The problem with pleasure, Martha Nussbaum notes, is that it is “simply not normatively reliable”. Racists take pleasure in their racism, sexists in their sexism. In general, Nussbaum continues, “bad people have pleasure in their bad behaviour”. I will
call this the unreliability objection.
A second objection to pleasure, which I will call the unworthiness objection, focuses on its lack of substance, its superficiality, its unworthiness for rational creatures like us. It is most famously captured in J.S. Mill’s belief that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. There is, according to this line of objection, something primitive about seeking pleasure or satisfaction as a dominant value in one’s conception of the good life. Nussbaum speaks for the moral majority when she writes that her own conception of the good life “attaches a great deal of value to striving, longing, and working for a difficult goal. So, if I ever notice myself feeling feelings of satisfaction, I blame myself.” The worry is that an excessive focus on pleasure will leave us risk-averse, more concerned with our own subjective feelings of satisfaction than with pursuing justice in the world. She sums up the unworthiness objection neatly: “Insofar as one is feeling satisfied, thus far one’s life is not a success.”
Although Nussbaum is primarily taking aim at the kind of utilitarian thinking inspired by Jeremy Bentham (in short: follow the pleasant and avoid the painful), her critique could just as easily be aimed at the pleasure-seeking followers of the ancient Greek thinker Epicurus. It seems to me, however, that CUNY philosopher Catherine Wilson’s superb new book has more than enough arguments up its sleeve to see off both of the objections outlined above. But before looking more closely at these arguments, it is worth outlining the kind of book that Wilson has written.
Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum - adapated from Robert Tolchin Photography
Although a book on Epicureanism could simply be the latest in the philosophy-cum-self-help genre that strives to help us negotiate the vicissitudes of modern life with greater wisdom sourced from ancient sages, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, what Wilson offers is an extremely rich introduction to philosophy, albeit from an Epicurean perspective. For those of us used to rather dry introductions to philosophy written as if a certain conception of analytic philosophy, with its predictable repertoire of appropriate topics and questions, was the only game in town, Wilson’s vision of philosophy will be extremely refreshing and invigorating. With chapters covering fundamental questions related to ontology, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind and consciousness, as well as broader topics like love, death, social justice, and living a meaningful life, there is, as we like to say, something here for everyone. If I had to sum up the mood of Wilson’s book, I would say that it is gentle and relaxed. For a philosopher this is no mean feat. From Nussbaum’s self-lacerations to Iris Murdoch’s struggles with her “fat relentless ego” to a string of impossible moral demands from Kant to Levinas, the philosopher (and especially in the realm of the moral life) seems to justify their existence by positing life as a continuous struggle. The psychiatrist Peter Kramer bemoaned the fact that the psychotherapist Carl Rogers was not considered a truly great thinker, attributing this rejection to Rogers’ rather optimistic vision of life. It may be that Rogers was in fact not a great thinker (the only thing I know about him is that his main therapeutic tool was to repeat back to his patients what they had just said to him, albeit in the form of a question), but Kramer nonetheless picks up on an important point (and one connected with the unworthiness objection outlined above): that struggle and misery are where it’s at, intellectually speaking.
Several few years ago I watched a TED talk by a rural Thai farmer called Jon Jandai. It was called ‘Life is Easy’. For those of us who have seen programs in which rich people boastfully outline the extent of their wealth and then offer up some pieces of advice such that you can attain similar material comforts yourself, Jandai’s talk is a kind of mirror image of this model. In one of my favourite bits, he contrasts his own house-building project on which he spent two hours a day for three months with his wealthy friend in Bangkok who had recently undertook a house-building project the cost of which would keep him in hock to the bank for the next thirty years. Jandai concludes that compared to his friend he now has twenty-nine years and ten months of extra free time. For all of Jandai’s undeniable charm, I nonetheless found myself somewhat affronted by his vision of life. What, after all, does a farmer from North-East Thailand understand about the genuine struggles of modern life in the industrialized West? Life isn’t easy, and it’s no use pretending it is!
Although, being Thai, Jandai’s perspective is probably more grounded in Buddhism than Epicureanism, his is a vision of life rooted in simplicity and in satisfying one’s needs with the minimum of struggle. It is a gentle and relaxed vision, one that does not emphasize struggle and misery. It is, in short, one that shares strong affinities with Wilson’s vision of Epicureanism.
Acceptance of contingency lies at the heart of the Epicurean project. In line with what Wilson refers to as the Epicureans’ “sparse ontology of atoms and void”, she refuses any notions of natural necessities, whether of a religious or moral nature. Things are as they are, but they need not have been this way. Slavery may be an evil, but this was not always so, and to think otherwise is to seek for moral consolations that simply are not there. Moral authority emerges from human agreement rather than natural law, and the Epicurean embraces a relativist perspective on moral matters rather than a universalist one. It still seems to be the mainstream tendency in philosophy to baulk at any kind of relativism in moral matters, and it is worth considering where this comes from. It seems to me that it emerges from the same kind of place as the unreliability objection: moral philosophers feel the need to protect the public from relativism. It is a variation on the theme of “give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”, most famously captured in the line from Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted”. The public cannot be trusted with relativism. It is a dangerous idea, and the public, on the whole, need to be defended from dangerous ideas. These kinds of worries are, of course, not entirely misplaced. A famous psychology experiment showed that undermining belief in free will led to an increase in cheating, and there is a venerable history, both in philosophy and more generally, of dangerous ideas being radically misused (Nietzsche is a name that springs to mind). In the context of pleasure, Nussbaum seems to believe that if pleasure is endorsed as a normative ideal to guide our lives we all risk ending up as latter day variations of the Marquis de Sade. So, we can take the “give an inch” objection to be the genus of which the unreliability objection is a species. In line with what I take to be Wilson’s position on the question of contingency and relativism, Joseph Schumpeter states that, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian”. Michael Sandel responds to this by asking, “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly?” Sandel’s question appears to reveal what Isaiah Berlin has termed “a deep and incurable metaphysical need” (i.e. to render absolute or necessary that which is relative or contingent), as well as being symptomatic of “an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity”. To get to the heart of what I believe lies at the heart of Wilson’s book, if you want to be an Epicurean you need to be a mature person. Nussbaum is probably correct to assume that an extremely thinly defined notion of pleasure risks normative corruption. However, such a thin account of what pleasure entails appears entirely alien to Wilson’s account of pleasure within Epicurean philosophy. For example, she counters the egoistic interpretation of pleasure central to the unreliability objection by arguing that an authentic Epicurean notion of pleasure presupposes the virtue of prudence, whose corrective purpose “is to ensure that what I gain by my choices and avoidances does not impose an unacceptable amount of pain on you, or deprive you in an unacceptable way of pleasures you would otherwise enjoy”. Elsewhere she notes: "The teaching that pleasure is the only real good and pain the only real evil goes for everyone, not just for me. And it is obvious that my enjoyment of my pleasures can have adverse effects on you or on others, causing you or them pain, or depriving you or them of pleasures." For Wilson, the evil of pain is just as important as the enhancement of pleasure, such that a strategy of pleasure-promotion is at the same time a one of pain-minimization – and not just for me. Seen in this way, the unreliability objection can be set aside. ***
Turning to the weightier unworthiness objection, Epicurus himself wrote that “there is no need for things which involve struggle” and he set up a community that deliberately avoided the messiness of business and politics, focusing instead of cultivating simple and achievable pleasures. Small wonder, then, that this vision of life will come under considerable criticism. At stake here is our conception of a meaningful life, and it may well be that we can enjoy a pleasant life without it also being a meaningful one. Wilson considers two dominant conceptions of a meaningful life:
A life characterized by worldly achievement
A life of moral and spiritual effort
Although there is something immensely meaningful in the worldly achievements of our great artists, writers etc., Wilson notes that if we took the first conception to be our framework then “most people, especially women, fail to have meaningful lives” – it simply excludes too many people to be the main criterion for what is to be considered central to a meaningful life. As for the second conception, this is potentially much more inclusive as anyone can sacrifice pleasures (and more besides, e.g. health and even life itself) in order to serve others and improve their living conditions. However, as Wilson notes, the Epicurean “does not consider it to be obligatory for her to dedicate her life to others at the expense of her own health and enjoyment.” This is where someone like Nussbaum will surely part company with her Epicurean interlocutor, but it is not clear that these positions need to be pitted one against the other; there is surely enough room for both camps. Although Wilson argues that Epicurean materialism is “a sound basis for humane and enlightened political action”, I will focus instead on what I will call the Epicurean micro-politics of desire modification. Wilson writes that Epicurean philosophy “might be said to be based on the notion of the limit”, and there are various limits that are especially pertinent to our current age. Not least of these are the necessary limits to our desires. In Justin E.H. Smith’s recent book Irrationality he argues in favour of developing the “sour grapes” mindset as an (almost) entirely rational response to the very human problem of wanting what you cannot or should not have: “It is good to be able to do the sort of work on oneself that results in a perspective on life that recognizes the nonnecessity of the grapes to my thriving, not to mention to the goodness of the world.”
Our desires are complex – we desire both cigarettes and long, healthy lives (what Harry Frankfurt has termed first order and second order desires). Working through the complexities of our desires, unravelling the numerous sources of them, establishing which ones are valuable, and developing the wisdom to avoid exposure to those that are harmful is hard work (otherwise Epicureanism would simply be an uncritical and empty philosophy of hedonism). As new and increasingly pressing limits proliferate around us, a philosophical vision that takes limits (whether of our natural lives or of the natural world) seriously may offer just as much as the latest grand political treatise or impassioned call to action. Without a corresponding micropolitics of bodily practices through which ethical sensibilities and will formation are shaped, macropolitical questions of economic justice and environmental sustainability risk, as Jane Bennett has put it, “being just a bunch of words.” Seen in this light, I believe that the unworthiness objection can also be set aside. *** If questioned, I am sure that Jon Jandai would readily admit that in many ways life is not easy – we all grow old, fall ill, die; there is much suffering in the world. The key questions, then, are whether life can be and should be easier. Catherine Wilson’s book is a refreshing and indispensable guide both to why cultivating an easier life is important and how it may be possible. Anthony Morgan runs Bigg Books and is editor of The Philosopher.