Monday, February 21, 2011

Pleasant memories of past pains

I’ve been thinking about this comment by Aristotle:

τὰ μὲν οὖν μνημονευτὰ ἡδέα ἐστὶν οὐ μόνον ὅσα ἐν τῷ παρόντι, ὅτε παρῆν, ἡδέα ἦν, ἀλλ’ ἔνια καὶ οὐχ ἡδέα.

But things that are pleasant when remembered are not only those that were pleasant when they were present. But sometimes also things that were not pleasant [sc. when present are pleasant when remembered], provided that what comes after this was fine and good.
Rhetoric 1370a35–b3
What does he mean and is he right? I can imagine that a past painful experience might be a source of pleasure when I remember it because:

(a) I recognise that it is over. Thank goodness! (‘You’ve stopped punching me. Phew! What a relief!)

(b) I recognise now that although it seemed painful at the time, it was in fact not bad at all – perhaps not in comparison with my current state – and perhaps take pleasure in that thought. (‘I thought it was terrible when X dumped me when I was 18, but that seems like heaven compared with what I’m putting up with now.’)

(c) I recognise that various good things resulted from this painful experience. (‘It was awful that X broke up with me, but if she hadn’t done so I would not have met Y and fallen in love...’)

I think (b) and (c) are the most likely given the proviso: ἡδέα ἦν, ἀλλ’ ἔνια καὶ οὐχ ἡδέα, ‘...provided that what comes after this was fine and good.’ But (b) seems odd because it threatens to imply that the past experience wasn’t really painful after all;  and I don’t think Aristotle means to deny that the past experience was indeed painful. And (c) seems odd because just because something good came of the painful past experience does not really mean that I look back on that experience and now take pleasure from it.

Also, is it possible to imagine cases where we can recall with pleasure a past experience even though none of (a)—(c) holds? Can we take pleasure in recalling a past painful experience even if there was no subsequent/consequent good?


magneticus said...

How about fighting in a battle. This is not pleasant at the time. But given that it is the right thing to do, one should, thinking back to it, take pleasure in one's action. Another example: giving birth. This is very painful, so painful that it overlays the pleasurable experience of birthing your child. When you think back, however, you can choose to remember only the pleasant aspect of it. So the idea would be that when you are in a mixed situation the context determines how it appears to you, but when you remember, you have more control over what aspect of the situation you conjure up.

Zētētikos said...

Perhaps there is a fourth option yet to be considered, namely that something you did at the time pained you although in your current state / character it would be pleasant. I'm thinking of a case like this: Suppose I did something kalon, like standing up to face the enemy on the battle field, and I found it painful because at the time I was enkratic and wanted to run (perhaps it was physically painful too-lost an arm and all that). But now that I am truly brave, I find such acts pleasant and I even find it pleasant to remember that particular act although I also remember finding it painful at the time. This situation could be compatible with nothing good coming out of that act (i.e. the polis was overrun, my family slaughtered, etc) although perhaps that makes the thought that I would find it pleasant now less plausible.

Another thought is that Aristotle could be thinking of pleasure in different respects. That is, when I remember some past pain, I don't feel that pain physically any more. That is, I don't feel the stab wounds I received (this depends on how bad they were, I guess). So if I do find a memory painful, it is a different sort of pain than the pain I felt at the time. But this means that it is completely compatible for me to feel pleasure at the memory of a past pain. This is clearest in the cases where we can have a pleasant memory of a past physical pain. There could be several reasons for this - the results produced, the character of the act itself, etc. I think this goes some way to making (c) more plausible.

Hiko said...

I have not read the entire post, but just one thought. Couldn't it be something like this? I don't like it when I have an argument with my wife, and more particularly, say, her irrelevant examples (the ones she uses to make her point) annoy me.

After she has been dead for a couple of years, though, I really miss her, and I even miss her strange examples, since those were so particularly HER. The reminiscence of her strange examples make me nostalgic in a happy way; those times I remember those examples I feel a certain kind of nostalgic pleasure.

What do you think?