What Plato Can Teach Us About Pleasure and Pain Practical Takeaways from Philebus

Scroll this

Whether consciously or unconsciously, most of us strive to increase pleasure in our lives. We try to incorporate more things that make us feel good whilst at the same time, attempt to minimize or avoid pain. Is this the goal in life though? To just seek out pleasure and avoid pain? Let’s take a step back for a second. It’s worth noting that the concept of pleasure wouldn’t exist without pain–binaries exist for a reason–we need both in order to define and experience each. Pain is also inevitable; we all encounter it at some (or multiple) point(s) in our life. How much of that pain is self-inflicted though? Or in other words, how often are we making decisions that cause us pain? For instance, choosing the wrong partner, overeating, drinking alcohol, nurturing toxic relationships, etc. How can we live our best, happiest life? What is considered a good life? 

These questions were debated amongst philosophers for centuries and to this day, we all still seek answers to. A popular school of thought in ancient Greece, coined as ‘hedonism’ originated from Aristippus (born in c.435 bce and the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy.). Many philosophers who subscribed to this school of thought, believed that the goal in life was to pursue pleasure (in quantity and intensity), whilst minimizing pain. “That pleasure is the chief good that human beings of necessity seek,” writes Robert C. Bartlett in his paper in the American Political Science Review. Epircurus who founded another philosophical system most known as ‘Epicureanism” had similar ideas and that was to “seek modest sustainable pleasure in the form of a state of ataraxia (tranquility and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of bodily pain) through knowledge of the workings of the world and limiting desires.”

But what is pleasure exactly? Pleasure’s verbatim definition is this: a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment. However, this leaves the definition open to interpretation. Pleasure is a broad, umbrella term; one that is subjective, but also has commonalities amongst all our experiences. What may be pleasurable to you, may not be pleasurable to me and vice versa. Does Selling Sunset bring you pleasure? That’s great, but that could be your friend’s idea of hell. However, we can all agree that there are some universal pleasures that have a satiating and addicting nature, for instance: food, sex, and other vices. Many of us could describe our interests and hobbies as pleasurable—they make us feel good (ie. taking a walk in nature, enjoying a good conversation with a friend, learning something new, playing a musical instrument, etc.). But what is classified as good pleasure and bad pleasure and how can one be classified as a hedonist? 

One of the ancient philosophers most opposed to the hedonistic view was Plato. In Plato’s Philebus, he classifies the type of pleasures allowed in the good life, which can be described as pure and impure. He argues that the impure forms of pleasures also contain pain. Plato uses a form of argument that creates contention by arguing its opposite (reductio ad absurdum) by stating that if our aim is to maximize pleasure (as the hedonist strives for), one will at the same time, be maximizing pain. Thus a hedonist is basically a masochist.

If pleasure is remedial of pain, then in order to get pleasure, the hedonist must welcome pain, which is absurd: hedonism is self-contradictory,” – Plato, Philebus

Aristotle also describes hedonism as “the view of the vulgar masses,” whereas the “goal of honour” is left to the more “refined classes of society.” Or in other words, giving into only our desires or what seems pleasurable at the time is what most people in society do. Whereas those who aim for more higher pursuits in life are amongst a more noble class of individuals.

So before we get into some practical applications of Plato’s school of thought within our daily lives, let’s first let him elucidate on his classifications of pleasure: pure and impure. A pleasure is described as pure if it is unaccompanied by perceived pain and as impure if it is accompanied by pain. Plato believes that almost all of our experiences are mixed; that is, they involve some pleasure and some pain. Let’s break it down:

Impure Pleasures

  1. Physical pleasure – these general pleasures and are always remedial of prior pain. ie. quenching thirst by drinking provides pleasure because of prior pain (thirst)
  1. Psycho-physical – similar to the above, but there are psychological and “pleasures of anticipation of a remedy to the lack” (ie .thinking about quenching our thirst). 
  2. Psychic pleasure – Here Plato focuses on spite (a painful psychic experience) – a mixture of pain and pleasure. Hedonism would be a form of a psychic pleasure.

Pure Pleasures

Pure pleasures include the senses (ie. watching a sunset), sounds (certain types of music), certain smells, and the acquisition of knowledge and search for the unchanging (or divine) truth. 

Pure pleasures can be included in the “good life” as they don’t involve an element of pain, although Plato describes these types of pleasures as “uncommon.” Mixed pleasures (both pleasure and pain), can be included, but they should not be the goal. Plato writes: “The goal is knowledge and those pleasures are permitted and do not impede the mind. So even these admissible pleasures remain a means to the goal of knowledge.” So basically, we’re allowed to eat and drink to survive and in Plato’s words “carry out our virtue on this earth,” but not to excess so that it impedes the mind from acquiring self-knowledge or from “caring for the soul.” Plato believed that if our aim and “necessary ingredients for the good life” was learning, knowledge, and truth, then we need to exclude intense pleasures as they would interrupt the mind at work. 

Normally pain is characterized by lack, pleasure as replenishment,  but sometimes replenishment will disturb the ‘harmony’ of the body just as effectively as lack. – Plato

Plato acknowledges that we don’t really have a choice; we all must live a mixed life of pain and pleasure. Only the divine is privy to an unmixed life. If our goal in life is to acquire knowledge and prepare the immortal soul for death (through acquisition of “pure knowledge” and wisdom), our everyday actions must reflect this goal. One of the cardinal virtues of philosophy is temperance and self-restraint. What Plato may have been eluding to is the idea of moderation. For instance, food can be pleasurable and enjoyable—satiating our hunger and tasting delicious. But it can get to a point where we eat too much and all we want to do is lay around and not move—nursing our food baby. This is exactly what happens to me every time I visit an all-you-can-eat sushi resto. I need to cancel any plans the rest of the day so I can just lay around and digest. There will be no studying philosophy on those days.

Practical Applications of Plato:

Decisions from “too far away” and “from too close”

Plato explains that one of the reasons we make decisions that will cause us pain later (either physiological or psychological) is that pain can be viewed as “from too far away” and pleasure “from too close.” In our practical, day-to-day life, choosing immediate pleasure induces instant gratification which can cause more intense pain in the long term. Having those few extra drinks tonight, means feeling like shit tomorrow, but that’s a tomorrow problem so who cares, right? Since tomorrow doesn’t currently exist in the present, the pain seems small in comparison with the immediate pleasure. Checking social media can feel good for an instant, but usually leaves us feeling a bit vacant, inadequate or self-conscious shortly thereafter. Realizing that our supposed pleasures do incorporate an element of pain that’s intensified after the pleasure, is a framing that may help us make better choices in the moment. We are conditioned to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but knowing that pleasures do contain an element of pain, could perhaps shift our decision making in the moment.

Eliminate Vices

Drugs, alcohol, sex, and even food are vices that pull us out of the present moment and make us fixated on the vice. Entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant writes, “Anticipation for our vices pulls us into the future. Eliminating vices makes it easier to be present.” When I was drinking alcohol, I usually wouldn’t allow myself to drink during the week (only on weekends). However, during the week, I would be counting down the days until wine-o-clock on Friday. Sound familiar? “Happy hour” is something to look forward to, but it can pull us out of the present and more fixated on the future. We’re not able to enjoy the day-to-day moments as much because we’re fixated on the psycho-physical pleasures of the euphoric buzz or the supposed relaxing or “unwinding” component of drinking. When I stopped drinking alcohol, I no longer fixated on some future date. While I still had experiences that I was looking forward to, I wasn’t dwelling on them and could enjoy every day activities so much more.

Incorporate More Pure Pleasures

I’m in agreement with the Platonic school of thought, which is to pursue more pure types of pleasure that don’t involve pain. Studying philosophy and acquiring knowledge, albeit a commitment of my time and energy, makes me happier person. Spending time in nature or with loved ones is pleasurable and doesn’t have that negative, painful side effect (for the most part). Listening to music that evokes memories and happy slices of nostalgia is another example. Finding joy in little every day moments gives us more gratitude and can help us live a happier life–one that we all can agree, we’re striving for.

Pleasures can distract us from our Life Purpose

Each of us was put on this earth to achieve something unique. Author Robert Greene explains that our “DNA will never be repeated in history”; that our lived experiences combined with our unique inborn talents give us individuality and our own “Life Purpose.” To carry out our life purpose–whatever that is for youwe must focus on the task at hand and gather the skills and knowledge necessary to carry out our duties here on earth. If not properly managed, pleasures can impede the mind (as Plato wrote), and prevent us from doing the work. We live in a time with constant distractions and interruptions. Many of these distractions provide our brain with superficial rewards that have a pernicious effect on our mental health over the long term. The more we give into temptations, the more our mind will be conditioned to only seek out and focus on the supposed ‘pleasurable’ experiences of life. We will avoid the arduous, but necessary daily actions we need to take in order to be successful. While of course, we should include pleasures in our lives, they can’t be the sole purpose.

Seek Out Pain

A reversal of the hedonistic approach to living is to incorporate more pain in our lives. While this sounds absurd, let me humanize this a bit more for you. Undertaking risks or embarking on challenges (ie. running marathons, doing hard workouts, etc.), makes the pleasurable intensified. Sprinting then walking immediately after provides much more pleasure than simply sitting on the couch and then going for a walk .Working out then eating after is more satisfying than sitting at a desk all day and eating lunch. Resting after a hard race makes chilling feel so good. If we go after pain, we make our pleasures more pleasurable. 

Final Thoughts

Temperance is a cardinal virtue of philosophy which involves self-restraint. Realizing that all of these supposed pleasures also contain an element of pain–whether that be immediately thereafter or down the road–might help us make better decisions using our rational mind (vs. emotional). However, temperance is a skill that needs to be developed and practiced to grow stronger. The more we practice self-restraint, the better we become.

1 Comment

  1. LOVED this post! Maybe it’s a lil too scholarly for my simple mind, but I still enjoyed it, mostly because I’m looking into Stoicism. I particularly enjoyed the part about seeking out pain. Also, you hit the nail on the head that finding ‘pleasures that don’t have painful side effects’ is a great way to navigate through life.

    So having my cup(s) of coffee brings me pleasure, but I don’t feel guilty, thus I’m fine continuing to consume it. Alcohol, however? Just a few beers in and I’m already feeling like crap. I’ve found that this is a foolproof way of going through life. Anyway, thanks for this post!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: