I still remember the first time I heard someone say, ‘Have a good weekend’. I hadn’t a clue what they meant. I had come from a world where the question of a good or bad day was never mooted. You, perhaps, might be good or bad, but the day was just there.
And so we speak of pleasure as the starting point and the goal of the happy life because we realize that it is our primary native good, because every act of choice and aversion originates with it, and because we come back to it when we judge every good by using the pleasure feeling as our criterion.
- Epicurus (1)
...we should make a practice of the things that make for happiness, for assuredly when we have this we have everything, and we do everything we can to get it when we don’t have it.- Epicurus (2)
My sister phones and says gleefully that she’s lounging with a glass of brandy in her hand. I know I’m expected to approve; she makes it sound like a victory. She’s of the generation who were schooled to make pleasure the slave of duty. I neither approve nor disapprove, it’s just something she’s doing, but I must tell her it’s good, that she has my support. I’m similar myself. Every so often I ring someone for permission to take a few hours off and watch a film. Why do I need permission?
They smile and ask how One is. Why does One reply with talk of the tainted wine? Must One always be embroiled in difficulty? It feels like abdication to admit joy.
Walking in a desert you can hope for an oasis, but you can’t fill each moment with the hope or you bind yourself to the fickle future. And if you arrive to the heart of fertility you might still not laugh, because for so long your desires have been particulate in space, unmiraged by the kindred face of an other.- Máighréad Medbh (3)
Is life so painful that we must repeatedly wish for time off and whatever it is that embodies excitement or ease? True, it’s painful for some, depending on what work they do, or whether they’re suffering major privation, but for most of us days are pretty safe and free from imminent threat.
Accordingly we have need of pleasure only when we feel pain because of the absence of pleasure, but whenever we do not feel pain we no longer stand in need of pleasure.- Epicurus (4)
Our lives are not, however, free. We ask permission and grant each other permission to enjoy, because we feel expected to perform, conform and contribute. We internalise the expectations and add them to our innate compulsions, so that we feel guilt (or pretend it) when we indulge. The obverse is that we turn our pleasures into a kind of project, so we’re still in a state of effort, but without pressure from outside.
The hero is not the person who plays by the rules but the person who doesn’t....- Adam Phillips (5)
Whether or not you’re the kind who pushes yourself, the ability to have pleasure is seen as an achievement. If you enjoy your work, you’re the envy of the masses. But if you don’t enjoy your work and still do it, isn’t that laudable too? Isn’t it interesting and a sign of strength to deny your need for pleasure, to go against your nature? This is the zone of delayed gratification, which may be one of the reasons why humans rule the animal kingdom.
...we consider limitation of the appetites a major good, and we recommend this practice not for the purpose of enjoying just a few things and no more but rather for the purpose of enjoying those few in case we do not have much.- Epicurus (6)
It’s almost impossible to take pleasure if you’re in a state of fear. Maybe this is why pleasure is so often our goal. It proves that we’re not afraid. Concomitantly, when we experience pleasure, our inner state tends towards equilibrium and fear levels decrease. So feel the fear and have the drink anyway.
Not to feel the horrible burdens of Time weighing on your shoulders and bowing you to the earth, you should be drunk without respite.
Drunk with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But get drunk.- Charles Baudelaire (7)
Being drunk implies that we’re not fully experiencing received reality. This isn’t the way of Epicurus, who suggested letting reason run our lives, a prerequisite of pleasure being freedom from fear of the unknown.
It is impossible to get rid of our anxieties about essentials if we do not understand the nature of the universe and are apprehensive about some of the theological accounts. Hence it is impossible to enjoy our pleasures unadulterated without natural science.- Epicurus (8)
He also said that a wise man shouldn’t write poetry, attend festivals or fall in love. That rules out quite a lot of pleasure. Furthermore, in those days, it was valid to say that you could use a human container for your poisonous passions, so he counsels ‘riding some whore’ rather than succumbing to the frenzied emotion of love. The whore’s pleasure seems to have been irrelevant. There’s the real reason why we look for permission—the effect of our pleasure-seeking on others. Can’t we simply forget them all and enjoy ourselves? A trouble shared might be a trouble halved, but is a pleasure shared a pleasure doubled? Why do we say ‘enjoying myself’ if it isn’t actually that—feeling enjoyment within ourselves? Other people must indulge us in this respect, contribute to our pleasure, set us free to enjoy.
Will absorption in a piece of music sever One’s connections to the human race? It feels as if it might, so there is restraint on the threshold of rapture. As if sole joy were guilty joy; as if there were mind-police who would punish One’s independence from the group.- Máighréad Medbh (9)
I’ve heard geneticists say that pleasure is a great driver of evolution, that there are many physical redundancies caused simply by adherence to pleasing behaviour. Sigmund Freud, in 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle', gave the opinion that pleasure is not the only motivating factor in the psyche, though it is a strong one. However, he says, the system does desire equilibrium.
I can accept the periodic recurrence of a blank view. In between, there’s activity and the possibility of achievement, as if what’s popularly called ‘a life’ is happening. This turning may be all the life there is.-Maighread Medbh (10)
I don’t think pleasure in an intense form can last as long as pain. It often feels as if a measure of pain is the human condition—if not the physical sort, then the existential sort. We will all suffer some pain, we will all lose our faculties and die, and we have too much awareness to ignore these things and be constantly drunk. From this point of view, death seems like a solution to the entire question.
... the only mark worth hitting, life, detestable life!- Charles Baudelaire (11)
Highly pleasurable moments may be too explosive to repeat very often, so it might be safer and more convenient to simply imagine them. This is the value of the ‘unlived life’ Adam Phillips writes of in Missing Out:
Our fantasies of satisfaction—our preconceptions about satisfaction—are where we hide from the possibility of satisfaction.- Adam Phillips (12)
Fantasy may be the ultimate pleasure, because it can eliminate all pain. On the other hand, it might be pain that allows the full appreciation of pleasure. It feels good to have worked for something, suffered for it and then achieved it, though I must say I prefer when things come easy.
One spends each day thinking of the next. The pivots? That morning latté, the fruit pastry, the bag of tortilla chips, the chocolate. One craves too the mind-altering bottles of wine, the spliff, those incidental lovers that always leave One wanting more.- Máighréad Medbh (13)
Adam Phillips writes of the concept of ‘getting away with it’. How often do people say, ‘I wouldn’t get away with drinking that much, eating that much etc.’? The great joy is doing something to excess, or doing something perverse, and avoiding all unpleasant consequences.
If the things that produce the debauchee’s pleasures dissolved the mind’s fears regarding the heavenly bodies, death, and pain and also told us how to limit our desires, we would never have any reason to find fault with such people, because they would be glutting themselves with every sort of pleasure and never suffer physical or mental pain, which is the real evil.- Epicurus (14)
The connection between pleasure and morality keeps coming up. ‘A person who does not have a pleasant life is not living sensibly, nobly, and justly, and conversely the person who does not have these virtues cannot live pleasantly.’(15) Is this really true? The sensible, noble and just life is subject to unpleasantness too. Modern observers may, however, agree with Epicurus that virtues are chosen for their pleasurable consequences. It may be that what we term ‘good’ is in some way pleasant, and what is ‘bad’ is in some way unpleasant, for at least one party to the process.
The advice to be objective comes from all quarters, to stand back and take both pleasure and pain with equanimity. ‘Even if the wise man is tortured he is happy.’(16) If one is heaped with stresses, equanimity is a desirable course, but most of us learn a lot from our tidal inner happenings and it’s enough to restore equanimity when we’re on the brink of breakdown. The problem with wisdom is that it can limit experience, keep reducing it to safe proportions.
We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.– Thomas Merton (17)
Pleasure is intoxicating. We are exploited by it, made exploitable. All those things that represent it. Clothes, houses, holidays, food, sex, more sex. It’s not fashionable to be wise. We want to look that confident, that glamorous, that healthy, that happy. Strength is pleasure, pleasure is strength. The problem is, the end result often hides the path. The pleasing object, appearance or character may be the result of much effort we’re not prepared to invest. And the quest for pleasure may cause its own pain.
Me, I find pleasure and pain both hard to take. I seek pleasure all the time but often don’t recognise and hold it when it comes. Routine with a measure of both is fine. Life without constant pressure to present a happy face is fine. I don’t feel either happy or unhappy, and I couldn’t say whether this weekend, while I’m writing this, is either good or bad. I think it’s something else entirely, a conglomerate of so many little events that there’s no one word to describe its quality.
Is there any mind that rests easy all the time? The quest for Nirvana began as an awareness of suffering, but why shouldn’t we suffer?- Máighréad Medbh (18)
(1) Epicurus (341-271B.C.E.): ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, in The Art of Happiness, translated by George K Strodach, New York: Penguin, 2013, p. 158
(2) ——, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, opus ibid, p. 155
(3) Máighread Medbh: Savage Solitude: reflections of a reluctant loner, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, ‘no. 158: joy, the usurper’, P. 187
(4) Epicurus: ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, opus cit., p. 158
(5) Adam Phillips: Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012, p.94
(6) Epicurus: opus cit., p. 159
(7) Charles Baudelaire (1869): ‘Get Drunk’, in Paris Spleen, New York: New Directions, 1970, p. 74
(8) Epicurus: ‘Leading Doctrines’, No. 12, opus cit., p. 174/5
(9) Máighread Medbh: opus cit., ‘no. 115: rapture’, p. 142
(10) Máighread Medbh: opus cit., p. 262
(11) Charles Baudelaire: ‘The Shooting Gallery and the Cemetery’, opus cit., P. 93
(12) Adam Phillips: opus cit., p. 140
(13) Máighread Medbh: opus cit., ‘no. 178: craving’, p. 210
(14) Epicurus: ‘Leading Doctrines of Epicurus’, no. 10, opus cit., p. 174
(15) Epicurus: ‘The Leading Doctrines’, No. 5, opus cit., p. 173
(16) Epicurus: ‘Excerpts from the Life of Epicurus’ by Diogenes Laertius, opus cit., P. 87
(17) Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain, London: Sheldon Press, 1975, p. 133. Quoted in Savage Solitude, ‘no. 105: synthetic passions’, p. 132
(18) Máighread Medbh: opus cit., p. 256
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