Aristotle Defines Pleasure

In the fourth section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to define pleasure.

First, pleasure is not a movement, or a becoming, or a striving of some sort, but it is a complete thing in and of itself. That is, it is not something like “building,” the end of which is the thing being built, but is instead something like “seeing,” the end of which is just seeing. It also is not something that progresses over time from start to finish, or from origination to culmination or completion, but instead pleasure is complete in every moment in which it exists.

That said, any pleasure can be qualitatively better or worse than another. The best pleasures are those in which a well-tuned faculty is able to feast upon the best sort of object-matter for that faculty: for example, the sense of smell encountering a forest after a rainstorm. The activity of a faculty being exercised in such ideal conditions is one that is crowned and completed by pleasure.

Why is it, Aristotle wonders, that we cannot just be perpetually in a state of pleasure? “Is it that we grow weary?” He sees two possible reasons:

  1. Pleasure accompanies activity, and people just simply do not have the endurance to keep up any activity perpetually.
  2. Sensation requires some novelty, and any particular stimulus will cease provoking its corresponding mental state if it is repeated too often.

Pleasure seems to be a sign that we are living our lives ideally and thriving to the utmost. “[L]ife is an activity, and each man is active about those things and with those faculties that he loves most,” [and] “pleasure completes the activities, and therefore life, which they desire. It is with good reason, then, that they aim at pleasure too, since for every one it completes life, which is desirable. But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present. For they seem to be bound up together and not to admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise, and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure.”

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


The following brief note comes from The Household Narrative of Current Events of (billed as a “monthly supplement to Household Words, conducted by Charles Dickens”).

The Roman Catholic priest of Blarney, the Rev. Mr. Peyton, having Refused to Pay his Income-tax, the Commissioners ordered his horse to be seized and sold by auction. Placards informing the public of the alleged injustice were distributed in Cork; and when the horse was led out for sale at the Bazaar on Saturday, the multitude assembled hissed, hooted, hustled, and otherwise impeded the proceedings. After much ado, however, the sale was effected, and the horse was sold for 6l. 1s. 6d. Mr. Peyton then addressed the crowd to place them in possession of the “reasons” for his conduct. He alleged that priests are not treated like other citizens by the government; that they cannot, like artisans or Protestant ministers, recover their dues; and he declared that, for his own part, until he enjoys those privileges which his fellow citizens enjoy, he will never voluntarily pay income-tax. He concluded a violent tirade by exclaiming, “The Income-Tax Commissioners have gratified their vindictive feeling against the Irish priests — much good may it do them!”

The Carlisle Journal of fills in some more details:

Father Peyton, His Horse, and The Income Tax. Those ruthless despoilers, the income-tax collectors in Ireland, made a descent on Blarney the other day, and laid sacrilegious handson Father Peyton’s horse, which they forthwith set up to public auction, and sold for the shabby trifle of £6 odd. Their reasons for this violent and unjustifiable proceeding are as weak as their conduct was wicked. Father Peyton was served with one of the usual returns, calling on him, after the manner of the profane heretics in this country, and of the mere Roman Catholic laity, to fill up the amount of income at which he considered he should be assessed. With a proper sense of the reverence that out to be paid to an anointed priest, the revered father treated the impertinent return with silent contempt. A second application was made to him; and then, disclaiming to claim exemption from a pack of unbelievers on the score of his sacred character, he condescended to enter into argument with them to prove that they had no right to levy their rascally income-tax on him. Says Father Peyton: “We the Catholic Priests, are not treated like our fellow-citizens by the Government of the country. They allow every other man, professional, commercial, and artisan, to recover their dues, and accordingly they tax them; but the priest is the only man that the law will not recognise in recovering his dues. I must attend the beds of the sick and the dying, and perform many other duties, but the people need not give me anything. It is optional with themselves. They are all voluntary gifts on their part; and that very government that would not allow me, like the minister or any other man, to recover my rights or dues from the people, have therefore no right to ask me for an account of what people voluntarily give me.” Acting on the principles set forth in the foregoing extract from a speech delivered by his reverence to the crowd assembled to witness the sale of his poor hack, he refused to pay the iniquitous tax. The upshot of the business was that the flinty-hearted, irreligious collectors brought the steed under the auctioneer’s hammer, and, we suppose, by this time the cash he realised has been lodged to the credit of the Income-tax Commissioners.

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