Friday, November 02, 2007

Is poikilia the spice of life?

Some more on Epicurean pleasure. How can the Epicureans persuade us to think that painlessness is itself a pleasure, let alone the greatest pleasure? Torquatus’ attempt to answer the question in Cicero Fin. 2 is brief but important. He reminds Cicero of the Epicurean notion that katastematic pleasure cannot be increased but merely varied (variari) (2.10); the painless state admits of pleasant variation. This variation, somehow, is meant to smooth the acceptance of e.g. the absence of thirst as a genuine form of pleasure. Of course, Cicero will have none of this and offers yet another dilemma – the problem which seems to me to be a genuine and serious one for Epicureanism. Although Torquatus mentioned this variation only briefly, at Fin. 1.38, Cicero has remembered his Epicureanism well enough to be able to point out something which Torquatus has not stressed, namely that this variation is distinct from painlessness and in no way increases the pleasure of painlessness (see KD 18, which is very explicit about this). The painlessness is itself supposed to be the greatest pleasure so Cicero assumes that the variation is a ‘sweet motion on the senses’ (dulcis motus sensibus) and that it is another aspect of kinetic pleasure: it is what happens when someone drinks although they are not thirsty. Cicero does not care to insist on any distinction between the pleasures of drinking when thirsty and the variation of pleasure in drinking when not thirsty. Modern commentators tend to worry about whether either or both are genuine Epicurean kinetic pleasures, but for Cicero both are clear enough cases of sensory motions. And that is all he needs for his argument.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what, precisely, this ‘variation’ might be. The precise nature of this variety or complexity of pleasures once painlessness is reached is not always considered in any detail. But there are two distinct possibilities. First, the variety might be a phenomenological variety – a heterogeneity sometimes stressed as an interesting characteristic of pleasures generally. Alternatively, this variety may lie in the different causes of painlessness. [1] Cicero appears to support the latter view at Fin. 2.10: voluptas etiam varia dici solet cum percipitur e multis dissimilibus rebus (‘Pleasure is usually said to be varied when it is perceived from many unlike things’). But again, it is important to bear in mind that this is Cicero’s own attempt to understand what he says is an obscurity in Epicureanism on the basis of the ‘natural’ understanding of the Latin varietas. Torquatus’ initial introduction of the idea at Fin. 1.38 appears to contrast the differentiation of pleasures ‘by variation’ from the differentiation of pleasures in terms size or magnitude (‘ut postea variari voluptas distinguique possit, augeri amplificarique non possit.’), a contrast which might well point in the direction of qualitative variety. For what it is worth, a first look at the uses of ποίκιλημα and ποικίλος in Philodemus and Epicurus – words cognate with the term for variation used in KD 18 – suggests that it is linked primarily with notions of complexity or qualitative variety as in, for example, the great variety of directions of atomic movement. [2]

Yet another twist, suggested to me this week by Philip Hardie is that the Epicurean stance on variatio is perhaps inspired in contrast with a common literary conceit that variety and complexity in a text or in the language used in a text are prime methods of increasing the audience’s pleasure. I found, for example, Dion. Hal. Comp. 11 and 19 from the first century BC but it might well be a much earlier idea also.

[1] For this view, see Bailey ad KD 18.

[2] See Usener’s Glossarium Epicureum s.vv. Note also Plut. Non posse 1088C.


Choppa said...

As a preliminary and primitive response to this question of pleasure, lack of pain and the highest goal of life, I think the issue of fullness or emptiness should be added in. This subjective feeling is very important when it comes to anxiety and fear.

My hunch is (as I commented earlier) that modern society is fundamentally empty for its citizens, and this alienated state is found/preshadowed in Roman culture - hence its "modernity" and problematic character as compared with the fuller, less alienated Greek culture (Virgil vs Homer).

So in an angst-ridden culture, neutrality (lack of pain) can be experienced as emptiness (existential gulf), whereas in a culture without fundamental anxiety, neutrality may be experienced as full, solid, warm, "in the zone".

So the cat without pain or neurosis feels warm, full and solid. Ticking over nicely. Purring.

Obviously this state covers a range of dynamic conditions, from incipient purrdom to end-of-purr. Finally passing into sleep or renewed exertion to satisfy some resurgent need.

If people could purr this discussion might be a lot easier.

The "joy" associated with reflection and thought then becomes more crucial. Is there any sensual-material correlate? Or is "joy" a kind of intellectually clear purring? Ethereal clarity, or transcendent ecstasy?

And can intellectual joy transcend physical distress? If so, what kind or kinds of physical distress?

Stephen Hawking, Heinrich Heine before he died, any victim of illness, disability or torture?? Where do the boundaries go and how?

How does the warm floating high of a heroin addict correlate to non-drug-induced states of mind/being? Are inner opiates (endorphins) responsible for a philosopher's "joy"? Are they an essential but forgotten/repressed element of nature's intended ideal human life?

Is a mental high our goal, or are we just dwelling in a cultural-historical slough of despond? Our aim not a high but what should be a normal "level"? A level feeling warm, solid and good. So that ups as well as downs are experienced as a distortion of the normal, whether distressing or euphoric?

The distinction sometimes made between "deep mature love" and "infatuation" may well be related.

More questions than answers, but for me a wee bit clearer now. Does this make any sense to you?

Choppa said...

At lunch today I chewed into this a bit more with my friend Tim. The static and kinetic pleasures could perhaps be updated into constant and accelerating / decelerating pleasures (a la Newton), and the constant reworked into a good-enough equilibrium of contradictory forces (nothing being actually static or at rest). All this over a spectrum of values with two imagined poles, with the "equilibrium" and "accelerating" pleasures grouped for convenience of analysis.

Cat pleasures and human pleasures could be compared, using body and brain parameters.

Then the spectrum of animal pleasure and anti-pleasure could be compared to a spectrum of human intellectual pleasure, and feedback effects with intense intellectual pleasure affecting physical pleasure or vice versa, etc, could be noted.

The fullness or emptiness of the existential ground in a person, a culture, or humanity as a whole, could be taken as an indicator of various likely constellations of values for the relevant subject.

The "healthy" individual / culture being regarded as full / solid, and the "unhealthy" as empty / vacuous, this would give us a handy set of guidelines for personal, cultural or social analyses.

In relation to Greece and Rome, it seems almost to point to a breaking point between solid and vacuous located within Plato himself. "Socrates" being full and completely preoccupied with problems related to living the good life, and teasing out an awareness of human fullness from any given individual, and "Plato" being empty and preoccupied with erecting an external framework, a scaffolding within which a good life might be led. The Parthenon versus the Colosseum. Indoskeleton vs exoskeleton. Normal crab vs hermit crab. Polytheism vs monotheism.

Of course in these terms you could also see a movement from imperfect fetishism (human qualities into many gods) to perfect fetishism (human power, material and intellectual, into one almighty and omniscient God). Which Marx saw in a movement from societies split into concrete and disparate bits without uniting concepts such as humanity (instead ruler, citizen, freeman, slave, etc, each distinct in essence) towards more unified societies conceptualizing on the one hand completely abstract humanity (the soul, spiritual equality, Christianity) and on the other completely concrete social relations (money, material / golden equality, Roman Law - all dollars are created equal). A historical / conceptual movement leaving the fusion of abstract and concrete social humanity incomplete and yet to be realized - the concrete equality of all human beings in their social relations (regardless of any social-economic structuring / scaffolding required for the technical implementation of the various productive and reproductive needs of society).

So an appreciation of the quality of Epicurus's painlessness as joy-full might have great implications for our understanding of the relation of, say, Greek and Roman culture to our own preoccupations, individual, social and political. Likewise the emptiness of the Platonic, neo-Platonic and Christian abstract Goods ("pie-in-the-sky") and the mirror-image emptiness of the mechanically materialist Roman and capitalist Goods ("filthy lucre", "moth and rust" etc).

Which leaves an interesting question in relation to the Germanic cultural contribution impingeing on all this over the centuries. If we can draw a parallel between a Goethean fullness and Epicurean (even perhaps Socratic!) existential joy in living, and between Schillerian emptiness and Platonic etc vacuousness and abstraction (leading to a dualistic torment worthy of being labelled "taraxia") we have a pairing conceptualized by Schiller as Naive (eg Goethe and "the Greeks / Homer") versus Sentimental (eg Schiller and "the Romans / Virgil").

About here, we had to scoot back to our respective offices... :-)