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"Classical Greek Philosophy final -- fall '07: Most of the philosophers we have read this semester have touched on the subject of pleasure and its value. In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates and Callicles argue about the relation between pleasure and goodness. Aristotle discusses pleasure in connection with virtuous activity and happiness, declaring that pleasure isn't the good, though the good life is the most pleasant. Epicurus, by contrast, makes pleasure the good, though what he means by pleasure turns out to be a bit of a surprise. In elevating pleasure to the role of the good, Epicurus becomes a target of criticism from the Stoics, who claim that virtue is the good and that pleasure (and equally, pain) is in fact a matter of indifference to happiness. Which of these views strikes you as most plausible. Why? Explain carefully what the view is, and why it strikes you as plausible. Why is it more plausible that the alternatives we studied? (You'll need to explain carefully what at least one or two of those alternatives are.)

Epicurus’ view of pleasure strikes me as the most plausible. In number IV (page 32) of The Principle Doctrines, Epicurus says, “The feeling of pain does not linger continuously in the flesh; rather, the sharpest is present for the shortest time, while what merely exceeds the feeling of pleasure in the flesh lasts only a few days.” When I read this I immediately thought of something my mother has told me my entire life. “Everything in life is 10% fact and 90% attitude.” Maybe this is something that Epicurus was brought up knowing too. The pain that you feel for only a short amount of time is just that, short. It is annoying, sure, but it’s not going to kill you. If you use mind over matter, you can actually ignore that pain and feel pleasure in knowing that you are not so sick that you’re dying. Even saying this though can be easily refuted by an Epicurean. Epicurus felt that death was nothing to be feared because once you are dead you no longer feel anything (Hellenistic Philosophy, page 29, Number 124). If there is no pain, or any sense perception, after death then there is nothing to fear.

Epicurus goes on in that doctrine to say, “And diseases which last a long time involve feelings of pleasure which exceed feelings of pain.” Like I wrote earlier, Epicurus did not believe there was pain after death. If someone is so sick and in so much pain that they know they are going to die, then it will be such a feeling of pleasure to them to know that they are going to die soon. After they die they won’t feel that terrible pain anymore. Maybe I should have mentioned earlier that Epicurus also believes that pleasure is an absence from pain (Hellenistic Philosophy, page 45, I-11).

Epicurus says that the absence of pain is “certainly kinetic” (Hellenistic Philosophy, page 45, I-11). The only way that I was able to understand what kinetic and katastematic pleasures are was from the pizza example that was given in class. Kinetic pleasure is the feeling that you get while you’re eating the pizza. You are going from a state of hunger to a state of satiation. Katastematic pleasure is the feeling you get after you’ve finished eating the pizza. That feeling of “ah, that was good.” Epicurus is saying that the absence of pain is kinetic because it’s not the end, the goal. Absence of pain is not a feeling of pain or pleasure. It is that in between area, which is the “kinetic area”.

One thing I liked most about the views of Epicurus was that they weren’t your typical hedonistic view. Yes, Epicurus did feel that pleasure was the good, but clearly he had a different definition of what pleasure was. Pleasure is not the thing that is most pleasurable at that moment, but what will be most pleasurable in the long run. “Even some bodily pains are worthwhile for fending off others like them.” (Hellenistic Philosophy, Page 39, Number 73) For example, although surgery will technically cause you bodily pain, by having the surgery and feeling that pain right then you will ensure that you won’t have any more pain like that in the future. Even if pleasure is your criterion for action, you shouldn’t only run toward pleasure. You should base your decisions on what in the long run will give you the most pleasure. I think it may have been said best Eusebius (Hellenistic Philosophy, Page 99, I-138) “It is better to endure these particular pains, so that we might experience greater pleasures; and it is advantageous to refrain from these particular pleasures so that we might not suffer from more burdensome pains.”

Another thing that I found admirable about Epicurus was that he did not live an extravagant lifestyle. Though many hedonists would just jump into any pleasure that was right in front of them, Epicurus seemed to be trying to be a smarter hedonist by not doing that. “I spit upon the pleasures of extravagance, not for their own sake, but because of the difficulties which follow from them.” (Hellenistic Philosophy, Page 79, I-59) Epicurus didn’t stray from extravagances because of the extravagances themselves. He stayed away from extravagances because of the difficulty that may come from them.

The one part of Epicurus’ view of pleasure that I disagree with is his version of the cradle argument. He said that when a baby is first born it goes toward pleasure and away from pain. A baby wants to be held and fed, mostly. Epicurus says that because of this it is clear that pleasure is the good because it is what most natural to us. I feel though that a baby is not someone we can rely on to show us what the good is. Yes, a baby wants to be coddled in a blanket the moment it pops out of the womb, but who wouldn’t? The baby has been continuously warm for 9 months and now suddenly it’s brought out into a temperature that’s cooler than the average temperature of the human body. Of course it wants to be coddled. And as for the hunger thing, for 9 months it had been fed through a tube which was cut off shortly after it was born. The baby has never actually felt the feeling of hunger before now. Of course it would cry about that. Whether pleasure is actually the good or not, I’m not sure, but I don’t think that the argument can or should be based on the actions of a baby.

Epicurus says that the reason we look to the baby, rather than an adult is because the baby has not been corrupted by any life experiences. But that is a problem itself. The baby hasn’t had any life experience. The baby doesn’t know what it’s like to have any responsibility. Maybe being responsible is actually the good and we should look at what responsible people do to decide what the good is. I guess my main issue with Epicurus’ cradle argument is that it seems so arbitrary. Anyone can look at something and say that that’s their nature and “nature’s judgment is pure and whole” (On Moral Ends, Book I, Paragraph 30), therefore we should do the thing that is natural. But who’s to say what is natural and who’s to say that what you’re seeing is natural?

Although I don’t find the Stoics view on pleasure, or rather their reason why pleasure is not the good, the most plausible, I do find it the most captivating. The Stoics believe that pleasure cannot possibly be the good because there are shameful pleasures. Anything that is shameful cannot be the good. In Cicero’s On Moral Ends it says, “Should this make him blush (the power of nature is always decisive).” (Page 36, Paragraph 28) When your cheeks blush its natures way of speaking through your body and telling you that what you’ve done is wrong. If your nature is telling you that even one pleasure is wrong then, according to the Stoics, it is clear that pleasure is not the good.

What the Stoics do believe is the good is virtue. They choose virtue over pleasure because pleasure is not necessary for your happiness. According to the Stoics, pleasure would be a preferred indifferent. If something is not a good or a bad, they are referred to as indifferent by the Stoics because they don’t do anything to our happiness. Stoics believe that pain is an indifferent, so one might ask what it is that keeps them from simply putting their hand in a fire. This is where indifferents come into play. The Stoics believe that there are preferred and rejected indifferents. The preferred indifferents you should pay attention to and the rejected should be, well, rejected. Pain is a rejected indifferent.

Another interesting, albeit complex, view of pleasure that the Stoics have is that “Pleasure if an irrational elation.” (Hellenistic Philosophy, Page 198, Paragraph 116) They say that just like there are ailments in the body, there are also ailments in the soul. They say that one of those ailments is love of pleasure. The Stoics go on to say that there are “three good states, joy, caution, and wish.” (Hellenistic Philosophy, Page 198, Paragraph 116) Joy is the opposite of pleasure and is a reasonable elation. Basically what they are saying is that joy is the good version of pleasure. Pleasure is a secondary state, whereas joy is the primary and preferable state.

Aristotle in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics seems to bring a happy medium to the pleasure debate by saying that pleasure is not the good, but it is a good. He speaks out against those who say that pleasure is not even a good by stating three things. First, Aristotle says, the standard for what is really pleasant is set by the good person. Those who take pleasure in bad things only find them pleasurable in bad situations. Second, the pleasure that people feel is itself fine. It is just the source of the pleasure that is not good. And third, pleasures that come from different source are different. You can’t get a good pleasure except by doing a good activity. Therefore, even though there may be some pleasures which seem bad, there are good pleasures as well and they cannot be discounted. (1173b22-32)

Aristotle goes on to explain pleasure actually completes whatever activity we are engaged in and each activity is completed by a different pleasure. (1174b25) For example, the pleasure you get from playing guitar helps you to complete a song, but the pleasure you get from lifting weights doesn’t actually help you to play the guitar. “The proper pleasure will be the one that corresponds to its activity (1176a4)”. Each person feels different pleasures. Some people get pleasure from eating candy, while others find candy to be too sweet. Some people get pleasure from watching a basketball game, while others think it’s pointless to watch sweaty men throwing a ball into a hoop and running back and forth for three hours. Aristotle believes that the good is happiness, but that pleasure helps to bring about that happiness. And, clearly, by doing things that you find pleasurable it will bring you toward the good, toward happiness.

While I feel that Aristotle’s at first glance could be the most plausible view of pleasure, there are too many possible holes that can be poked through it. Most of these holes are due to semantics. What is the meaning of happiness? What is the meaning of pleasure? Aristotle says that each person feels pleasures differently and that there are different kinds of pleasures, so maybe there are different kinds of happiness’s. If there are different kinds of happiness’s, then how can happiness be the good? There is only one “good”, so how can there be more than one kind of it? It needs to be universal. I know that this can be argued too with Epicurus’ view of pleasure, but while I believe that his view is the most plausible, I am still not convinced that pleasure is the good. I think that Epicurus’ pleasure is a positive way to live your life, but I am still not convinced that it is the way to live your life.
Quotes from several different books. If you want to know the source send me a message.
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