Plato and Aristotle on Pleasure“Certain of the unnecessary pleasures and appetites I conceive to be unlawful; everyone appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason, and the better desires prevail over them…”
The quest to find the formula for happiness was undertaken by Plato and Aristotle. Plato came first with “The Republic”, in which Socrates, employing dialectic, uses the city-state as a framework for finding happiness, by living a just life, bathing in the light of the Form of the Good. Aristotle came after, having been a student of Plato, with new ways of seeing the role of state in the lives of men and their pursuit of happiness. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are set apart as pioneers of philosophy, and while there were great thinkers who came before them, the modern familiarity with their names serves as sufficient proof of their lasting stardom. Aristotle had the advantage of seeing Plato’s philosophy enacted to a limited degree which likely played part in his deviation from ‘Platonics’.
In this quest communicate happiness, both Plato and Aristotle encountered and managed the idea of pleasure. Pleasure is a relation to happiness and happiness would seem to be the natural consequence of a life lived wisely (though Herodotus would disagree noting that happiness isn’t possible while alive), or the benefit of a life spent contemplating The Good. Do pleasures fall on us like rain or do we have to take them from others? Is the pursuit of pleasure a natural right or is it something that has to be controlled with laws? Is pleasure the same thing as happiness? I hope to touch on the impressions Plato and Aristotle left on me regarding pleasure.
In Plato’s “Republic” and in Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and “The Politics”, broad and interwoven arguments are made concerning this overarching search for a formula that can justify existence. While the methods varied, the arguments were sound, though not always carried to their natural conclusion. Experiencing the readings as the means by which these philosophers intended to convey their insights either to their own students or to the public at large, as a writer, was very interesting to me. So first I’d like to express my relationship with these readings.
When I attend to something (a bottle, a police officer, a regret) for a time, my focus, if successful, falls upon that thing to the exclusion of other things. My focus allows me to concentrate my faculties (both reason such as it is, and senses) which in turn can provide me with insights. These insights hopefully lead, with time patience and sustained attention, to understanding. By being fortunate enough to have obtained some measure of understanding of something I then have the ability to contemplate not only that particular something but also, piece by piece, all ‘somethings’ since they are interconnected by their point of origin – the universal Force, or The Good, or God (whichever attempt at naming the unnamable suits you). For instance, if I understand natural science and I understand psychology (or mosquitoes and blood, or physics and throwing a ball and visual depth perception) I can contemplate the impact of the one on the other in increasingly complex and satisfying ways.
It is in that state of contemplation that I find pleasure, so Plato was right! It is not the only vehicle of pleasure obviously, but it is one that is sustainable and immutable. In contemplation I begin to expand my circles of thought and intellectual discovery; each revelation being a moment of existential excitement, which is pleasing in a transformative sense (because I can also think of examples that are also existentially destructive). This power of contemplation of the interconnectedness of things and their source, the Good, is, in itself, A Good. Plato points to The Good and understanding the Forms as the ultimate pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Aristotle says contemplation is good also, but that it is the balance of a good, stable character with sound reason which has the potential to lead one to a state of “practical wisdom”. It is through exercising practical wisdom that we can find balance with the pleasures of life. Both Plato and Aristotle’s views are embraceable principals but each comes from a different perspective.
In The Republic, Plato (through the character of Socrates) engages in exhaustive dialogue attempting to convincingly convey some of the truths he has come to understand through his many years of contemplation. One such conclusion is that Man’s pleasures can be appetitive, passionate, or reasonable. Pleasures guided by reason lead to good outcomes and pleasures guided by selfish desires are bad because they chase pleasure in an endless cycle of desire and fleeting satisfaction.
Aristotle, as a student of Plato, received not only instruction in the methods of philosophy such as dialectic, but inherited packets of pre-contemplated knowledge. These Plato-packets were undoubtedly offered up as truth or something close to it. But Aristotle doesn’t want to accept the Plato-packet blindly. This reminds me of my aunt at Christmastime. My Aunt who carefully considers each gift she gives at Christmastime, careful to exclude no one accidentally, and convinced that she has herself done good (and done good, well) for all of those over whom she is matriarch. The recipients however find the giving pleasant but the gifts themselves vapid and call into doubt the depth of thought and attention really went into them. For my Aunt, the pleasure of contemplating the right gift for the right family member is much like the pleasure in Plato’s view, of contemplating the Form of the Good in that, the pleasure is with the contemplator, not the recipient of the product of that contemplation. Like children around the tree opening packets of socks and outdated ornaments, the relatively young Aristotle finds value in the wisdom of his master, he like many next-gen-ers, doesn’t want to accept what he is handed.
Plato considers pleasure to be the fruit of a happy existence, and a happy existence is allegorically an aristocratic hierarchy in the state wherein reason governs over passions and appetites. While a proper education enables the invisible realm of wisdom and logic to rule over visible realm of beliefs and imagination, few can actually achieve it. In part this is due to incorrect education which points at the inability to distinguish desire from good, causing conflict. He who can achieve this reasonable governance over desires, namely the philosopher, lives the happiest life, yet everyone else can still share in the pleasures brought on by providence, because The Good shines its light on all things making those things understandable to those who can understand, and understanding is pleasurable.
Aristotle saw pleasure with some key differences, namely that it was a practical wisdom that allowed a man to live a happy life because it led to the most good for the individual and for the state.
“…but happiness is an end, since all men deem it to be accompanied with pleasure not with pain. This pleasure, however, is regarded differently by different persons, and varies according to the habits of the individuals: the pleasure of the best man is the best, and springs from the noblest sources.”
– Aristotle, The Politics, Book VIII part 3.
To him this was not a simple formula because the soul of man was divided into complex substructures: the particles keep the organism alive, which are involuntary and don’t rely on reason or concern the appetites, which are in a gray area between involuntary and voluntary, and that which is voluntary involves choices and choices involve reason, but also self-serving desires and perhaps to a greater degree contribute to practical wisdom, that which is useful to the useful member of society. It involves deliberation and decision making which, like the appetites, involves desire, but also reason and perhaps to a greater degree are eternal and invariable, the seat of true wisdom and reason.
It is between the appetites and practical wisdom where the nugget lies. Pleasure is not merely the satisfying of desires, but the application of wisdom to the performance of those things which satisfy desires. The painter for instance gets little pleasure from being forced to paint a thing he does not care about. He does better when he applies his talent to a virtuous object (any object that reaches its best functional state), then, his well performed action joins with his satisfaction and together creates a pleasure that is sustainable and strong.
These two classic Hellenistic philosophers’ viewpoints differ and both give thought to the role and consequence of pleasures. Still, discussing pleasure is very difficult. As humans we have desires. Satisfying those desires gives pleasure, at least temporarily. The chocolate cake that gives you pleasure now will not lead to a pleasurable overall existence, it may even do the opposite. Despite being philosophers, how could Plato or Aristotle claim to understand why we feel desires, why we act on them sometimes to the detriment of self and community, and how to manage them in such balance as to achieve virtue? Man always struggles with desire, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness, and so must have they. I thought, how easy to paint oneself into a corner where you proclaim to have the faculties to find the answers to these dilemmas yet also are a fallible person with guilty pleasures of one’s own.
I listened to a lecture by the reverend Billy Graham. In it he talked about “the problem of evil”. He proposed that if there is a God that is meant to bring happiness to all mankind, then why is there evil? How is it that evil can appear in something that is universally good? Graham went on for some time and, much like Socrates did, he came to no final conclusion. What he suggested, though not in these words, was that it was man’s-wants that corrupted the perfect good. Eve in the garden was tempted by desire; desire for knowledge, power… fruit. But if Man was a product of a perfect God then Man could not, of his own nature, introduce the corruption of good. Therefore the selfish desire that overcame God’s reasonable request had to be introduced by another. Enter, the serpent in the garden and “original sin”. Is that serpent a “useful falsehood” created to cover for concepts that the thought leaders simply could not understand? Was the whole story of the Beginning just a parable for things the wise could not explain to universal satisfaction? Either answer is relevant to struggle that Plato and Aristotle faced when discussing this fundamental human trait.
If I were to take a stand on what pleasure was and teach it to my family as if it were truth I would open myself to rebuke, either now or in time. If I were to publish my position on the role pleasure plays in both daily physical existence and in the long walk to the afterlife, then I would open myself to argument, disagreement and ridicule. So instead, I might take a safer path that does not irrevocably commit me to one conclusion, yet also manage to give most of those who encounter my musings sufficient foundation that they may have their own contemplation of pleasure or The Good, or Reason. In other words, enough to get-by with the audience but not so much that I take an indefensible position.
Yes, to tell the story of human challenges without alienating those very same humans I might use vehicles like, a change of scale from the individual to the household, or village, or a fictitious city. Either way the light is shone and understanding hopefully follows, and if it does that would be pleasurable.
images from Google Creative Commons