On Pleasures

Socrates begins Plato’s Philebus thus: “Philebus holds that what is good for all creatures is to enjoy themselves, to be pleased and delighted. . . .We contend that not these, but knowing, understanding, remembering, and what belongs with them, right opinion and true calculations, are better than pleasure and more agreeable to all who can attain them.” (11b). Socrates here does not call knowing, remembering, or understanding precisely “pleasures.”

The word, “pleasures,” is reserved for feeling with a physical manifestation – eating, drinking, seeing, touching, smelling, or hearing, that is, the senses, which are also constitutive parts of being human. Aristotle noticed that we are not just souls loosely attached to bodies. Rather, we are each one being in which the body is fashioned by the soul ultimately so that we can know. Socrates understood that all “creatures” enjoy being pleased and delighted. He suspected, however, that not everyone can or will “attain” the higher activities of the mind. He does not deny that everyone can, in some sense, think, but not all find it particularly “agreeable” or absorbing.

Aristotle held that all human activities have some pleasure connected with them. Thus, we have a “pleasure” in thinking and knowing. Both Plato and Aristotle agreed that these latter activities are the best functions that our nature bequeaths to us. Aristotle even observed that, if a politician had no sense of the higher pleasures, he would soon seek lesser ones found in more worldly activities. This observation says much both about politicians and about philosophy. It reveals how insightful the ever observant Aristotle was. He is by no means “out-of-date” just because he lived some considerable time ago.

As I have remarked in a recent book, Reasonable Pleasures:The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, each activity’s corresponding pleasure is designed in nature to encourage us to do what needs to be done for our well being. We need to eat. But the delight of a good dinner makes it much easier to do what might otherwise be a chore. Nevertheless, we can separate, at least mentally, a pleasure from the activity in which it properly belongs. We can attend to the pleasure in isolation from the good of its corresponding activity.

The “morality” of a pleasure lies not in itself but in the activity in which it occurs. If the activity is good, the pleasure is good. If the activity is evil or wrong, the pleasure will remain what it is, but lacking in the order that should be there. The ability to separate pleasure from the activity to which it belongs explains the attraction of philosophies that elevate pleasure to the highest good. But in so doing, we deny pleasure its auxiliary meaning in the act in which it occurs.

Pleasure is one of Aristotle’s four candidates that define happiness – along with honors, wealth, and contemplation. Aristotle observed that every activity has its own proper pleasure. Not all pleasures were alike. You cannot really compare the pleasure of hearing a good orchestra with smelling a fragrant rose. Each needs to be experienced to know what it is. Analogies hold, but they only give hints.

Pain is the opposite of pleasure, though not all pleasures have a contrary pain. Those that do deserve some thought. Pains are designed to tell us that something is wrong. In that sense, they are good and beneficial. If we did not have a toothache, we would never know that we need a filling or an extraction. Without pain to tell us of dangers or ills, we would not last long.

Pain is to be avoided or alleviated when it can be, but it is not simply bad. Socrates pointed out that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. We may have no choice but to suffer. We do have a choice about choosing evil. It is this subtle distinction on which Christian revelation of the Cross stands.

The greatest evil is not physical suffering. It lies in the order of spirit or soul, in willing to put into existence what lacks order. To ourselves, we often justify disorder by pleasure or avoiding pain. But the real disorder lies in choosing to do what is evil, whether accompanied by pleasure or pain.

Pleasures as such, to conclude, are not evils. They can be separated from the activity in which they ought to exist. Hence, they deflect us from what we ought to do. But the root of evil is not pleasure, nor money, nor honors, each of which is good in itself. We are in fact to delight in what is delightful. And to go back to Socrates and Aristotle, thinking, judging, remembering, and intuiting things really give us our greatest delights.

Through these powers we know what is not ourselves. We seek to know all that is. Only in this way do we also know, indirectly, that and what we are.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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