Paul Martin is a behavioural biologist, and his latest book is an intriguing and amiable study of the ‘hedonic impulse’, by a writer who clearly has a healthy relish for the good things in life and the pleasures of the flesh.
Some readers might feel a bit short-changed by the science or find there’s a lot of cultural-historical padding about subjects they know already. Before getting to the hard stuff, for instance, there is a chapter on, as Martin freely admits, some ‘haphazardly chosen sensation seekers’, to illustrate the powerful role of boredom in human existence. The lives of Peter Cook, Errol Flynn and the Earl of Rochester are briefly summarised, as is that of ‘Mad’ Jack Mytton, the Regency squire who drank six bottles of port a day, every day, and tried to cure himself of hiccups by setting fire to his own nightshirt. But this has been more entertainingly and appropriately covered elsewhere, for instance in Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. Similarly we have a flip zip through the history of chocolate, although again, this fascinating subject is more richly and satisfyingly covered in whole-volume histories of the subject.
There are some gaps too. There’s only a very cursory debate about how pleasure relates to happiness, and no account of the age-old debate of Pleasure vs Virtue started by the Epicureans vs the Stoics, although Aristippus, the first official Hedonist, does get a nod. We can generally agree that