Asceticism vs. Hedonism
Hedonism is to follow one's self-gratification instinct, that we share with other animals, with some refinement to suit our higher human needs. Asceticism is a human trait "only," requiring self-control, to reason with pain, accept it as part of life, and favor it sometimes.
Animals never choose pain or death, except when driven by the same instinct leading to unintentional pain (fighting over food, mating to death, parental sacrifice, group suicide, etc.), responding to an urge/order by Mother Nature to accomplish a mission unknown to them.
Although both complete, and do not contradict each other, hedonism is superior to asceticism, because it focuses on the aim, while asceticism focuses on the medium, helping achieve that aim. No wonder people living in pain cultures lag behind those in hedonistic cultures, even when the latter go to extremes sometimes. Seeking reward is always a better motivation than avoiding punishment.
Negative hedonism makes humans act as mindless animals, sacrificing reason for passion; whereas negative asceticism makes them act as lifeless machines, sacrificing passion for reason. Only some enjoy both: the rational, responsible, ascetic hedonists. The sublime pursuit of happiness goes astray when one doesn't control what one desires; following one's heart doesn't always lead to innocent pleasure, or any pleasure sometimes. Asceticism thus needs to accompany hedonism to control one's desires. Likewise, those who choose the ascetic path of living should constantly remember that life is void of meaning if it's not a happy life.
The masochist who submits to pain and accepts death as a relief from it (or a transition to a life to come), and the anarchist who blinds their reason by drowning themselves in mindless obsessive sensuality, are both doped, not happy. Obviously, religion is not the only opium of the people, since there are other opioids too sex, food, arts, sports, etc. to keep them from facing pain and fighting it, pursuing pleasure and capturing it.
Abusing these natural body endorphins is not hedonism; it's escape, or, euphemistically speaking, diversion. Those bad hedonists who adopted negative hedonism and attached a stigma to it, turned the sublime pursuit of happiness into wantonness, rashness, shortsightedness, irresponsibility, and selfish blindfold materialism. A true hedonist cannot do without the benefits of using his brain, that great gift from nature, to organize the relationships between the different pleasures of life; so that one doesn't conflict with the other, leading to misery instead of happiness. A wise hedonist, who endeavors to maximize the quantity of his happiness to fill every moment of his being, cannot ignore the quality, depth and duration of such happiness.
Pleasure vs. Need
Nature has taught us to have a certain degree of pleasure with every body activity we need for survival, such as eating, mating, sleeping, excretion, etc., so that by enjoying it we perform better, like every job we do with pleasure. This is basic for animals, because their brains are too simple to understand the vital necessity of those needs. But for humans, who are smart animals, there is no need to indulge oneself in such pleasures, and abuse the limbic brain whose main function is organizing those basic survival needs, not pandering to our personal whims.
However, until technology offers other options, a degree of pleasure can always be felt there. We need that pleasure, because we can't see our inside organs or muscles to control them voluntarily, as we do with our limbs, or even our thoughts:
No wonder the human race is plagued with sleep disorders, indigestion, constipation, impotence that other animals will be in shock to know. (Thankfully for animals they don't think much; that's why they have less of these problems.) Humans have the bad habit of using their higher brain (imagining, arguing, doubting, etc) when they perform simple body functions. On the other hand, they overuse their lower brain for pandering to their animal urges, when they should be seeking a deeper and higher pleasure. The primitive brain becomes the nearest drugstore they stop at to get an instant happiness pill. They are too lazy to go to the "upper floor" and ask that ageless wise man for a deeper pleasure to try, giving their life meaning and purpose.
All those body functions do not, and should not take much time of our day or life to indulge in (one hour a day is enough). Thus, we are left with the humongous task of filling the remaining long hours with deeper, longer, and uniquely human pleasures, that distinguish us from animals. It's a shame we treat our physical needs as pleasures, and our mental pleasures as needs.
Physical pleasures can partially, temporarily help us cope with stress. However, for the remaining time, while we are in peace not fight for survival, we can take the opportunity to refine and diversify our other non-animal, spiritual and intellectual pleasures, trying to give meaning, depth and duration to them. After all, most animal pleasures are only short-lived, and their evolutionary function is mostly obsolete (over-eating to store energy, having sex for reproduction, walking to search for food, etc.), that they lost their meaning long, long ago, and they become out-of-context each time we misapply or overuse them.
For instance, waking up one weekend morning, after one has fulfilled their responsibilities toward people, work and their body, one has many choices:
Other animals only wake up and start looking for food or mates, because of that imprinted fear of starvation and extinction they have. We have no such fears, because thanks to our technology we have enough food stored, and, thanks to our stupidity, our planet is already overpopulated. We can act like animals or humans, whichever we want.
Although those animal needs, and the pleasure they trigger when fulfilled, have an obsolete function, still the organs that perform them are constantly with us, in our human body that we cannot escape or change: the taste buds in our tongues; the sensitive tissue of our genitals; the lenses of our eyes that give a better perception of certain colors than others when we see a green landscape, or a blue river, etc. Most importantly (since it's not mere senses that cause the trouble), we still have the primitive brain automatically offering us an endorphin rush when such organs are stimulated: a meaningless reward from Mother Nature we made no effort to deserve (may be an animal did, thus better deserves it). We should not rush to use/abuse those endorphins except, again, in a stressful situation, when we have no other pleasure source available.
As long as we learn how to control the functions of these organs, define their role in advance, and confine it to certain times and circumstances, the animal and human in us will live in harmony together. There is still hope for each one of us to achieve that harmony and conquer their own weaknesses.
We must accept the human-animal dualism of our nature: how good and evil we can simultaneously be; the animals we evolved from and superior life forms we aspire to become; the lower and higher brains we both own, whose conflicting needs we must organize, solving whatever trouble arises between them. However, we mustn't forget that these two natures are not equal, for one is superior to the other. Our higher brain skills are better qualified to control the lower ones, knowing best when to subdue or ignore them, and when to unleash and benefit from. It's the human in us that is to take responsibility for our actions, not the animal.
Hence, we need ascetic hedonism, to reconcile the animal and human in us. By adopting ascetic hedonism we allow ourselves to freely indulge in safe pleasures, or safely enjoy free pleasures. It helps us enjoy life to the full, without losing our willpower or consciousness in the process, being "unnecessarily" fettered or doped. For the ascetic hedonist, one can reap the benefits of both asceticism and hedonism by keeping a certain level of consciousness even while enjoying the most intoxicating of pleasures. Consciousness then increases, not decreases, pleasure, reminding us what we enjoy is real, not a dream. Reason and passion will go together, peacefully coexisting, simultaneously or in close temporal succession. Yet some may find ascetic hedonism a mere paradox or wordplay, though both asceticism and hedonism are musts, and their consequent combination (of ascetic hedonism or hedonic asceticism) is a legitimate child we should nurture and care about.
It's not out of mere optimism to claim that the potential for good humans have is much higher than evil, as such claim stands on facts. As the wheel of civilization goes, more evil is defeated (it won't be exterminated anyway, as long as we are free to commit it). Most evil is committed because of humans' physical and emotional insecurities about their needs, and less is committed just out of greed. We can fight the former by organized and collective effort, because we all share the same needs. Yet, it's the latter, greed, that will take more time to end, because it's harder to fightan invisible enemy each of us is carrying inside their own head.
However, the more we learn about the human brain, the better we handle it and negotiate with those who commit that sort of evil. Like our insecurities, greed can also be emotional or physical. Now that we understand the brain chemistry of most physical pleasures (sex, food, nature, etc.), whose brainless idle nature can lead us to physical greed to possess and acquire more, we can address the type of crime and evil that chemistry triggers. We can find alternative pleasures that people won't have to fight or commit crime for, averting such crimes of passion or fights in places like bars, beaches, campuses, etc., where the motive for fighting is usually not insecurity, but rather a compulsive urge to have extra fun of unnecessary mindless pleasures, whose motive is primarily greed, not need.
In the future we will better understand our nature and change it too, that even crimes motivated by emotional greed won't be motivated. We have already begun understanding the chemistry in the brains of humans when they are alone or together. By locating the afflicted area in that "complex organ," and prescribing the right medication, we can prevent many social diseases, such as jealousy, envy, anger, hatred, etc.; and psychological ones: depression, apathy, diffidence, obsessions, phobia, etc.
Whenever the good in us is empowered by reason, it can assist us in our continuous search for happiness. Since many vices are basically triggered by animal urges, the more we evolve the less chance they will have to exist. Those vices are short-lived, because they cannot but grant a short-lived happiness. We will need more, deeper and longer pleasures, as human life expectancy increases, and the need to overcome boredom and fill such long lifespan with pleasure increases.
The future evil we should worry more about is that of nature. Being through with our vices, we should move on to Nature's illnesses, and treat them one by one. Man's main challenge is to tame Mother Nature till it becomes fully under his control (that includes control of interplanetary traffic and re-inventing laws of physics!). The Universe is a great lifeless god, but we are greater: we are the only entities here that have minds, will and consciousness. A new-born star may be worth our attention, but not the least affection we feel for a new-born child.
That's a giant leap into the future! Let us begin with the present, by changing our own nature first ...