Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Hedonist, Hedonistic, Hedonism

The Greek word for pleasure is ἡδονή (hēdonḗ), whence English hedonist (one who holds that pleasure is the chief good), hedonistic (pleasure-seeking), and hedonism (pursuit of or devotion to pleasure). The Latin equivalent of ἡδονή is voluptas, whence English voluptuary (a synonym of hedonist).

The earliest examples of hedonist and hedonism in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are both dated 1856, and the earliest example of hedonistic is dated 1866.

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1856), attributed the coinage of English hedonist to "Professor Wilson," i.e. John Wilson (1785-1854), Professor at the University of Edinburgh, who wrote under the pseudonym Christopher North. De Quincey said that Professor Wilson applied the word "in playful reproach to myself and others." But the word doesn't seem to occur in any of Wilson's writings.

It is possible to find examples of these three words which antedate the OED's earliest examples.

Hedonist occurs in George Ensor, The Independent Man: or, An Essay on the Formation and Development of those Priciples and Faculties of the Human Mind which Constitute Moral and Intellectual Excellence, Vol. I (London: R. Taylor and Co., 1806), p. 302:
He [Epicurus] said, Pleasure was the supreme good: thence they attributed to him the lies of Timocritus, a deserter from his school; thence they confounded his philosophy with that of Aristippus, the Hedonist.
Hedonistic occurs in Jeremy Bentham, Chestomathia: Being a Collection of Papers Explanatory of the Design of an Institution, Proposed to be Set on Foot, under the Name of the Chrestomathic Day School (London: Payne and Foss, 1816), p. 198:
Proceeding from the consideration of the nature of the end, the first division might be into Odynothetic and Hedonosceuastic, or say Hedonistic—pain-repelling and pleasure-producing.
Hedonism occurs in Thomas Campbell, Letters to the Students of Glasgow on the Epochs of Literature, Letter I (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), p. 48:
Plato interwove his theism with dreams; and Aristippus, adhering, indeed, to the cheerfulness of Socrates, and to his preference of practical to speculative philosophy, nevertheless got up his pleasant system of Hedonism without consulting his Athenian master.
Hedonic, as adjective and noun, was in use in the seventeenth century (adjective 1656, noun 1678, according to the OED).


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