Monday, October 13, 2008

Democritus B69

Was Democritus a hedonist? I’m not sure. But here is a Democritean gnomē that I think is worth thinking about carefully in that connection:
B69: ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές• ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλο
“The same thing is good and true for all men. But what is pleasant differs from one to another.”
How much can we infer from this about Democritus’ conception of the relationship between the good and pleasure? It is easy to see why B69 might be taken as a statement of anti-hedonism: what is good hold universally for all people; what is pleasant does not. One might think that it follows that we must not identify pleasure with the good. There is certainly a contrast here between a pair of things which are supposed to be universal for all people – what is good and what is true – and something which is more variable – what is pleasant. In his discussion of the fragment Taylor draws some interesting parallels between this fragment and the more famous Democritean ‘reality’ v. ‘convention’ contrast in B9. [1] The idea, roughly sketched, is that just as we would be wrong to take the straightforward evidence of the senses as reason to think that things are in fact hot, cold, sweet, bitter and the like so we would be wrong to take what we find pleasant as straightforward evidence of what is good. Instead, the truth of the matter is that things are in reality atoms and void and to grasp this requires a degree of rational reflection in addition to, if not in contrast with, simple empirical observation.

Ought we to conclude that what we find pleasant is in fact misleading when it comes to thinking about the good just as what we perceive as hot might be misleading when it comes to thinking about reality most generally? Perhaps the analogue is this: the truth of the matter is that what is good should be grasped with a conception of the overall good of a life, which is a matter for rational reflection of some kind, and not driven solely by episodic perceptions of what is pleasant and what is not. Taylor, I think, is careful to note that the parallelism between the two trains of thought in B9 and B69 is not perfect and also makes this a point in Democritus’ favour; since he think Democritus’ overall epistemology eventually succumbs to a kind of self-refutation, it is better for Democritus if the ethical theory is not similarly vulnerable.

What is the precise import, in that case, of B69’s claim about what is pleasant? The first thing to notice, it seems to me, is that B69 is not after all incompatible with a full-blooded hedonist account of well-being; it merely asserts that, as things are, different people will differ in terms of whether they find some particular object pleasant. Take an example: Annie loves oysters and Bob hates them. This oyster is pleasant to Annie and not to Bob. But since Annie and Bob are both humans then there is one and the same good for both of them. All we are entitled to infer, I think, is that oysters are not the human good or, perhaps better, that the pleasure of eating oysters is not the human good. We are not entitled to infer that pleasure is not the human good. It may well still be the case that pleasure is the human good. But if that were so then Annie and Bob would perhaps pursue this human good by engaging in differing kinds of activities. Perhaps Bob loves chocolate and Annie does not. Nothing prevents us thinking that the pleasure Bob gets from chocolate is the same qua pleasure as that which Annie gets from oysters. In that case there is no reason to think that this pleasure – the one Annie gets from oysters and Bob from chocolate – cannot be the good.

There is still room for Democritus to say that there are some things we find pleasant but ought not to pursue but this too can be done on hedonist grounds. Perhaps Annie would be better acquiring a taste for chocolate since it is cheaper and more readily available. There are also other texts which make it attractive to distinguish between pleasure – hēdonē – and joy or enjoyment – terpsis – and it may be that Democritus did want to deny an identification of hēdonē with the good. But it is hard to make this distinction consistent with everything Democritus says. B191, for example, appears to call for a moderation of terpsis. But B69 does not by itself after all offer strong evidence that Democritus was not a hedonist.

[1] ‘Pleasure, knowledge, and sensation in Democritus’ Phronesis 12, 1967, 6–27 repr. in his Pleasure, mind and soul, Oxford, 2008.

1 comment:

Phil said...

What is good for all men, in fact what is best for them, is euthumia, but most men (foolishly) prefer other pleasures. What’s best for them is also most pleasurable, but again most men don’t recognize this. Just as they think luxuries are the best remedy for hunger and fatigue, while in truth glukutata iamata are barley bread and a straw mattress.
I agree B69 is compatible with an austere & selective hedonism of this sort. Not all pleasures, or all the things that men think are pleasures, are good, but true goods are the most pleasant things.