drink to that…. another thought provoking essay that i have enjoyed, thanks Ted. of course, the nanny state thinkers want to take all the fun and risk out of life in the ‘chance’ that someone will get hurt. what we need is more conscious thought and acceptance of the ‘consequences of your actions’… and then, if no-one else is going to get hurt, then go for it and enjoy. how else can we ‘learn from our mistakes’?

  5. Ted. As always, a joy and pleasure to read such simple, sound and balanced advice.

    Three cheers for the hedonists who improve our lives!

    And three cheers for those who support them!

  6. Choices choices worry about the state of the world, or decide which bottle of wine to open next …probably neither will change the outcome …. did u mention the health benefits of a goblet of wine a day 🙂

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