Pleasure and Pain: Getting Our Logic Right

On Pain

“No pain, no gain,” as we so commonly say. That is probably true, but one must never forget that most pains deliver no gains at all. Pain is a necessary condition for gain, but it is far from being a sufficient condition. On the contrary, apart from simple physical pain caused by unavoidable injury or illness, most suffering is the result of ignorance, which unfortunately is rarely cured by that suffering, or indeed by anything else. Then there is the added problem, also resulting from ignorance, that most people — perhaps more now than at any time known to man — judge genuine gain itself to be a kind of pain, and therefore undesirable, just as they judge losses as gains and therefore imagine that they desire, and typically work all their “productive” lives to attain, what in fact has little or nothing to do with what we humans naturally seek. For who concerns himself with nature anymore?

On Pleasure

If the defining goal of human life is pleasure in general, and comfort in particular, then all men are in principle equal, since pleasure in general, and comfort in particular, are accessible to all men. For the ancients, on the other hand, although we tend to see in them an essential argument over whether or not pleasure is happiness, looked at from the perspective of a contrast with our modern view that pleasure in general and comfort in particular are happiness, we would have to acknowledge that the question of whether pleasure is happiness seems almost secondary, because in approaching the ancients from our modern point of view, the issue that comes to the fore is one that was almost no issue at all for the ancients themselves, in the sense that it was just self-evident, namely: Are there different kinds of pleasure that reside at different levels of being, such that there is a definable hierarchy of pleasures, which by implication — especially if pleasure is happiness — defines a hierarchy of human lives, a hierarchy of human types, and, most uncomfortable and inegalitarian of all, a hierarchy of human beings? Among the ancient thinkers, the answer to all of those related questions was, “Of course, and obviously.”

One of the results of our modern reduction of happiness to pleasure itself, rather than its identification with particular activities which happen to issue in different kinds of pleasure, is that this modern view flattens out the human race. And what does this mean, if we consider that the hierarchy of human types, in the classical view, corresponds to a hierarchy of accompanying pleasures, which in turn entails a hierarchy of being, or of ways of being, ways of living? Seen from the perspective of our modern reduction of happiness to pleasure in general, and comfort in particular, meaning to something that is somewhat abstract and accessible to all men, more or less equally, we may say that with this new premise, modernity implicitly denies that there is a hierarchy of being. The idea that the world is essentially a daunting challenge to each and every person born to it, and an essential discomfort to everyone but the very, very few, if any, who are capable of living the best kind of life, resulting in the best kind of pleasure, is a terribly unforgiving notion from the modern perspective. For it implies that almost nobody can be happy, if happiness means either the kind of activity or life that results in a very specific kind of pleasure, or that specific pleasure itself.

From that point of view, democracy becomes a more complicated notion. The early modern thinkers probably held something like this view, whether they expressed it this way openly or not, namely that there is a better way of living, but what democracy requires is a willingness of the people who live in the best way, or in better ways, to concede that fundamental political decision-making must rely on lesser men, i.e., on those who do live mostly in that world of comfort-seeking, which means most men. All the more so once, as a matter of philosophic principle, the world accepted the early modern ethico-political premise that pleasure in general, and comfort above all, is indeed the human good.

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