PD19 And The Meaning Of No "Greater" Pleasure

  • Is not boredom a pretty general human problem?

    I'll have to push back on that statement. Boredom comes from dissatisfaction not lack of variety. Sometimes people looking for variety are running from something - possibly even an emotional trauma. They try to fill a void with novelty. I have a real problem if we start using boredom as a reason for varying pleasures.

    Two points to start with one to poke at Don, Wouldn't the Jefferson Bible count as an epicurean "job".

    And to Cassius:

    "The only horrible thing in the world is ennui, Dorian. That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness." Oscar Wilde

    Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” ― Bertrand Russell

    Otherwise I agree with the conclusions reached pertaining to PD's.

    As a long time sufferer of ennui, I can assure you that variety doesn't solve it! (in other words - agreeing with Don's comment that boredom comes from dissatisfaction)

    I do agree with Cassius's assertion that boredom is a general problem for humans, just not the conclusion that therefore variation is preferable/necessary. My best friend would eat nothing but chicken fingers and fries for the rest of her life (with a protein shake to round out her nutrition) and that would be peak pleasure for her. She'd always know exactly what was coming, no surprises, no meal planning or researching recipes.

    In fact, there's been a lot of research recently about decision fatigue and how making many little decisions throughout the day like what to eat, what to wear, etc... can impact your ability to make good (read: leading to greatest overall pleasure) decisions by the end of the day. Greater variety is directly correlated to more decisions. Unless you just roll a d20 to pick which shirt to wear, but that's still more mental effort than just grabbing one of the 10 identical black turtlenecks from your closet.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that the ideal is to reduce your choices to zero, but just that you get the best overall outcomes by putting the majority of that effort toward things with the greatest payoff. For some people, that really is having a varied diet or wardrobe because those things bring you immense pleasure.

  • Regarding PD19 - the contrast between finite and infinite -- I just stumbled upon this in another thread. (Which may muddy the water here on this).


    “Moreover there is the supremely potent principle of infinity, which claims the closest and most careful study; we must understand that it has in the sum of things everything has its exact match and counterpart. This property is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the causes of destruction are beyond count, the causes of conservation also are bound to be infinite."

    From: Velleius from Cicero's "On the Nature of the Gods"

    Then I went online and search for isonomia and found this article: "Theories Concerning Epicurean Theology and Metaphysics"


    Here is an excerpt from the preview page:


    ...a wider application of the doctrine not merely as a Balance of opposing Forces but as a pairing of opposite things, one of which implies the other.

    So this isonomia could be another thing to look into. Anybody have any ideas on this?

  • Isonomia is a really juicy topic, and yet another one that baffles me. It would make a great thread on its own; in fact I think we were discussing it not too long ago.

    My take is that PS18-22 are discussing a finite human life in contrast to infinite time. Infinite time, space, quantities &c seem to me to be a different topic from this. Isonomia seems to be something implied by infinity, but I'm not even sure about that as I think the usage attributed to Epicurus is different from the common Greek usage.

  • So... I somewhat doubt that Epicurus meant this exactly as it reads to me - I'm still in the process of reading DeWitt and consolidating a lot of different aspects of the philosophy. And full disclosure, I really don't know what "if its limits are measured out through reasoning" means - I can see it having about a half dozen different and highly varied meanings.

    But yes it did have me thinking about the pink circles too. The pink circles are just another version of the vessel analogy but in a way that I could see a) pleasure b) pain and c) variation, while also noting the lack of a neutral state (because there is no neutral - only pleasure and pain).

    The limit of pinkness is when the circle is fully pink (pleasure) - no black (pain) or white (because there is no neutral), but pale pink, dark pink, or a swirl of both doesn't make any difference. That's as pink as the circle can get. 100% pink

    This is why I don't think that variation is good (I also don't think it's bad - I think it's a neutral preference which can have positive or negative effects depending on the circumstances). If variation was preferable, then the swirly pink circle would be "more pink" than the solid pink circles, which doesn't make any sense. Pleasure isn't increased, only varied. But again! Variation isn't bad just because there's the word "only" in there. And variation doesn't decrease pleasure. It just also doesn't increase it. I need to stop here before I try to bring in the desires discussion again.....

    Anyway, PD19 also reads as a matter of percentages to me (not that I think it was meant that literally, but again my math brain wants to math things up). 100 years of life that is spent almost entirely in excruciating pain, deep depression, and all-around poor spirits, compared to 30 years of nonstop contentment and bliss is an interesting but kind of straightforward comparison for an Epicurean, but what about 100 years of consistent 80% pleasure compared to 30 years of 80% pleasure? It seems like rather than look at that as 80 years of pleasure vs. 24 years of pleasure, we look at it as 80% compared to 80% - ie, they're the same.

    But - this is where I would very much defer to people with greater grasp of the philosophy - it seems like you don't necessarily need to average over an entire lifespan either, and that's where the points Don was making way back in posts #3 and #5 come into play. Once you've "filled every nook and cranny of your mind with peace and pleasure" and are going about your days in a state of constant pleasure (varied to whatever degree), then what difference does it make how many years you lived before that state? If you compare the 100 year old person living a good life of 80% pleasure, day to day with a 30 year old who lived in near constant mental anguish for 29 years and 11 months, but then found a way to peace and pleasure and who recognizes his hard years, but doesn't suffer for the past, and is now living a life of 100% pleasure - then who has experienced greater joy? The person living with 20% pain or the person who has rid themselves of fear and pain and who experiences constant pleasure (again, varied to any degree) in the here and now, despite earlier years of agony?

    Sorry I didn't actually answer the question, but just asked more questions.

    Final point: I appreciate being lumped in with the youngish/20-30 crowd and will make no further comment about that lol

  • Reneliza I think your math brain is very very useful in this discussion because I think that these doctrines are intended to be highly logically sound.

    I also think that in addition to that perspective we have to be sure that we aren't hobbled by other perspectives that we have inherited from Christianity and other viewpoints.

    For example Dewitt comments that Epicurus is pointing to a way to console us for loss of immortality (presumably as alleged by religious viewpoints). I am not so sure about that, and in fact I wonder if we fail to grasp some of what Epicurus is saying because we are trying to fit his perspective into a mold in which life can be viewed as fair to everyone. It could be that Epicureans were flatly so convinced of the universe's total lack of overall plan that they weren't at all thinking about any "perfection" and that they were constantly thinking only on practical terms about how best to spend "the present" whatever that happens to be. This is only a half-formed thought but it comes in part from the discussion of how to view the percentage issues ReneLiza mentioned. Given that there is no absolute judge of which choices to make, it really doesn't make much sense to try to develop a science of judging any particular life against hypothetical standards that dont exist except in our mental gymnastics.

  • Dewitt comments that Epicurus is pointing to a way to console us for loss of immortality (presumably as alleged by religious viewpoints). I am not so sure about that, and in fact I wonder if we fail to grasp some of what Epicurus is saying because we are trying to fit his perspective into a mold in which life can be viewed as fair to everyone. .

    Oh my! I'm about to defend DeWitt everybody! Mark your calendars.

    It's true that the Principal Doctrines literally laid out the "basic doctrines" of the philosophy for Epicureans to study and memorize. But Epicurus was providing practical solutions and philosophical medicine to real people. I think he had to provide "a way to console us for loss of immortality (presumably as alleged by religious viewpoints)." I'm not sure of the word "console" but he had to provide an alternative. This went hand in hand with removing the fear of divine punishment or reward. Even without Eternal Hell/Heaven, there was also the prevalent ancient Greek of existing eternally as a shade as Homer describes Odysseus' trip to Hades. Even as a shade, you still get to "live" forever. And most people, I believe, would answer in the affirmative if asked "If you were given the ability to be immortal, would you?" before, of course, thinking about the details. So, yes, Epicurus had to provide consolation or at least a reasonable alternative to the desire for immortality.

    t could be that Epicureans were flatly so convinced of the universe's total lack of overall plan that they weren't at all thinking about any "perfection" and that they were constantly thinking only on practical terms about how best to spend "the present" whatever that happens to be.

    I think that's the *Epicurean* perspective, but the Principal Doctrines no doubt circulated as a"recruitment tool" as well. As you've said, Cassius, they should make sense to "normal" people ;)

  • This last Wednesday Zoom (on August 17th) we were still talking about PD19 - and I remember trying out this "word game":

    Infinite time contains no greater satisfaction than finite time, if one measures, by reason, the limits of satisfaction.

  • Another option:

    Infinite time contains no greater quantity of dark chocolate eaten than finite time, if one measures, by reason, the limits of quantity of dark chocolate eaten. Or, perhaps pet puppies could be used.

    I mean this to be serious, not snarky. If you reason that what Epicurus is referring to is that life is finite, then just about anything that an individual experiences could be substituted for pleasure and would make the same point.

    But since Epicurus used the word pleasure, is he using the word because it is the goal that he is concerned with or is he making a different point than what I'm understanding?

  • But since Epicurus used the word pleasure, is he using the word because it is the goal that he is concerned with or is he making a different point than what I'm understanding?

    This is a good question, and I think it also depends on how we interpret the word "pleasure".

  • To me, pleasure has been defined in PD18 and a variety of previous PDs beginning with PD03. I think PD19 is referencing those, and pivoting to the subject of craving infinite time for infinite pleasure. PD20 then mentions "fears about a life after death" and "departure from life", which seems to indicate that this is the subject of these two PDs, not pleasure. The two are describing the temporal limits of a person and how to think about it. [Parentheses are my additions.]

    PD19. Infinite time contains no greater pleasure [the body’s goal] than does finite time, if one determines the limits of pleasure rationally.

    PD20. The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite, and infinite time would provide such pleasure. But the mind has provided us with the complete life by a rational examination of the body’s goal and limitations and by dispelling our fears about a life after death [as described in previous PDs] ; and so we no longer need unlimited time. On the other hand, it does not avoid pleasure [which is the body’s goal, after all], nor, when conditions occasion our departure from life, does it come to the end in a manner that would suggest that it had fallen short in any way of the best possible existence.

    Imagine that you are experiencing a bliss that's so great that you want it to last forever. At some point you'll bring yourself pain if you start to crave the experience. These are saying that you need to understand that your life is finite, so enjoy your bliss. Don't crave it, but don't reject bliss because it's going to end: relish it for what it is, and relish your finite life for what it is.

    So I think that if you try to understand PD19 as saying something about pleasure specifically it becomes confusing and mysterious. At least for me, it becomes much clearer and simpler as I'm trying to describe it. "Now that you have a reasoned understanding of pleasure and of the material universe, think about what it means to have a finite life in an infinite universe." This, by itself, is a lot to think about.

  • Reading these last several posts I agree that substituting other forms of pleasure, or simply other things besides pleasure, is helpful.

    But on the more basic point I would still ask this:

    Is not the fundamental point as this is being translated in English amount to a plain meaning of:

    "IF YOU COULD LIVE FOREVER...you would still be able to gather together no more XXXX than if you only live 60 years???"

    That's why I still lean toward an explanation that focuses on the multiple meanings of "greater" than I do toward explanations that would se to be playing fast and loose with the time component.

    Because when I read Godfrey's example of "dark chocolate eaten" I have to say heck yes if I live forever I could eat a lot more quantity of dark chocolate than if I live only 60 years.

    Seems to me a punch line of "but you can't live forever" is unlikely to have been the ultimate point, if the point has something to do with reconciling you with your mortality. If drumming home "Remember you are a mortal" (like a Roman General in a triumph) is the point, then why not simply say: "You can't and won't live forever, Bozo, so stop dreaming otherwise."

    Is Epicurus really just playing the role of the slave in the chariot whispering in the ear of the General?

    In Ancient Rome, a slave would continuously whisper 'Remember you are mortal' in the ears of victorious generals as they were paraded through the streets after coming home, triumphant, from battle
    After every major military victory in ancient Rome, a "triumph," as it was called, was celebrated in Rome. It was a ceremonial procession granted to

  • In reading this thread, I'm reminded of the TV show The Good Place.

    ***BIG SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn't seen the show and wants to experience it**"




    You have been warned...

    The basic premise is that, after you die, there is a Good Place and a Bad Place. First few seasons, the bar has been raised so high, most everyone goes to the Bad Place. Then we find later that those in the Good Place are bored out of their minds and miserable. The main characters are given the opportunity to remake The Good Place and let more people in. Which they do.

    But, even given infinite time and given the opportunity to experience literally everything they could ever conceive of or imagine, they still eventually run out of things to experience. They come to a point where there's literally nothing new to experience! After countless eons of existence, they are then given the choice of dissolving back into their constituent "atoms" let's say, or dissolving back into the universe, or however you want to phrase it. The show is ambiguous. There's a place in the woods where you can walk through a gate and it just happens. It's not portrayed as suicide because they're by definition already dead. But some of the other characters see it that way when another character realizes they're "ready to go."

    Anyway, it's hard to explain, but this whole idea that we need infinite time to experience infinite pleasure brought this to mind.

    If anyone else has watched The Good Place, I'd be interested to get your take on any applicability to our current discussion that you see.

    btw: it seems I brought up this same point in January with a response from Joshua in a discussion about Buddhism and the Epicurean gods :

  • That's a great question Don. Seems we often come back to boredom and or the issue of "nothing new under the sun" in these discussions.

    And yet does it not seem that this was not an issue for the Epicureans discussing their view of deathless divinity?

    I haven't watch the show so I can't validate your precise statement of what it is saying, but I bet your description is correct, and I have a dep suspicion that there is something wrong with the people who think that infinite duration of pleasure would be boring.

    I am not sure it is exactly the same question but it sure is related.

    I also seem to think that this same issue (boredom with pleasure) is involved in Wagner's Tannhauser (in which the lead player apparently gets bored of Venus and returns to the "real world" in frustration).

    I am tempted to think that boredom with pleasure is an artifact of a "religious" perspective.

  • Before I go further down that road however an extra hour sleep causes me to want to restate this issue this way:

    If we measure pleasure in terms of discrete numbers of experiences of pleasure (say x number of candy bars) then an infinite time surely gives the opportunity for more discrete instances (candy bars).

    But if we rather realize through the mind that pleasure is not best measured as discrete instances (candy bars), but in terms of "purity" (the pink circle analogy or any other analogy of 'fulness'), then the number of discrete instances is seen as secondary, and length of time is no longer important because length of time does not improve it.

    Which is pretty much exactly what is said in the letter to Menoeceus about not wanting the longest, but the most pleasant.

    This framing leaves the issue stated in a fairly abstract way, and doesn't tell us individually how to spend our time day to day. But considering it "abstractly" like that is what we should expect: that perspective is necessary to defeat the anti-pleasure-abstractions of virtue and supernaturalism. Further, viewing it abstractly is probably pretty much what is generally meant by referring to "the mind" and "through reason."

  • The "infinite pleasure is boring" stories (which can sometimes lead to the "pleasure only feels good because pain exists" angle) tend to miss that - yes, while the greatest pleasure sometimes comes from a bit of exertion, that we humans create our own effort. Consider the new retiree who spends a month bored out of their mind and then takes up woodworking. Or the stay at home parent who is also a writer.

    I think this is a part of a societal narrative where we desperately don't want the masses to believe that they can be happy without the jobs provided to them from on high. In truth, we can and will easily create our own challenges, designed personally for us to give maximum pleasure, when we're granted the resources (time, space, energy, material, etc...) to do so.

  • In other words, I think that for an Epicurean, the greatest pleasure can be found in either limited OR infinite time.

    Playing around with substitutions in PD19 makes for really useful analogies, but I think putting in "quantity" of anything fundamentally breaks it, because it seems clear that the original is referring to quality. I mean, otherwise you might as well just sub in "quantity of hours" which would be by definition impossible

    Quantity is the only thing we have more of when time is unlimited

  • In other words, I think that for an Epicurean, the greatest pleasure can be found in either limited OR infinite time.

    i think I agree with that. And I think no matter how much time we have, the "greatest pleasure" can be *missed* in that degree of time as well, since pleasures may have duration, but their value to us is not a direct function of how long they last.

    Of course saying it that way too leads us back into the discussion of what is meant by "the greatest pleasure." Is that a particular type of activity or feeling of pleasure, or is it a description of the observation that whatever that person is experiencing as pleasure, that experience cannot be increased? (the latter is correct, i think.)

    So long as the term "greatest pleasure" is read to imply some **particular** activity or feeling (including those mysterious words "ataraxia" or "aponia" - which I think is incorrect), the discussion goes round and round and round.

  • And that last thought leads me back to this:

    Why are we ever even talking about "the greatest pleasure" in the first place?

    It's not because we are connoisseurs of pleasure like we are looking for the finest wine.

    I think virtually the entire reason we are having this discussion is because it is necessary in order to debate philosophically with Plato and the gang that Pleasure can qualify as the highest good. Outside of that abstract discussion the whole issue of "the greatest pleasure" is really nothing more than personal circumstance and preference.

    But if we conflate the entire discussion into a wine-tasting test, we end up totally confused, and worse -- concluding that the best wine is the one with the least taste!