An Epicurean Understanding of Pleasure

  • I'd be interested in any getting any feedback regarding this list:

    An Epicurean Understanding of Pleasure

    1) Do not pursue reckless or extravagant luxuries, but enjoy the occasional luxury should it happen to come your way.

    2) Take action to eliminate bodily and mental pains, and enjoy the pleasure, tranquility, and peace of mind that comes as you eliminate hunger, thirst, fear, anxiety, stress, and boredom.

    3) Study philosophy which leads to tranquility and peace of mind.

    4) Cultivate and enjoy friendships with like-minded people.

    5) Savor the sweetness of life as you pursue the fulfillment of life's natural desires, while neither causing harm to yourself or nor others.

    6) Realize that at a certain point enjoyment comes to it's totality, and any additional pleasure is like "icing on a cake".

  • My comment would be that all of those are largely correct, but that taken together they tend toward conveying a premise of under-shooting the goal of maximizing pleasure.

    Once you realize that "pleasure" is not limited to any certain type of pleasure (and I think the texts are very clear in that regard) I think it becomes clear that the point is not to focus on some pre-existing category of pleasure (such as luxurious or simple) but to look for what *you* in your own personal experience value the most, and which can be attained without a level of pain you find not worth it.

    In other words, while the goal is maximum pleasure / minimum pain, there's no absolute standard for either one, and you most certainly should not focus on "zero pain" as the overriding goal.

    It's clear from the texts that we have to expect pain in life, and that we can manage it because intense pain is short, and minor pains, even if long, are readily endurable. Endurable for what purpose? For the sake of pleasure! And with the realization that since we have only a short time to live, any pleasure we will ever experience in eternity has to come when we are alive.

    So I would argue that it is a huge mistake to focus on "minimum pain" as the goal - as many people argue Epicurus taught. I think of it this way:

    Any realistic life scenario is going to contain a mixture of pleasurable times and painful times. The goal should be, little by little, (or as fast as you can, whichever is possible) to one by one remove the painful times and replace them with pleasurable times.

    One illustration is the jelly bean jar that starts off half full of jelly beans (pleasure) and half full of air (pain). One by one you can add jelly beans (pleasures) to the jar, and gradually reduce the air (pain) in the jar.

    But the point of the illustration is this: Once you get the jar nearly filled with jelly beans, and you have only one bean's quantity of air (pain) left, what do you have when you replace that last space with a jellybean?

    Yes, you have total absence of pain, which is the goal. But the reason you now have total absence of pain is that you have filled the jar with jelly beans, and the presence of those jelly beans is what amounts to the life of total pleasure /absence of pain.

    The implication of the ascetic viewpoint is that by replacing that last empty space with the final jelly bean, you somehow magically transform the jar of jelly beans into something totally different -- something that they now label "absence of pain" but for which they ignore the jar full of jelly beans that produced it!

    Likewise, there is no way to ever produce a jar full of jelly beans (the life full of pleasure) by simply removing jelly beans, because there is no magic jelly beans that when totally removed constitute a life full of pleasure.

    And equally to the point, there is no master list of "worthy" jelly beans that you must go looking for to put in the jar that are cosmically better than others. If you put only a few jelly beans in your jar and stop there, you end up with a jar full mostly with air (pain).

    Now in the end everyone has free will to decide how to stock their own jelly bean jar. And if they decide that one or two jelly beans in the bottom of the jar is the best they can do (and that may in fact sometimes happen) then that is up to them. Their decision to stop filling the jar of jelly beans may be the best they can do, and they can take satisfaction in those jelly beans and treasure them. But if they stop short with only a few jelly beans when it was readily in their power to gather more, and the cost of those additional jelly beans would have been manageable for them (they judged the pain to be worth the effort) then I am afraid that we have a tragic picture where a lot of that air/pain will come from "regret" -- that they could have had more pleasure, but simply chose not to pursue it. That's a tragic decision if it could have been otherwise, but if it's a result of outside forces that misled them, or then that's a time for philosophical campaign against those who did the misleading! ;)

    But when the option is there for the person to do so, why would a person ever stop filling his or her jar with jelly beans, so long as it is in their capacity to fill the jar as much as possible, at a cost in pain they find acceptable?

    I believe Epicurus taught that that is the best way to express the goal of life: As "Torquatus" said: "Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind, undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain: what possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable?. [ The Reid version is more literal: "

    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; I ask what circumstances can we describe as more excellent than these or more desirable?"]

    Or as Cicero himself said in a particularly pithy variation: "He {Publius Clodius} praised those most who are said to be above all others the teachers and eulogists of pleasure {the Epicureans}. … He added that these same men were quite right in saying that ... that nothing was preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures."

  • I would add that an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is tied to an understanding of desires. Desires are not pleasures, and desires are integral to the conditions of one's life.

    Epicurus famously breaks desires into natural/necessary, natural/unnecessary, and unnatural thus unnecessary. Whether something is natural, necessary, etc is to some degree determined by the amount of pleasure and/or pain it will cause to a specific individual. And this varies based on specifics such as the person's age, financial situation, health, culture, living situation, friends and so on.

    As to your list Kalosyni I have a few comments (my numbers match yours):

    1) This is a great example of the relativity of pleasures. A personal example that comes to mind is from a couple of years ago, when I was planning a garage remodel. It was "necessary" in order to carry out structural repairs, but of course there were lots of things that I thought about adding that weren't strictly necessary to solve the basic problem. So I evaluated them in terms of how much pleasure they would bring vs how much pain they would cause in terms of money, time, disruption, etc. I added some things and decided not to add others, and it turned out that the final project has solved the necessary problems but also brings me much joy beyond the utilitarian aspect of having a structurally sound garage. It's not as swanky as it might have been but it brings me lots of pleasure.

    So this is how I approached this particular issue on a personal level. Another person might consider it a waste of time and money to do any work on the garage at all: perhaps they don't have the money, maybe they don't expect to live much longer, maybe they're about to move to another state. Yet another person, perhaps homeless, might be happy to live in the garage, repairs or not. And so on....

    2) I think this is important, but to me it illustrates to some degree just how natural Epicurus' philosophy is. Because this is something that I think we're all drawn to do, at least on some level. If I have a pain, I try to eliminate it, whether it's chromic disease or acute hunger. You might even say that the faculty of pleasure/pain is to some degree a reflex! To me what is more important is to be as aware as possible of what pains me and what brings me pleasure and why I do the things I do. Examine the sensations and my "preconceptions" about the discomfort and use this information to follow the guide of pleasure and pain.

    3) At a minimum, I would add a comma after philosophy: "Study philosophy, which leads to tranquility and peace of mind." Studying philosophy is important but it can bring up difficult truths. Eventually these bring peace of mind, at least in my experience. Maybe I would re-word this item as "enjoy the pleasure of the study of philosophy".

    4) :thumbup:

    5) I would say "savor the sweetness of life as you follow the Canon".

    6) This I think is more of a philosophical argument; personally I don't think about a totality of pleasure or of additional pleasures, just pleasure. I'd probably eliminate this item and end with 5).

  • I'm late to the game (mea culpa!), but here are my thoughts as a slight edit. Overall, I think you're definitely on the right track. Thanks for putting the list together!

    1) Do not chase desires that can never be fully satisfied.*

    1a) Enjoy the occasional luxury when it comes your way.

    2) Flee** from bodily and mental pains unless greater pleasure may be the result.

    3) Take pleasure in the study of philosophy which leads to tranquility and peace of mind.*** (with a nod to Godfrey )

    4) Cultivate and enjoy friendships with like-minded people.

    5) Savor the sweetness of life.

    5a) Neither cause harm to yourself nor to others.

    6) Realize that at a certain point enjoyment comes to it's totality, and any additional pleasure is like "icing on a cake". (I like the idea you're getting at here and it's an important one... just wondering about the wording. I actually like the "icing on the cake" metaphor.)

    *1: I'm trying to get across the pursuit of limitless wealth or limitless power. Those cannot be filled and usually defined as "empty" in the original texts. But the way I've worded it could be misconstrued.

    **2: I was going to say "avoid" but I don't like that, as in the conventional wording of "choice and avoidance". The original Greek has the connotation of "fleeing"... Choice and flight. Always struck me as much more active.

    ***3. The idea of tranquility and peace of mind still appeals to me. I find it easier to appreciate pleasures with a tranquil mind, and, from my readings of the text, Epicurus backs this up. I recognize that tranquility isn't the goal, pleasure is. But tranquility/peace of mind makes appreciating pleasure much easier from my perspective.

  • ***3. The idea of tranquility and peace of mind still appeals to me. I find it easier to appreciate pleasures with a tranquil mind, and, from my readings of the text, Epicurus backs this up. I recognize that tranquility isn't the goal, pleasure is. But tranquility/peace of mind makes appreciating pleasure much easier from my perspective.

    I agree with this: well stated!

  • There are many interesting points made here by Cassius, Godfrey, Don.

    It seems to me that you can look at pleasure and pain as either additive or subtractive. So the subtractive way to look at pleasure, is that pain has been removed, and in it's place we now have pleasure. And since Epicurus says there is no neutral state of feelings, then that would mean that (for example) the pleasure of fun and entertainments has removed the pain of boredom.

    It is more appealing to me to see pleasure as additive, and that is probably a heuristic. However, if one is to maximize enjoyment, then it is good to remove mental pains of anxiety and stress.

    I'll need to ponder the jelly bean jar analogy a bit more to see if it works for me, or come up with something that can also accommodate the two types of pleasures - pleasures that last only a short time and pleasures that last much longer.

  • 1 - yes please let us know if you come up with variations/improvements of the jelly bean jar analogy. I am sure there are much better ones!


    It is more appealing to me to see pleasure as additive, and that is probably a heuristic.

    Absolutely I agree with that, and I think most people at first glance see it that way too. That's "instinctively" the right approach, IMO. In fact I fluctuate on how much I really accept the opposite view myself. In my (admittedly small) mind, the only reason that the "subtractive" model "works" mentally is because you know that there are only two categories of feelings in the Epicurean model - pleasure and pain. I think instinctively that people suspect there is a "neutral" state in which you're feeling neither one.

    I can reconcile that in two ways:

    (1) There is pleasure simply in being alive (if you allow yourself to recognize it) and most all people can at least take pleasure in good memories, regardless of their current circumstances. I think that's a valid observation and I don't discount its importance. However:

    (2) You can view the issue as a "truism" that flows logically from having defined pleasure and pain as the only two feelings, because then all feelings are either one or the other. I see that as a more "intellectual" approach, however, which is more suited to philosophical debate than it is to immediate analysis for someone in a bad situation. But here too I see that as a valid approach and particularly important in debating the arguments against pleasure put forth by Plato in Philebus. The formula is in my mind what creates, and is the only justification for, the "absence of pain is the highest pleasure" formula. Feeling that you are totally without pain then means, by definition, that you are full of pleasure(s). But to me that is "measuring pleasure by reason" - a kind of formula has to be grasped "by those capable of figuring the problem out." I see that as an issue of measuring pleasure by reason, such as PD19. "Infinite time contains no greater pleasure than limited time, if one measures, by reason, the limits of pleasure."

    Also PD20. 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.

    OK Don, Philia's question has been very helpful to me here. In the future (if I can remember!) I am going to refer to the (for me) emotionally unsatisfying phrase "absence of pain = the greatest pleasure" as "measuring pleasure by reason" and "a reasoned understanding of the ultimate good." :) That will probably help highlight the perspective from which that formulation makes the most sense. What do you think of that?

    (In fact I am going to bookmark Philia's "It is more appealing to me to see pleasure as additive" as the trigger for me seeing the "measuring pleasure by reason" formula, and a linkage to PD19 and PD20, that I should be embarrassed not to have seen as a boy! :)

  • Are there two types of pleasure? How important is time when having pleasure? Is time important?

    ‘pleasures that last only a short time and pleasures that last much longer.

  • That's a juicy question Marco !

    There has been a controversy over the centuries over just that, and the terminology is "katastematic" v "kinetic" pleasure. Katastematic is considered "stable" pleasure and kinetic is considered "active" pleasure. There's a ton of technical debate over whether there are actually two types at all and whether one is a "higher" pleasure or whether pleasure is pleasure, period.

    Here's a place on the forum to explore the subject:

    Kinetic and Katastematic Pleasure

    The "go to" paper on the subject is Nikolsky's article in the forum filebase: Nikolsky - Epicurus On Pleasure

    As I recall, I got a lot out of reading Wenham's paper which is shorter and maybe a good preparation for reading Nikolsky. I can't find Wenham's paper in the filebase, so I've attached it below.

    Having said all that, I see that your question also touches on "duration", which is often combined with "intensity" in describing pleasure. I think this terminology is more practical, where the katastematic/kinetic debate might be considered more philosophical. "Practical" as in choosing between pleasures of varying durations and intensities in a given situation, with the knowledge that a given pleasure is not universally better than any other pleasure.

  • Godfrey, thanks, yes I know about katastematic v kinetic. But i’m struggling with ‘time’ and ‘pleasure’, like in PD 19.

  • I've come around to thinking some of the PDs should simply be read together and not in isolation. The original text didn't split them up. It was one continuous text. My suggestion is to read 18-21 as one continuous text. It seems to provide a much better context.

  • Consider how this sounds when taken as a whole:

    As soon as the pain produced by the lack of something is removed, pleasure in the flesh is not increased but only embellished. Yet the limit of enjoyment in the mind is produced by reasoning out these very things and similar things, which once provoked the greatest fears in the mind. Infinite time and finite time contain the same amount of joy, if its limits are measured out through reasoning. The flesh assumes that the limits of joy are infinite, and that infinite joy can be produced only through infinite time. But the mind, reasoning out the goal and limits of the flesh and dissolving fears about eternity, produces a complete way of life and therefore has no need of infinite time; yet the mind does not flee from joy, nor when events cause it to exit from life does it look back as if it has missed any aspect of the best life. One who perceives the limits of life knows how easy it is to expel the pain produced by a lack of something and to make one’s entire life complete; so that there is no need for the things that are achieved through struggle.

  • Intensity of pleasure is usually limited in time by control loops in our body (e.g. lack of ability to get aroused after an orgasm, getting used to the particular pleasure, exhaustion, overstimulation) or by the nature of the activity.

    In general, I attempt to feel the easy to get pleasure of low intensity for most of the time and intense pleasure only occasionally. If intense pleasure comes as as a surprise without having expected it and without the typically painful preparation for it, I of course try to enjoy the experience as much as possible.

    As pleasure depends heavily on the individual, here are some practical examples:

    One of the greatest pleasures I have experienced so far is flying along ziplines high up through spectacular scenery. A flight along one zipline usually takes much less than a minute, so the intense pleasure is naturally limited to a very short time. (I wish there were 10 km long ziplines). In terms of pain, zipline flying requires long travel to go to the respective place, it is expensive, the effort might be in vain because the operator might block me from the ziplines because of high blood pressure or bad weather, and pain in the form of anxiety of height might kill the pleasure. The risk of injury and death seems to be so low that it does not show up in my hedonic calculus but for others that might be relevant.

    The listed pains (in particular the waste of time for travel and the risks of travel) make me pursue the desire for zipline flights only rarely. However, the expectation of the intense pleasure makes me plan for more zipline flights in the future. So far, I have 2 new places on my bucket list, may add more as I find them near where I travel anyway and might go again to places where I have been already if other reasons for travel get me near them.

    I took the opportunity of floating in a vertical wind canal when business travel brought me in walking distance to one. It was a pleasure but not as great as I expected, apparently because it requires skill and experience. I expect the pleasure to increase greatly after gaining the skill and experience. In case there is a wind tunnel near a place where I happen to stay for an extended period and cost of access is moderate, I would probably do this often because of the expectation of great pleasure although the duration of the pleasure is always short by the nature of the activity.

    I never did skydiving with a parachute from a plane. I am not sure whether I would pursue an easy opportunity for skydiving. The reported pleasure of free fall is attractive but the pain in terms of fear of flight on a plane and possibly intense fear of heights is a deterrent.

    I would probably not pursue an opportunity for a zero gravity flight or a space flight because the result of the hedonic calculus is negative for me.

    Another one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced so far is falling asleep together with my wife (ex-wife since recently, sigh) while hugging each other. It is limited in time in 2 different ways:

    If I actually fall asleep within minutes, the onset of deep sleep terminates the conscious and memorable experience of the pleasure.

    If I stay fully awake for several minutes with no indication of falling asleep soon, boredom kicks in, and the increasing desire to do something converts the experience from pleasure to pain.

    Another great pleasure was indulging in chocolate mousse. Many years ago, a chain restaurant provided it in a big bowl as part of its buffet. It was the main motivation for me to eat at that restaurant. By going repeatedly to the bowl and filling a small plate with a moderate amount, I ended up with a meal with more than 50% chocolate mousse by volume, and as it was a buffet meal, the whole meal meant gross overeating way beyond feeling no more hungry and stopping just short of discomfort. At that time, I ignored the risk of accelerated onset of diabetes from excessive intake of sugar.

    Then, the restaurant changed to provide the chocolate mousse only in small cups. I felt too embarrassed to take many of these cups, so I ended up eating much less chocolate mousse, at most 3 cups.

    Eventually, I wanted to reduce the risk of diabetes by excluding most foods with substantial amounts of sugar. I gradually reduced the number of cups to just one and got accustomed to the shortened duration of the intense pleasure of eating chocolate mousse and to appreciate the less intense pleasure of eating other food. I changed my habit further from choosing the cup which was filled with the most amount of mousse to the one which had the least.

    After a while of strongly reduced sugar intake, I lost the craving for chocolate mousse and stopped eating it at that chain restaurant, to which I still go once a week when I stay near one.

  • Great answers. Only I can think of to add is to ask Marco:. Did you have something else in mind when you asked if there are two types of pleasure? Or was your entire question focused on time (long and short)?

  • Cassius, I speak Dutch, so this is a google translation. No, no further explanation is needed. I found that division into short and long pleasure strange because it doesn't match RS 19.

    My personal experience is that if, for example, I paint intensely (I'm sitting alone in a forest somewhere and have no pain or hunger, my cellphone is off, my material is fine and I am not disturbed by noise or passers-by) time falls away. Suddenly I'm two or three hours away, without realizing time. In pleasure there is no time, only flow. I've always associated that feeling of timelessness with RS 19.

    But beware, when I think at a moment: 'what am I doing timeless painting', time also comes back. Well-being must not be polluted in any way. Every pollution pulls me back in time.

  • Just a note to Godfrey - sorry you couldn't find that Wenham article. The forum software has lots of powerful features that I don't really know how to use. But I note the search function doesn't always cover every section of the software - maybe that happened here.

    In this case I have tried to highlight the nikolsky and wenham and some other core texts by marking them as "featured" which makes them show up on the home page (if you scroll down far enough) as so:

    The other article on the K/K issue that sticks out as supporting the same conclusion is the chapter from Gosling and Taylor, which is here: Gosling & Taylor - On Katastematic and Kinetic Pleasure

    Nikolsky tells us that is what spurred him to write his article.

  • After reading the above posts, some ideas come up:

    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.

    PD 27 - Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

  • but if the underlying assumption is that short-term physical pleasures are equally as important as long-term mental pleasures

    Yes that is the tricky part and I do not think that Epicurus would say that that can be presumed. Most generally, I think he would say that that decision has to be made individually by each person and according to life circumstances, and that it will prove to be applicable to some people but not to others (so therefore not a "general" rule). Plus, to be clear, I am not limiting the circumstances to "material well-being." People rank their pleasures in radically different ways, and two children born in the same house to a life of luxury, or to a life of poverty, could easily reach different conclusions on how they choose to spend their time to generate the most pleasure for themselves.

    But I think it's pretty clear that Epicurus did not reach such a conclusion in his own case (he devoted his life to philosophical study and indeed controversy).

    So the very first piece of evidence in unraveling Epicurean doctrine (how Epicurus lived his own life) would not be consistent with applying that premise across-the-board to everyone.

  • Let me restate my idea:

    If one assumes that short-term pleasures provide the same benefits as long-term pleasures, then one will, at times, make choices that result in less pleasure and more pain.

    I vividly imagine Epicurus would welcome Cyreniacs into his Garden, because they could test out his wisdom and find personal benefit.

    And yes, we each must do our own choosing, and we will each experience the results of our choices. Sometimes one makes choice and then sees that something different could be done the next time. So there is testing, observing, and learning.

    I sense that my readings and interpretations might be moving me in a direction that do not fully resonate for some. I would wonder why, but may never have an answer.

    I begin to feel... a frog kissed by a princess, but instead of an Epicurean, I've turned into a skeptic.