The Pleasure Principle

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The Pleasure Principle

Perhaps the most basic theory of happiness is ‘pursue pleasure and avoid pain’. There is a philosophical term for this type of attitude known as hedonism. Hedonism comes from the Greek word hedone, which means pleasure. Hedonism states that pleasure equals good and pain equals evil.

Although hedonistic philosophers all agree that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that life should be about being happy. The concept of hedonism is not without debate as to how to achieve happiness. Some philosophers disagree as to what type of pleasure makes one truly happy. In this paper I will look through the eyes of Cyrenaic hedonists, Cynics and Stoics. Even though they all believe pleasure to the most important aspect of a good life, they disagree as to how one should obtain it.

For the sake of argument l will use the word pleasure to equal happiness. Pleasure is defined by physical and emotional happiness and the absence of pain (Merriam Webster Dictionary). The physical aspects of pleasure are things like sex, eating and having no physical aches or pains. One can achieve physical pleasure in a number of ways such as sexual stimulus, drugs, exercise and listening to music. Emotional pleasure is feelings of love, acceptance and no sense of internal stress. One achieves emotional pleasure by having close friends and family. Emotional pleasure also comes from accepting and being happy with the life you have.

Hedonists recognize that in ones pursuit of their own pleasure, they should in no way cause another person pain. Hedonists acknowledge and certainly regard laws and customs so that no harm should be brought to another. They also recognize that being altruistic will lead to happiness.

Aristippus is the founder of Cyrenaic hedonism, named after his hometown of Cyrene. Aristippus opened up a school of philosophy based on his doctrine of unrefined hedonism. Through Cyrenaic hedonism, Aristippus taught that pleasure is the principal motive for living and that pleasure is always good, regardless of its source. He thought that it was obvious that all people seek is pleasure, whether they are aware of it or not. Aristippus argued that the meaning of life can only be discovered through observing our actual behavior. He believed that by observing people’s behavior, it reveals that the meaning of life is pleasure. Aristippus thought that one should follow our natural desires openly, without guilt or apology, and to learn how to enjoy ourselves.

Aristippus believed in the ‘quantity’ of pleasure. We should try to have as much intense, sensual pleasure as we can. He believed that sensory pleasures are more intense than mental or emotional ones. He felt that physical pleasure is superior to all other things. Aristippus said, “only physical pleasure makes life exciting, dynamic and worth living”. He also believed that pleasures of the moment are much more desirable than that of potential pleasures, pleasures that might (or might not) happen in the future (

Cyrenaic hedonists were not interested in anything that wasn’t directly related to the pursuit of pleasure. Cyrenaics considered all pleasures to be of equal kind, the only difference was the intensity of the pleasure. Their philosophy was ‘whatever pleases me most at the moment is the highest good there can be’ (Soccio 5th Edition pg. 189). They also believe that a person should be in control of their pleasures rather than be enslaved to them, otherwise pain will result.

Cyrenaics were known for their skeptical theory of knowledge. They believed that we can only really know with certainty our immediate sense and experiences. For example we know that we are hungry by the sensation our body feels. In turn when we eat we feel satisfied and are no longer hungry.

Epicurus, the designer of Epicurean hedonism, started a philosophy school known as The Garden. The purpose of life for Epicurus was to attain peace by living a tranquil life. He believed in peace, freedom from fear and the absence of pain by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.

Unlike Aristippus, Epicurus was more concerned with the ‘quality’ of the pleasure. He believed that intellectual pleasures equaled the greatest of all the pleasures. He taught that one may have to go through a little pain in pursuit of true pleasure. For example, going to school, an intellectual endeavor can be difficult sometimes. However the pleasure you will receive by sticking it out and obtaining your degree will far out way the pain you went through.

Epicurus believed the highest form of pleasure was by living a virtuous and temperate lifestyle. He believed it was far better to live a simple life obtained from knowledge and friendships. Epicurus thought one should abstain from bodily desires such as sex and appetites. He felt that by indulging in these pleasures that they would eventually lead to pain. For example, if one constantly enjoys rich foods they would not be able to satisfy their hunger any other way. So if the person was ever in a position to not be able to afford the rich foods, they would suffer pain from ‘wanting’. The same should be said about sexual desires, if one indulges in sexual pleasures to much, then if they had to go without they would feel unsatisfied which would equal pain. However Epicurus was not by any means considered a Cynic (

Cynicism is a philosophy based on the belief that the very essence of civilization is corrupt and destroys individuals by making them soft and subject to the desires of fortune. Cynics believed that true pleasures are not attained by material items. In fact living in pursuit of material items will in turn make us unhappy. They believed that less is more and that we should be happy with what we have rather than what we don’t have.

Cynicism was founded by Antisthenes and the most famous follower was Diogenes. Antisthenes founded a school called the Cynosarges, which means “the silver dog”. The word cynic comes from the Greek word for ‘dog’. This label was given to Diogenes because it was said that he lived like a dog. Antisthenes believed that the less a person has than the less they need to be happy, then in turn the less vulnerable they are to pain.

Cynics claimed that pleasure come from self-discipline and rational control of all desires and appetites. Cynics also kept minimal contact with conventional society. They believed that less is more. That by wanting and desiring material, physical and emotional pleasures of any kind would lead to pain. They believed that one should live a natural and simple life, free from possessions, wealth, power, sex and fame. This certainly went against social norms of the times.

Diogenes took this to a literal extent. He was given the nickname “dog” because it is said that he lived like one. At one point Diogenes lived with a pack of stray dogs. He then lived in an old wine barrel. He felt that if he were to have any conventional material items that it would make him a hypocrite. Diogenes said, “I once saw a child drinking from his hands, I threw away my cup” (Soccio 5th Edition pg. 193).

Stoicism was founded by Zeno and is all about ones ‘attitude’. Stoics believed that our lives are not entirely our own. A stoic would rather focus on responsibility than complain about what they could not control. Stoics believe it is better to master one’s own mind by mastering their thoughts and also believed they could master their own feelings. Stoics believed that serenity comes to those, whose will is in alignment with the force of the universe, ‘logos’. Logos is the force that governs the universe. Stoics believe logo’s remains rational and ordered (class notes handout 7).

Two famous stoics that are discussed in our text book are Aurelius and Epictetus. Though their lives seemed worlds apart one thing was the same for each of them. They both felt that one could not control their fate but one could control their attitude. They lived their life and stayed in harmony with logos.

Marcus Aurelius was a wealthy and powerful ruler. A man bound by duty to his nation of Rome. He was constantly surrounded by commotion, deception and crowds, not to mention having to deal with flatterers, liars and enemies. He dealt with uprisings and invasions. It was also rumored that his wife was unfaithful. He also suffered through the deaths of four of his sons.

Aurelius must have been under great pressure every day. Yet instead of complaining and being stressed out all the time he was patient and was not known to voice his frustrations to anyone. He was said to have ruled with kindness and mercy. He was loved by his people because of his temperament. There were at times chaos all around him yet he was by nature a recluse and a scholar at heart.

Marcus Aurelius spent his final years pretty much alone. Instead of reflecting on the difficult times in his life he chose to find solace in philosophy. He wrote a book called Meditations. He addressed the book to himself and it is said to be a personal journal of positive reflections on his life.

Epictetus was in many ways exactly like Aurelius, however he was not a wealthy and powerful ruler. Epictetus was a slave. As a slave, he constantly reminded himself that what happened to him in his life was not because of his own wishes and certainly not because of his behavior. Epictetus’ motto was “Anechou Kai Apechou: Bear and Forbear”. He knew without out a doubt that he could not control others he could only control his attitude. He chose to have a positive attitude through torture and famine. He has stated “I was never more free than when I was on the rack” (Soccio 5th Edition pg. 197).

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. Stoics feel that their lives are not entirely their own so they are able to accept logos or their fate in life. By living their lives this way they believe they are able to be happy with any circumstance. This to a stoic is true pleasure.

In the United States battle for independence from British rule, a Declaration of Independence was drafted. Out of this document comes one of the most famous phases in America. We credit Thomas Jefferson with most of the content within the drafted declaration. I once read that Thomas Jefferson proclaimed himself to be an Epicurean hedonist. I now get what that meant and I certainly believe it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

United States Declaration of Independence


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