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Philosophy Then

The Pleasure Principle

Peter Adamson takes pleasure in pondering ancient hedonism.

Spare a thought for the Cyrenaics. Their name remains obscure while those of other Hellenistic philosophical schools – the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics – have entered our everyday language. This is a shame because among those schools, it was the Cyrenaics who defended an understanding of the good life that many of us would find quite appealing: that it is natural to pursue pleasure, so that it makes sense to take pleasures as they become available.

The school’s teaching can be traced back to Aristippus, who hailed from Cyrene, in what’s now Libya (hence the school’s name). Aristippus was notorious for his self-indulgence. Anecdotes have him, for instance, saying that there’s nothing wrong with going into a whorehouse, as long as you can get out again. But it was his grandson, also named Aristippus, who made hedonist (pleasure-seeking) philosophy into the family business. He conceived pleasure as a ‘smooth’ movement in the person experiencing it, and pain as ‘rough’, and said we have an instinct to seek the smooth, as we can see from the behavior of newborn children.

This so-called ‘cradle argument’ would be used by other Hellenistic schools, with both Stoics and Epicureans agreeing that whatever we pursue by nature, that is, before we are corrupted by society, must indeed be good, as natural goals are ‘appropriate’ for us. The Epicureans even agreed with Aristippus that pleasure is the sole natural good. But they disagreed sharply when it came to the pursuit of that good.

The Cyrenaics put all their emphasis on present pleasures: those we can have now. After all, I cannot enjoy my memory of an almond croissant the way I’m enjoying the one I am eating right now, and the prospect of a future croissant will always be uncertain. As a support for this focus on immediate pleasures, Aristippus developed a whole theory of knowledge prioritizing the way things currently seem to us. Here too there was a degree of agreement with Epicureanism, which also grounded knowledge in sense-perception. But Epicurus thought that a tenable hedonism would take a broader view of life and include taking comfort in past pleasures and looking forward to the prospect of future ones.

In developing his own brand of hedonism, Epicurus sought to block various objections that had been raised against pleasure as the highest good. With their advice to seize available pleasures, the Cyrenaics were in danger of being dismissed as brutish. As Aristotle says, such crass priorities seem more apt for cattle than humans. Epicurus cautioned that he was not recommending a blind pursuit of sensory indulgence – the pleasure he had in mind was not of the sort that can be found in ‘boys, women, and fish’ (in other words, sex and culinary delicacies). Nor should we seek after honors, such as having statues erected in our name. Instead, invoking the cradle argument, Epicurus encouraged the enjoyment of pleasures that are ‘natural’, like simple food and drink. These natural pleasures are relatively easy to acquire. His rationale was that if we put a high value on expensive luxuries, or the fickle admiration of other people, then we are bound to suffer pain when these pleasures are unavailable.

The Cyrenaic advice was not to concern ourselves with the future, but Epicurus thought we should do exactly that. Focusing too much on present pleasures might sometimes cause future pains, as when overeating gives you a stomach ache. Or we might endure pain to avoid greater pain later on, as when we have a small filling done today to avoid major dental surgery in the future. By taking this longterm perspective, Epicurus could defuse another argument against straightforward hedonism, suggested in Plato’s Protagoras. Even if all we are trying to do is maximize pleasure, then we need to develop an ‘art of measurement’ – an intelligent strategy to ensure our choices really do give us more pleasure than pain in the long run. So even the hedonist must recognize that wisdom and self-control are valuable. Epicurus accepts this conclusion, endorsing a sophisticated hedonism that calls for foregoing some available pleasures for prospective gain. In fact – and rather ironically, given the way we use the word ‘Epicurean’ nowadays – his hedonism did not so much focus on the enjoyment of pleasures, but on the avoidance of present and future pain. He claimed that if all pain is absent, including not just obvious physical pains, hunger, thirst, and the like but also fears of future suffering, then one is already in the best possible state. Someone who is entirely free from pain is already as happy as Zeus.

Of course it is hard for us to achieve such a state, even for a short time, never mind over a whole life; but Epicurus’ teaching was designed to help us come as close to it as possible. Hence his advice to practice self-restraint: by training oneself to need less, one is protected from the suffering due from wanting more. Hence also Epicurus’ famous praise of friendship. Having friends is a powerful protection against suffering, and can be a compensating comfort when one suffers – as when Epicurus consoled himself during his painful death by remembering conversations with friends.

Epicurus’ style of hedonism seems better able to withstand objections from rival philosophies. But in making his hedonism more sophisticated, he considerably reduced its intuitive appeal. While it is immediately plausible that pleasure is good, given that babies and even animals naturally seek it, it is downright implausible that the highest pleasure consists in the mere absence of pain. Also, which pleasure-seeker wants their life to be devoted to rigorous self-discipline? I tend to side with the Cyrenaics here: if I’m going to lead a life devoted to pleasure, and not, say, virtue or wisdom, I want to have some fun.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2020

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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