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How to think about pleasure | Psyche

Fun, fun, fun. Pacific Palisades, California, 1964. Photo by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum

Guide

How to think about pleasure

Weirdly hard to define, much less to feel OK about it, pleasure is a tricky creature. Can philosophy help us lighten up?

by Sam Dresser

Fun, fun, fun. Pacific Palisades, California, 1964. Photo by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum

Sam Dresser

is an editor at Aeon. He lives in New York.

Edited by Brigid Hains

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Over breakfast one April day in 1778, James Boswell asked Samuel Johnson why he gave up booze. Dr Johnson replied that he didn’t like to lose power over himself, but assured his friend that he would one day drink again when he grew old (he was 68 at the time). Boswell replied: ‘I think, Sir, you once said to me, that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life.’ To which Dr Johnson answered: ‘It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.’

It is a common notion, even in our own day, that pleasure is in some sense a distraction from happiness – or that it doesn’t lead to the kind of happiness that really matters. Pleasure, in and of itself, is ‘lower’ than the real heavy hitters, such as Truth and Virtue and Wisdom and God, those hallowed founts of authentic happiness. It is universal – indeed inherent – that we humans are drawn to pleasure. Yet pleasure-seeking itself is often seen as an indulgence, and therefore rings with a kind of selfishness, even a kind of confusion. Pleasure doesn’t last, the idea goes, but Truth does, or Rationality does, or Wisdom does, and so those are the things that we ought to seek.

Whenever and wherever they are found, moralists and their dreary ilk often describe their own times as characterised by debauched hedonism. But does it accurately describe our time? Are we in the thrall of a love affair with pleasure? I don’t think so. Even if more people are more comfortable than they used to be, it’s still hard to admit to doing something pleasurable just because it’s pleasurable. More often, pleasure is excused as a little reward, a diversion, a break from the demands of the ‘real world’. Pleasure is something that will allow you to work harder, to catch your breath before returning to the turmoils of life. Searching for pleasure for pleasure’s sake is an act tinged with shame and, when it’s admitted to, excuses ought be made.

Lord Byron gave our tense relationship with pleasure a memorable couplet: ‘O pleasure! you’re indeed a pleasant thing / Although one must be damn’d for you, no doubt.’ Those who give in to pleasure have often been compared, unkindly, to animals. The Greek Stoic Epictetus told those who identified pleasure with goodness to go ‘lead the life of a worm, of which you judged yourself worthy: eat and drink, and enjoy women, and ease yourself, and snore.’ Friedrich Nietzsche located a being that, for him, was perhaps even lower than the worm: ‘Man does not strive for pleasure,’ he wrote. ‘Only the Englishman does.’

This isn’t true of all pleasures, however. The trouble for Dr Johnson, as he was quick to explain, was ‘sensual pleasure. When a man says, he had pleasure with a woman, he does not mean conversation, but something of a very different nature.’ (You can almost see the wink on his vast face.) The pleasures he disdains are the bodily pleasures, the ones we get from aged whisky and taking off your boots after a long hike. The pleasures that count, for Dr Johnson and for many other thinkers, are the pleasures of the mind. These are the pleasures that are pure, unmarred by the Earth. They’re to be kept clean and separate from the pleasures of the body, which are for the lower sorts of people. Or, as Dr Johnson rather flatly put it: ‘[T]he greatest part of men are gross.’

The purpose of this Guide is simple: I want to talk about some of the ways that people have thought about pleasure over the years. Pleasure is a surprisingly slippery idea, surprising because it seems so obvious what it is. But trying to actually nail it down is like nailing down a cloud. Regardless, that makes it more important to reflect on pleasure – its value, its nature, and the places that people have found it. My hope is that, by thinking through what pleasure is, by analysing and probing and querying it, perhaps you’ll be more likely to find it in the places you least expect (but no promises, of course).

Think it through

Pleasure is everywhere and yet it’s hard to work out quite what it is

The sheer variety of ways that people procure pleasure is unsettling, as well as a testament to the plasticity of our species. The differences can be small – I can’t understand why people like to watch golf – and the differences can be great, especially across cultural and temporal gulfs – the pleasure people once got in attending the afternoon execution seems, to me, a bit odd.

Think of pleasure in your own life. What is common to all of the things that give you pleasure? The throughline between warm scarves and charity work and calling your grandmother; between the cool side of the pillow, the sad-happiness of nostalgia, the pop of a champagne bottle opening – what could it be other than that these are all, in their way, pleasing? So, the question is: if pleasure can be found in all these sundry ways, then what is it? And the most common answer is a tad ho-hum: stuff that feels good. Stuff that you like. The experiences that make you say: ‘Yep! There it is.’

Many philosophers have accepted this, or a version of it, and have taken it to mean that there’s not a whole lot more to be said about the nature of pleasure (moralising about how others go about getting pleasure, of course, is a different story). Pleasure is what it is. Its very heterogeneity, its inconceivable variety, has led many to conclude that it’s an elementary component of our existence, or an absolutely simple experience. Edmund Burke said it was so simple it was ‘incapable of definition’. John Locke held that pleasure ‘cannot be described … the way of knowing [pleasure] is … only by experience.’

This view of pleasure as unanalysable, it seems to me, makes the nature of pleasure even stranger given its ubiquity in our lives. Can it really just be, as William James held, that ‘pleasures are generally associated with beneficial … experiences’? Does that definition truly exhaust pleasure? Maybe. When a significant number of philosophers, usually a loquacious bunch, throw up their hands and say that pleasure is too simple to describe, you know that the idea is an odd one. As Elizabeth Anscombe once wrote, the idea of pleasure even ‘reduced Aristotle to sheer babble’, and she was right, as far as I can tell.

Perhaps the problem, as so often, lies with language. Pleasure occupies a prime position in a very crowded constellation. Nearby, you’ll find joy, delight, happiness, satisfaction and, perhaps a bit further on, ecstasy, euphoria, exaltation, bliss. Pleasure might just be stretched too thin, operating as a kind of catch-all for all the fine gradations of positive experience. (Plato thought so.) But, if asked what it is that makes an experience positive, I would be hard pressed not to fall back and say, well, it’s the experiences that give me pleasure.

The pleasures of the mind are good; the pleasures of the body, not so much

Nowadays, many philosophers enjoy delicate concept carving, in which definitions are given so precisely that no counterexamples could be found. Ideas are divided and subdivided, and isms blossom and war with one another. But, traditionally, pleasure was rather bluntly cleaved into the two kinds of pleasures that I mentioned earlier: bodily pleasures and the pleasures of the mind. The division of pleasure mirrored the division of a person: the body was separate from the mind or the intellect or the soul, or whatever you would like to call that thing that makes you you (but isn’t your body). Bodily pleasures include easing into a warm bath, Arizona Iced Tea, and vigorous masturbation; while among the pleasures of the mind are imagining retribution on your enemies (and maybe your friends), feeling at one with nature, contemplating the higher truths and, naturally for philosophers, philosophy – which has often been called the highest pleasure.

Why is it that the bodily pleasures have accrued such a poor reputation? Plato, as usual, had the first, very loud, say on the matter. His views shift over the course of the dialogues, but some general themes stand out. Bodily pleasure, he says, is often connected to pain and, because pain is a bad thing, so too is bodily pleasure.

The relationship between pleasure and pain is intimate and tempestuous indeed. Plato said that sometimes you feel pleasure precisely when you’re relieved of a pain. Before Socrates was executed, he noticed that the bonds that he was kept in hurt him, but once released ‘pleasure seem[ed] to be following’. Bodily pleasures can also straightforwardly lead to pain, in the case of repetition or overindulgence. If I have one brownie, I’m feeling pretty good about things, but if I have 50, I’m in a dark place, re-examining my life decisions. Finally, pleasure also usually comes from fulfilling some desire. But Plato considered desires themselves painful, because they identify what in our lives is lacking. As Emily Fletcher put it in her excellent analysis: ‘[W]e always experience pleasure against a backdrop of pain.’

Bodily pleasures also receive the brunt of the blame for leading people astray, and this is Plato’s other criticism (which would be taken up with gusto by later Christian moralists seeking to shape the actions of others). This is the idea that bodily pleasure, and the seeking of bodily pleasure, produces false beliefs because, through bodily pleasure, the body comes to seem more important than the soul (the false belief par excellence for Plato). In another foreshadowing of the Christian view, Plato wrote in the Phaedo that your body is the ‘prison’ of your soul. There’s a fast and essential distinction between the two, and a struggle between them as well. Whenever you indulge yourself in the pleasures of the flesh, you become ‘an accomplice in [your] own imprisonment’ because it gives you the misguided impression that this fleshy, soul-entombing jail is somehow a good thing. ‘[E]very pleasure and pain provides,’ Plato went on, ‘another nail to rivet the soul to the body and to weld them together. It makes the soul corporeal, so that it necessarily believes the truth is what the body says it is.’ The soul is the way to truth, and therefore the body and its pleasures are distractions leading to falsity and confusion.

The pleasures of the mind, however, are free of most, if not all, of the blemishes that make bodily pleasures unworthy of philosophers. The pleasures of the mind are ‘pure’. They’re usually unconnected in any intrinsic way to pain, and they have to do with the soul, which bears upon your inevitable journey into the afterlife. Plato thought that the greatest pleasure of the mind is the pleasure of learning – particularly of the virtues. By avoiding the pleasures of the flesh and instead learning of the virtue and wisdom, your soul will attain ‘its own ornaments, namely, moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom and truth, and in that state [await your] journey to the underworld.’

But what exactly is pleasurable about the pleasures of the mind? Thinkers have long made the connection between the pleasures of the mind and the great things unseen, usually God. More interesting, of course, is how they’re described in a secular context. William James called intellectual pleasures ‘the subtler emotions’: ‘Concords of sounds, of colours, of lines, logical consistencies, teleological fitnesses,’ he wrote, ‘affect us with a pleasure that seems ingrained in the very form of the representation itself.’ These are ‘cognitive acts’, but ultimately not so different from the bodily pleasures, and he notes that when we’re enthralled by a great pleasure of the mind, it tends to lead to pleasures of the body. We should be wary, as with most distinctions, of drawing the line too thick.

You can find pleasure where pain isn’t

Next to the Christians, the Stoics were – and perhaps are, given the recent resurgence of interest – the great denigrators of bodily pleasure. Not all of them, but it’s a suspicion that commonly invades their lofty view of the Universe. Virtue, for the Stoics, was all-important, the summum bonum of life – at least if you’re wise – and anything that got in the way of the pursuit of virtue was treated warily at best. Pathē (passions) were to be avoided, and pleasure was a significant contributor because it confuses clear thinking and creates untoward desires. The pleasures of the flesh were haughtily detested, a view that the Christians took up with verve.

Their rivals in the ancient world were the Epicureans. Pleasure was the centre of Epicurus’ thought. This wasn’t pleasure in a positive sense, not a seasoning on the meat of life itself. It’s pleasure as an absence.

Cicero, writing of Epicurus’ ideas, glossed the notion like this:

The pleasure that we pursue is not that kind alone which directly affects our being with delight and is perceived by the senses in an agreeable way. Rather we hold that the greatest pleasure is one that’s experienced as a result of the complete removal of pain.

Or, as Adam Smith later put it: ‘What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?’

This view applies both to bodily pleasures and to pleasures of the mind. Epicurus thought that the pleasures of the flesh consisted, for instance, in not being thirsty. What is the analogue to pleasures of the mind? He determined that the primary weight on our souls was the fear of death, which he sought to disabuse us of with an elegant little formula: when you are alive, death is nothing, and when you are dead, life is nothing. Once this is truly understood, then the weighty, wearying fear of death will be alleviated – and its absence is a great pleasure.

Though it is a moderate and negative view of bodily pleasure, it amounts to a fairly robust defence. It is an approach to life that tends to cultivate the materiality of our lives, to allow us to take joy in the physical humanness of being human. A line can be drawn from Epicurus to Valla to Erasmus to Montaigne to Voltaire to Hume to Mill to Russell: a life-affirming, world-accepting tradition that urges us not to fear the pleasures of the flesh (in moderation, of course). As Montaigne wrote: ‘I, who operate only close to the ground, hate that inhuman wisdom that would make us disdainful enemies of the cultivation of the body.’

Nature provides pleasures: both high-minded ones and just getting away from it all

On another April day, this one in 1336, Petrarch decided to go for a hike up Mont Ventoux, in Provence. It’s not an easy task – an 18-hour round trip, more or less, up to a bald and very windy peak (hence the mountain’s name). This ascent has since taken on the aspect of myth, a moment that seemed to herald the arrival of humanism, because it was supposedly the first time that someone had climbed a mountain simply for the pleasure of doing so. ‘My only motive,’ Petrarch wrote, ‘was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.’

His account is filled with allegory and heavy-handed allusions to St Augustine’s own conversion experience a millennium earlier. But it’s still the moving testament of a man on a mountain, taken in by the beauty of a singular landscape. He looks south towards Italy and is affected by memories of the ancient Romans. He looks west towards the Pyrenees and north towards Lyon and, even though he can’t actually see these places, he knows that they are there and that he’s standing tall above them, all of Europe at his feet. Naturally, he ‘stood like one dazed’.

The pleasure Petrarch found in nature was in its immensity. He was lost in its vastness, overwhelmed by nature and his little place in it, hardly more than a speck of pollen in the wind. But he was also towering above the continent: ‘I beheld the clouds under our feet,’ he said. He is, at once, insignificant and all-powerful: an unsettling tension where you can sometimes find the subtle pleasures of the sublime. William Wordsworth was one of the first to illuminate this peculiar sensation, which he did most famously in his poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798):

– And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

But you can also find in nature a very different kind of pleasure, almost entirely at variance with the sublime. That is the pleasures of isolation, of solitude, of being freed, for a spell, from the drudgeries of ‘society’ and its countless goddamned ‘people’. Alone in nature, you can play as a hermit for a bit, which I think can allow you to recover a sense of your own uniqueness. As Byron wrote: ‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore.’ Though he went on to acclaim his love of all nature, it is the pathlessness of the woods that caught his interest: the pleasurable fact that, out here, no one’s tread before. In that way, perhaps, nature can help remind you of the indelible pleasure of being yourself.

Taking pleasure in the pleasure of others

Schadenfreude is a bottomless reservoir, of course. Whether you drink from it with embarrassment or pride, it is still wonderfully pleasing to see your enemies fail – and most people have enough enemies, who do enough inexcusable stuff, that this particular spring of pleasure will never run dry. But what about its rather less provocative opposite: taking pleasure in the pleasure of others?

It’s been observed that when a child gives a gift to another kid, they themselves become happier. And the Buddhist idea of muditā captures the phenomenon: it is the joy we feel when others are well. We are an essentially social species, and many philosophers have held that human nature cannot be fully realised without other people: being with one another is an indispensable part of being a human in the first place. If that’s the case, it makes a lot of sense that we would ‘naturally’ find the happiness of others pleasing to us. Of course – of course – a huge amount rides on whom we’re talking about here. Yes, it’s obviously pleasurable to gift a friend a top-notch loofah. But if you’re genuinely pleased by, say, seeing Kim Jong-un’s boyish excitement at attending a basketball game, then we need to have a serious talk about the world.

Setting aside dictators and jerks, why is it pleasing to make others pleased? Philosophers, particularly in the 18th century, had a winningly simple answer: because it is good. Or, more precisely, because that is what goodness itself is – the increasing of pleasure in the world.

Moral exhortations the world over have often boiled down to something like a common denominator: be not a nuisance to those you happen to be passing this life with, and, if you can, be a positive force for letting people get on with it. For instance, take these lines from a 4,000-year-old Babylonian advice book, amusing in their familiarity:

Be pleasant to your enemy.
Do not utter slander; speak well of people;
Do not say nasty things; speak favourably.

The question is why people should act well. The answer has long been found in the divine and the otherworldly: because God’s judging you and he’s got a very sharp memory; because if you’re a wretch there are some hellish surprises in store for you; because my interpretation of the Bible says so. What is radical about the philosophers who identified pleasure with goodness, then, is that they brought morality into the real world, there for it to be seen and tested, even quantified.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, was among the first to link the idea of the goodness of pleasure with the essentially social nature of humans. In Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), he made ‘public good’ in and of itself a virtue, necessary for all those who would aspire to dignity and gentlemanliness. And while he argued that it was moral to try to increase the pleasure of others – primarily by means of material generosity – he also said that it felt good to give. Indeed, he held that the joy of increasing pleasure was itself the very highest pleasure. ‘The very outward features, the marks and signs which attend this sort of joy [of giving], are expressive of a more intense, clear, and undisturbed pleasure than those which attend the satisfaction of thirst, hunger, and other ardent appetites.’ This is, I think, a pleasure of the mind, but it is a pleasure of an unusually humane sort – the pleasure of seeing your own humanity in the humanity of others.

Key points

  • Pleasure is ridiculously hard to define, partly because it seems so simple.
  • Plenty of philosophers have been wary of the pleasures of the body and have upheld the pleasures of the mind. Of course, that doesn’t mean they were right.
  • One way of defining pleasure is by viewing it as an absence of pain. This tradition reaches back to Epicurus and continues to be a useful way of defending the pursuit of pleasure.
  • People have often sought pleasure in nature, whether it be to feel the sublime immensity of the world or to get away from all those dickheads back home.
  • Taking pleasure in other people’s pleasure is a sure route to becoming a decent sort of person.

Why it matters

Pleasure and the value of this life

Pleasure is never settled. Indeed, pleasure itself suggests a process, a fluidity, a striving. Pleasure once attained, whether bodily or intellectual, tends not to last. It is pleasing to kick your opponent’s ass at chess; it is pleasing to have finished working out – but, like the great majority of pleasures, these quickly fade, then to be sought after again. It is the seeking – the pursuit – of pleasure that usually matters more than the nature of pleasure itself. Behaviour, always tinged with ethical value, is more shaped by the seeking and maintenance of pleasure than anything else.

Because the value and pursuit of pleasure are such ineluctable parts of how you go about being a human, it deserves serious reflection. Is bodily pleasure too much of a preoccupation? Are you getting enough pleasure overall? Where else can pleasure be sought? And so on. But more than these pragmatic queries, thinking about pleasure can often lead to some downright serious considerations, like this beef Wellington of a question: how much do you value your temporary life on Earth?

That might seem like a dramatic leap, but it’s actually a natural development. Historically, those who have most loudly denounced pleasure are those who claim to view their lives as a temporary stop along the road to eternity. Asceticism doesn’t require that you believe in another world or an afterlife, but it’s far easier to self-flagellate if you do. Ostentatious denunciation of pleasure – especially other people’s pleasure – is a reliable sign of someone who reproaches their own humanness and thinks that real value is to be found beyond the horizons of this Earthly plane. The denial of pleasure goes hand in hand with the denial of value in this life.

And those who enjoy pleasure, who search it out and cultivate it, are naturally more likely to appreciate and value the here-and-now material world. The freethinkers of France in the 17th century well attest to this. They were among the first to loudly value this world at the expense of the next. They set the grandeur and beauty of Earth against the wispy ineffabilities of heaven, and found that they very much preferred the former. Charles de Saint-Évremond embodied the tradition, living well and long, and when he died in 1703, his epitaph read: ‘He was passionately fond of life, knew little of God, and nothing of his soul.’ (It is no surprise to find him condemned by theologians such as Jean Le Clerc as a ‘shallow Epicurean’.)

More incisive than Saint-Évremond was his friend the courtesan and philosopher Ninon de Lenclos. She affirmed, more bravely and beautifully than any contemporary, the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the material world. She outright hated asceticism, particularly its Christian variant, which she felt helped to deny women their rights, because it helped to deny women their pleasures.

Towards the end of her life, she received a letter from Saint-Évremond, which captured her view of the world: ‘Wealth, power, honour, and virtue contribute to our happiness, but the enjoyment of pleasure, let us call it voluptuousness, to sum up everything in a word, is the true aim and purpose to which all human acts are inclined.’ She loved and demanded the pleasures of the world – and made it better in return.

Links & books

The nature of pleasure, pain, and their endless rippling effects on philosophy, is a huge subject, and I can hope to have given only a small taste of it here. For more, I would suggest starting out with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries on pleasure and hedonism – this site is a gold-standard in philosophy, and an excellent place to go for a host of other philosophical topics as well.

On hedonism, Michel Onfray is a very intriguing writer. He’s a Frenchman who’s written some 60 books, many of which have not been translated into English and, as I read only un peu de français, I can’t speak to most of his work. I can, however, recommend his short book A Hedonist Manifesto (2006), translated by Joseph McClellan – lively, polemical, extremely debatable. Onfray argues that hedonism, properly understood, is the best way to live if one really is a thoroughgoing materialist. (A more academic, modern-day defence of hedonism can be found in the work of Fred Feldman.) I have also tackled hedonism in my not-yet-award-winning web series ‘I Hope This Helps’, currently on hiatus.

Catherine Wilson’s book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019) is the most recent entry on this subject, which gives a comprehensive overview of Epicurus, his thought and its application to contemporary problems of life. She also wrote Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction (2015). Both are recommended.

For the history of the idea of pleasure and the many attempts by philosophers to grapple with it, try out Pleasure: A History (2018), edited by Lisa Shapiro. This is an entry in a wonderfully stimulating series called ‘Oxford Philosophical Concepts’ (the series is edited by Christia Mercer). Emily Fletcher’s essay on Plato, ‘Two Platonic Criticisms of Pleasure’, is especially good.

Plato discusses pleasure and its attendant idea of desire in several dialogues, but his most famous meditation is probably on Diotima’s ladder in the Symposium, which you can learn about through this short on Aeon Video.

Aeon magazine has naturally dealt with many of the ideas taken up in this Guide. Of particular note is Julian Baggini’s Idea on the high and low pleasures, and how the low pleasures, in fact, allow us to be ‘fully human’. Daniel Callcut’s Essay ‘Against Moral Sainthood’ dwells on the messiness of life compared with the ethereal perfections of moral categories, and Eric Schwitzgebel’s Essay ‘Cheeseburger Ethics’ calls attention to the fact that ethicists are no more ethical than the rest of us. Over on Aeon Video, check out our interview with Morten Kringelbach on pleasure and the good life.

A bit further afield, Theodore Zeldin’s book An Intimate History of Humanity (1994) deals indirectly with pleasure and pain, but is an absolute treasure trove of acute and surprising observations about the history of our emotional lives and the ways in which we relate to one another. A rare pleasure indeed.

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16 June 2021