Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Epicurean joy

I’ve been wondering again about Epicurean hedonism and in particular its claim that painlessness is the highest pleasure. Most people find this implausible and also hard to reconcile with any recognisable hedonism. So there are some interesting attempts to make sense of the Epicurean view. In one particularly interesting article, Purinton [1] argues that katastematic pleasure should be understood as the object of the intentional state of ‘joy’ (khara). Both katastematic pleasure and the various ‘smooth motions’ in body or soul identified as kinetic pleasures, are to be understood as possible objects of joy in this sense. On this account, katastematic pleasure may not immediately ‘feel’ good but rather ‘is’ good and, if we think properly about what we should value, can be an object of joy.

I am not sure this is quite right. One of the most important passages to be addressed is a quotation from Epicurus’ On the telos, found at Plut. Non posse 1089D (Us. 68):

τὸ γὰρ εὐσταθὲς σαρκὸς κατάστημα καὶ τὸ περὶ ταύτης πιστὸν ἔλπισμα τὴν ἀκροτάτην χαρὰν καὶ βεβαιοτάτην ἔχειν τοῖς ἐπιλογίζεσθαι δυναμένοις.

For the well-settled state of the flesh and the trusted expectation of it povide the highest and most secure joy for those able to appraise it.

The most important point to note about this quotation for our present purposes is that joy is closely associated here with the capacity for some kind of calculation of reflection, that is with some kind of rational activity (described as epilogismos) which involves the proper assessment of one’s current and likely future well-being. [2] Joy, in other words, is produced only when one is able rationally to reflect on the well-settled state of one’s body or able to expect that well-settled state to continue in the future. Indeed, the Epicureans regularly remind us that the expectation that painlessness will persist can be a source of present pleasure and that the suspicion that it will not can cause present distress. Consider, for example, SV 33’s insistence that the present absence and expectation of future absence of hunger and the like the ‘cry of the body’. Similarly, doxographic sources regularly contrast the Epicureans and Cyrenaics in terms of the formers’ distinctive acceptance that memory and anticipation can produce pleasure (see e.g. DL 2.89). The conclusion that ‘joy’ is the product of rational activity and assessment is supported by the scholion to Ep. Hdt. 66 in which khara and phobos, fear, are assigned to the workings of the rational part of the soul located in the chest. Most crucially, they are said to be distinct from the pathē such as pleasure and pain. ‘Joy’, on this account, is produced by rational activity and like fear, but unlike the pathē, it will be corrigible. [3] One can be either correct or mistaken in the assessment of one’s current bodily state. It is likely, therefore, that if there is a contrast or distinction to be drawn between ‘joy’ and ‘katastematic pleasure’ then it is not a distinction that makes katastematic pleasure the intentional object of joy, but it is a distinction between different types or sources of pleasure. Joy, we might say, is a positive rational evaluation of one’s present or future state just as its counterpart, fear, is a negative rational evaluation of one’s likely future state. Fear is a kind of pain; so we can infer that joy is a kind of pleasure. But what really distinguishes joy is that it is brought about in a particular fashion. Joy, for example, is not a possible affection of non-rational creatures since they lack the psychic capacity required for the rational evaluation of their current state, let alone the consideration of their future state. But those non-rational creatures may nevertheless experience the pathos of pleasure, indeed the fact that they do so and that it encourages them to act in a particular way is part of Epicurus’ opening, ‘cradle’, argument for the idea that pleasure is the good.

[1] J. Purinton, ‘Epicurus on the telos’, Phronesis 38, 1993, 281–230.

[2] See M. Schofield, ‘Epilogismos: an appraisal’ in M. Frede and G. Striker eds. Rationality in Greek thought (Oxford, 1996).

[3] See D. Konstan, ‘Epicurean ‘passions’ and the good life’ in B. Reis ed. The virtuous life in Greek ethics (Cambridge, 2006).

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