January/February 2015

Beyond Pleasure and Pain

Written by Sophie van der Linden

Aristippus' Hedonism is a simple concept, which has long perplexed and polarized serious thinkers. Its essence rests on the stark doctrine that all pleasure denotes good, and pain denotes evil. This sparks from a phenomenological standpoint, that all we can know is our own feeling. Within this idea, it is understood that pleasure is the sole driving force behind action, the ultimate goal, the purpose of life and the compass for moral determination. If one is to live well, he ought to seek pleasure and minimize or eradicate pain entirely.

Aristippus, the first hedonist and ancient creator of the idea, had no qualms with wholeheartedly enjoying good food, sleeping around and drinking fine wine. He advocated this kind of absolute presence as the best way of living, refusing censorship of his mind or imposing restraint or decline of pleasantries. He took pure and authentic delight in whatever was in front of him, without worrying about the past or what the future might entail. Later hedonists, such as Epicurus renounced the simplicity of the original premise, making Aristippus arguably the only true hedonist- who genuinely sought and cherished pleasure for its own end.

People were wary of him due to his negligence of social structure and appropriateness, and for sidestepping or overcoming the gods and death - concepts on which ancient civilizations were organized around. Acting without acknowledgment of the impact on others seemed disgraceful, unfair, morally inferior and largely inappropriate. The vein of philosophy at this time centered on human reason, and philosophers were frustrated at the simplicity and lightheartedness of hedonism. Plato held that reason, by nature was the most critical part of the human mind and should always be held above spirit and emotion. Aristotle maintained that the key to happiness, and that the best kind of life was lived in unconditional devotion to reason and rationality. Aristippus' theory seemed juvenile, distasteful and artless, sparking a tension between pleasure and rationality and where the boundaries might lay.

Tensions such as this seem to trigger from the inextricable unity of life and death, the temporal and the eternal, and the fears and anxieties human beings experience in response. Its grappling with wondering where to find meaning in life, where to locate value and at what cost, how to live well, and what to use as a moral compass. Is each person responsible to create their own meaning where they want to find it, or are they better to be guided by external forces, be it friends, religion, culture or pleasure?

In basic Catholicism, the dichotomy of salvation and damnation as consequence for earthly life choices and actions embodies the conflict well. In the Satanism offered by Anton LeVey, one lives best when deifying the self entirely, maximizing extreme individuation and putting the self above everything without exception. LeVey was an atheist, not believing in God nor Satan, but for the devil to represent the powers latent in every man, the carnal, primordial and animalistic self. In Catholicism the rules are set and administered by ancient teachings, with an omnipotent and omniscient God, who will punish you upon death for sinning. One could argue that living as a fundamentalist Christian is sacrificing a free and autonomous earthly life in order to ensure salvation. Giving up temporal pleasure in exchange for eternal peace and happiness. Living in accordance with Satanism, from the Catholic perspective would lead to an eternity of torment in hell - or conversely, disappearance into dust. Again, this analysis is entirely dependent on where you locate value and how you choose to live.

In the breakdown of the interplay of Dionysus and Apollo, Friedrich Nietzsche also explores the same tension, the essential forces within each of us. The Apollonian embodies all that is rational, sensible and dignified. The Dionysian is representative of the primordial, fluctuating and elemental energies aligned with Satanism. The Dionysian is governed by pure, uncensored intuition, resulting in frenzied behavior, excess and euphoria. Whereas the Apollonian is governed by reason, harnessing impulses with rigid structure, individuality and intense clarity of mind. The Dionysian can be seen to align with the ideas in hedonism, the Apollonian with the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. Nietzsche comes to conclude that we require a mixture of both Apollo and Dionysus, with a preference to the Dionysian side. Nietzsche untangles the dualism, showing how they cannot be thought of in isolation, embracing suffering and pleasure, rationality and irrationality.

Hedonism teaches that we are to avoid pain to maximize pleasure, but are these concepts really as simple as enjoying food and wine? Arthur Schopenhauer's theory of desire asserts that for every pleasure fulfilled, leaves another vacant and the system is never complete; the game is never won; therefore man is left unsatisfied, chasing something he can never have as an end. Therefore, desire is uncannily, undesirable. Pleasure must necessarily involve some sort of negative build up, or experience in order to constitute it being pleasurable and positive in the first place. Because to want, or to enjoy, signifies a prior lack.

Hedonism advocates an existence that veers away from pain, but it appears that pain and struggle is intrinsically valuable and constituent of pleasure itself. French Deconstructualist Jacques Derrida says that any concept held as true, necessarily holds within it it's absolute opposite as being equally true. Pleasure and pain stand together as two poles of the binary each held up and held true entirely by the definition of the other and the tension between them. It follows that pain must be equally valuable in itself as it is the inversion of pleasure, allowing it to exist.

Nietzsche sees pain and suffering as fundamentally productive motivators for human action. He would argue that it is not the abolishment of pain that leads to a good life, but a shift in perspective and attitude toward pain, as it is not evil but liberating. It is from a standpoint of intense pain and suffering that human excellence is birthed. It is through the struggle of not knowing that man comes to know more. It is the tension that lies between pleasure and pain, a mixture of both which man requires to become excellent, great and successful. We need the tension; we need constant interplay in order to propel ourselves forward as a species. Nietzsche fantasised the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, the idea that one is approached by a demon in their darkest hour and taunted with the prospect that they will live the same life over and over again, for eternity. He concludes that one would not scold the demon, but to imagine it the greatest news ever. His intention was for people to accept life in all its pleasures and pains, rejecting delusions and escapism. Therefore we need not seek pleasure and avoid pain, but to embrace all aspects of life.

Aristippus' suggested that life should be lived in order to maximize pleasure, but also to avoid pain. Modern philosophy has suggested that perhaps pleasure is not a realistic end in itself, and that pain does not equate to evil. In order for a meaningful existence, each side of the coin is valuable; Heaven and Hell, Apollo and Dionysus, rationality and irrationality, pleasure and pain.