If we undertake a careful examination of modern societies we will observe that a pervasive hedonism prevails. Modern man cultivates it intensely, he experiences it in his personal life and, of course, all modern mass media are engaged in serving and praising it. TV stations, magazines, books, radio stations, cinema, theater, songs, literature, etc. all audio-visual means satisfy man’s insatiable hunger and thirst for the enjoyment of sensual pleasure.
The philosophical system of hedonism, which existed in antiquity, is well known. According to this school of thought, pleasure is good, while sorrow and pain are bad. The founder of this school was Aristippus of Cyrene (435-355 BC). Because of his origin, the School itself was named Cyrenaic. According to Aristippus, both the past and the future escape man’s grip and, therefore, the only thing under his control is pleasure enjoyed in the present. This is actually a gnoseological empiricism, for it teaches that man’s intellect cannot attain the experience of spiritual values and, therefore, such spiritual values cannot regulate human life. According to Aristippus, “pleasure is, by itself, preferable and good,” regardless of the objects and the sources generating it. Man must enjoy pleasure, without, however, being ruled by it. He said: “I possess, I am not possessed”. Pleasure precedes moral rules and the latter should step aside when they obstruct it.
Hedonism was developed as a system and experienced by Epicureanism. Epicurus’s ethics start with pleasure which is “the beginning and end of living happily… it is the first and natural good … for every pleasure is good … like every pain is bad”. Of course, Epicurus did not assign priority to material and sensual pleasures because he put spiritual pleasures first. He argued that the equation of pleasure with sensual enjoyment is wrong. Although material pleasures give enjoyment, they are connected with pain. Much more valuable are the pleasures of the soul. Overall, Epicurus’s theory of knowledge is empirical and materialistic.
Both Aristippus and Epicurus placed hedonism within their whole gnoseological system, which was certainly materialistic. It is a philosophical theory based on gnoseological principles. This is also observed in later philosophers for whom hedonism constituted part of their philosophical system. The difference with the modern reality of the experience of hedonism is that, first, pleasure today is separated from spiritual pleasures and remains solely within the sphere of bodily senses, and, second, it is not an outcome of a gnoseological theory, of a philosophical system, but rather a fruit of sensual indulgence, with no reflections and visions. It is a derivative state. While for the philosophers of hedonism pleasure are considered an existential issue, for modern man it is just an indulgence, it is not part of existential problems. Of course, on a deeper level, even the modern enjoyment of pleasure constitutes an existential search, but man does not feel it in this way and does not start to experience pleasure from this principle
An extreme and non-philosophical hedonism and seeking of pleasure dominates modern societies. Here we use the term not in its original philosophical sense but with its common contemporary meaning. A pursuit of gratification exists. This is why pain, asceticism and deprivation are avoided in modern societies and there is a pursuit of indulgence by any means, and a predominance of individual rights. I believe the difference between Orthodox and anti-Orthodox life lies at this point. The Orthodox Church speaks about the Cross and the Crucifixion, all the time, and this is something incomprehensible for human mentality. Next, we will present St. Maximus the Confessor’s teaching on pleasure and pain. It will be shown that in their entire theological work the holy Fathers continue the thinking of the ancient philosophers, as St. Maximus does here, answering their questions in the light of and with the experience of the Revelation.
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos (The Picture of the Modern World)