The Joy of Zadie Smith and Thomas Aquinas


Gary Gutting in the NYT's The Stone:

What place does pleasure have in a good life? Should we, following Epicurus and John Stuart Mill, take maximal pleasure as our overriding goal? Or are there higher moral values that trump pleasure?

In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books the writer Zadie Smith suggests that joy is essentially different from and humanly more important than pleasure. In her experience, pleasure is a part of daily life, particularly through “small pleasures” (she mentions eating and people-watching) that “go a long way” in giving her satisfaction. But joy is very different; it gives “not much pleasure at all” but is rather a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Nonetheless, in her life the joy of “true love” for her husband and child has become far more important than pleasure. It is, she says, “the only thing that makes [life] worthwhile.”

Smith’s discussion is thoroughly contemporary and hip, centered by a vivid autobiographical account of a club drug experience. But what she’s getting at resonates with a very different treatment of the topic: Thomas Aquinas’s in his “Summa Theologiae” (I-II, question 31, article 3, “Is Joy Altogether the Same Thing as Pleasure?” which I cite in the translation of my colleague, Fred Freddoso). Aquinas’ approach — systematic, abstract and tightly argued — is the polar opposite of Smith’s. But the two discussions are mutually illuminating.