Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What about Cicero?

I've been spending some time thinking about Cicero's presentation of Epicurean hedonism, particularly at the beginning of Fin. 2. In particular, I've been wondering whether the problems he raises there for the Epicurean identification of painlessness with the highest state of pleasure are telling. Certainly, it is an odd identification to make and the attempts made by the Epicurean spokesman, Torquatus, to defend it do not seem to be very promising.

Yet, there is a problem. Quite a few commentators, Gosling and Taylor in their 1982 The Greeks on pleasure in particular, are very hard on Cicero and his tactics. They find his emphasis on the Epicureans' interest in 'kinetic' pleasures unnecessary and even go so far as to claim that Cicero is himself mistaken in making such a deal out of a distinction between the pleasures of painlessness and the sensory pleasures involved in satisfying a need. For these commentators, that is not the central distinction in Epicurean hedonism and Cicero has distorted matters for his own polemical purposes.

Now, I'm not sure if I understand the Epicurean notion of pleasure well enough to know whether this accusation is right. One of the problems, of course, is that Cicero is one of our fullest accounts of Epicurean ideas about pleasure and I find it hard to be sure that we have a sound and accurate picture against which we can compare him and find him wanting. The other evidence is similarly polemical (e.g. Plutarch) or else very scrappy and ripped from any sort of useful context (e.g. the quotations in Cicero and Plutarch; the fragment at Diog. Laert. 10.136).

So how do we proceed? I suppose we need to do three things. First we need to have a clear account of precisely what Cicero's argument is in texts like the opening of Fin. 2 and we need to construct as part of this process an account of what Cicero's understanding of Epicurean pleasure is. We should do the same for Plutarch, and any other source. Second, we need to do a thorough linguistic and philosophical analysis of the scrappy bits of genuine Epicurean material which survive and -- if possible -- see if they can be pieced together into a consistent, though perhaps gappy, whole. Third, we need to do some genuine philosophical inquiry ourselves. For example, we might ask whether we can come to a satisfying account of what pleasure is or, failing that, some picture of the various possible options and what the consequences of each of them is. So, what if we abandon the idea of pleasure as somehow related to perception? Must pleasure be associated with a certain kind of phenomenological 'feel'? If not, what can we say about it? This third part of the process will help to set down some parameters to guide our thinking about what is and is not a plausible or even possible opinion to hold on the question of pleasure.

Finally, we have to put the results of all three kinds of inquiry side by side and see how they relate to one another. Does Cicero's argument, for example, show that he is committed to a view of Epicurean pleasure which is evidently incompatible with the primary Epicurean evidence? If not, is the Epicurean evidence compatible both with Cicero's argument and also with other conceptions of pleasure which are less susceptible to his criticisms? Does either Cicero's attack on Epicurus or the likely Epicurean picture itself offer anything like a plausible conception of pleasure, judged independently?

This is a laborious business, to be sure. And it requires a great deal of both philological and philosophical skill. But it seems to me that this is something like the ideal methodology for approaching this kind of question: we certainly cannot simply legislate that Cicero must be biased and disregard his criticisms as a result. Fortunately, the enterprise as a whole is something that can be pursued collaboratively -- some providing part of the picture and others other parts. And it is something which can proceed gradually, always open to revising the results offered so far. But, considered with my best rose-tinted specs on, that is how I think good ancient philosophy is done.

1 comment:

Choppa said...

Hm. Painlessness might be the sine qua non of "full" pleasure. In the sense that Kant went on about the "capacity for happiness" being the important thing, not "happiness" itself as such. So maybe we should consider the preconditions for pleasure, and the detriments to it.

Like, say, a violin requires a certain degree of "painlessness" qua violin to be playable. But some violins play better than others. A fuller pleasure. The trade-off between pain and pleasure in learning to play will affect the degree of skill and pleasure attainable by a (would-be) violinist. A listener's effort and acquired tastes will affect the pleasure given by a performance.

How should we view Beethoven's pain-pleasure spectrum re the Ninth, in composition and in performance, with regard to his deafness?

Will a "painless" individual have the free-flowing emotions that make a full experience of the moment possible? Could this be the highest pleasure, or its precondition? If so, how can we discuss this sensibly in a society in which individual experience is so frustrated and inhibited and contradictory that "free-flowing emotions" are never the first thing that springs to mind as, say, the definition of a healthy mind. I think this was what Fromm was trying to get at in The Art of Loving. And the Gestalt school, too.

And this might be one way of attacking the problem you pose regarding the Epicurean understanding of pleasure. I mean, were the Romans in Roman society at all capable of appreciating the experience of Presence and the Now so seductive to the Greeks. Lucretius's flaying of stressed-out Roman citizens running away from themselves indicates that they weren't, and that was early days.

The schools of Plato and Pythagoras and other Idealists hint that alienation was already bursting into full bloom among the most classical of Greeks, but earlier and less dichotic work (Sappho, Homer, the dramatists, hell, even Aristotle despite his dryness) open up a rich and juicy world of feeling and thought. A capacity for pleasure neither the Platonists nor we can really appreciate, or perhaps even conceive of.

There is a similar trajectory in Marx's pivotal work Grundrisse. Movement from the relation of humanity to the world as such (introduction), to the major historical epochs (pre-capitalist economic formations), and to the alienated and estranged world of bourgeois/capitalist society (money, capital). The preconditions for the development of humanity as a biological, productive (tool-using), social, cultural species.

Big questions!