Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Just feel it

I am looking back at Cicero Fin. 1 and 2 and the portrayal there of the Epicurean notion of pleasure. Today I spent some time thinking about this bit:
itaque negat [sc. Epicurus] opus esse ratione neque disputatione quam ob rem voluptas expetenda, fugiendus dolor sit: sentiri haec putat, ut calere ignem, nivem esse albam, dulce mel, quorum nihil oportere exquisitis rationibus confirmate, tantum satis esse admonere.

So Epicurus denies there is any need for reasoning or argument to show why pleasure should be pursued and pain avoided: he thinks these can be perceived just as the fact that fire heats, snow is cold, and honey sweet. In these cases there is no need for elaborate arguments for confirmation; it is enough simply to point them out.

Fin. 1.30

Torquatus notes (in 1.31) that this is something of a controversial point and that other Epicureans have thought that it is necessary also to give some further reasoned justification for the choice-worthiness of pleasure. But to his mind, the value of pleasure is simply and directly perceived (sentiri), a point no doubt also made by the Epicureans’ identification of the pathē as one of the criteria of truth. Indeed, the suspicion that Torquatus is here relying on some basic points of Epicurean epistemology is confirmed by the other examples offered of things supposedly made clear and evident simply via the senses. But these examples set me wondering precisely what position about pleasure is supposed to be headed off by the optimistically robust empiricism Torquatus assumes.

Whether honey is indeed sweet, for example, is one of the most common questions to which sceptical thinkers with various degrees of caution or suspension of judgement. In that case, the general stance is that given the possibility that honey may not appear sweet to some people at some times, it is not wise to infer that honey is indeed sweet even in the cases when it does indeed appear so via the senses. Similarly, Timon, for example, declares in On the Senses (at DL 9.105) ‘that honey is sweet I do not assert, but that it appears sweet I do accept’.

It is not immediately clear, however, how an analogous argument might function in the case of pleasure. It is possible to see how the same object or activity may not always produce pleasure in all perceivers and that therefore it might be wise not to infer immediately that such and such a thing is pleasant. But the argument here concerns not the question whether some object or other is pleasant but the choice-worthiness of pleasure in general.

In that case, it seems to me that the idea which Torquatus wishes to reject is perhaps the following: some experiences of pleasure appear choice-worthy while others do not, and from this observation we should suspend judgement about the choice-worthy nature of pleasure itself. If that is the argument being answered here the Epicurean answer would be two-fold: first, they might appeal to their general resources of anti-sceptical argument; second, they will account for the false appearance of non-choice-worthy pleasures with just the kind of argument which Torquatus goes on to give at 1.32–3 which defends the per se choice-worthiness of pleasure while allowing that certain pleasures are not to be pursued on hedonistic grounds.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


It snowed just a little this morning. Quite nice to look at if not to be in. So I began to think about Christmas (groan) but decided the thing to do is to work out if there are any really bearable Christmas songs. I've not got very far because most of them are awful. But besides the obvious Pogues Fairytale of New York I could manage Saint Etienne's I was born on Christmas Day (watch that here... ahh, Sarah Cracknell...) and Galaxie 500's version of Yoko Ono's Listen the snow is falling (mp3 here -- download it and let it wash over you). Incidentally, a big shot out to Bill Tieman who bought me The Portable Galaxie 500 some time ago. I'd missed them first time round but they are terrific. Any other contenders?

And here's some more Galaxie 500 while I'm at it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy world philosophy day

Really; UNESCO says so. The details are here. The BBC has helpfully suggested some philosophical questions to 'make your brain hurt' here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Good grief

Lord Drayson, a science -- that's science -- minister says that he has a sixth sense. In an interview in yesterday's Times he says
"In my life there have been some things I have known, and I don’t know why. I think there is a lot we don’t understand about human capability."
Well, fancy that. I reckon my four year old can predict that when she lets go of a cup it will fall. But I certainly haven't taught her about gravitational attraction and I'm pretty sure no one else has. How has she learned it, then? Spooky!

What a load of nonsense. (I include in the nonsense some of the reporting, including this from the Torygraph with its barbed final paragraph.) I'm sure Lord Drayson isn't claiming super powers for himself, but what he is pointing to is hardly very astounding. It turns out people sometimes believe things without conclusive evidence. What this does not suggest, however, is that it is OK to believe anything you fancy and not be liable to the critical evaluation and improvement of your beliefs. Otherwise, where would we be? We'd end up putting people in the House of Lords, say, who believe all sorts of strange unfounded tales about supernatural beings and out of body experiences and thinking it's a good idea to let them have a say on matters of national importance. What? Oh....

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I'm not feeling well enough to write about anything demanding today but I did find this, which is a trailer for the last series of Outnumbered, which began its second run yesterday. Last night's episode was more like a documentary as far as I was concerned, having just had to endure the stresses of two little girls being bridesmaids at a friend's wedding. But anyway, if you haven't watched it you really should.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Arisotle, love, and pleasure

Some more thoughts on Aristotle and Plato on pleasure and their interest in using homosexual erotic relationships as examples of a cause of pleasure and as a means of illustrating how to think about the nature of pleasure itself... Aristotle offers further evidence of a detailed engagement with Platonic accounts of love and pleasure at NE 1157a1–12. Here, Aristotle is contrasting the virtuous kind of friendship (philia) with other forms on the grounds that it is much more stable and lasting since each member of the relationship receives the same things from the other.
ἡ δὲ διὰ τὸ ἡδὺ ὁμοίωμα ταύτης ἔχει· καὶ γὰρ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ ἡδεῖς ἀλλήλοις. ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἡ διὰ τὸ χρήσιμον· καὶ γὰρ τοιοῦτοι ἀλλήλοις οἱ ἀγαθοί. μάλιστα δὲ καὶ ἐν τούτοις αἱ φιλίαι μένουσιν, ὅταν τὸ αὐτὸ γίνηται παρ’ ἀλλήλων, οἷον (5) ἡδονή, καὶ μὴ μόνον οὕτως ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτοῦ, οἷον τοῖς εὐτραπέλοις, καὶ μὴ ὡς ἐραστῇ καὶ ἐρωμένῳ. οὐ γὰρ ἐπὶ τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἥδονται οὗτοι, ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ὁρῶν ἐκεῖνον, ὃ δὲ θεραπευόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ ἐραστοῦ· ληγούσης δὲ τῆς ὥρας ἐνίοτε καὶ ἡ φιλία λήγει (τῷ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἡδεῖα ἡ (10) ὄψις, τῷ δ’ οὐ γίνεται ἡ θεραπεία)· πολλοὶ δ’ αὖ διαμένουσιν, ἐὰν ἐκ τῆς συνηθείας τὰ ἤθη στέρξωσιν, ὁμοήθεις ὄντες.

Friendship based on pleasure is similar to this one [sc. one based on virtue] for good men also are pleasing to one another. (Similarly friendship based on the useful, because good men are also useful to one another.) Friendships last especially in those cases when the same thing is shared between them, such as pleasure. But not just that; also pleasure from the same thing, for example as with witty people and not as with a lover and beloved. For these two do not take pleasure in the same things, but the former in seeing the latter, the latter is being cultivated by the lover. And sometimes when the bloom of youth fades so too does the friendship (for the appearance is no longer pleasant to the lover and the beloved is no longer cultivated). But many do remain friends, provided as a result of familiarity they enjoy each other’s character, now that they have become alike.
Aristotle offers a rather complicated analysis of different kinds of intimate relationship which may involve the taking of pleasure by both sides, by only one or, perhaps, by neither. At this point of his discussion he is comparing and contrasting cases in which a friendship is based, at least initially, on pleasure, with those which are based on either the good character of the friends or on some utility which one provides the other. In some ways, some examples of pleasure friendships are like those based on good character. For example, friendships based on pleasure can be as stable as friendships based on virtue, provided that the two members continue to take pleasure in the same things. (Virtuous people will take pleasure in the same things and so a virtuous friendship will also involve many experiences of pleasure, even though pleasure is not the grounds of the friendship.) Aristotle contrasts such a stable friendship based on pleasure with the case of a relationship between a lover and a beloved since in the latter case Aristotle says that although both members of the pair may take pleasure from the relationships, their pleasures come from different sources. For the older lover the pleasure comes from his seeing the beloved, whereas the beloved may take pleasure in being cared for and cultivated (therapeumenos) by his lover. What’s more, Aristotle insists that such erotic relationships are temporary since they depend on the particular and transitory youthful beauty.

At 1157a9 Aristotle uses the same word for the youthful beauty of the beloved –
ρα – as he does in the simile illustrating the relationship between pleasure and activity at NE 1174b33 which further confirms the assumption that in that simile Aristotle is indeed using familiar terms of praise for a young beloved.It also confirms the suspicion that in the passage in book X the intended analogy is between the perceived outward pleasing appearance of a beloved young man and the perceived pleasure attendant on a particular activity. In his analysis of the philia between lover and beloved, Aristotle then points out that when the beauty disappears so does the lover’s pleasure in viewing the beloved and when the lover no longer offers the same kind of attention to the beloved then the beloved’s pleasure from the relationship also ceases. Often, when youthful beauty fades, since the relationship is grounded on the respective pleasures each takes, so too does the relationship itself unless it has been replaced by a more lasting tie based on familiarity (1157b10–12). This in turn contrasts with another kind of erotic relationship in which the two partners exchange favours of utility rather than pleasure (b12–14).This final form of erotic relationship is most unstable because, as Aristotle curtly notes, the two are not philoi of one another but only of the gain they might take from the relationship. Once that opportunity has disappeared, so too has the relationship.Aristotle may well be offering his analysis on the basis of what he considered to be generally acceptable accounts of how interpersonal relationship in fact differ and develop. All the same, as he wrote this passage he can hardly have been unaware of a Platonic antecedent of his discussion of the differences between the exchange of pleasures between lover and beloved and something more focussed on character and perhaps even virtue. Indeed, Plato appears to have been very fond not only of this particular theme but also of the metaphorical use of the term ὥρα to refer to the particular bloom of youth displayed by the beloved. The most obvious antecedent for Aristotle’s account of this form of philia, as Burnet notes in his commentary on NE 8.4, is Pausanias’ speech in the Symposium, particularly 183d8–e6. So that is where I will go next.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Love and pleasure

At some point this summer I got interested in exploring a link between Philebus 53d-e and Aristotle EN 1174b31-3. I even got round to posting something about it here before things got derailed. Anyway, we got to that bit of Philebus in a lecture today so it spurred me on to think again about it. It turns out that part of why I got derailed over the summer was that I got very perplexed about the passage so perhaps I might turn to my good reader(s) for clarification. The passage in question is this:
ΣΩ. Ἐστὸν δή τινε δύο, τὸ μὲν αὐτὸ καθ’ αὑτό, τὸ δ’ ἀεὶ ἐφιέμενον ἄλλου.

ΠΡΩ. Πῶς τούτω καὶ τίνε λέγεις;

ΣΩ. Τὸ μὲν σεμνότατον ἀεὶ πεφυκός, τὸ δ’ ἐλλιπὲς ἐκείνου.

ΠΡΩ. Λέγ’ ἔτι σαφέστερον.

ΣΩ. Παιδικά που καλὰ καὶ ἀγαθὰ τεθεωρήκαμεν ἅμα καὶ ἐραστὰς ἀνδρείους αὐτῶν.

ΠΡΩ. Σφόδρα γε.

ΣΩ Τούτοις τοίνυν ἐοικότα δυοῖν οὖσι δύο ἄλλα ζήτει κατὰ πάνθ’ ὅσα λέγομεν εἶναι.

Soc. Let there be this pair: what is itself, by itself, and what is always aiming at something else.

Prot. What are these two you are talking about and what are they like?

Soc. The one is always by nature the most holy and the other lacks it.

Prot. Be clearer still, please.

Soc. I suppose we have seen beautiful and good young boys together with their brave lovers.

Prot. Certainly.

Soc. Then now look for another pair of things that are like these two in all the ways we are mentioning.

Given the classification to come between things that are geneseis and things that are ousiai, which is also meant to map a distinction between things that are for-the-sake-of something else and those for whose sake are other things (such as how ship-building stands to a ship) we should expect the relationship of beloved : lover or, to use the standard Greek terms, erōmenos : erastēs to function analogously to that of ousia : genesis. Pleasure will be assigned to the class of geneseis. Most importantly, therefore, it is the lover who is aligned with pleasure and ‘becoming’ while the beloved is aligned with a completion or goal and with ‘being’.

So I wondered whether that is indeed how we are supposed to interpret the erotic analogy. And this is as far as I have got. That the correct alignment is lover-genesis beloved-ousia can be supported by a variety of notions which build on a common, albeit perhaps idealised, picture of the lover–beloved relationship and also various conceptions of the lover–beloved relationship which can be found either in the surrounding context of the Philebus or elsewhere in Platonic texts:

1. It is the beloved who is here described in terms which refer to his beauty and goodness.

When Socrates finally explains the ousiagenesis distinction in terms of the value of the members of the two classes, he insists that ‘that for the sake of which something comes to be’ should be put in the class (moira) of goods while pleasure, if it is a kind of coming-to-be, ought to be placed in a different class and is therefore not a good (54c9–d3).

2. The beloved is the object of the lover’s aims and desires. It is ‘for the sake of’ the beloved that the lover undertakes various tasks, performs various acts and so on.

3. It is the lover, not the beloved, who feels desire. And desire is often figured as a kind of lack of absence. So in this sense, qua lover he is lacking.

Lack or deficiency is a characteristic of the genesis class of things (54d6–7) and is made a defining feature of the lover by Plato most obviously in the Symposium.

4. It is the lover, not the beloved, who is generally understood to take pleasure in the relationship.

This is not such a clear case. See, for example, Phaedrus 240d. To be sure, the context here is a speech in which the aim is to persuade the young man that he is better off taking up with someone who is not his lover, but the rhetorical tropes must be to some extent plausible to a general Athenian audience for the speech to be effective. Nevertheless, despite some exceptional cases, which are often intended as grotesque inversions of the norm, it is generally speaking the erastēs who is considered to take pleasure in any intercourse.

So that is as far as I have got so far. My next port of call is going to be Aristotle's analysis of philia and pleasure which also refers to these erotic relationships.