The Centrality of Pleasure
Pleasure occupies a central role in the history of philosophy; on pleasure have been based some of the most important philosophical theories, and reflection on pleasure has kept busy the most brilliant philosophical minds. Moreover, each human being is called to deal with her own longing for pleasures of one sort or another. So, what is pleasure and what key philosophical issues does it give rise to?
The Pleasure Principle
Let’s being our analysis of the concept of pleasure from a bit of theory coming from Sigmund Freud. According to the so-called pleasure principle, at the root of all human desires lies the basic need of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In other words, according to Freud humans are spontaneously hedonistic. Of course, however, we do have the capacity to defer the moment at which we will be pleased; according to the so-called reality principle, indeed, becoming an adult means to learn how to prolong, suppress, or attempt to domesticate our longing for pleasure. The problem is – as anyone knows – that we reach a firm control over our pleasures only momentarily and that at any time we at risk of giving in to pleasures that we may regard in some way as detrimental.
Pleasure and Control
One of the most poignant questions we can raise as humans beings seems to be the following: can a person ever be fully in control of herself? What does it take to achieve such a status and, most importantly, to maintain it?
Answering this questions means to solve a host of riddles. It requires, among the others, to grasp the relationship between mind and body as well as to individuate the fundamentals of an ethical life. Here it is, then, that pleasure comes to play a key role in metaphysics as well as in ethics.
Varieties of Pleasure
In order to include pleasure into a philosophical theory, we have to start sorting it out into different variants. One way to draw the line separates bodily from mental pleasures. For instance, a piece of fine chocolate is enjoyed for the bodily pleasures it provides to us through the palate; on the contrary, the pleasure that comes from refusing food or from eating a food only because we know it’s low fat is mental: it is not triggered by sensory experiences but, quite the opposite, by their absence.
In general, a distinction has been often adopted between a conception of pleasure as sensation and a conception of pleasure as a form of contentment or blessedness. Thus, in the Christian tradition, you shall stay away from those pleasures that are sensual, but you shall seek pleasures that lead to blessedness.
Much of ancient Greek philosophy can be read as a theorization around pleasure. The central topic of philosophical investigation at the time was the good life and the means to achieve it; pleasure, it seemed obvious plays a key role in all of this. In a number of his writings, Plato appears to be arguing against sensual pleasures: knowledge can come only from the mental variety. Gastronomic purism, in direct opposition to gastronomic hedonism was indeed inspired by Plato.
Pleasure lies at the heart also of one of the most debated modern theories in ethics, that is utilitarianism, which is a variant of consequentialism.
Further Online Readings
- The entry on pleasure at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The entry on hedonism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
- The entry on Epicurus at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The entry on the history of utilitarianism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1921.