An Epicurean Understanding of Pleasure

  • Personally, I think you're onto something with the short- vs long-term pleasure. Cassius may disagree. I've interpreted the Cyrenaic position to be "always pleasure in the moment" grab it now. Whereas Epicurus's philosophy was to make choices that would provide sustainable pleasure and the prospect that it would persist.

    I wouldn't take on that skeptic label just yet :)

  • If one assumes that short-term pleasures provide the same benefits as long-term pleasures,

    Yes you "could" assume that, but why would you? By definition the short-term pleasure is different from the long-term pleasure in terms of time, so they are not identical.

    Please don't sense that I am disagreeing, I am simply at this point trying to understand your reasoning.

    Epicurus may have said that "PD19. Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures, by reason, the limits of pleasure." but that is by no means the same as saying that time is an irrelevant factor. Epicurus strongly discourages suicide, and it seems clear (to me at least) that Epicurus is saying that life is desirable, so we should continue to desire to live so long as we can gain more pleasure than pain from living on. The issue I think we are discussing is what does "more" mean, because I would argue that "more" does not equate to "length of time" at all. There are many other issues, intensity being only one, and variations in types of pleasures that only the individual can just to be "worth' the pain required to attain it.

    But let's stay with that passage I quoted above. I don't think Don would assume that "short-term benefits provide the SAME benefits as long-term pleasure" either, correct Don? So I am not sure where you are thinking the assumption you are naming should come from.

  • I've interpreted the Cyrenaic position to be "always pleasure in the moment" grab it now. Whereas Epicurus's philosophy was to make choices that would provide sustainable pleasure and the prospect that it would persist.

    I agree (at least largely) with that statement of the Cyreniac position, but I don't think I would say the second sentence is accurate. Yes clearly "sustainability" (meaning the time element) is a factor to consider, but there's definitely no way to say flatly across the board that time is ALWAYS the deciding factor or even the MOST IMPORTANT factor. That's clear from the letter to Menoeceus:

    "And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant."

    So how does one rank the "most pleasant"? I think the first and most important aspect of the answer to that is that there's no universal single answer. The "most pleasant" by nature (by the Epicurean physics and understanding of the cosmos) is up to the individual given his or her own tastes and circumstances and preferences. Certainly I would think most people are going to consider the time element, but what about the person who wants to say "damn the torpedoes full speed ahead" and wants to climb to the top of a mountain to be there to see for a moment, even if he knows he'll never make it back down. Can such a person be said to be "wrong"? By what standard? I think Epicurus would say that that's between you and Nature to decide, with you making the call under all your individual circumstances.

  • "And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant."

    Exactly. I interpret that "the most pleasant" with the idea of pleasure *over a period of time.* The *length* of time is not the focus; it's the *persistence* of pleasure over the time in question.

  • I interpret that "the most pleasant" with the idea of pleasure *over a period of time.* The *length* of time is not the focus; it's the *persistence* of pleasure over the time in question.

    Oh my! :) :) I don't for a moment dispute your right and proper position in interpreting it that way for yourself. I agree that Epicurus would want you to do that if you believe it best for you! But I would not calculate it that way myself, and I suspect we would have a strong division of opinion on that if we took a poll. I would consider "intensity" or other "qualities" as at least as important as duration in time (persistence).

    While "truth" is not decided by polling, and it doesn't matter how many here agree or disagree, I would like for some of our core people to weigh in on this because theirs are the opinions I respect, and I think we could all learn a lot by discussing this. ;)

  • Here's my literal translation of the section of Menoikeus:


    Just as, on the one hand, the most food is not chosen but that which brings the greatest pleasure; as well as, on the other hand, not the longest time but that in which one enjoys the fruits of that which brings the greatest pleasure.

  • It seems that one could do a hedonic calculus when making choices, but if the underlying assumption is that short-term physical pleasures are equally as important as long-term mental pleasures, then the long-term results will be a mixed bag (pleasure mixed with pain or pleasure resulting in pain), and/or one will find oneself on a never-ending hedonic treadmill.

    So an Epicurean philosophy of life would be a life of guaranteed continuous pleasures ---- of a medium intensity (a nice well built fire to warm oneself together with one's friends) vs. a high intensity (too much fuel on the fire burns out too quickly). And this would be the difference between the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics.

    I'm not sure that it's correct to have an underlying assumption that short-term physical pleasures are equally as important as long-term mental pleasures. To put words into Epicurus' mouth, I think that he would say that the most important thing is a correct understanding of his philosophy and that this would provide the pleasure of freedom from fear. Having achieved that, one can vary, embellish, and add icing to the cake through various other pleasures, both short- and long-term and of varying intensities.

    Further, if the hedonic calculus is indeed subjective then the underlying assumption is different for each person: some preferring short-term physical pleasures and some preferring long-term mental pleasures, and of varying intensities. And preference would be different in time as well, varying over the course of an individual's life.

    So I don't come to the conclusion that an Epicurean philosophy of life leads to continuous medium intensity pleasures, although the fire and friends example is quite pleasant! That conclusion, to me, is more like population based medicine which ignores the individual and averages out the entire population.

    As to the Cyrenaics, I can't recall their overall philosophy at the moment, but I would consider that in comparing them with Epicurus (or anyone else). Epicurus has a very coherent overall philosophy, of which pleasure is a part, and the way that I understand that philosophy brings me great pleasure as being a fairly accurate representation of "the way things are". If the Cyrenaic philosophy as a whole made more sense to me then I would consider applying that to my life.

  • How would you interpret "the most pleasant"?

    First, I am going to attempt at least for a while not to "like" too many posts here in this thread, as sometimes the "likes" tend to mean taking sides when "sides" is a bad thing to do. Who knows whether any of us at this point have the "right" interpretation? (We can come back to likes later, though, cause they do help with things over time, for those who are "persistent" in following arguments.) ;)

    I guess further I need to be sure what we mean by "right" interpretation, which I'll define for my use as "what Epicurus intended" (not necessarily what I myself might think.)

    Second, I think that my starting point as above is that in the Epicurean universe there can be no single definition of the right answer here. This is why I try to emphasize "pleasure as a feeling" and that's the big implication of it being a feeling -- feelings are largely subjective and at least highly difficult (and probably impossible) to quantify in any objectively-measurable terms. "Time" is a pretty easy measure, and I personally think "intensity" is another good term, and I think I recall in some of the recent psychology material that you (Don) and Godfrey have posted another term ("affect"?). But even more than that I think that there are probably lots of other aspects that can be described and I don't think we can or should try to pin down pleasure to a limited set of categories.

    That's also what I mean much of the time when I set off Pleasure or Feeling against the Platonic Ideals or the Religious "revelation" -- I see "pleasure" as a sweeping term that includes all "positive" feelings/sensations from any sense or mental activity, and in that status as "the positive feeling," I think the big philosophical war is between Idealism v. Divine Revelation vs Feeling (or Pleasure). (I am considering Idealism as essentially non-theistic in that list, even though I know Plato's version was essentially theistic if you drill down far enough - that's why idealism and revelation get along so well to fight Epicurus.)

    So with all that as background I interpret "most pleasant" as a feeling that we generate (or receive) within ourselves as the most valuable to us "in total." I do think that it is reasonable to look at time (duration and persistence) as an important element, but equally or more important is "intensity" (maybe "depth" is a better word?). For example that is why I think Epicurus said that it is at times appropriate to die for a friend. The depth of pain that you would suffer from knowing that a friend died who you could have saved could be (or I could see it being) so deep and intense that no amount of time would be sufficient to make like worth living after that, so you go ahead and sacrifice your life as the proper hedonic calculus of how to proceed in such an awful situation.

    I know I keep talking about pleasure being subjective and up to the individual to evaluate, and I think that's an unsatisfying way of expressing it because it's an attempt to address the problem through "logic" and "definitions."

    Probably the better approach would be to point to particular feelings of love and affection you have, such as for a spouse or a child (or whatever) that we all can identify with. Then you can point and say those are examples which allow us to understand the feelings involved so that we can unwind the question. All of us are probably familiar with the examples of how lovers talk about if they only had "one more day" with their departed love one they would sacrifice everything, or one more day to spend with a departed parent or child. I think those are examples of deep and intense emotion and are probably the hard cases that help establish the point.

    Some pleasures are so intense and so deep and so important to us that no lesser pleasures, no matter the duration or persistence, can stack up to them in our own estimation, and if asked to choose between them we would unhesitatingly choose the deep/intense over the longer more persistent duration.

  • Also: The issues we are discussing now also relate back to the "Net Pleasure Maximization Worksheet" that I put together a couple of years ago. I don't think Don was around then but maybe if he had been I would have taken it further, but I received a lot of argument "against" it on just these grounds: that pleasure can't be quantified scientifically by time or intensity or anything else.

    I still think that going through the exercise of thinking about categories can be helpful, and I think that what Don and others are saying right now about "persistence" is an example of thinking about one such category. But in the end, the categories are like all "forms" -- they fall short in capturing the fullness of the experience of the feelings involved. Even all the annotations at the bottom weren't sufficient caveats to translate the full effect into reality:

    I have to include a picture because I thought it was neat looking :)

    Note: Ok after checking back in the thread I do not see that Don participated so I am not sure if Don was here for this or not. In fact I don't see much discussion in the thread. I think the "debate" against it that I recall took place in non-public channels.

    Note 2: Looks like Don was not here, but Godfrey probably was, although mostly in "lurk" mode ;) Maybe if Don had been here we would all be spreadsheeting now! ;)

    Note 3: The problem is those numbers may be useful for ballparking feelings at the current moment, but there's no reliable way to really come up with them other than pulling them "out of the air." So in the end the totals are largely meaningless. The exercise itself might be a useful way to "get in touch with your feelings" and to rank different choices against each other, but that's probably about it.

  • I interpret that "the most pleasant" with the idea of pleasure *over a period of time.* The *length* of time is not the focus; it's the *persistence* of pleasure over the time in question.

    First, I should slightly amend that statement. I'll add:

    Quote from Don, revised

    I interpret that phrase "the most pleasant" with as the idea of pleasures maintained *over a period of time.* The *length* of time is not the focus; it's the *persistence* of pleasure writ large over the time in question.

    That's why Epicurus can say "[We choose] not the longest time but that in which one enjoys the fruits of that which brings the greatest pleasure."

    This coincides with Fragment 116:

    Quote from Plutarch, citing Epicurus

    116. I summon you to sustained enjoyment and not to empty and trifling virtues, which destroy your confidence in the fruits of what you have. Plut. Adv. Col. 17

    There's some disagreement on how that last phrase should be translated evidently, but, for my purposes here the first part is the important one. "Sustained enjoyment" in this translation is ἡδονὰς συνεχεῖς hedonas sunekheis, literally, "continuous/continual/unremitting pleasures" That "continuous/continual" is where I'm getting Epicurus's summons to us to have been to experience continuous pleasure throughout our life. To make choices to make sure pleasures "persist" throughout our life, no matter the length of that life.

    I'm also drawing on my recent "re-discovery" of Cicero thanks to you when "Torquatus" says:

    Quote from Cicero, De Finibus

    Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind...

    or, as Reid, translates:

    Let us imagine an individual in the enjoyment of pleasures great, numerous and constant, both mental and bodily, with no pain to thwart or threaten them ;

    So, again, we make choices that will lead to a life of "continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures." Pleasure is maintained throughout one's life.

    From my perspective, it is not the "time" involved in the individual pleasure that's most (or even) important. The important things are the choices we make to continue to experience pleasures great, numerous, and constant throughout our life.

    Your spreadsheet and focus on time or intensity or depth gets away from the idea that the number of pleasures is "great" and "numerous." It doesn't matter, I don't think, how deep, intense, or prolonged any individual pleasure is. It's the idea that we should imbue our entire lives with "continuous enjoyment" of "numerous" pleasures.

    Your friendship example strikes me as bolstering my point. If you fail to protect your friend, you will spend the rest of your life regretting their loss and your failure to come to their aid. The pain will "persist" throughout your life. However, if you lose your life doing something for the "pleasure" of your friendship, your "pleasure" is maintained throughout your life no matter if it is cut short. This also strikes me as a warning/exhortation to "pluck the day" carpe diem when it is available. There is no guarantee of tomorrow.

    You're right. Don wasn't around for the spreadsheet discussion. I joined in Feb 2020. The spreadsheet and numbers remind me too much of Bentham's hedons and dolors in his felicific calculus for my taste, a little too Utilitarian for me.

    So, I will say, your visceral reaction to my response actually surprised me. I didn't see it as controversial at all. And I realize these responses here aren't going to convince you, but I feel concentrating on the trees of worrying about the intensity or depth or duration of an individual pleasure takes our attention away from the forest of pleasure to which Epicurus is calling us to experience.

  • First of all, I do certainly agree that pleasures being continuous is an important aspect. We want pleasure to be as as maximized as possible throughout our lives, and we can attain that through the mind's understanding that pain is short if intense and manageable if long, and offset pain with recollection of good memories and in many other ways. The ideal, of course, would be to include no prospect of interruption by death, but that's only possible as far as we know to the gods (though we get very close through the understanding that unlimited time provides no "greater" pleasure than limited time). I would say "very close" rather than "the same" because the pleasure of a god differs in "time" from our own pleasure.

    So continuity is a very important aspect of the goal, but what I am saying is that continuity / persistence alone cannot necessarily trump intensity / quality of pleasure. The "most pleasant" isn't measured only in how long it lasts, but in how much depth of pleasure experience. The pleasure I get from breathing is not a pleasure i would choose over the pleasure of saving my wife or child from a fire. If I remember to come back here I will add in that quote from Usener about "this is the meaning of the greatest good, if we think about it rather than go walking around endlessly debating it."

    But the real point I want to add to this thread now is that there was a need for Epicurus to focus on continuity of pleasure for another reason: one again, to be able to prevail over Plato's arguments that pleasure cannot be the greatest good. Here again I am following DeWitt's analysis which i think is sound (this section continues further, but this first part is the heart of it):

    But in the end i see no reason for concluding that "length of time over life" necessarily overrides all other considerations in deciding which pleasures to choose, and i see many reasons for taking the opposite position (that we choose what we deem to be the "most pleasant" - not which lasts the longest).

  • I am not fluent in Tusculun Disputations but it appears I am going to have to go through it again. Trying to do so quickly now, this may be the point DeWitt is describing the need to show that the good man is 'always' happy:

    further down ....

    and even further down, where Epicurus is still under attack:

    And here Cicero argues that the wise man must have his chief good 'in his power':

    Then we come to this line that is very useful in arguing that Epicurus did not hold "freedom from pain" to be the highest good. That was Hieronymous, not Epicurus:

  • That's a lot of post this early in the day, but I'll have something say later... Oh, I just realized that sounds more ominous than I meant it :) Good discussion. Look forward to reading others' responses.

  • Yes, this is an area where everyone especially me would profit from wider participation and comment. Just like with the extensive discussion in Tusculun Disputations, I know personally I do not have a command of all the relevant material, and I could quite easily be missing something significant in some text I have only scanned, or not read at all -- or even in something like Sedley's "Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom" which I still haven't read!

  • I am hopeful that everyone who is a regular participant will weigh in, but since I haven't seen them in a while I will tag Bryan and Elli to see if they have time to comment. Again, this section of the debate is about how to evaluate persistence or time of pleasure vs intensity or depth of pleasure, and starts around post 24 and those which just precede it: RE: An Epicurean Understanding of Pleasure

  • Again, this section of the debate is about how to evaluate persistence or time of pleasure vs intensity or depth of pleasure,

    I'm going to throw a fly in the ointment here and say I think this discussion is (also) about how we select pleasures to chase and which to avoid.

  • Oh yes I consider that to be the same question too. I listed the factors that promoted the discussion but that's not to say there are not others factors too.