Aristotle on Pleasure

Is pleasure an intrinsic good according to Aristotle? Let’s say that something is intrinsically good when it is valuable just because of the kind of thing that it is and never valuable for relational reasons. To answer this question I had to re-read Book VII ch. 11-14 of the Nicomachean Ethics (forget about Book X -for now-). At first it may seem that he does think so. He certainly seems to think that pleasure is necessarily good and to be honest, I find that I am mostly sympathetic to the kinds of things he says (e.g. that pleasure must be good in some sense for otherwise it could not be a part of the virtuous life, that if pain is bad then pleasure must be good, that both humans and animals pursue it and that should tell us something, that it is a mistake to think that if it is bad for this or that task then it is bad full stop, that pleasure is a byproduct of an activity rather than a state, etc). But after thinking about it a bit I think that he is committed to the claim that pleasure is not intrinsically good. Let us turn to the text.

In particular in Book VII ch 12 he seems to be making a distinction between that which really is a pleasure and that which merely seems to be a pleasure. For instance at 1152b 30 he says

…while others are not even pleasures, but seem to be so, viz. all those which involve pain and whose end is curative, e.g. the processes that go on in a sick person” (Barnes translation, yes I am old).

Further on, at 1153a 5, he elaborates this into a distinction between pleasures that are so by nature and those that are merely incidentally pleasures.

…that the others are incidental is indicated by the fact that men do not enjoy the same things when their nature is in its settled state as they do when it is being replenished, but in the former case they enjoy the things that are pleasant without qualification, in the latter state the contraries as well; for then they enjoy even sharp and bitter things, none of which is pleasant either by nature or without qualitifaction. Nor then are the pleasures; for as pleasant things differ, so do the pleasures arising from them.

The idea here seems to be that that natural pleasures are produced by those things which are naturally pleasant and so if something which is not naturally pleasant produces something then whatever it produces cannot be naturally pleasant.

He goes on to say a bit later in ch 14 (1154b 15-20),

But the pleasures that do not involve pains do not admit of excess; and these are among the things pleasant by nature and not incidentally. By things pleasant incidentally I mean those that act as cures…things naturally pleasant are those that stimulate the action of a healthy nature

Ok, so it seems clear that Aristotle thinks that when we are not in our natural healthy state we may mistake as a pleasure something which really isn’t a pleasure (or: the pleasure is merely incidental pleasure not natural pleasure). But then the crucial questions is: Is the vicious person in their natural and healthy state? It seems to me that the only answer we can give, from Aristotle’s point of view, is that they are not. But if that is the case then we seem to be lead to the conclusion that the ‘pleasure’ derived from wicked activity is not really pleasure, it merely seem to be pleasure to the vicious person. Or to put it the other way, these are only incidental pleasures and are not natural pleasures.

So now it seems to me the lesson from the above is that pleasure is not to be desired for its own sake but rather is only desirable when it ‘stimulates the action of a healthy nature’. That is, whether we should desire a certain pleasure is a function of how that pleasure was produced and not merely a function of the kind of thing it is (pleasure). The alternative to this, it seems, is to hold that only the natural pleasures are really pleasures and they are intrinsically good. But this seems like a very strange view. The pleasure the serial killer experiences as he sees his victim squirm and beg for their life is (I assume) phenomenologically indistinguishable from the pleasure one may have when they see their offspring flourishing. If so then it is highly artificial and contrived to call only one of those ‘pleasure’.

If this is right then pleasures must be instrumentally good, and this seems right to me (on Aristotle’s view). They are instrumentally good in that they are the chief sources of actions and so can be used to produce virtuous activity. In fact this seems to be what he recommends when he discuses moral education.

[P.S. in case anyone cares, this was prompted by my writing an exam for my Ethics and Moral Issues course :]


7 thoughts on “Aristotle on Pleasure

  1. You probably don’t remember me and I barely remember you, but didn’t you study with John Glanville at UCFS in the late 90s or early 2000s? I’ve run across your blog several time over the past year when searching for something concise about Aristotle. Pam Schmidt

  2. Hi Richard,

    Firstly, thanks for your post. As a psychoanalyst I’m always interested in Aristotle’s moral psychology, especially from a philosopher’s perspective.

    I apologize in advance for any bad English and after many years I think that Aristotle can be summed up by such: “Since domination is grounded on words, strive to hold the right words by setting down the phenomena.” I think the best way to understand our friend Aristotle here is first to take his view on incontinence:

    1. Sweet food is bad
    2. This is sweet
    C- This is bad

    Thus, according to Aristotle, whilst the incontinent man kind of possesses the knowledge that this is sweet, he doesn’t actually hold this knowledge when seeing the food. So, since the conclusion of his practical syllogism is essentially his action, and, like you say, Aristotle thinks the opposite of bad is good, the incontinent’s reasoning virtually goes like such:

    1. Sweet food is bad
    2. This isn’t sweet
    C- This isn’t bad
    C’- This is good

    Now, like you explain, Aristotle holds that all men who deviate from the right reason (ho orthos ho logos) experience incidental or remedial pleasures (Let pleasure = means of domination over one’s physiology per se; I’m hinting at my beginning quote but you’ll see more clearly and distinctly why I say this soon). So, the incontinent man experiences a remedial pleasure from eating his food. If he can be cured of his incontinence, Aristotle says, then he will actually hold the knowledge that he possesses – namely, that the food is sweet – and will rather experience a natural pleasure from the food. The point is that either way the man will experience a pleasure, natural if the man is in a healthy state or remedial if he’s in a diseased state. As you and I know, however, the natural pleasure is the correct or right pleasure and is in accordance with virtue.

    Now, I hope you’re beginning to see my point. The goal is to move a man from experiencing remedial pleasures to experiencing natural pleasures. This is exactly what I do as a psychoanalyst! Further, I argue that the incontinent man is what we call nowadays the neurotic. The famous example we use in psychoanalysis to illustrate neurosis is the Rat Man, who, when he sees food associated with rats, he gets a guilty pleasure from that food. Even though the Rat Man knows the food isn’t sweet, because of his neurotic complex, he acts essentially like Aristotle’s incontinent man and experiences a remedial pleasure from the food.

    That’s why in psychoanalysis we try to cure the neurotic of his “incontinence” by setting down the phenomena for him. I have to run out for lunch now but I’ll try to explain it better when I’ve got the chance.

    All the very best,
    – Tony

  3. Hi Richard, I mean “when he sees food associated with THE WORD rats”. Buona notte. I will explain it better tommorow when I get the chance….Tony

  4. Hi Richard, you made me revisit aristotle. I like imagery, so, um, the famous analogy of the soul and a fleeting rout to resolve the “Meno’s Paradox” that knowledge/wisdom is neither innately in us/our souls nor distinct from them:

    “When one of a number of particulars has set itself down, the earliest universal is present in the soul, for though the act of sense-perception is of the particular, its form is universal (hand, not the Rat Man’s hand). Eventually a new setting down is made among these rudimentary universals, and the process doesn’t cease until the CONCEPTS (the true universals) are established” (Post Anal. II.19)

    A synthesis or “condensation” (to honor Freud, though, by the way, it’s justified by the cloud analogy in Problems xxvi 941a9-13 as giving a parallel to the soul’s “rout” as described in the quote I just gave) of repeated memories gives rise to experience, and a synthesis or condensation of experience gives rise to knowledge. And for Aristotle this knowledge acquired by this process of induction (from sense-perception to memory to experience) is the starting point for all other knowledge via syllogism. Knowledge is either scientific or practical (ie the physicist’s knowledge or the artist’s/craftsman’s knowledge) and corresponds to the two general spheres of being and coming-into-being, ie the external world in itself. But the form is common to both spheres and hence transcends this being/coming-into-being distinction or flux or change/movement which Aristotle makes clear is a faulty human trait. (If we were gods like Socrates the artist who can unlike the man of experience teach this neither identical nor distinct from us knowledge, we wouldn’t change).

    By the way, this intuitive image of the process of the human soul Aristotle gives us reminds me of the wax in Theaetetus since the first particular is like the implanting in the wax and repeated experiences make the wax smooth and good (194d?). But basically I think this is Aristotle saying how we acquire concepts for knowledge (I know, I’ve rambled….it’s what we do in Italy!) But now to go back to the “foodie’s” syllogism: Sweet Food is bad, This is Sweet, This is bad. By the aforementioned process we’ve established the concept sweet. now this is a such ie a sweet. but function follows form and the form is not firmly stabilized there so the Rat Man malfunctions. This is why only the artist/craftsman has true knowledge or wisdom. so in psychoanalysis we try to set down the phenomena firmly and stable in the soul. We try to doctor the soul back to its healthy state, sounds very religious but we do it very technically.

    why i thought of the wax block because we think in pictures. and originary synthesis to knowledge is very kantian.


  5. Things that are pleasant incidentally are pleasant to those who have been “perverted or ruined” (aristotle, ethics & politics)

    Things that are pleasant by nature are pleasant under their spheres. for example under the sphere of health, certain healthy things are pleasant by nature, or under the sphere of wealth, certain wealthy things are pleasant by nature. Of course Aristotle’s metaphysics says that all of these many spheres fall under the one sphere of what we can call the sphere of “happiness” for understanding’s sake.

    So psychoanalytically what is the difference between incidental and natural pleasures? incidental pleasures are essentially pleasures related to (perverted) fantasy. pleasures from imaginary friends, s&M, and nazism for example are incidental pleasures. in aristotle’s language we could call them intemperate, incontinent, etc etc but you get the idea. natural pleasures are real friends (pleasurable friends, not utilitarian/imaginary friends), normal, safe sex and humanitarianism or whatever you want to call it. The difference between imaginary and natural (sometimes we call them “symbolic” a la Lacan) pleasures is that with natural pleasures, there is always, besides you and the other (friend, partner, human race), a third element which binds you two and allows for the pleasure to occur. In aristotle’s terminology, the third element is the sphere. so with pleasant friendships, the sphere of friendship binds you to the principle of pleasure that governs the sphere. (deleuze talks about the binding process that allows for Freud’s pleasure principle to take effect, essentially Kant’s – and aristotle’s – condensation…the originary synthesis/first mover is the foundation of the pleasure principle, otherwise “pleasures and pains would occur but without any systemic value” (deleuze, coldness & cruelty))… so basically any natural pleasure (governed by the human pleasure “principle”) is intersubjective (with all of its many spheres within the one “human” one), whereas incidental pleasures are purely subjective and perverted.

    But now we get to after ch 14 (1154b 15-20) where aristotle talks about the “other element acting in us” that “makes us perishable” and therefore even a natural pleasure is counterbalanced by some pain when this unique element is acting in us. now in psychoanalysis we also study buddhism and one similarity between ancient greek and indian philosophical traditions is the idea of the imperishable. specifically, nagarjuna in chapter 17 of the vigrahavyavartani talks about different theories of how fruit is borne from good actions, and says that the action is like the “debt” and the imperishable the “pledge pen.” In other words, in whatever “sphere” (a la aristotle) you’re in, you, under this imperishable sphere, in order to experience a natural pleasure under this imperishable sphere, you have to figuratively pay back (we sometimes talk of, as in edgar allen poe’s “the purloined letter”, dupin the analyst trading the “letter” for money, since intersubjectivity means intersubjectivity of language which is governed by the unconscious; for example, whatever cultural-linguistic sphere you’re born/thrown into you have the ability to appreciate art; good emily dickinson poetry for example can yield a pleasure to english-speakers but not spanish-speakers because of the different cultural spheres….)but because these natural pleasures are based on the many imperishable spheres (based on the one imperishable “human” sphere governed by the pleasure principle), conscience tells us that we’re never worthy of these pleasures (hence the counterbalancing pain)

    but nagarjuna says that the imperishables, the spheres of activity in which we can escape from only by complete payback (impossible according to conscience as it was “made only for you” kafka – before the law) or by death, are, in fact, VOID or EMPTY (westerhoff’s translation). and not only are these spheres void but everything is void (nagarjuna’s thesis that he is expressing but not proposing – like an illusory person making known the existence of his and everyone’s illusion – for otherwise his thesis would also be void and not be able to negate the voidness of all things). and whoever understands this thesis of voidness becomes enlightened, or to use ancient greek/aristotelian terminology, “godlike” (aristotle says this in the passage aforementioned, that the gods, not that they don’t experience natural pleasures, but that they don’t have this other element acting in them…humans and gods, unlike perverted animals, experience natural pleasures, but with godlike, enlightened creatures, conscience (and hence the pain which we in psychoanalysis call guilt) is not acting contrary to the pleasure. with the pleasure principle, we experience the pleasure but aware of our empirical will falling short of our idealized rational will, conscience says we’re not worthy of this pleasure and this is the element acting contrary to nature “the other nature” that aristotle calls it. if we “understand” that our pleasure principle and the one and the many pleasures that follow from it are void (and understanding doesn’t mean holding the proposition that everything is empty, remember, because then we would be like “holding a serpent in the wrong way” (nagarjuna, vigrahavyavartani)…if we truly are enlightened, then these natural pleasures would be most pleasant.

    It’s similar to happiness vs. the pleasure of “intellectual contemplation” (book x). both are eudaemonia, but in contemplation there is “pleasure in rest more than in movement” (ch141154b)…. the understanding understanding itself, or in other words, that the self governed by the natural pleasure principle is in itself merely a condensation………

    and that, as nagarjuna says, the void world is “an illusion, a fiction, like the city of the gandharvas”………

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