On "Desires" And Their Relationship To Pleasure

  • I think that one real issue in discussing "limits" is that in English there is a connotation to "to limit" means "to reduce." And of course in discussing limits of pleasure, there is an inference that we draw from use of this term in discussing desires and pleasures that it would be a good thing for "pleasure" to necessarily be "reduced" -- and I don' think that was the intent of Epicurus at all.


    FIrst of all, "reduce" and "limit" aren't necessarily the same thing.


    We've been distinguishing desires from pleasures, and it certainly makes more sense to "Reduce" desires than it does to "reduce" pleasure. In fact the supposed reason to reduce desire in the advice of Epicurus is in fact to **increase** pleasure.


    We're making very useful observations about limits and their importance, but as we do so I think the elephant in the room that must be avoided is implying that by using the concept of limits (and I think limits are a concept) we not accept the stoic desire to see limits of pleasure or limits of desire as being chains that tie us down from experiencing the type of full pleasurable life that might otherwise be possible.

  • Okay, to understand Epicurus's limits, we have to know what words he used. You knew this was coming, right?


    Below are selections where English uses the word limit. I wanted to see if Epicurus consistently used the same or different words in the original. This is NOT an exhaustive list. If you're curious about a text not listed, just ask. The primary words Epicurus seems to use are horizō and peras and their variations. See below.


    Fr. 548. Happiness and bliss are produced not by great riches nor vast possessions nor exalted occupations nor positions of power, but rather by peace of mind, freedom from pain, and a disposition of the soul that sets its limits in accordance with nature.


    Fr. 548. τὸ εὔδαιμον καὶ μακάριον [happiness and blessedness] οὐ χρημάτων πλῆθος οὐδὲ πραγμάτων ὄγκος οὐδʼ ἀρχαί τινες ἔχουσιν οὐδὲ δυνάμεις, ἀλλʼ ἀλυπία (alupia "no pain") καὶ πραότης παθῶν (praotēs pathōn "mildness/gentleness of the pathē) καὶ διάθεσις ψυχῆς [psychēs "soul, mind"] τὸ κατὰ φύσιν ὁρίζουσα.


    ὁρίζουσα (horizousa) < fem. participle of ορίζω (horizō) = to divide or separate from, as a boundary. (Note: This is the origin of English "horizon")


    So to pare down that fragment: Happiness and bliss... are produced by peace of mind, freedom from pain, and a mind's disposition that sets its limits in accordance with nature.


    PD 3. The limit of the magnitude of pleasure (is) the whole of the removal of that which causes pain. Where that which gives pleasure exists, during the time it is present, there is neither pain nor that which causes pain in body or mind nor either of these together.


    PD 3. Ὅρος τοῦ μεγέθους τῶν ἡδονῶν ἡ παντὸς τοῦ ἀλγοῦντος ὑπεξαίρεσις. ὅπου δ’ ἂν τὸ ἡδόμενον ἐνῇ, καθ’ ὃν ἂν χρόνον ᾖ, οὐκ ἔστι τὸ ἀλγοῦν ἢ τὸ λυπούμενον ἢ τὸ συναμφότερον.


    Ὅρος (horos) limit, rule, standard. A boundary or marker stone (compare horizō)


    Horos and horizō are also used in PD 11 to state the limits of pains and desires, PD 15 to describe that "Nature's treasures have boundaries"


    VS 25 uses horizō. Poverty is great wealth if measured by *the goals of nature* (tō tēs physeōs telei (< telos)) , and wealth is abject poverty if not limited (horizoumenos) by the goals of nature. ἡ πενία μετρουμένη τῷ τῆς φύσεως τέλει μέγας ἐστὶ πλοῦτος· πλοῦτος δὲ μὴ ὁριζόμενος μεγάλη ἐστὶ πενία.


    PD 10. If the objects which are productive of pleasures to profligate persons really freed them from fears of the mind—the fears, I mean, inspired by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, the fear of pain—if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, [then] we should not have any reason to censure such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasure to overflowing on all sides and would be exempt from all pain, whether of body or mind, that is, from all evil.


    PD 10. Εἰ τὰ ποιητικὰ [τῶν περὶ τοὺς ἀσώτους ἡδονῶν] ἔλυε τοὺς φόβους τῆς διανοίας τούς [τε περὶ μετεώρων καὶ θανάτου καὶ ἀλγηδόνων], ἔτι τε "τὸ πέρας τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν" (to peras tōn epithumiōn "the end/extremity of desires") ἐδίδασκεν (taught), οὐκ ἄν ποτε εἴχομεν ὅ τι μεμψαίμεθα αὐτοῖς, πανταχόθεν ἐκπληρουμένοις τῶν ἡδονῶν καὶ οὐδαμόθεν οὔτε τὸ ἀλγοῦν οὔτε τὸ λυπούμενον ἔχουσιν, ὅ περ ἐστὶ τὸ κακόν.


    πέρας peras "end, limit, boundary, goal, that which comes to an end" Peras is sometimes opposed to archē "the beginning, origin" Note that pleasure is termed in one place by Epicurus as the archē and telos (goal, fulfillment) of the blessed life.


    So now we have horizō and peras.


    Peras is the word used in PD 18 in "The limit of pleasure in the mind is obtained by calculating the pleasures themselves and the contrary pains, which cause the mind the greatest alarms."


    PD 19 is interesting! Check it out!


    Infinite and finite time afford equal pleasure, if one measures its limits by reason.


    19 Ὁ ἄπειρος χρόνος ἴσην ἔχει τὴν ἡδονὴν καὶ ὁ πεπερασμένος, ἐάν τις αὐτῆς τὰ πέρατα καταμετρήσῃ τῷ λογισμῷ.


    Peras (in plural πέρατα perata) is the word used for "measure its limits". But check out the word for infinite ἄπειρος apeiros < a + peras!! "No end"! The word literally means "it never ends".


    Perata again used in PD 20: The flesh assumes the *limits* of pleasure to be infinite, and only infinite time would satisfy it. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end (telos) and *limit* of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life and has no longer any need of infinite time.


    Again in PD 21: the limits of life (ta perata tou biou)


    These are some of the peras synonyms given by Woodhouse, S. C. (1910) English-Greek Dictionary A Vocabulary of the Attic Language:

    accomplishment, bound, cessation, completion, conclusion, culmination, finality, finish, fulfilment, goal, measure, period.


    It seems to imply something that has a natural boundary or that has come to some natural end or has been determined to have a boundary (had a boundary marker set).


    Consider too the Greek preposition Peri "around" (e.g., perimeter).

  • Great work assembling that! Thanks! Of course what you're saying in the final analysis is that Epicurus did not use the same word when describing all these different situations, so it is dangerous and really improper of us to use the same word in those instances without noting that the meaning is different.


    It's almost as if "limit" in English came to be a fetish and got overused for too many cases, especially when over the same years its primary meaning as a verb came to be thought of as "to reduce" more so than "set a boundary."


    Of course over those same years the primary religion was Christianity and the primary philosophy was some form of Platonism / Stoicism.


    I am *sure* that there's no coincidence that all those things were taking place over the same period ;-)

  • Good points, Cassius .

    I will say that Epicurus does tell Pythokles to ἀφαίρει (aphairei) his desires if he wants to be rich.

    The verb means "take away, set aside" and is used in mathematics for "subtract." Similar to "limit" but with different - and possibly significant - shades of meaning.

  • Absolutely no doubt that some of us -- maybe a lot of us - need to "reduce" certain desires that bring us pain. On the other hand many of us - lots of us - need to ratchet up our desires in those areas that would really bring us pleasure before we face the eternity of death. It's all in the circumstances, but darn it, just like some people want tot dwell on "painlessness" because they are hurting so badly, similarly some want to dwell on "reduction" because they have foolishly targeted their time. In both cases they project their problems on everyone and then proclaim that "everyone" should reduce their desires / pleasures. I think we can intelligently deal with this without making a rhetorical mistake on either side, but I know -- or at least I sense -- which side the danger is on in the field of Epicurean "evangelism." ;-)

  • For me, it all goes back to Epicurus teaching us to "Ask this question of every desire: what will happen to me if the object of desire is achieved, and what if not?" (VS 71)

    It's not about specifically going out to increase or decrease desires. Which desires are you going to try to achieve and which ones are you going to let go. If the feeling of pleasure is your guide, you're going to work to achieve those desires that will bring you a pleasurable, blessed life. If you don't examine your desires and just let your life be "one damn thing after another" you may experience pleasure or pain but you are at the mercy of Fortune and chance. Why would you want to leave your one precious existence up to chance?

    It comes back to the boundary markers. We have limited time. The desires we can achieve and the pleasurable experiences we can have are finite. The kinds of desires that will lead to a pleasurable life are not infinite. All pleasure is good, all pain is bad. But that doesn't mean we set out to experience every pleasure nor shun every pain. With pleasure as our North Star, we can "limit" our desires to those that will get us through life most pleasurably. There are innumerable paths we can take through life. Pleasure gives us a goal by which to choose a path.

  • Very very well stated Don. It seems so obvious! And yet, here we are in a corner of the internet while every academically-trained student or teacher is teaching or studying something much different than that. I suppose it would be helpful to diagnosis how we got here, but probably the first order of business is to stop the bleeding and look first to the development of a stable community of people who see things differently, and are willing to stand up for that position.


    Sometimes I feel like hoisting a pirate flag and adopting some kind of "'men' without a country" imagery ;-)

  • Very very well stated Don. It seems so obvious! And yet, here we are in a corner of the internet while every academically-trained student or teacher is teaching or studying something much different than that. I suppose it would be helpful to diagnosis how we got here, but probably the first order of business is to stop the bleeding and look first to the development of a stable community of people who see things differently, and are willing to stand up for that position.


    Sometimes I feel like hoisting a pirate flag and adopting some kind of "'men' without a country" imagery ;-)

    i hope you still approve. I added a little more just as you were posting :)

  • Yes I do still approve. The wording we are looking for in english is more like "set the parameters" or "define the target" or even "Triangulate" -- still missing the best term. We're looking to define the playing field, or the rules of the game, so that we can then know best how to play the game.

  • "Find the sweet spot" for maximum pleasure? Pretty slangy though. "Define the target" and "triangulate" seem like they're on the right track.... Something along the lines of "apex" or "peak" in the sense that on one side is not enough and on the other side is too much. "Optimum?"


    I just Googled "sweet spot synomyms:" sweet spot definitely won't do lol! =O

  • Unfortunately what mostly come to mind are trendy slang words, like "right-size" -- but that doesn't do it either! ;-)


    To make matters worse, what comes next are those cat videos where cats squeeze themselves into boxes and glass bowls to fill every inch!


    Our minds are hopelessly polluted!