Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cyrenaics, art, and pleasure

I've at last managed to get back to thinking about Cyrenaic hedonism. In fact, I have two Cyrenaic projects on the go: (i) a paper on the Cyrenaics in Plutarch's Adversus Colotem for a conference in Lyon in the spring and (ii) a chapter on Cyrenaics for a Companion to Ancient Philosophy (and, yes, I know we need more of them like we need more branches of Tesco, but I thought the Cyrenaics would be an interesting topic to do).

Anyway, I wondered in the summer about this bit of doxography from Diogenes Laertius 2.90:
λέγουσι δὲ μηδὲ κατὰ ψιλὴν τὴν ὅρασιν ἢ τὴν ἀκοὴν γίνεσθαι ἡδονάς. τῶν γοῦν μιμουμένων θρήνους ἡδέως ἀκούομεν, τῶν δὲ κατ' ἀλήθειαν ἀηδῶς.

They say that pleasures do not arise from mere sight or hearing alone. At any rate, we listen with pleasure to those imitating a lament but without pleasure to those who are doing it in truth.

The idea seems to be as follows: proof that pleasure is not generated by mere perceptual experience alone is provided by the fact that two identically sounding performances of a song of lament can produce different hedonic results. We might enjoy listening to someone merely performing a song of mourning, that is: someone who is not in fact themselves in mourning. But we do not take pleasure in listening to someone singing who is genuinely in mourning.

I've now found a related report in Plutarch, who seems to have been quite well informed about the details of Cyrenaic hedonism. This is QC V 674A-B (SSR IV A 206):
ἀνθρώπους μὲν γὰρ ἀποθνήσκοντας καὶ νοσοῦντας ἀνιαρῶς ὁρῶμεν• τὸν δὲ γεγραμμένον Φιλοκτήτην καὶ τὴν πεπλασμένην Ἰοκάστην, ἧς φασιν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον ἀργύρου τι συμμῖξαι τὸν τεχνίτην, ὅπως ἐκλείποντος ἀνθρώπου καὶ μαραινομένου λάβῃ περιφάνειαν ὁ χαλκός, <ἰδόντες> ἡδόμεθα καὶ θαυμάζομεν. τοῦτο δ’’ εἶπον, ‘ἄνδρες Ἐπικούρειοι, καὶ τεκμήριόν ἐστι μέγα τοῖς Κυρηναϊκοῖς πρὸς ὑμᾶς τοῦ μὴ περὶ τὴν ὄψιν εἶναι μηδὲ περὶ τὴν (B.) ἀκοὴν ἀλλὰ περὶ τὴν διάνοιαν ἡμῶν τὸ ἡδόμενον ἐπὶ τοῖς ἀκούσμασι καὶ θεάμασιν. ἀλεκτορὶς γὰρ βοῶσα συνεχῶς καὶ κορώνη λυπηρὸν ἄκουσμα καὶ ἀηδές ἐστιν, ὁ δὲ μιμούμενος ἀλεκτορίδα βοῶσαν καὶ κορώνην εὐφραίνει• καὶ φθισικοὺς μὲν ὁρῶντες δυσχεραίνομεν, ἀνδριάντας δὲ καὶ (5) γραφὰς φθισικῶν ἡδέως θεώμεθα τῷ τὴν διάνοιαν ὑπὸ τῶν μιμημάτων ἄγεσθαι [καὶ] κατὰ τὸ οἰκεῖον.

Here’s a translation, stolen from this site, with the odd modification.

It is unpleasant to see a sick man, or one at his last gasp; yet with pleasure we can look upon the picture of Philoctetes, or the statue of Jocasta, in whose face it is commonly said that the workmen mixed silver, so that the brass might depict the face and color of one ready to faint and expire. And this, said I, the Cyrenaics may use as a strong argument against you Epicureans, that all the sense of pleasure which arises from the working of any object on the ear or eye is not in those organs, but in the intellect itself. Thus the continual cackling of a hen or cawing of a crow is very ungrateful and disturbing; yet he that imitates those noises well pleases the hearers. Thus to behold a consumptive man is no delightful spectacle; yet with pleasure we can view the pictures and statues of such persons, because the very imitating has something in it very agreeable to the mind, which allures and captivates its faculties.

This whole section has the title: Why We Take Delight in Hearing Those that Represent the Passions of Men Angry or Sorrowful, and Yet Cannot Without Concern Behold Those Who are Really So Affected? It’s interesting in itself for the questions it raises about aesthetic pleasure taken in depictions of suffering but I am particularly interested in the signs here of a perceived debate between the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics. The Cyrenaics, it seems, were of the opinion that the pleasure is generated not in the sense organs but in the soul (here Plutarch uses dianoia but there is no reason, I think, to assume that this was original Cyrenaic terminology and rather more reason to think it is Plutarch’s own Platonist vocabulary). And if that is what they wanted to show then this is rather a good argument: two phenomenologically identical experiences (e.g. hearing (i) a crow and (ii) someone imitating the call of a crow) may reasonably cause different hedonic responses because of a person’s understanding of the situation. It is possible to appreciate the skill of the imitator – or a sculptor – and take pleasure in the creation even though it depicts something which would be an the cause of discomfort or even distress if perceived directly.

1 comment:

Skiourophile said...

Tangential (and Latin) on imitation vs. real animal noises: Phaedrus Fables 5.5 (e.g. The Clown, the Farmer and the Pig - deadly translation tho'). Henderson (Telling Tales on Caesar) has an appendix (119-128) on it with your Plutarch bit.