A reflection on Plato’s Gorgias
Humans, as with all animals, are driven by the instinct which the bumbling process of evolution has left us. When we perform the tasks to which these ancient needs compel us, we are rewarded through feelings of pleasure. However, with the relatively recent development of the rational mind, we have come to a position where the mental faculties we have been granted are constrained by the biological drivers which shape us as humans. However, it is these same drivers which give us the impetus – to use an unfashionable word the ambition – to achieve great things in the material world and in the realm of contemplation. With the tension between the utility and danger of pleasure, I will examine whether its nature is positive or negative in its influence and the service it renders in our quest for understanding.
Initially, we must examine the concept of pleasure itself. Pleasure is feelings we derive from performing a particular action in the service of fulfilling a desire. In this sense, there is two forms of pleasure: that derived from physical acts and that derived from mental acts. Physical pleasure is derived from the satisfaction of instinctual desires: sleeping, eating, drinking and copulation. Mental pleasure, on the other hand, is derived from engaging in debate, discussion and problem-solving. Regardless of the source, it appears that these pleasures are of the same substance, although the secondary impacts that occur in the course of obtaining them vary wildly.
Thus comes the utilitarian argument – is this pleasure equitable to the idea of the good? Is it better to have a pleasant life or an unpleasant life? In this sense I would posit that the argument of the addict still retains its poignancy today as it did in the time of Socrates: to live a life continually chasing desire is to live a miserably. If we are a slave to our pleasures, then evidently we will never be satisfied either with ourselves or our accomplishments.
On the other hand, does this mean that our pleasures are corrupting? If the pursuit of pleasure results in addiction then should we reject all forms of desire and live our lives by the laws of the ascetic: the bare necessities of life coupled with intense physical discomfort? It is my opinion that the person who is engaging in this form of physical self-denial is, perversely, denying themselves the mental pleasure that comes from social intercourse and discussion. This is the epitomised in the life of the hermit – living in complete isolation.
If pleasure is neither a good nor evil, then how do we live our lives, taking into account the influence of desire while at the same time attempting to achieve the good? To this end, I believe that the small piece of free will with which we are provided should be turned to the interest of mastering our pleasures and setting them to our own use. If we make study and intellectual discourse an act of enjoyment we turn our hunger from something which distracts from our journey into something which spurs us to greater understanding. Thus, we must learn to reshape our own gratification, to attempt to turn the act of self-education from a chore into recreation. This is what it means to use our leisure appropriately – to neither indulge our base desires or deny our own humanity.
Thomas Couture, The Romans of the Decadence, 1847