The Great Conversation:
Pleasure & Pain—Part III

By Gabriel Blanchard

Having considered the surprisingly ascetic philosophy of Epicurus, and the broader implications of the existence of pain, what is there to say about pleasure?

Go here for Part I and Part II of this series.

We spoke in our last installment about certain versions of theodicy running the risk of justifying cruelty. Cruelty typically means taking pleasure in the suffering of others; it is thus, according to moral theologians, technically a variety of envy in the schema of the “seven deadly sins.”* Modifications are sometimes added—e.g., cruelty may be narrowed to mean enjoying others’ undeserved suffering, or broadened to include indifference as well as enjoyment. This latter modification is often used in discussions of the right treatment of animals, which is widely understood in terms of cruelty and its opposite; pleasure and pain are almost the only thing we can give animals, given how little we can communicate with them. Concern for animal cruelty is sometimes derided as a weakness of character resulting from the coddling of twentieth-century technology, but, whatever else it is, it is not twentieth-century: writing in the eighteenth (in a commentary on Cymbeline, written in the seventeenth), Dr. Samuel Johnson described advocates of vivisection† as “a race of men that have practiced tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.”

Of course, cruelty is usually practiced in a way that allows plausible deniability, one way or another. Another and perhaps more common behavior, a sort of abstract analogue for cruelty, has no name in English, but cynicism and pessimism come close. It is the habit of imagining the worst of others, and taking pleasure in doing so (whether this pleasure is acknowledged or not). The traditional sarcastic definition of puritanism sums it up well: “the fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.” This may not be a fair characterization of the Puritans, but it is an impulse often expressed in moralistic terms—”the right thing versus the fun thing,” so to speak. Friedrich Nieztsche, though we may take issue with his ethical theories in a great many respects, did show great insight in identifying this “sour grapes” attitude toward pleasure as a spiritual sickness, and certainly in the wise maxim he put into the mouth of his version of Zoroaster: Distrust all in whom the urge to punish is strong.‡

The opposite tack is, in theory, what utilitarianism means. Promoted by Jeremy Bentham and, more famously, John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism defines political justice as that which brings the greatest happiness to the largest number of people. In fairness, there is a great deal to say for this definition; it is notable for specifically avoiding focus upon the self alone, a weakness both classical Liberalism and even virtue ethics are prone to. But utilitarianism’s own weakness has been expounded, many times—often, for whatever reason, in fairy stories composed for children. Perhaps it is because only children can easily bring themselves to believe in something as evil as a truly thoroughgoing utilitarian. In any case, there Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sits beside Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and anybody who can read either without bursting into tears is made of sterner stuff than the present author.

The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.

This turns us toward another curious question, one that underlies all horror and tragedy, arguably all literature: why do we like imaginary badness? For we most certainly do like it. Who can resist Thurl Ravenscroft’s scholarly disquisition on the turpitude of the Grinch? Does anyone quite sincerely dislike Professor Ratigan, or the other famous Ursula? Dark comedy, one of the most characteristic elements of British humor, derives pleasure from pain in a way that need not be cruel at all—though of course it can be. In his Preface to “Paradise Lost,” C. S. Lewis goes out of his way to distinguish the senses in which a character is good (as a work of art) and bad (villainous or obnoxious within the art); bafflement of bafflements, we are even capable of enjoying literary depictions of bores. The present author has only one guess about why this is: namely, that in seeing these things represented by others, we have a sense of genuine communication, and so of connection. That hardly seems likely to be the whole reason, but it may be a part of it.

This blurring of the line between pain and pleasure is far more common than we casually suppose. Speaking of C. S. Lewis, his autobiography Surprised by Joy contains a brief discussion of the titular noun, which he explains as a beautiful, aching desire for—something; he ultimately determines that the Something in question is in fact God (though it is not necessary to share that belief in order to understand the experience of what he calls Joy). In the opening chapter, he writes:

Joy … must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them: the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a kind of unhappiness or grief. But … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

The attentive reader may notice that, as we come to the close of a three-part series ostensibly about pleasure and pain, we have spent nearly all our time either on the latter or on both at once! Hardly any discussion of pleasure has been undertaken. This may be partly because, at least when unmixed with pain, pleasure seems rather self-explanatory, whereas pain provokes a different and extensive range of responses. But an alternative is hinted at in Kierkegaard’s first major work, Either/Or, in which he sets what he calls an æsthetic life, one focused on self-fulfillment, against an ethical life that serves the common good. What is important about the æsthete is that he is not a mere shallow hedonist, any more than Epicurus was; he proposes a life of intelligent hedonism, notably supported by what he calls crop rotation—avoiding boredom by means of continual change. Kierkegaard plainly shows himself to be more interested in a third way of life, “the religious mode,” which supersedes both the æsthetic and the ethical; but the question remains open of whether a philosophy of hedonics, undertaken with the accepted governance of moral wisdom, might have something worthwhile to contribute to our lives, both practical and intellectual.

Suggested reading:
Euripides, Electra
St. Columbanus, Rule
William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More
Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality
Edward Lear, “The Dong With the Luminous Nose”
Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

*The English word envy comes from the Latin invidia, “beholding” (meaning the act considered as a thing). This is probably derived from vidēre “to see, look at” and in “in, upon, onto”; it could also come from the privative prefix in-, making invidia literally “an un-look.” Either way, invidia referred particularly to the evil eye of folk belief. Envy more broadly is defined by moral philosophers as pain at others’ good fortune or pleasure at their bad—a precise inversion of sympathy; English-speakers commonly use envy only to mean the former, while the latter is often called by the German name Schadenfreude.
†We would not afflict our readers with unnecessary knowledge; suffice it to say that vivisection is the dissection of specimens that are not dead.
‡The quotation comes from Nietzsche’s famous Thus Spake Zarathustra; “Zarathustra” is an alternate form of the name “Zoroaster,” which is a Greek-influenced form (the primitive form was probably Zarathuštra or something similar).


Gabriel Blanchard has a baccalaureate in Classics from the University of Maryland, and is a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and works for CLT as the company’s editor at large.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more from the Great Conversation in our posts on art, government, quantity, sin, and universals & particulars. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 17th August, 2023. Page image of The Banquet of Kings (1913) by Pavel Filonov, an early Soviet painter; note how, in this royal banqueting hall, the shapes and colors of both people and food are highly similar (with an emphasis on reds), and that at least two human figures are slumped or crouched beneath the table with the animals. Author thumbnail replaced with a detail of a woodcut depicting a flagellant, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, an encyclopedia printed in central Germany in 1493.

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