According to Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, what is hedonism? 

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is almost a parody of an aesthete, espousing a philosophy he terms "New Hedonism" with aristocratic panache.

The term hedonism derives from the Greek word "ἡδονή [hêdonê]" a term meaning pleasure. As a doctrine, it was first espoused by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and thus sometimes goes by the name "Epicureanism." Epicureanism starts from the viewpoint that no gods actually exist, and that moral systems are artificial human constructs. Rather than being governed by a divine order, the universe is not part of some overarching plan, but runs according to physical laws (with a certain degree of randomness caused by particles "swerving"). Given human mortality and the lack of afterlife or divine purpose. the goal of the Epicurean should be to maximize pleasure. Actual Epicurean practice, however, focused on the nature of the good life in terms of a permanent state of tranquility, independent of external influences, sensations or emotion, and in many ways resembled the contemplative and meditative practices of Buddhism or even Christian monasticism more than the excesses or overindulgences often signaled by more recent usage of the term.

Although Lord Henry Wotton describes himself as a hedonist, what in fact distinguishes Lord Henry and Dorian from the older tradition of Epicureanism is their interest in seeking out and exploring the world of experience and emotions as a form of entertainment. This is a distinctly "new" form of hedonism, for Epicurus would have considered such activities precisely the opposite of the calm, untroubled existence he recommends. Also, the enthusiasm for intensely emotional responses to art, whether to paintings or theatrical performances, is not an element of classical Epicureanism, but rather a part of the "new" Hedonism. Atheism and indifference to conventional morality are aspects of both old and new hedonism, but the new hedonism seems to indulge more in a thrill of the forbidden, as opposed to the more pragmatic view of the older Epicureanism.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

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