Atlantic article about enjoyment vs. pleasure

  • I found this article maybe a week ago and finally posting as it presents some interesting ideas, though I myself do not necessarily agree with everything in it. It might illuminate a need to work with our Epicurean definition of pleasure, and also the ways in which non-Epicureans might get "hung-up" on the subtlety of our philosophy.

    Here is an interesting excerpt:


    Pleasure can be a boon or a burden, depending on our relationship to it. It can leaven laborious days, or lead us to waste them. The pleasures of a mild stimulant such as caffeine can be harmless or even beneficial, but the pleasures of amphetamines can be deadly.

    This creates a puzzle for the happiness seeker, who must navigate between the twin perils of puritanism and indulgence, leading to the much-dreaded rule of moderation, which is more or less the philosophy of leaving any party as soon as it gets really good. Fortunately, there is a better way to solve the puzzle: To stay at the party without letting it get out of control, choose enjoyment instead.

    Enjoyment and pleasure are terms often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Pleasure happens to you; enjoyment is something that you create through your own effort. Pleasure is the lightheadedness you get from a bit of grain alcohol; enjoyment is the satisfaction of a good wine, properly understood. Pleasure is addictive and animal; enjoyment is elective and human.

    I personally think that one can actively create both pleasure and enjoyment. And also both pleasure and enjoyment can simply "happen" when the circumstances line up in their favor. Pleasure is felt in the body and enjoyment is felt in the mind, and so enjoyment is a mental process of appreciating pleasure. Also, as Epicureans, we use reason to discern what leads to a good long-term result of our "pleasure choices", and short-term pleasures are good as well, when they are life enhancing.

    There are other good points which may make sense or not. So if anyone reads this and has ideas or comments, please share. :)

  • I am thinking that it is a pretty typical article that tries to build an argument against pleasure by presuming unintelligent pursuit of it, which of course Epicurus deals with very well, but I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet.

    Kalosyni asked me about posting it and I assured her that it was fine to do so even if substantially "wrong." Any major article in a popular publication is pretty much fair game, because learning to spot problems and figuring out the proper responses is a lot of what Epicurus seems to have been teaching even in the ancient world. It's important to be able to respond especially to arguments that seem superficially persuasive.

  • What he describes as enjoyment sounds to me pretty much like pleasure as envisioned by Epicurus.

    Definition of enjoyment (all definitions from Merriam-Webster online):

    1a) the action or state of enjoying

    1b) possession and use: the enjoyment of civic rights

    2) something that gives keen satisfaction: the poorest life has its enjoyments and pleasures

    Definition of enjoy:

    - intransitive verb: to have a good time

    - transitive verb: 1) to have for one's use, benefit, or lot; experience: enjoyed great success 2) to take pleasure or satisfaction in

    Definition of pleasure: (Entry 1 of 2, noun)

    1) desire, inclination: wait upon his pleasure— William Shakespeare

    2) a state of gratification

    3a) sensual gratification; 3b) frivolous amusement

    4) a source of delight or joy

    Definition of pleasure: (Entry 2 of 2, verb)

    - transitive verb: 1) to give pleasure to: gratify; 2) to give sexual pleasure to

    - intransitive verb: 1) to take pleasure: delight; 2) to seek pleasure

    Definition of pleasure: (from Oxford Languages online)

    - a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.

    From this quick Google search, I'd say that the author's choice of words is somewhat sloppy. Then again, the English language doesn't seem to be very specific when it comes to these ideas. Might this point to a cultural lack of appreciation of pleasure and enjoyment? I wonder how these concepts are expressed in, say, French?

  • Ask and ye shall receive...

    French: plaisir "pleasure"


    From Middle French plaisir, from Old French plaisir, from Latin placēre, present active infinitive of placeō. Compare Occitan plaser (“pleasure”), Catalan plaer (“pleasure”), Italian piacere (“pleasure”), Spanish placer (“pleasure”), Portuguese prazer (“pleasure”), Romanian plăcere (“pleasure”).

    PLAISIR : Définition de PLAISIR


    Look up "enjoy" in Wiktionary and get:

    French: (with a noun) profiter de, jouir de, (with a verb) apprécier, prendre plaisir (fr) "take pleasure"



    From Middle French jouir, jouïr, iouyr, from Old French joïr, from Vulgar Latin *gaudīre (*gaudiō), from Latin gaudēre, present active infinitive of gaudeō. Doublet of gaudir, which was a borrowing.

    Doesn't Lucretius use gadeamus somewhere?

    I'm personally getting tired of this parsing by English pontificators and writers and cultural "intellectuals" in dancing around "pleasure" as if it's a four-letter word. Enjoyment, happiness, etc = pleasure = voluptas = ηδονή

  • I really want to write a book (in my spare time ^^ ) entitled:

    Pleasure is not a Four-Letter Word

    The Garden Path to Well-Being

    and lure people in under the guise of a "self-help" book but - surprise! - it's really an introduction to Epicurus's philosophy.

  • A lot of it seems to come down to something like Plato was arguing in Philebus:

    If you split hairs with words and divide up "types of pleasure" so that you can argue that one type is better than another, then you think you arrive at the conclusion that knowledge about types of pleasure ("knowledge") is more important than pleasure itself. You then start putting "knowledge" on a pedestal instead of "pleasure," and you become a pointy-headed intellectual ivory-tower elitist and you sell admission to the "in-crowd" for a living.

    If you in the other hand with Epicurus you honestly and with candor acknowledge that pleasurable feeling (whatever name you want to give it) is the only end result that is desirable in itself, then you end up in the position of the boy who points out to the world that the "emperor has no clothes" and that the "in-crowd" is taking everyone else for a ride.

    The choice to go with Epicurus is not only "true" and has many good effects, but it also tends to make the "in-crowd" extremely unhappy, and their unhappiness makes you the perpetual target for ridicule from places like The Atlantic trying to convince you Epicurus was wrong.

    Which is why there will also always be a crying need for and "Pleasure is Not A Four Letter Word" and innumerable other similar responses.

    We need to be as organized and energetic as they are.

  • The never-ending nature of the dispute kind of makes you sympathize with the frustration that Diogenes of Oinoanda must have felt, but the response is not to get frustrated but to pick up a megaphone, per Elli's graphic:

    Diogenes - Shouting To All Greeks and Non-Greeks

  • I just happened on this Atlantic article again on Instagram, and - yes - it still annoys me. I was about to post then did a search here on the forum. I thought I remembered our discussion. To be very clear from my perspective, Arthur C. Brooks, the author, is just doing some "clever" Platonic/Ciceronian word play and parsing for his own ends. Epicurus recognized different kinds of pleasure, writ large, including (but not limited to!) ataraxia, aponia, euphrosyne (mirth, merriment, gleefulness), and khara (joy, exultation). Interestingly, Euphrosyne was one of the Graces/Charites in Greek mythology

    Charites - Wikipedia

    The idea that "enjoyment" is "superior" to "pleasure" just displays an ignorance of the topic under discussion and sloppy wordplay.

    And that's my rant for this morning (Steps off soapbox)

  • I don't think that there is anything more important in the way Epicurus was presenting the issues than to emphasize that he was including *everything* that feels good in any way at all (physically, mentally, emotionally, or any word we might choose to use) under the term "pleasure."

    That's the way you get around the constant temptation to rank some good feelings as *better* than others.

    Of course the other issue is that indulging in some pleasures in some contexts will being more pain than pleasure, but that's a contextual issue and different people will answer differently how much pain should be accepted for a particular pleasure.

    The pain calculation is a "practical" consideration that varies by person and context, but the decision to include *everything* that we find feels good under the term "pleasure" (rather than insist on 50 different terms) is - to me - definitional and philosophical.

    And it is something that is not at all clear to everyone, and needs to be explained.

    If you want to maintain that all pleasure is good, as Epicurus did, even though every pleasure is not to be chosen at all times, then you are making a sweeping statement ("all pleasure is good") which does not allow of any exceptions. So I'd you start ranking some as more good or less good, then you're not following Epicurus' own analysis.

    "Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided.". (letter to Menoeceus)

  • I have a question on the "all pleasure is good" that seems partially relevant here. I hope I can express it properly. It's less about "every pleasure is good yet not every pleasure would be chosen" and is more about whether a pleasurable sensation in the body is even a pleasure at all if it's not appreciated by the mind.

    What about things where the actual experience of the sensation can vary depending on context? There's plenty of things that could fall into this category but one of the most concrete examples I thought of was this chicken processing factory near my parents' home. I would regularly drive past and at first think "Mmmm that smells good," but once I remembered it wasn't a chicken restaurant and was instead basically a chicken factory it turned my stomach and the previously appealing odor became disgusting.

    True, I would choose not to engage in the experience altogether, but is that original sensation still "good"? Is masochistic fulfillment "evil"? If the sheer sensations would be painful or pleasurable out of context then how do we classify them (especially as in my example where the context is initially unknown)?

    Or is this just unnecessary overanalysis which I do quite enjoy?

  • It is not at all overanalysis and there are millions of examples. You may like chocolate ice cream, at least or the first couple of cups. But when you reach a gallon or more, I would be that you find the very same ice cream you were at first eating with pleasure has turned decidedly unpleasurable.

    Is this something that is obvious to us that Epicurus has missed? No, of course I would say "no" to that - so there is an answer (or multiple answers) that everyone studying Epicurus needs to be prepared to explain.

    Let's see who wants to go first but in the meantime Reneliza, have you read Nietzsche's book "Beyond Good and Evil?"

  • Reneliza if you were to ask that question many places on the internet you might get an answer like this:

    Pleasure as the Highest Good - a short reading from Epicurus' 'Letter to Menoeceus' - The Daily Idea
    Epicurus argues that pleasure is the highest good in this classic reading from Letters to Meneoceus


    In this passage from the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.), summarizes two of his most famous ethical doctrines: that death should not be feared and that pleasure is the highest good. However, pleasure for Epicurus is not the indulgence of fine foods, drinking beer, and sex. Pleasure is simply the absence of pain. So for Epicurus, a simple life of quiet contemplation is the most pleasurable and therefore ideal life.


    And from that you might conclude that fine food, drinking beer, and sex are not pleasures at all!

    I for one would disagree strongly that that is what Epicurus taught.

    So this is a very important topic.

  • 67. "I do not think I could conceive of the good without the joys of taste, of sex, of hearing, and without the pleasing motions caused by the sight of bodies and forms."

    οὐδὲ γὰρ ἔγωγε ἔχω τί νοήσω τἀγαθὸν ἀφαιρῶν μὲν τὰς διὰ χυλῶν ἡδονάς, ἀφαιρῶν δὲ τὰς διʼ ἀφροδισίων, ἀφαιρῶν δὲ τὰς διʼ ἀκροαμάτῶν, ἀφαιρῶν δὲ καὶ τὰς διὰ μορφῆς κατʼ ὄψιν [those by way of shapes and along with vision] ἡδείας κινήσεις [pleasing motion].

    PS: I really like the fact that the word simply translated as "sex" is ἀφροδισίων "aphrodisiōn"

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α, , ?αφριος , Ἀφροδίσ-ιος

    So, he's referring to those things related to Aphrodite which include sexual desire but encompass a wider range of pleasures:

  • True, I would choose not to engage in the experience altogether, but is that original sensation still "good"? Is masochistic fulfillment "evil"? If the sheer sensations would be painful or pleasurable out of context then how do we classify them (especially as in my example where the context is initially unknown)?

    Or is this just unnecessary overanalysis which I do quite enjoy?

    Reneliza I did not mean to avoid the question. I was hoping some others would jump in and I hope others besides Don still will, because this is such a key question.

    My basic response as hinted above is that the "good" and "bad" terminology is what has to be scrutinized. Those are very abstract terms, and they are very similar to the "virtue" question. There is a lot of discussion in Epicurean philosophy to the effect that "virtue" and "good" and "evil" are entirely relative concepts, and that they vary entirely by context.

    On the other hand, pleasure and pain are sensations, and while we are experiencing them there is no mistake as to what we are experiencing.

    You are quite right though that the very same experience can change from pleasurable to painful very quickly, but while we are experiencing it, pleasure and pain are given to us as perceptions which our minds do not evaluate separately. To the extent we are talking about mental pains and pleasures, those too vary quickly, but are unmistakeable for the moments we are experiencing them.

    I don't think I have previously addressed you personally on the suggestion to read the Dewitt book as soon as you can. It is now flawless, but it is a very good general introduction to the philosophy, and it will acquaint you with the basic issues and give you a good overview faster than any other way.

    If you are an experienced reader of philosophy you can consider reading Diogenes Laertius or Lucretius directly, but I think those require significant background in philosophy before you can catch the depth of them.

    You might possibly be interested in "A Few Days In Athens" as that covers your question in "story" form, but that depends on your tastes.

    For now, the thumbnail summary is that Epicurus rejected over-analysis of the question of "what is the good?" and "what is the highest good?" which most of the other schools were fond of obsessing over. Epicurus concluded that the universe is entirely natural, without supernatural influence, and that the only directives of nature we are given by which to know what to pursue and what to avoid ultimately come down to "pleasure" and "pain" -- which we know without mistake as feelings.

    You might well profit from reading the Torquatus narrative in Cicero's On Ends, as that too is pretty direct and understandable on this point: Cicero's "Torquatus" Presentation of Epicurean Ethics - from "On Ends"

    You will quickly grasp the point that Epicurus is making, and you'll see that when he says things close to "all pleasure is good" the analysis that has to be understood is much more focused on the implications of "Good"

  • Ok that's my first stab at a longer answer to ReneLiza. We need some of our other regulars to weigh in on this question, which is probably one of the ones we'll encounter most often in new people.

    And ReneLiza if the responses you are getting are not addressing the question or you want comment on more specific areas let us know!

  • I was at work today so only got to briefly add to this conversation.

    It's less about "every pleasure is good yet not every pleasure would be chosen" and is more about whether a pleasurable sensation in the body is even a pleasure at all if it's not appreciated by the mind.

    My reaction to that is somewhat of a tautology: Every pleasurable feeling is pleasurable. Epicurus equates "the good" with pleasure, therefore, "the good is good" and "pleasure is pleasure." Any pleasurable feeling is good... BUT - the BIG Epicurean BUT - not every pleasurable feeling should be chosen because some pleasurable feelings will lead to pain.

    For example, drinking alcohol can provide a pleasurable feeling. Endless all-night drinking parties will lead to pain and are therefore not choiceworthy. Eating a succulent [insert favorite fruit] is pleasurable. Eating a bushel of your favorite fruit is going to lead to a gastrointestinal distress. BUT the pleasurable feeling doesn't change, it is the assessment and consequences. We can't control whether we *feel* pleasure or not.

    Epicurus maintained we have two feelings - two guides - for making choices and rejections: pleasure and pain. MANY actions and thoughts provide pleasure and pain. But Epicurus (per Diogenes Laertius) said, "The feelings are two, pleasure and pain."

    is that original sensation still "good"? Is masochistic fulfillment "evil"? If the sheer sensations would be painful or pleasurable out of context then how do we classify them (especially as in my example where the context is initially unknown)?

    Excellent questions, and all ones we've dealt with and continue to deal with! "Good" and "evil" seem to only be equated with "pleasure" and "pain" according to Epicurus. BUT - there's that BUT again - we can't classify things that provide pleasure or pain in any kind of absolute, eternal hierarchy. (See my alcohol and fruit analogy above). However, Epicurus says "it is not an endless string of drinking parties and festivals, and not taking advantage of slaves and women, nor does an extravagant table of fish and other things bring forth a sweet life but self-controlled reasoning and examining the cause of every choice and rejection and driving out the greatest number of opinions that take hold of the mind and bring confusion and trouble." This also brings in the measure of Epicurean justice in "to neither harm nor be harmed."

    You bring up some very good questions, so keep them coming... and I hope you're willing to investigate the answers along with the other members of this little online Garden. :)

  • I'll chime in briefly with PD10 (Peter Saint-Andre translation):

    "If the things that produce the delights of those who are decadent washed away the mind's fears about astronomical phenomena and death and suffering, and furthermore if they taught us the limits of our pains and desires, then we would have no complaints against them, since they would be filled with every joy and would contain not a single pain or distress (and that's what is bad)."

    This is a pretty succinct statement of the "goal" of Epicurean philosophy, although you might have to read it a couple of times and let it percolate.

  • The only thing I would tweak on Don's response is this:

    not every pleasurable feeling should be chosen because some pleasurable feelings will lead to pain.

    Since you're early in the reading of Epicurus, Renelliza, I would stress that this probably needs to be stated as:

    "...not every pleasurable feeling should be chosen because some pleasurable feelings will lead to MORE PAIN THAN THAT PLEASURE IS WORTH TO YOU".

    I think Don and i are together on that point and he probably will agree with me - I am sure he will say so if he does not.

    The same people who will argue that "absence of pain" is the heart of Epicurean philosophy rather than "Pleasure" will argue to you that it is necessary according to Epicurus to banish every pain at every moment, and to never take any course of action that will lead to any pain whatsoever.

    That's clearly NOT what Epicurus says in the letter to Menoeceus or other places -- Epicurus is realistic and knows that life requires exertion, and much exertion is painful, and yet we sometimes choose a painful action anyway not only to avoid worse pain, but to achieve pleasures that greatly outweigh the cost in pain.

    If Don or anyone thinks I am misstating that please correct me.


    Letter to Menoeceus:

    For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.

    And since pleasure is the first good and natural to us, for this very reason we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes we pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them: and similarly we think many pains better than pleasures, since a greater pleasure comes to us when we have endured pains for a long time.

    Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided.

  • I did start reading DeWitt today! (I haven't read the Nietzsche)

    I haven't even read the letter to Menoeceus yet because I was waiting to have a little bit better foundations...but then this thread popped up and I couldn't help but ask haha

    So I have a degree in neuroscience (which does contribute to my understanding that the mind/soul are of nature) and that's where a lot of my curiosity comes from. A person with perfectly functioning eyes and optic nerves with occipital lobe damage that leaves them blind would be unable to experience visual pleasure. But then there's all kinds of other brain weirdness where we may have awareness of something but not be aware that we are aware (or at least we may be partially unaware of our awareness - seen in split brain experiments).

    I didn't really realize this when I first posted earlier today, but I think my question stems from my own background of anxiety and depression leading to regular dissociation in avoidance of everyday pains (which of course in turn also made me unaware of everyday pleasures, and sometimes even more luxurious pleasures like a bowl of ice cream eaten while doomscrolling.)

    Is pleasure still pleasurable if not appreciated by the mind?

    I think this goes to what Kalosyni said about the Epicurean definition of pleasure, if I understand them. A year ago I would've thought that pleasure is just good feeling, and that whether or not I paid attention to it didn't really make any difference. But if I understand correctly, pleasure is enjoyment is happiness, so this whole article is unnecessary. Except that a lot of people DO misunderstand what is meant as pleasure, so the overall point in the article could be useful even though it's expressed very poorly.

    Although I've had many "pleasures" in life (honestly it has never occurred to me to think of pleasure as bad so that wouldn't be a risk for me) I haven't experienced very much pleasure due to repeated distraction.

    In other words, I haven't had much enjoyment and the pleasures have been hollow not because there's anything wrong with pleasure - or because of "higher" or "lower" forms of pleasure, but just because I haven't given them enough attention to appreciate them. The sensual experience of eating a bowl of ice cream holds very little pleasure for me if I don't also have a mental appreciation of the experience. (this is my experience)

    Even though I've only started learning about Epicureanism in the past week, I've started doing this - to stop and smell the roses as people say - for the last few months and it has vastly improved my enjoyment of life in general and most things in it. It has even drastically reduced my anxiety and depression so that the overall everyday pain is far less and therefore it's less tempting to cover it up in the first place unless I'll actually get some pleasure by the cover itself. So I will continue to indulge (though ideally not overindulge) in pleasure, but with an emphasis on experiencing and truly enjoying that pleasure.

    I get the impression based on other replies here that the Epicurean take is that that enjoyment IS pleasure and so the Atlantic article is silly for trying to demonize pleasure (I agree) while encouraging enjoyment which is itself pleasure - the thing they were just demonizing. My point is only that a year ago I would've told you that I had all kinds of pleasure in my life - but I really did need the reminder to actually enjoy things instead of mindlessly consuming, and in the world we live in I think a LOT of people do (although, preferably without the suggestion that we eschew pleasure which doesn't even make sense in context).

    That was a lot of words to say the same thing in a lot of different ways in the hopes that one of them adequately conveys what I'm trying to say :D I think I'm coming upon something more, but I'll wait until I've read more and have a deeper understanding of Epicurus's original teachings