Saturday, 1 December 2012

Epicurus; pleasure, happiness and contentment,

I have referred to the work and writing of Epicurus previously, and I often read quotations of his or the translations of them.... or even the translations of Lucretius who popularised Epicurianism in Rome.  It's no surprise that the multiple translations have made the message a bit vague or distorted and there is one particular idea that seems to have been distorted rather badly, and that is the idea of pleasure and happiness.
Epicurus founded a school of philosophy in his garden.  An inscription on the gate to his garden was reputed to have said  "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry:  our highest good is pleasure."  It is easy to say...  of course,  sounds good to me...  and enjoy that pleasure.  But was it "pleasure" or "happiness" that the translation should have said.  Once again,  the inscription is no doubt translated a number of times and, like Chinese whispers, I think that the meaning may have changed.

Pleasure, in English, has a connotation of more than merely happiness,  but also enjoyment, ecstasy and euphoria. Pleasurable experiences are wonderful and cause people to attempt to re-gain that feeling even when the long term outcome is disastrous.  I'm thinking here of addictions.  It is pleasure that leads to the addiction, but not always to happiness.  Pleasure and happiness can be at odds with each other.

This hedonistic seeking of pleasure seems to be, at least for "first world" people, hard to avoid and many  self indulgent occasions have been dedicated to Epicurus... as an advocate of living the pleasurable life.  (Just google "epicurean feast" and there are any number of menus that Epicurus would have found to be excessive.)

In past times, when it was harder to acquire the means to survive, let alone become fat or lazy, there was no need to distinguish between pleasure and happiness.  Times have changed.  The ease with which many people in my society are able to acquire the means of survival makes the striving for pleasure almost irrelevant, at least when striving for happiness.   Many people have plenty and are still not happy.  They have any number of pleasurable experiences but they are discontented.

Epicurus seemed to be advocating for a happy and peaceful life (contentment?) with freedom from fear and pain.

In English,  the difference between the ideas of "pleasure" and "happiness" seem to have confused the ideas of Epicurus.  Contentedness seems to mean that one is satisfied with one's life; pleasure is that positive feeling that one seeks in activity;  but happiness is a state of wellbeing that is achieved when needs are met and one is able to live a life that is consistent with ones moral obligations.  Happiness is subjective,  no doubt,  but there is ample evidence that having more food, more money or more "stuff" than is necessary does not increase happiness at all.  I think that it was this kind of happiness that Epicurus referred to in the many quotations that are repeated, rather than the pleasure of the hedonists or the joy of acquisition that the advertising people depend upon.

I have been reading "The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt.  It has made me think.


David Llewellyn said...

South Australia was founded by followers of Jeremy Bentham, and Bentham's political, social and economic systems were founded on teh idea of the greatest happiness. See for example,

I.D. McNaughtan, 'Colonial Liberalism 1851-92', in Gordon Greenwood (ed), Australia: A Social and Political History, Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1964:'Merivale was curious to see the working of this, "the only thorough Benthamite constitution" he had met.' (p.106)

Douglas Pike, Paradise of Dissent: London : Longmans, Green and Co., 1957: 'Bentham richly deserves a place among the founders of South Australia. His rough notes form a draft of a pamphlet entitled:
Colonisation Society Company Proposals, being a Proposal for the formation of Joint Stock Company by the name of the Colonisation Company on an entirely new principle entitled the Vicinity-maximising-or Dispersion-preventing principle. [ref to Bentham MSS, Box no 8 University of London Library. (Microfilm in South Australian Archives)]

Anonymous said...

Nowadays pleasure always seems to involve leisure time, which is then required to be filled up somehow by shopping or video games or other "amusement". The pleasure of accomplishment and work well done is generally accorded a lower status.