When it’s good to be bad: taking the long way around

Cody Delistraty in Aeon:

Header_ESSAY-NYC132575Epicurus understood that the expectation of future pleasure is a pleasure in itself. Taking up his ideas, the Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham noted: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ Yet pleasure, for Epicurus and Bentham, was defined not by sensation or excitement but by both the absence of pain and the expectation of its absence. For Freud, the ‘pleasure principle’ described the active pursuit of pleasure; but in both cases, pain and pleasure are binary feelings: while a person might still have to physically endure pain, by looking forward to a lack of pain in the future – that is, pleasure – she can be sufficiently distracted from her current bodily discomfort. The history of exaggerated pleasure is generally a response to a perceived deprivation. That is, pleasure is relative. For the late 19th-century French Decadents, for instance, whose works might seem salacious, pornographic, unnecessary (reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade), their exaggerated pleasure came to embody a bolder meaning when juxtaposed with the bourgeois values that brought levels of financial inequality and deprivation that had been unheard of since the Revolution.

To take a more prosaic example, consuming 2,300 calories might not be pleasurable to someone who consumes that on a daily basis; however it quickly becomes pleasurable when one is accustomed to eating just 1,300 calories per day. A fancy restaurant means very little if every night is spent at august tables, and a good deal more when one has been consuming dinners comprised chiefly of ramen. Therefore to plan hedonistic setbacks on your way to achieving a goal is to convert an otherwise painful process into a more pleasurable one. ‘The simple act of knowing they would have a moment of pleasure in the future made participants more persistent towards their goals’, said do Vale. Pleasure, however, is a particularly slippery concept. Surely the pursuit of pleasure – and avoidance of pain – does not exclusively inform our every move? Is that what all of our goals come down to – maximising pleasure, minimising pain? In De Anima, Aristotle claimed animals desire things and with this desire they are given movement – a lion desires food so he runs for a gazelle. But for human beings, Aristotle says, reason also plays into our pursuit of a goal. Humans use reason to shape how they imagine a useful object of desire. With reason and desire working in tandem we choose and pursue our goals. In Phaedrus, Plato said the soul is guided by a dark horse of passion and a white horse of reason. Socrates agreed, but said the white horse is of greater importance – we must use reason to pursue the right things; to let desire reign over reason is to chase the eventually meaningless and temporal.

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