Discussion of Article: "On Pleasure, Pain and Happiness"

  • As we continue to discuss and refine this, I think it is very important to incorporate an explanation for why Epicurus is so concerned about "limits." Such an explanation needs to consider what is going on n PD 19 - 21.

    PD 18 The pleasure in the flesh is not increased, when once the pain due to want is removed, but is only varied: and the limit as regards pleasure in the mind is begotten by the reasoned understanding of these very pleasures and of the emotions akin to them, which used to cause the greatest fear to the mind.

    PD 19 Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures by reason the limits of pleasure.

    PD 20 The flesh perceives the limits of pleasure as unlimited, and unlimited time is required to supply it. But the mind, having attained a reasoned understanding of the ultimate good of the flesh and its limits and having dissipated the fears concerning the time to come, supplies us with the complete life, and we have no further need of infinite time: but neither does the mind shun pleasure, nor, when circumstances begin to bring about the departure from life, does it approach its end as though it fell short in any way of the best life.

    PD 21 He who has learned the limits of life knows that that which removes the pain due to want and makes the whole of life complete is easy to obtain, so that there is no need of actions which involve competition.

    Unless we have a theory of the importance of "limits" that does not require the conclusion that the simplest life is the best, that is the direction that these sayings seem to lead.

    And this drives me back to thinking that:

    (1) the most clear way of expressing this issue is as a conflict between "maximum net pleasure vs. minimum net pain."

    (2) the explanation that unwinds the problem is that the limit idea is itself limited to stating a *theoretical* limit of quantity alone. The "limit" theory is itself limited to its context, which is the realm of logic, and it was developed solely to refute the logical argument of Plato et al. that the highest good must be something that cannot be exceeded. It serves the secondary benefit of giving us a logical argument to reconcile us with death by helping us see that living forever would only be repetitive, not give us access to any better pleasure than we already have had the chan e to experience.

    But the limits argument is subject to exactly the limitation that Elayne sees in the spreadsheet model - feeling cannot be *adequately* expressed in quantitative terms. It can be useful to think of it in those terms in limited situations, such as refuting Plato or planning your daily calendar, but a theory can never replace or completely capture the experience of living.

    Also: Considering PD3 and 4 in this way highlights them as targeted logical arguments - targeted at specific errors - just like PD 1 is targeted at supernatural religion and PD2 is targeted at fears of death. None of these are positive statements of what type of pleasure to pursue, all of them concern obstacles to seeing pleasure as the goal of life.

  • Sometimes the most important thing we can do is to forge ahead and force discussions on topics that the masses have been taught to fear, or to reject. Sometimes diplomacy doesn't work, and attacking those errors head on is the only way to free ourselves "from the prison of public education and politics."

    Maybe that is why Epicurus chose this "confrontational" method of presentation. It certainly seems to me today that the way forward will not come from discussing food and wine and music and dance, but will come only through direct confrontation with errors that are held very dearly by "the public" - errors that people are often afraid to discuss.

    That "fear to discuss" is the real prison of public education and politics.

  • It doesn't seem reasonable to us that some logical argument by Plato would be as worrisome an error as supernatural gods or suffering after death, but then, we are not living in Athens in 300 BC devoting our life to teaching philosophy, surrounded by a den of logicians who held that the meaning of life can be expressed in numbers and geometry and calculated limits.

  • Speaking of the context of looking to numbers and geometry for the meaning of life, Cicero in On Ends does not seem very interested in that topic. Is it possible that Cicero was able to argue that Epicurus' discussion of limits of pleasure did not make sense because he knew that in the intervening 200 years the philosophical emphasis on geometry had dissipated? Or that the Romans were simply not impressed with the Platonic / Pythagorean fascination with the mystical significance of numbers and limits?

    Certainly today the whole issue of "that which is best must be of a type which has a limit" is not something we hear much about.

    However in Epicurus' day, issues of quantity and limits were considered crucial. We see that here from Philebus, where Socrates lays the trap of which ultimately defeats Protarchus, the advocate of pleasure as the goal. Here Socrates lays the foundation that things which can always be increased are "in the class of the infinite.". This later compels Protarchus to say that because pleasure can always be increased, it is in the class of things that can be better or lesser - and this means that Pleasure cannot be in the class of things that can be " best.":

    SOCRATES: Then, says the argument, there is never any end of them, and being endless they must also be infinite.

    PROTARCHUS: Yes, Socrates, that is exceedingly true.

    SOCRATES: Yes, my dear Protarchus, and your answer reminds me that such an expression as ‘exceedingly,’ which you have just uttered, and also the term ‘gently,’ have the same significance as more or less; for whenever they occur they do not allow of the existence of quantity—they are always introducing degrees into actions, instituting a comparison of a more or a less excessive or a more or a less gentle, and at each creation of more or less, quantity disappears. For, as I was just now saying, if quantity and measure did not disappear, but were allowed to intrude in the sphere of more and less and the other comparatives, these last would be driven out of their own domain. When definite quantity is once admitted, there can be no longer a ‘hotter’ or a ‘colder’ (for these are always progressing, and are never in one stay); but definite quantity is at rest, and has ceased to progress. Which proves that comparatives, such as the hotter and the colder, are to be ranked in the class of the infinite.

  • And so that we can throw everything into the pot before we cook it --- in addition to the above on “limits,” you have the closely related issue of “purity.”

    PD12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.

    Here is another excerpt from Philebus that I think explains why purity is an issue. If you take the following sentence, and instead of “whiteness” you read “pleasure,” you see some immediate implications for why Epicurus was concerned about the purity of pleasure, and why it is very important to discuss pleasure unmixed with any pain whatsoever.Take this sentence and try that:

    SOCRATES:* True, Protarchus; and so the purest white, and not the greatest or largest in quantity, is to be deemed truest and most beautiful?

    PROTARCHUS: Right.

    To me you get almost a direct reflect of the first part of PD3 when you do that; “PD3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain.”

    Here is more context to give you the background:

    SOCRATES: And now, having fairly separated the pure pleasures and those which may be rightly termed impure, let us further add to our description of them, that the pleasures which are in excess have no measure, but that those which are not in excess have measure; the great, the excessive, whether more or less frequent, we shall be right in referring to the class of the infinite, and of the more and less, which pours through body and soul alike; and the others we shall refer to the class which has measure.

    PROTARCHUS: Quite right, Socrates.

    SOCRATES: Still there is something more to be considered about pleasures.

    PROTARCHUS: What is it?

    SOCRATES: When you speak of purity and clearness, or of excess, abundance, greatness and sufficiency, in what relation do these terms stand to truth?

    PROTARCHUS: Why do you ask, Socrates?

    SOCRATES: Because, Protarchus, I should wish to test pleasure and knowledge in every possible way, in order that if there be a pure and impure element in either of them, I may present the pure element for judgment, and then they will be more easily judged of by you and by me and by all of us.

    PROTARCHUS: Most true.

    SOCRATES: Let us investigate all the pure kinds; first selecting for consideration a single instance.

    PROTARCHUS: What instance shall we select?

    SOCRATES: Suppose that we first of all take whiteness.

    PROTARCHUS: Very good.

    SOCRATES: How can there be purity in whiteness, and what purity? Is that purest which is greatest or most in quantity, or that which is most unadulterated and freest from any admixture of other colours?

    PROTARCHUS: Clearly that which is most unadulterated.

    SOCRATES: True, Protarchus; and so the purest white, and not the greatest or largest in quantity, is to be deemed truest and most beautiful?

    PROTARCHUS: Right.

    We can do the same substitution exercise with this example from Socrates: “How can there be purity in [pleasure/whiteness], and what purity? Is that purest which is greatest or most in quantity, or that which is most unadulterated and freest from any admixture of [pain/ other colours]?

    Answer: “clearly, that which is most unadulterated.”

    So the implication of the analogy is that the purest/highest pleasure is not that which is the greatest quantity, but that which is unadulterated with pain, just as the purest white is not the most quantity of white, but that which is not mixed with other colors.

    Does that mean that because sleep, for example, is frequently something that gives us pleasure without any mixture of pain, we should consider sleep to be the highest pleasure and sleep as much as possible?

    I don't think so. Once again, i think that Epicurus is dealing with "pure pleasure" in a way that shows how logical arguments that pleasure as a faculty cannot be the guide to the best life, not calling us to select only those simplest activities which produce only pleasure.

  • In both the quantity and purity issues I have collected the references that seemed to me to be most relevant at this page: https://newepicurean.com/found…llness-of-pleasure-model/

    With these four graphics as an aid to focusing on the issue:





    To these I would now add my draft net pleasure maximization worksheet - A Draft Epicurean Pleasure Maximization Worksheet

    These graphics and these points don't do nearly enough to explain the issue in full, and I hope that the article Elayne is drafting will in the end bring all the different points together in a coherent whole.

  • So to condense these last posts down into a concrete suggestion, I am suggesting that the article should probably contain a section something like:
    Why does Epicurus talk about limits of pleasure and purity, what does he say about them, and what was his conclusion about how these matters affect our pursuit of pleasure as the goal of life?

    We are today in much the same position as Epicurus in 300 BC. We know these arguments are being used against holding pursuit of pleasure as the goal of life, and not only in their original form. The original form of the argument is still being used, with this new addition: Epicurus' own statements seem to say that we should limit pleasure to the purest and least painful forms. If that interpretation is accepted, Epicurus himself seems to be laying the groundwork for living in a cave on bread and water.

    If we don't address the arguments that we know are on their way, then we haven't equipped members of the Epicurean school to defeat them.

  • Here are several clips from a chapter of Gosling & Taylor's "The Greeks on Pleasure" which appear relevant.

    First, this one may seem to be a little confusingly written, but the context here is that G&T are saying that they are opposing ALL of the views stated in the rest of paragraph, and not just the views stated in the second part of the first sentence. The second and following sentences are a continuation of the view that they oppose, not a statement of their own views. G&T are opposing all the views stated in this paragraph, as made clear by the final sentence, which states that they are going to provide four objections which "such views" have to meet.


    They conclude in the end that the Katastematic /Kinetic distinction was not important to Epicurus, and that gave Nikolsky the idea for his article cited later in this post:


    Here is a clip stating that Cicero's interpretation that there is an internal conflict is defective and can be explained away. Note that G&T say that Cicero's interpretation "is not supported by the extant writings of Epicurus" and "attributes views to him [Epicurus] which ought to be surprising."


    And here is the most clear statement of the Gosling & Taylor conclusion: "what is important is to get a life of sensory pleasure untainted by pain." (a reflection of Cicero's "nothing was preferable to a life of tranquillity crammed full of pleasures" from Defense of Publius Cestius)


    Here is the conclusion by Nikolsky that Epicurus is far from seeing pleasure in a neutral state, and that both Cicero and Diogenes Laertius were both forcing Epicurus into a mold of their own which was not justified by what Epicurus himself had written:

    And here is Matthew Wenham reaching the same conclusion, that pleasure is an EXPERIENCE / sensation of pleasure, not some kind of "static" / "katastematic" state from which feeling is absence.

  • I have finished my second draft-- took me 6 hours! I think this one says everything I want to say. If more academic addendums need to be added at the end, I am fine with that but am probably not the person to write it.

    I have to say I am especially thrilled with my new and snarky term "fancy pleasures"-- I hope it gives somebody a laugh. I think Epicurus would have liked it.


  • OK comments from here are directed at draft two. I will post several here as I read through for the first time.

    Ataraxia is freedom from anxiety and emotional disturbance, sometimes called “tranquility”

    Should this be: "Ataraxia is a feeling of freedom from anxiety and emotional disturbance, sometimes called "tranqility.""

    If you are having a feeling and are not 100% sure that it is pleasurable, it is not pleasure. Pleasure is unmistakable. Even a newborn can feel it.

    Would this be true of pain too? Are we introducing an ambiguity by implying that there are feelings which we cannot tell are either pleasure or pain? How would we explain that?

    What are Pain and Pleasure?

    It is not necessary to mention this but as I finish reading this section I see you are discussing things i think DeWitt classifies under the "unity of pleasure" -- that pleasure is all of a similar type (as I gather pain is too)

  • I will fix the ataraxia sentence.

    I do not think it is ever a confusion whether someone is having pleasure. But there is definitely a confusion, which I have observed in person first hand and would be unwilling to argue against, of people not recognizing low grade pain for what it is. They can have what is clinically termed "alexithymia", inability to describe a feeling. I have never, ever observed this with pleasure. When I question the confused person who doesn't know what their feeling is, after some time I can help them realize that it is an unwanted feeling, which means it is a pain. As I mention in the paper, sometimes they are just so used to pain that it is like water to a fish. They have forgotten there is an alternative. But people in pleasure don't forget they are happy. They can habituate to an experience in regards to pleasure, but not to the feeling itself.

    I don't know why this is the case, just that it is definitely so. It isn't that there is a 3rd feeling, but maybe pain is confusing to people in some way that pleasure is not?

    I think by saying the feelings are two that I don't need to say pleasure is of a similar type, otherwise there would be more than two.

  • It is possible that some of this issue of "low grade" feeling may be explainable by referring to the greek wording, and perhaps Elli could help us with that. I gather we are talking about some variation of "Pathos" and I sometimes wonder if there is a distinction between Pathos/feeling and "sensation." Does every sensation generate a pathos/feeling? Does everything that comes to our attention generate a pathos/feeling? Or is part of the natural programming of pain and pleasure is that it does not weigh in on EVERY experience? Just because every pain or pleasure is an experience, does that mean every experience generates pleasure or pain?

  • Ah-- if you see the link and small discussion I put in the end notes, about how the brain works-- I know of zero evidence that the pain/ pleasure function of the brain ever fails to weigh in at any time in life, on anything that comes to our attention, but the intensity of feeling can certainly vary. It would be a pretty extraordinary assertion that sometimes pain/ pleasure shuts off-- I would need some replicated research to be willing to say that. And it would be against my personal experience entirely. So that is one of the points I mentioned we didn't have consensus on.

  • OK as to the issue of whether every experience generates a discernable feeling of pain or pleasure, I do not have a strong opinion or reason to argue for or against that. My perception is that the ultimate issue is just that nature gave us feelings of pain and pleasure as a guide, and not any other kind of feeling for a guide, so I don't think it is necessary philosophically to take the position that every experience must generate a registered feeling of pain or pleasure. I guess I have an open mind as to whether this might explain your reference earlier to feelings which we might not be sure are pleasure or pain. But I don't think this causes any philosophical problem so I doubt it is a significant issue.

  • Cassius, oops-- I don't think I should say ataraxia is a feeling of freedom when I've just said there are two feelings, pain and pleasure-- freedom is not a third feeling. Obviously most of us use the word feeling much more loosely in conversation, but here I've used a strict rule. I either need to label it as a pleasure itself, due to freedom, or a "condition of freedom", or some other revision. I'll check in the morning and see what you think.

  • Maybe the "pleasurable feeling of freedom..." or something to that effect (?) With the point being that ataraxia is a subset of pleasurable feelings , (it's something like a mental feeling of being without any disturbances at all), and not a separate type of "fancy pleasure" on its own,

  • Elayne, after reading the second draft once, the content appears again fully agreeable to me.

    I found 2 mistakes in language:

    "I could say that I am honest to avoid the painful anxiety lies coming from lies ..."

    should be:

    "I could say that I am honest to avoid the painful anxiety coming from lies ..."

    "grabbing a hot pain on the stove"

    should be:

    "grabbing a hot pan on the stove"

  • Our epicurean friend Elayne wrote : They can have what is clinically termed "alexithymia", inability to describe a feeling.

    WOW ! "alexithymia"... that's a greek word of that clinical situation that can also give the "apathy" of the stoics and stoicism. HA :S

    Alexithymia :

    "Alex" means "I repel" or "I push back". That's how we have and that name "Alex+ander" that means I repel, or I push back "men".

    and "thymos-thymia" which means [ the emotion] or [the passion]. "Alexithymia" means I repel my emotions, and that's the same with APATHY which means I uproot, I push back my emotions. And why I am in the clinical situation of apathy or alexthymia? Because "ex apalon onychon" i.e. from childhood, something enforced me to not make properly the measurement among pleasure and pain, something did not make me clear where are my limits among pleasure and pain, and of others limits too. Something enforced me to do my "duty", and accepting my "fate" or "necessity". And that "something" is an authenticity i.e. my parents and then people - as leaders - of my social environment, and this is NOT for purpose to lead myself and others in pleasure and happiness, but for being a virtuous guy. :P

    And now for a+taraxia that goes along with a+ponia.

    this (a) means [without]

    ataraxia means without agitation.

    aponia means without pain.

    ataraxia and aponia are words that describe the limits of magnitude of pleasures i.e. the situation that consciously I understand/feel with my body/mind/soul as the feeling of pleasure.

    Again the PD 3 : The limit of magnitude of the pleasures is the removal of everything painful, wherever there is pleasure, however long it may present there no pain or sadness of both together.


    Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present – nor of both together.

    Or with the fg 423 Epicurus addressed to peripatetics : "What brings unsurpassed joy is the removal of a great evil; and this is the nature of the good, if you apply your mind rightly and then stand firm, and do not stroll about chattering emptily" .

    Like the words "aponia" and "ataraxia", in greek language, we have the word "a+lithea". This "a" means [without] , and "lithe" which means [oblivion]. "Alithea" means the situation that is without oblivion. And in english is given with the word "truth". For the word "lithe" [oblivion] in english and greek languages the synonym words are "unconsciousness", "insensibility", "a stupor" "stupefaction", "senselessness", "a coma", "a blackout". That's why we call senses and feelings the criteria of "alithea" [truth] inside the methodology of the epicurean Canon.

    Beauty and virtue and such are worthy of honor, if they bring pleasure; but if not then bid them farewell!

  • Thinking about this discussion in clinical terms reinforces in my mind that this entire line of thought is as simple as can be. The lives of most people contain a mixture of pleasures and pains. The way any person improves their life to the best possible is to remove the pains he faces and replace them with pleasures. Nothing more complex or mysterious whatsoever is expressed or implied.

    And no one would even think of saying anything so basic unless they perceived that there was a contrary viewpoint which required the obvious to be stated.

    I am convinced also that we find that contrary viewpoint in "Philebus" and that we need to spend more time articulating it clearly. Not because the argument in Philebus is persuasive, but because unless we are aware of it we tend to think "there must be something more going on here than meets the eye."

    And there is.

    We are going to find at root that the Philebus issue is a "logic game" involving the alleged insatiability and insufficiency of the feeling of pleasure as the guide of life, and its alleged inferiority to "reason."

    But there is a lot more work to be done to explain that. Only then can we reclaim PD3 and similar statements as the validation of our patron goddess "Venus" (as referenced in Philebus) rather than a call to asceticism.