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.


Torquatus said...

I think where this is going is that if 'what pleasure is' is known by all then pleasure-as-telos is knowable by all.

- Erik Anderson

P.S. Typo alert: "fire hearts"

Paul said...

how could you explain Epicurus doesn't mention "Prolepsis" in the 24th principal doctrine? thank you

JIW said...

I can't explain why prolêpsis isn't there, but partly because I can't see why it should be there. Do you think it should?

Paul said...

maybe Epicurus doesn't mention "Prolepsis" in the 24th principal doctrine because it is included in the φανταστικὴν ἐπιβολὴν τῆς διανοίας