Friday, June 20, 2008

Pleasures and pains of philosophy

There's a recognised difficulty concerning Socrates' account of the pleasures of the philosophical life in Republic IX. The argument around 585 seems most plausible if its aim is to show that the process of satisfying an intellectual need by adding to the immortal soul knowledge of eternal, true, and unchanging Forms, is exquisitely pleasant. It is less plausible as an argument that the possession of philosophical truths is a consistently and long-lasting pleasant state.

If so, however, Socrates may have shown that becoming a philosopher ruler involves these supreme pleasures. He does not show that living as a philosophical ruler also does. Indeed, since this knowledge is not of a sort that would need ever to be re-learned, as it were, these pleasures, however good they are, appear to be a once-in-a-lifetime offer. [1]

Is this a problem? I'm not sure. Perhaps a life which as a whole contains such pleasures at some point in its duration, whatever the later hedonic state of the person, will always as a whole be preferable on hedonic grounds, to a life without such pleasure. Still, we can wonder what the affective life of a philosopher ruler would be like. We are told that in his harmonious soul even the pleasures of the appetite and spirit will be the best they can be (586e4ff.) but what about intellectual pleasures?

I'm not at all sure. I suppose even a philosopher ruler might have new things to learn if his hobbies should turn to a bit of mathematics just to fill in the off-duty hours. And perhaps the active recall and deployment of knowledge has its own pleasures. I can't see that the Republic says very much about this. Socrates is more forthcoming, however, about the discomfort that intellectual achievement involves and it seems to me that there is a very interesting story to be told about Plato's account of the affective aspect of philosophical learning. Certainly, it is disconcerting, even painful, to be made to re-evaluate previously-held opinions and perhaps even to discard wholesale one's general grasp of the world. And it is fairly clear that whatever the other details, a philosopher ruler will only achieve this exalted state after a lengthy and gruelling educational process which involves a dizzying re-consideration of the nature of reality, values, wisdom, expertise, authority, and all manner of other topics the grasp of which informs our everyday business. That is surely part of the message of the Cave analogy which, among other things, emphasises the pain of the ascent.

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). (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).

Is this consistent with saying that even the process of learning philosophical truths is exquisitely pleasant? Perhaps. Socrates might wish to distinguish between two processes: one painful and the other pleasant. 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, there is evidence from other dialogues that the conscious feeling of pain might be linked by Plato not merely to a lack, but to a perceived lack. Not everyone who does not understand higher geometry is concerned by this absence; someone who recognised the lack and, more important, saw that the possession of what is missing would be beneficial, certainly might be so pained. A philosopher, after all, is someone who loves wisdom, desires it and so on. Becoming a philosopher involves recognising what one lacks, valuing it, and striving to possess it.

[1] See e.g. Gosling and Taylor, The Greeks on pleasure, 1982, 122–3.

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