Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is a philosophical life pleasant?

I’ve been bothered by an argument in Plato Republic IX in favour of the philosophical life being the most pleasant (585aff.). In short, the problem seems to be that much of the argument plausible only on the understanding that pleasure is a kind of replenishing of a desire or lack, that it is a process and therefore episodic. To be sure, we might understand ignorance as a state of cognitive lack much as hunger is a state of bodily lack, but if pleasure is associated with the process of replenishing that lack, there seems no other conclusion possible than that the pleasures of replenishing the soul – exquisite and intense though they might be since they are trained on pure and true objects – will be experienced only while the philosopher is acquiring knowledge. What pleasures of this kind will be left for the philosopher once he has the understanding he requires? If, in other words, pleasure ceases when the process of replenishing ends, then ‘the more successful a philosopher is, the sooner his life will cease to be pleasant’ [1].

Here is how I think Socrates might reply. First, we should remember the assertion at 586e4–587a2 that only in the light of the rule of reason in the soul is a person able to experience appetitive and spirited pleasures of the purest and truest variety available. Of course, these pleasures are never going to be pure and true in the sense that the intellectual pleasures are, but nevertheless this passage serves as an important reminder that the philosopher will also continue to enjoy the pleasures of eating and so on and, more to the point, we are assured that because of the harmonious arrangement of his soul and the fact that therefore his desires are all marshalled and arranged by reason sub specie boni, he will be able to do so to the greatest extent possible for any person. In contrast, when one of the other parts of the soul is dominant, it forces its fellow soul-parts to pursue pleasures which are alien to them (587a4–6).

Second, it is also worth noting that elsewhere in the Republic Socrates demonstrates a more subtle and nuanced understanding of the affective experience of intellectual discovery and of the acquisition and use of philosophical knowledge. Concerns about the hedonic life of the philosopher ought therefore to take into account other passages in the work. For example, the description of the ascent from the cave emphasises not the pleasures of discovery and the satisfaction of intellectual lack but, quite the opposite, the dizzying and startling effect produced by the taxing and disorienting acquisition of a new perspective on reality and value. Indeed, Socrates repeatedly notes the pain and discomfort felt by the man on his way up out of the cave as the new bright light and the journey take their toll (ἀλγοῖ 518c8; ἀλγεῖν 515e1; ὀδυνᾶσθαι 515e7). Perhaps the pain is caused by the sudden realisation of prior ignorance or misapprehension, the sudden recognition of a previously unnoticed lack (much as in many of the ‘early’ dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors voice annoyance and anger at being reduced to aporia); certainly, the process of intellectual progress is not unremittingly pleasant [2].

On other occasions, Socrates is much more upbeat about the pleasures of intellectual discovery. See, for example, his description of the ‘philosophical natures’ at 485aff., especially 485d10–e1. These people, fitted with all the necessary traits of character to allow them to be potential philosopher rulers desire ‘the pleasure of the soul itself by itself’ (τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἡδονὴν αὐτῆς καθ αὑτὴν), a description very reminiscent of book IX’s characterisation of the pure and true pleasures at 585bff. Certainly, the Republic contains a complex and varied story of the affective aspects of intellectual advancement, beyond the arguments concerning pleasure in book IX. And we might also imagine that even the accomplished philosopher’s intellectual life would display a similarly complex affective aspect. The objection in hand concerns his hedonic state in particular and, true enough, it is plausible to imagine that he will not experience any more the exquisite pleasures of new intellectual discoveries once he has come to know and understand the Forms in the light of the Good itself. But, even now, he might be able to recall or turn his attention to one or another piece of knowledge or otherwise review in his mind’s eye the arrangement of the Forms as a geometer might revisit a deductive proof. He might also deploy his understanding in novel ways as circumstances demand (see e.g. 540a–b).

Indeed, there are signs that Socrates is happy to imagine both the process of learning and the state of possessing knowledge to be pleasant, however we might characterise the precise nature of that latter possibility. Just before our stretch of text, in the discussion of the choice between the three different lives, Socrates characterises the philosopher’s perspective as follows:

Τν δ φιλσοφον, ν δ’ γ, τ οἰώμεθα τς λλας δονς νομζειν πρς τν το εδναι τληθς π χει κα ν τοιοτ τιν ε εναι μανθνοντα;
And how are we to think that the philosopher considers the other pleasures in comparison with that of knowing where the truth is and always being in some such state when learning? (581d9–e1)

True, the philosopher being considered here is still interested in the pleasures of learning and the love of learning is what Socrates uses to characterise such a person (581b10–11). But there is also, evidently, a pleasure which is to be associated with the possession of some kind of knowledge. What that knowledge is, precisely, in this case is not so clear. In all likelihood, it is the knowledge of where truth is in the sense of knowing how to go about acquiring truths or, so to speak, where to go looking for them rather than knowledge of the kind that distinguishes fully-fledged philosopher rulers from everyone else. Nevertheless, although it is not easy to see how one might assimilate the possession of knowledge or the revisiting and refreshing of already acquired truths to the model of lack and replenishment brought to the fore in these arguments of book IX, there is good reason in principle to imagine that the life of the fully-fledged philosopher will be full of intellectual as well as appetitive and spirited pleasures.

[1] Gosling and Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford, 1982), 122–3.

[2] Note also the reference to the philosopher’s ‘birth pangs’ as he struggles to grasp each thing’s nature (490a–b). Once he has achieved the goal of his intellectual desire he then would understand and truly live and be nourished and, in this way, be relieved of his pain’ (γνοίη τε καὶ ἀληθῶς ζῴη καὶ τρέφοιτο καὶ οὕτω λήγοι ὠδῖνος 490b6–7). Compare Diotima’s assertion that those who have ascended to grasp Beauty itself will be able to engage in satisfying acts of creation: Symp. 211e–12a


Choppa said...

I've got a suspicion that this business of philosophical pleasure has a lot to do with the process of fetishization so central to Marx's thinking. Non-living things take on properties of living things (capital grows, money generates profit, commodities beckon and wink and generally behave most whorishly ;-)) and living things are emptied of these properties that are transferred to lifeless things/idols (the productive power of human labour is transferred to capital, and the bare, forked labour power of an individual is regarded as an expensive and irksome cost of production).

The things/idols being invested with living properties in Plato’s (the philosophical?) case here are the Forms, the Ideality of the Substance, and the beings losing these properties are us, the enlightened philosophers :-)

Leaving the Cave is the solemn procession from our joy and light at living and understanding to the darkness and misery of death and obscurantism (give me Homer's vision any day!). A very sophistical and plausible turning of black into white and vice versa, one of the great Inversions.

Now, I have a personal story to tell about this. One spring, as a reluctantly conforming adolescent, just having been confirmed, I experienced the most amazing joy/pleasure/euphoria seeing the copper beeches burst into leaf in our local park. "Nature can do this itself", was the message that rang in my head.

More or less simultaneously I had some intense dreams involving the edge of the universe as bricks/breeze blocks of light. I was Lucretius's javelin thrower without the javelin. But the message, crude as it was, hit home — "boundless".

So, I think something of this kind, and like the joys of advanced meditation I've heard of, and like the thrill of cracking a problem great or small, and of a victory no one can ever take from you — all this rolled into one and always there must be the sublime pleasure enticing our philosophers and poets (biggest highs there possibly Lucretius and Dante).

Only Lucretius was here and now, while Dante was clearly high on his vision here and now (e quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle!!) but also fetishizing like billy-o in Paradise:

"ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
se non che la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.

A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa,

l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."

"But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars."

(Quotes from WikiSource)

"Substance and accident, and their operations, all interfused together... one simple light" — the geometrician squaring the circle — all this tremendous intellectual joy and pleasure is located about as far from normal human experience as could be imagined. Not only that, but even there it needs a thunderbolt (like Dr Frankenstein) to get things moving.

So maybe God-drunk Spinoza was on to something with his Deus sive Natura, a great vision of unity, which Hegel later articulated but at the same time bureaucratized as the self-realization of the Spirit in the World. Cosmic ecstasy forcing itself on our minds and into our bodies — and then out into action changing the world in Marx.

And the same cosmic ecstasy punishes us if we meet it on anything less than the highest level of our species-being — or perhaps not so much punishes, as threatens to tear us to pieces, shred us in the grinding social-historical millwheels of contradiction — Orpheus ripped apart by Maenads, The Who dissolving their minds as they rattle through Clapham Junction:

"Inside outside. leave me alone.
Inside outside. leave me alone.
Inside outside. nowhere is home.
Inside outside. nowhere is home.
Inside outside, where have I been?
Inside outside, where have I been?
Out of my brain on the five fifteen.
Out of my brain on the five fifteen."

Hm. Again — not particularly thin conclusions ;-)

But perhaps the highest joy we are capable of deserves a broad approach?

Katalepsis said...

Forgive me for being very brief.
I don't see a problem with focusing on acquring knowledge as the pleasure of the philosophical life. For Plato the knowledge the philosopher pursues is not limited. It includes all of the math and the sciences, for example. The philosopher will never run out of new things to pursue and learn.
Other views of the philosophical enterprise ( Austin, Wittgenstein) may have this problem. Plato doesn't.
Scholarship may have this problem. 25-30 years of doing Aristotelian ethics may exhaust that topic. Ne plus ultra, and so the end of the pleasures of Aristotelian scholarship.
I don't know what the pleasures of possessing knowledge are. I understand the pleasures of learning to apply your knowledge in new ways. Surely this is the inducement offered to the Guardians for their civic labors. But I dont understand the pleasures of merely possessing knowledge.