Gosling & Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure. (Final notes: more notes on Epicurus, the Stoics)

  • This is a continuation of notes on Gosling and Taylor's The Greeks on Pleasure, begun here: Gosling & Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Notes up to but not including Epicurus) and continued here: Gosling & Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Notes on Epicurus)


    For the most part these are quotes and/or paraphrases from the book; my comments are italicized and in parentheses. Text in bold is my emphasis. The authors of the book are not Epicureans, theirs is an academic take on Epicurean pleasure, worthy of discussion. There is much more to their discussion of Epicurus than I’ve been able to include here, but I think I’ve covered their main points.


    Chapter 19: Katastematic and Kinetic Pleasures

    (Note: this entire chapter is posted at Gosling & Taylor, On Katastematic and Kinetic Pleasure. What follows here is my personal notes; if you’re interested in their complete argument I’d advise reading the full chapter. I’ve kept my notes pretty brief)


    19.2.2 What perception reveals to us directly is the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain and thereby that the only unqualified good is pleasure without pain. Since any painless perception is pleasant, perception reveals the goodness, though not the achievability, of aponia. The value of ataraxia is parasitic upon that of aponia, since the only ataraxia worth having is that which comes from pleasant memories and confident expectations of sensory pleasures of a painless kind. Thus the body's pleasures have pride of place. (Does this bolded statement conflict with, or elaborate on, their statement in 18.3.15: “Once one is convinced of the truth of Epicurus' doctrines and has incorporated his teachings into one's life, one ceases to worry and lives a life as near to ataraxia and aponia as is possible for one.”)

    19.2.3 Epicurus is inclined to use ataraxia and aponia as conditions of life, not particular pleasures.

    19.2.4 Since aponia is just a condition of painless perception it does not mean that Epicurus thought of a non-perceiving state as pleasurable.

    19.3.2 Katastematic pleasures refer to "the well-established katastema (condition) of the flesh. Not to replenishment, movement, or katastasis eis phusin (restoration to the natural state). The latter was an argument against pleasure, on the basis that what was being returned to was the good, not pleasure. When the organism is operating properly it will be in a state of pleasure, and pain is a matter of unnatural operation.

    19.3.3 Therefore kinetic pleasures are not a different kind than katastematic ones: they too are sensory and a matter of some part of the organism operating properly. Due to this most of Cicero can be discounted in this regard.

    19.4.27 Ataraxia is achieved by the removal of superstitious fear and false beliefs, the constant memory of the truth, and attention to present experience and perception. Now the mind is free of disturbance and so memory and expectation operate without anxiety. Similarly when physical pain is removed the body operates without pain and that will mean that always some pleasurable and painless perception is occurring, a condition of good cheer.

    19.4.30 When the organism is functioning harmoniously it is always having some form of perception; since the operation is harmonious the perception is pleasant and without pain; that is just what aponia is. Ataraxia is the condition when, because of correct views, our expectations are undisturbed by fear, our desires do not pursue empty objectives and our memories are pleasant: this leaves us to enjoy our pleasures unanxiously.


    Chapter 20: Pleasure as a Criterion of Truth in Epicurus

    20.3.1 The doctrine that the highest pleasure is freedom from pain and distress = the highest pleasure is freedom from consciousness of improper functioning.

    20.3.3 The perception of an oar in the water being bent is true, but determining if it represents reality requires comparison with other perceptions. Similarly with pleasure: the feeling of pleasure regarding a given stimulus is true in that it reveals the proper functioning of the relevant part of the organism. The belief that it is choiceworthy, however, requires confirmation by other appearances.

    20.3.4 Pleasure is an unimpeded actualization of the natural state. The psycho-physical organism has a built-in urge toward its proper functioning, and consequently sees the pursuit of pleasure, understood as consciousness of proper functioning, as the way of life dictated by man's nature and hence as the appropriate way of life for a man.

    20.3.4 In order to avoid error one must not affirm that things are precisely as they appear, but one must distinguish those judgments which are confirmed by further appearances and those which are not, taking the former as true and the latter as false. One's judgement must be determined, not by the immediate appearance (as of pleasure or pain), but by the goal which nature sets: the life of unhindered, that is painless, physical and mental functioning.

    20.4.1 As thus interpreted, the theory is open to a basic objection. We have argued that the physical reality which is truly represented by the feeling of pleasure is the proper functioning of that part of the organism where the pleasure is felt. But if that pleasure leads, not to the unhindered functioning of the whole organism, but to subsequent pains, i.e. malfunctions, then surely the original function which was felt as pleasure could not have been proper functioning, since the proper functioning of any part must be what contributes to the smooth functioning of the whole. This is a difficulty for the theory, not the interpretation, and it applies for any theory (not only Epicurean) that maintains that pleasure is a restoration of the natural state and that certain pleasures result, not in the restoration of the natural state but in unnatural states accompanied by distress. (Does 20.3.3 above overcome this objection? Isn’t that how the theory describes the physical reality?)

    20.4.1 This objection can be met, given more precision in the formulation of the theory. Example: the proper functioning of the nutritive organs consist in the ingestion of food, in that this allows the organism as a whole to feel free from the distress of hunger. Therefore we are constituted to feel pleasure when we eat. If someone eats to excess, the defect does not lie with his nutritive organs, which are working properly and so produce pleasure, but in his lack of recognition of the limit to which that function should be exercised. Epicurus addresses this in PD 18-21.

    20.4.2 What about empty desires, which don’t contribute to any natural good? Practical wisdom encourages eliminating these, yet as long as pleasure is felt they are considered to be good. If these are not appropriate to the organism, but to a disordered nature, then that empties the notion of appropriateness is emptied of content. (Again see 20.3.3 above.)

    20.5.2 The main objection to the account of pleasure, that it cannot deal successfully with unnecessary pleasures, is in fact an objection to the general theory of Epicurus. That theory is an impressively systematic attempt to revive the early physiological accounts of pleasure as a form of perception, and to apply it to the epistemological theory which fitted the general account of perception. In thus striving for generality it paid the usual price, failure to deal with recalcitrant counter instances. As always, the multi-colored butterfly of pleasure eludes the net of necessary and sufficient conditions. (Once again see 20.3.3. Since I’m an amateur at this, can anybody explain this last sentence to me? What would be necessary, and what would be sufficient?)


    Chapter 21: The Stoics

    (As I understand this chapter, their argument is that the Stoic theory of pleasure would be a part of the idea that any impression must be assented to. My thinking is that while this has some value for therapy for, say, addiction or anger management, this is not how pleasure functions. Pleasure and pain occur as perceptions, before the opportunity for assent. Choice and avoidance again are as described in 20.3.3.)

    21.7.1 A fully adequate theory of pleasure needs to combine the Stoic insights (regarding pleasure as a belief, an assent) with elements drawn from other theories, in particular something more like an Aristotlean/Epicurean theory of enjoyment. Gosling regards being pleased, rather than enjoyment, as the central concept in the elucidation of the complex phenomena of pleasure. The book ends with a footnote referencing another book by Gosling for his take on a complete theory of pleasure. (A poor excuse for a cliffhanger if you ask me.)


    (This concludes my decidedly non-scholarly notes on the book. It is an excellent though very academic book, but were it not for the fact that over half of the book is dedicated to Plato, I would heartily recommend it. It was challenging but worth the effort that I put into it. A richer knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy than I possess, and perhaps more effort than I was able to put into it, would prove it to be richly rewarding.)

  • The value of ataraxia is parasitic upon that of aponia, since the only ataraxia worth having is that which comes from pleasant memories and confident expectations of sensory pleasures of a painless kind. Thus the body's pleasures have pride of place.


    This is an interesting point, for the longest time I had only considered that the static, or pleasures regarding ataraxia could only result from a recollection of previous pleasures, as noticed from Epicurus' Letter to Idomeneus. But having read other literature and sources that did not prove that this was necessarily so in every instance (Aristippus section from DL), it's always been clear that the two concepts are redundant, or at least aponia is, since ataraxia implies a state that pain would make impossible.

    So then, the model of pleasure follows a route of continuous pleasure, found both in the sensory pleasures here and now, with the possibility of pleasure in the long run, or in the present when reflecting upon previous pleasures.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • in reading the above, I kept looking for a plain and simple statement of what appears to be the fundamental premise about all this in Epicurean theory. Would this be correct?


    "Perceptions" and "sensations" are closely related terms describing different aspects of the mechanisms of experience that generate what we call "feeling." There are only two feelings, pleasure and pain, which means that everything we experience is either pleasurable or painful. All of the discussion about highest and best pleasures and their duration and evaluation revolve around the basic observation that all experience is either one or the other, which means that the presence of one means the absence of the other, and thus that the purest/most intense form of experiencing either one is when the other is totally absent. Life is all about feeling, and the state of being without feeling is nothing to us (death).

    The reason this sounds sterile is that it is a high level abstract analysis useful for framing the debate with Plato and dialecticians and defeating their arguments. The advice of Epicurus is not to live in this world of words, however, but of feeling, and if we stay in this mode for too long, longer than is necessary to see the perversity of the dialecticians, then we become trapped like flies on flypaper. The point of Epicurean philosophy is to see this dialectical trap and escape from it to the real world of feeling, not linger in the world of dialectics thinking that we've reached some height of "ataraxia" simply because we have succeeded in pointing out that the Emperor Plato and his minions have no clothes.

  • Quote

    "Perceptions" and "sensations" are closely related terms describing different aspects of the mechanisms of experience that generate what we call "feeling." There are only two feelings, pleasure and pain, which means that everything we experience is either pleasurable or painful. All of the discussion about highest and best pleasures and their duration and evaluation revolve around the basic observation that all experience is either one or the other, which means that the presence of one means the absence of the other, and thus that the purest/most intense form of experiencing either one is when the other is totally absent. Life is all about feeling, and the state of being without feeling is nothing to us (death).

    I think this is a good start at a concise summary; however, It is important to remember what words Epicurus used so we're not going in a circle. The problem is that English words don't always convey the same or full meaning of Epicurus's language.

    I like your statement "everything we experience is either pleasurable or painful." Pathē πάθη was the word Epicurus used to describe pleasure and pain and this word literally at its most basic means "that which happens to a person, that which one had experienced." So, Epicurus was saying that ALL that we experience can ONLY be experienced as either pleasure or pain which goes back to his assertion that there is no neutral state between these two. So, your sentence I quoted is spot on, but I think saying there are only two feelings can confuse people because English "feelings" cover such a wide range of... Feelings: I feel happy, I feel sad, I feel sick, I feel sorry, etc.

    And then I'm with you up until your last sentence: "Life is all about feeling, and the state of being without feeling is nothing to us (death)." Again, using that English word, makes it sound like it is all about "feeling" happy, sad, sick, tired, etc. But death is nothing to us because we can't experience anything any longer after we die. The word Epicurus uses in PD2 is ἀναίσθητος "lacking perception; unconscious, insensate." When we die, we lose the ability to "experience" pleasure or pain and so death is nothing to us, literally in a manner of speaking.

  • Yes the issue is with the word "pathe" which just doesn't work in English conversation. What word does?

    Good question :)

    Consider the shades of meaning of the following:

    • I feel pleasure or pain
    • I experience pleasure or pain
    • I sense pleasure or pain
    • I perceive pleasure or pain
    • I undergo pleasure or pain
    • There are two feelings
    • There are two sensations
    • There are two emotions
    • There are two passions
    • There are two impressions
    • There are two perceptions
    • There are two subjective responses

    I'm NOT saying these are equally adequate but rather trying to get at the range covered by pathē. I don't have the answer, just expanding the problem.;)

  • Yep that expands the problem! ;-) Quite possibly the root of the problem is that the religionists and the Platonists not only won over the ancient schools, they succeeded in removing from the language the proper alternative means of discussing the guides of life that are true, rather than their own words for the discussion of gods and virtue.

  • Yep that expands the problem! ;-) Quite possibly the root of the problem is that the religionists and the Platonists not only won over the ancient schools, they succeeded in removing from the language the proper alternative means of discussing the guides of life that are true, rather than their own words for the discussion of gods and virtue.

    Yep. For the same reason you build churches on the sites of pagan temples: Wipe out or appropriate.

  • We could just use pathe (although auto-correct turned that into pathetic, which could be a problem). We frequently use ataraxia, which at times involves discussion as to what exactly that means. Pathe emphasizes the original idea, and might promote discussion in a useful way as to what exactly that means. This might be more useful than trying to find an English word that doesn't quite fit.


    Having said that, another word that comes to mind is "guide." (There are two guides, pleasure and pain.) This emphasizes the functional aspect of the pathe and is a good example of an English word that doesn't quite fit.


    Similarly with prolepsis: anticipations and preconceptions don't quite fit and we all have a favorite one of these that we use. Once a person understands the basic ideas, that interchangeability is fine.

  • Oh, the hazards of autocorrect. I know it well :)


    I'm certainly not opposed to using the original transliterated Greek. I do seem to remember that Cassius is wary of eudaimonia. One issue is most people wouldn't know what the pathē are, so it's a level of obfuscation that works need clearing up.


    Two ways of paraphrasing our issue are:


    There are only two ways of experiencing the world: through pleasure or through pain.

    ...Or...

    Epicurus taught that all experiences are either pleasurable or painful. There is no in-between state.


    We need to get away from saying there are only two feelings. We know what it means, but it flies in the face of most people's "common sense."


    PS: Although I do kind of like Godfrey 's "guide" and feel it would be worthwhile to integrate that. My suggestions above get at the experience part but Godfrey gets at the fact that pleasure and pain are criteria of truth, guides if you will.

  • Don or Godfrey, both of you may know the ancient languages better than me -- Do either of you know what latin word might have been used by Cicero or Lucretius in discussing pathe? My experience is that the latin words frequently have a more familiar ring to them than the Greek but I am not sure what they used rather than pathe. I know Lucretius used voluptas for pleasure which is an example of having a better (but far from perfect) ring to it in a modern english ear. You're right that "pathetic" probably makes pathe a non-starter. The point Godfrey was referencing is that I do think that using an untranslated word from a foreign language is usually a bad idea. Surely we can express the same meaning in English, even if we have to force-combine or otherwise coin a term.


    Thinking back to my original source of all philosophic inspiration, Star Treck Original Series, I remember the episode entitled "the EmPATH" which ranks near the top of my all time LEAST favorite episodes. So I start with a poor impression of the word "pathe" from many angles ;-)

  • Unfortunately, Latin is not my forte. I'll defer to others on that one.

    For my contribution, in poking around on the Perseus Digital Library, it seemed like *maybe* variations on sentiō were used by Lucretius and Cicero (who are cited in the definition). However, I also seemed to be seeing Cicero would just say "pleasure and pain" (voluptas et dolores?) and it gets translated as "feelings of pleasure and pain."

  • Unfortunately, Latin is not my forte. I'll defer to others on that one.

    For my contribution, in poking around on the Perseus Digital Library, it seemed like *maybe* variations on sentiō were used by Lucretius and Cicero (who are cited in the definition). However, I also seemed to be seeing Cicero would just say "pleasure and pain" (voluptas et dolores?) and it gets translated as "feelings of pleasure and pain."

    That would not be surprising to me. I get the impression that sensation might be the best umbrella word after all and that the term "five senses" is more of a problem than a help. We might need to dig into how it became thought that that name came to be considered a good term for the "first leg" of the canonical tripod.


    The Romans should have had enough understanding of Epicurus to get these terms correct, and I tend to think that their word choices probably deserve more credit than we give them.

  • Epicurus believed that both aspects of his philosophy were discoverable through an epistemology of sensation, feeling, and anticipation—an epistemology that was therefore not strictly empirical.

    Joshua just posted this sentence recently in another thread. I could find countless numbers where I list the epistemology the same way.

    And yet I can't get free of the feeling that in this list - sensation, feeling, and anticipation - we are still spinning around with less precision than we should. Do not the words "sensation" and "feeling" denote almost exactly the same thing to us today in English? At least in terms of touch, we tend to say after we touch something "How does it feel?" Not so with sight, or hearing, or smell, or taste, however.


    Do the names of the categories really tell us what the difference between the "five senses" are from the "feelings" of pain and pleasure? I know at times I have deferred to a term like "natural faculties" as the catch-all name to include all three but I have no strong opinion that any formulation I've ever heard really captures the subject well.


    Maybe the standard terms of sense / sensation and feeling are indeed the best words to use, but we definitely need a very clear definition attached to them at the start as to what they are intended to convey, and what they include and what they don't.


    And of course in this discussion we haven't really touched at all on aticipations, but if indeed this list of three has any parallel at all within it, then anticipations must be a form of "sense" as well -- at least in the manner of speaking so as to reference a "faculty of contact between our minds and the world outside our minds" or a "faculty by which our minds make contact with the world outside our minds" or a "mechanism by which our minds perceive the world outside our minds."


    But even then we probably need to include more than just "the world outside our minds" since we are pretty clearly including the pleasure or pain we feel at our own thoughts/memories, which are presumably part of and within our own minds.

  • I typed παθη Latin translation into Google and got "passio." Passions distinguishes from sensations but has its own set of problems.


    "Embodied cognition" is for me a very descriptive phrase for the prolepseis and perhaps for the entire Canon. But this apparently has woo woo connotations in some circles. Also if it can be used for both prolepseis and for the Canon then that isn't very helpful.

  • This is a thread I've been following casually but haven't had time to thoroughly digest.


    It seems to me that 'sensation' is meant to carry the meaning of something sensed objectively.


    I don't like beer. For many, drinking beer stimulates a feeling of pleasure. For me, it's a kind of mild revulsion—a type of pain. But in both cases the objective sensation is the same; my friend and I both sense that the beer is cold, slightly bitter, tasting of hops and alcohol, and so forth.


    But the thing is, with brain scans it is possible to notice objectively the experience of pleasure and pain. So I'm not certain where that leaves us.

  • Excellent point, JJElbert ! Your beer analogy finally lit a light bulb for me.

    This reminds me that my wife and I are watching the Netflix doc series Babies. I have found it fascinating and keep seeing the learning and "pre-wiring" of the babies and toddlers as echoing the idea of innate prolepses. I was also listening to apodcast with Alan Alda and Cori Bargmann that talked about the innate chemical receptors in the brain that also reminded me of prolepses.