The Great Conversation:
Pleasure & Pain—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

Superficially simple, pain and pleasure are strangely intricate realities, and have ties to almost every other area of study.

Both as feelings and as ideas, pleasure and pain are intimately familiar to us. They might accordingly seem to call for little comment or explanation. Human sensations (our persistent companions while we are conscious) are usually either pleasant or painful, at least in some tiny degree; human actions are motivated by a hope of reward or an aversion to unpleasant consequences.  How much is there to say about the universal conditions of human experience? One might as well write an essay on the passage of time, a reality so simple it can be literally clocked by means of as few as a dozen numbers.

The picture may become a little clearer if we think about how to define the words instead of about the experiences themselves. When we speak of the pleasure of eating a good slice of cake, that is not at all the same sort of thing as the pleasure of figuring out the answer to a riddle; but the word pleasure is not a metaphor in either context—it’s quite literal. Similarly, when we talk about backache, there is a specifiable physical condition at play, but when we discuss heartache, we do not mean that the sensation that was formerly in our trapezius muscles is now in our cardiac muscle. Yet we use the word ache to cover both meanings, as if pain and pleasure are really just names for psychological states indicating how well-disposed we are to the feeling. Then again, perhaps not. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis points out that in low-enough quantities, pain can be an ingredient in pleasure—think of the faint sting on one’ lips after eating a bite of well-spiced chili, or the slight ache in one’s limb’s after a long, satisfying hike. (Note too how this second example illustrates that an ache is the same type of feeling physically speaking, whether we mind having an ache or not.)

This has kept us well within the general territory of psychology and neuroscience. Going from here through sensation as such could take us to the topics of medicine or of epistemology; however, in the Western tradition, one of the most fruitful lines along which the double topic of pleasure and pain can be pursued is that of ethics. For instance, the psychologists inform us that reward is the primary motivator of human action; is reward a kind of pleasure? Obviously many specific rewards are in fact pleasant. But suppose we are in situation Z, and have only the options x and y open to us; suppose further that we dislike x about as much as a person can dislike something, and that we like y very much indeed—but choosing y under the conditions of Z is blatantly wrong, while x is unequivocally right. Suppose, too, that we do force ourselves to do x anyway. We presumably have some sort of reward: virtue itself, according to an old proverb. Is that enough to say “x is in some sense a pleasure”?

The relations of pain, right, wrong, and pleasure constitute a knotty issue in philosophy, all the way back into classical antiquity. By the first century BC, there were a number of established schools of philosophy: the Aristotelians of the Lyceum, the mainly-skeptical pupils of the Academy, the Cynics of—well, of the nearest street-corner probably. Two of these schools, the Epicureans and the Stoics, were particularly concerned with the relationship between pleasures and pains on the one hand, and on the other, a quality they termed ἀταραξία (ataraxia), meaning “serenity” or “tranquility.” Both valued it highly, but in slightly different ways, and for very different reasons.

Usque adeo nulla est sincera, voluptas,
Sollicitumque aliquid lætis intervenit.

Since always, there has been no carefree pleasure,
But quarrels nag and interrupt its leisure.

The Stoa spoke highly of ataraxia not as a goal in itself, but as a mark or “symptom” of a fully purified soul. The proper purpose of philosophy was a life of virtue lived in accord with nature, untroubled by emotions and undue attachments. A result of this freedom from emotional entanglement would be ataraxia, thus making it a kind of side benefit. Pleasure hardly came into it at all; insofar as the Stoics took notice of it, or indeed of pain, they were primarily powerful forces against which to train one’s will, so as to be able to maintain virtue in the face of temptation and torment alike.

The Epicurean approach was thoroughly unlike that of the Stoics, and fairly unusual among classical philosophies in general. Epicurus believed that pleasure was the natural and proper goal of human life.* However, his definition of pleasure radically departed from most people’s use of the word. He did not deny the existence of bodily pleasures or consider them inherently illicit; nonetheless, he esteemed mental pleasures far more highly, partly because of their power to endure through time, whereas physical pleasures are notoriously fleeting.

Moreover, Epicurus did not consider mere desire an appropriate reference point from which to define pleasure. For one thing, desire itself (by his lights) was not a pleasure in the first place, but a kind of pain: a disturber of the mental peace. Nor was simply “getting your way” necessarily a pleasure—as anyone who hasn’t liked what they got might be willing to concede. Satisfying a desire that was both natural and necessary to one’s well-being would qualify as a genuine pleasure; if a desire was natural but not necessary, like a desire for cake (food is a need, for the food to be cake is not), it was really better to avoid satisfying it, since those are just the sorts of desires apt to lead to addictive excesses, which inflict worse pains upon us than the pleasures they gain us. And as for the non-natural unnecessary desires—cravings we are artificially cajoled or intimidated into having by society, like the latest gadgets or the most prestigious positions—those, according to Epicurus, brought no true pleasure in any case and carried a great deal of pain in their wake. Any sensible person ought to turn away from them.

Thirdly, he divided pleasures of all kinds into two types: the kinetic pleasures that come about through change or movement (like the pleasures of eating or of solving a riddle), and the katastematic pleasures (from a verb meaning “to stand still”) that result from an absence of pain; and it was the katastematic pleasures that were the better type. Given these definitions, “katastematic mental pleasure” amounts to ataraxia.

This system of values moved the Garden† to reject a number of prominent values and habits common in the ancient world. They avoided the “rat race” (not that they rushed to redistribute their wealth if they did happen to be wealthy); they tended to ignore distinctions of sex and class (even the arch-classes of free versus slave); many practiced vegetarianism. They particularly avoided public affairs and office—which earned them in many cases the ire and contempt of their rivals in the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoa, who saw the Garden as not doing its part for the general welfare—though they did propose a striking idea of how statecraft ought in principle to work: they proposed something resembling the later social contract theory of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Liberalism and especially the thought of J. S. Mill, maintaining mutual non-interference with others as a chief principle. All in all, they were a little like Græco-Roman Buddhists.‡ 

But we have centuries’ more thought about pleasure to cover, and what is more, we have scarcely discussed pain at all …

Go here for Part II and Part III.

Suggested reading:
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
Epictetus, Enchiridion
Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book X
Peter Abelard, “O Quanta Qualia” (go here for a sung version, without translation)
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

*It is from this un-analyzed fact that the modern use of epicurean as a synonym for hedonist comes, even though the historical Epicureans, including Epicurus, were not like hedonists in ideas or practices.
†This was the nickname for the Epicurean school, corresponding to the nicknames of the other important philosophical schools. All were based on real places where they met in Athens: the Academy was a grove on a property owned by Plato; the Lyceum was built by Aristotle and located near a gym dedicated to Apollo Lyceus (“Apollo the Wolf-god”); the Stoa Poikile, literally “the Painted Portico,” was the north entrance to the Athenian marketplace. The eponymous Garden was owned by Epicurus.
‡That is, similar in terms of superficial appearance and the role they played, or did not play, in society. Their beliefs show some intriguing correspondences, but these are likely coincidental, and they certainly came from two radically different philosophic backgrounds.


Gabriel Blanchard holds a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this piece, you can find many more of our broad introductions to the ideas of Western history right here.

Published on 4th August, 2023. Page image of a famous triptych of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, completed between about 1490 and 1510; its left and right panels show Eden before the Fall of Man, and hell.

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