Not too long ago I was in the water at The Pass in Byron Bay, hovering in the channel, watching unhappily as another surfer flew toward me on a set wave. This lump of swell seemed perfectly formed, a glimmering, emerald wall of water reeling steadily along the tapered sandbank, growing as it travelled the length of the point. As per usual, it was a bit of a circus out there, and I’d not had a wave for some time. Ah, how I wished to trade places with that surfer. So much so that I began to chant in my head, a kind of mantra: fall off, fall off, fall off. If I willed it enough, just like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, surely this guy would lose his footing. He didn’t fall until just a few metres beyond me, which filled me with rage. But as the anger subsided, I began to reflect. Does surfing make me a worse person?

I heard Sean Doherty say on a writers festival panel once that surfing was about the most selfish thing a person could do with their lives. He was in conversation with philosopher Peter Singer, who said in response that everyone does things they enjoy in life, and there are many worse things you could do. There’s no doubt that surfing is a hedonistic pursuit, but is there anything wrong with that?

All philosophical schools, since Socrates, Aristotle and the Stoics, have been concerned with the vital questions of how to live a good life. Hedonism, as a philosophical outlook, holds that the pursuit of pleasure is the proper aim of human life. It may seem like a philosophy marked by excess and frivolity, but it can have a positive outcome. Maybe when we’re happy, the more useful and utilitarian we are to our community. When we surf we feel elated, satisfied, untroubled, and as a result we are more productive members of society.

It was the ancient philosopher Epicurus who articulated a refined and, according to many, more sophisticated version of hedonism. He suggested: “For what produces the pleasant life is not continuous drinking and parties  or womanizing or the enjoyment of fish and the other dishes of an expensive table, but sober reasoning […]” For Epicurus, happiness consisted of both bodily pleasure and mental pleasure, and only when pleasure was attained in a measured and conscientious way, did it give one’s life
true meaning.

If surfing is all about the pursuit of pleasure, then perhaps the epicurean surfer is someone who enjoys the fruits of the ocean, yet see’s themself as part of a bigger picture. As surfers, shouldn’t we care deeply about the health of our oceans and do everything we can to conserve them? And thus shouldn’t we consider, for example, how many surfboards we buy, make, use and send to landfill? Shouldn’t we respect the rights of other sentient beings, like sharks, to exist in their natural environments? Certainly not all surfers do.

If, as I suggested earlier, surfing as a pastime can be thought of as constructively hedonistic, the individuals we are in the water with may fall short of such a definition. We are very much self-interested when we’re in the surf. Sure, we talk about being part of the surfing ‘community’, but we exist as a community only in so far as we share a love for the same individualistic pursuit. Even watching a mate shoot down the line, set up and find a barrel, we are more than often thinking of ourselves, wondering whether or not we’ll get the same opportunity come the next set. Of course there’s something pleasing about sharing a line-up with good friends, or even just a few strangers – we’ve all experienced that light mood that comes over a group of surfers when there are enough waves to go around. People become nice and take turns, calling each other in to waves: ‘You’re up mate!’ It’s a rare and beautiful phenomenon.

The philosopher Ayn Rand, makes the argument for thoughtful self-interest. For Rand, selfishness may be a virtue. The truly selfish person, she posits, is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others. To be self-interested then, isn’t such a bad thing, as long as no one is harmed as a consequence of your actions.

I must say, my attitude toward my fellow surfer racing down the line at The Pass was far from Rand’s definition of rational self-interest – I was all for sacrificing that dude for my own gain. And I doubt I’ll be changing anytime soon. When there’s not enough of something to go around – waves in this case – isn’t it human nature to put your own needs above another’s? But perhaps wherever possible, we should attempt to be as epicurean in our hedonism as we can be.