Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cynic pleasure

I've been trying to piece together what the Cynics think about pleasure, but it's not at all easy. Here’s a first set of thoughts.

Diogenes Laertius (6.71) says this is the view of Diogenes of Sinope:

καὶ γὰρ αὐτῆς τῆς ἡδονῆς καταφρόνησις ἡδυτάτη προμελετηθεῖσα, καὶ ὥσπερ οἱ συνεθισθέντες ἡδέως ζῆν, ἀηδῶς ἐπὶ τοὐναντίον μετίασιν, οὕτως οἱ τοὐναντίον ἀσκηθέντες ἥδιον αὐτῶν τῶν ἡδονῶν καταφρονοῦσι.

(1) For even the despising of pleasure is itself the most pleasurable, when we are accustomed to it; (2) and just as those who are accustomed to a life of pleasure find it unpleasant when they pass over the opposite, so those whose training has been of the opposite kind derive more pleasure from despising pleasure than from the pleasures themselves (trans. Hicks, lightly modified; I've added (1) and (2) for reference).

I think I can understand (1) although it is clearly phrased in a deliberately paradoxical fashion. I suppose it says that after a time the very practice of denying yourself indulgences can become something pleasant. Perhaps you begin to take pleasure in the fact of your self-control. You begin to enjoy the state of mind you reach now that you are no longer busy pursuing pleasure. We might even say that there are two kinds of pleasure involved here: (a) pleasure of the sort that most people enjoy, and (b) pleasure of the sort enjoyed only as a result of disdaining pleasures of type (a). Now, here’s a thought: Pleasures of type (b), we must further suppose, must be somehow sufficiently different from pleasures of type (a) as to be acceptable and not deserving of a similar kind of meta-disdain, for fear of a regress. (You can imagine a particularly hard-line ascetic scolding a student who dares to say that he is in fact taking pleasure in his disdaining pleasure...) This seems like a coherent thought, though not a very persuasive one. I suppose the idea behind (1) as a whole is that it allows a response to an objection based on the notion that the life Diogenes recommends on other grounds (e.g. that it is a ‘natural’ life) looks inhumanly devoid of pleasure. Not so, comes the reply, since the disdain of pleasure can itself provide pleasure. But in that case, pleasures of type (b) cannot be so different from pleasures of type (a) that they won’t do as an answer to this kind of objection.

What about (2)? The analogy appears to be between a hedonist who feels disgust when forced into temporary asceticism and an ascetic who, we are told, takes less enjoyment from an indulgent night out than from a night in despising pleasure in the way elaborated in (1). In both cases, the life one is accustomed to makes it unpleasant to live, however temporarily, in an alternative way. So the hedonist will feel that his very way of life is being denied and will find it unpleasant, that is to say less choice-worthy in terms of what he finds valuable, namely pleasure. But Diogenes also wants to say that the ascetic, on the other hand, if made to life the life of a hedonist, will find that life unpleasant compared with his own. But is this why he doesn’t want to live such a life? Presumably not; because it is not, I suppose, in order to experience the pleasures of disdaining pleasures (as in (1)) that the ascetic takes up his asceticism.

1 comment:

JIW said...

NCD comments:

There are similar delicacies in Diogenes Laertius 6.26, on the pomposity shown in despising pomposity, and also in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 9.8, on the selflessness or selfishness of the virtuous man. It can be that by dying for his friends he acquires for himself something large and splendid, larger and more splendid than he would have had if he had lived .But he might even, on occasion, do something splendid, by allowing his friend the opportunity of doing the splendid deed, instead of grabbing the glory for himself.

I have observed the same logical structure when dealing with friends who are poorer than I am: sometimes I have been generous by letting them have the pleasure of treating me.