Aristotle Says Pleasure Ain’t All Bad

In the final section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues to answer the arguments against pleasure as a/the good that he noted in section eleven, and then he tries to imagine the perfect, divine pleasure.

Arguments:

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Some pleasures may also be goods, but most are not. This is because there are some pleasures that are “actually base and objects of reproach,” and because there are harmful, unhealthy pleasures.

Aristotle’s answer:

Aristotle reminds us of his division of pleasures into the necessary, bodily pleasures, like the pleasures from satisfying appetites for food or sex, and certain other pleasures like those from gaining wealth, earning honors, and the like. Some people say that the bodily pleasures are base and to be avoided, while only certain of the other pleasures are worth pursuing. But Aristotle wonders if this is the case, why the pains associated with the body are still considered bads to be avoided. If the good associated with relieving pain isn’t really a good to be pursued, doesn’t this mean that pain isn’t really a bad to be avoided? That is absurd; everybody avoids bodily pain and tries to relieve it when it happens.

Aristotle says that when we say an intemperate person is bad for pursuing bodily pleasures, we don’t really mean that the pleasures themselves aren’t good, but that the person pursuing them is doing so excessively or in the wrong way.

There are two reasons why bodily pleasures are particularly attractive. One is that they dispell bodily pain. The contrast with the opposing pain can make bodily pleasures appear to be more pleasant than they actually are. The other is because of a more complex issue of human psychology.

Bodily pleasures have a vivid, tangible intensity. People who are unaccustomed to more refined pleasures are easily overwhelmed by such intense bodily pleasures. In fact, some people artificially induce pains in themselves just in order to heighten the pleasure of relieving them. (I’ve noticed this in myself. My coffee addiction is largely motivated by being able to wake up in the morning and know immediately a very pleasant thing I can do for myself — that is, to make myself a cup of joe — that is mostly pleasant because it dispells the withdrawal symptoms of waking up after many caffeineless hours.)

Although there is a school of thought that says that all creatures strive for a satisfied equilibrium point — hungers satisfied but not over-sated, neither too hot nor too warm, and so forth — for many people, such a neutral state is actually painful. All animal life, humans included, is a sort of writhing, violent struggle. Why are children so prone to ecstatic extremes of emotion? It is because of their physical growth — this writhing struggle at its most violent — causing “a kind of chronic intoxication.” People tend to pursue bodily pleasures and to banish bodily pains in such a way as to throw themselves off-kilter, increasing the violence of their mood swings and encouraging yet more destabilizing pursuits.

Wiser people pursue healthy pleasures — ones that aren’t simply a remedy to a contrasting bodily pain but ones that enhance or improve or participate in an already healthy faculty. Such pleasures are ones that you cannot pursue to a destabilizing excess.

Why is it, Aristotle asks, that we can’t simply discover our pleasant thing, and then stick with it, milking the pleasure all our lives long? This is because we are imperfect, material creatures: part soul and part body. By honoring the pleasures of one part of us, we may neglect or even harm the other part. If we were of a more unified stuff, rather than this hastily-swirled alloy, there would be a pleasure that was also the pleasure — the best one and the only one we would have need to pursue. God, for instance, must have such a single, continuous, and simple pleasure — not a pleasure of repair or restoration, but one of a state of rest that is already perfect. Our pleasures, though, are not of this kind. Many involve change and transition. It is what is bad and defective in us that loves change so much; the best pleasures are simple and unchanging.

This last paragraph introduces many new and strange ideas about human and divine nature. It seems an odd note for Aristotle to end the book on, though Grant says that he will bring some of this up again in book ten.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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