- Health and Hedonism in Plato and Epicurus by Kelly Arenson
Epicurus had a distinctive position on pleasure: the greatest possible pleasure consists in the absence of pain. The pain in question may be physical or psychological. Not to be hungry, cold, or otherwise distressed is the greatest pleasure that the body can know; to be free of fear, particularly the kind of vague, undirected anxiety that Lucretius called cura, is the most pleasant state that the mind can achieve. As Lucretius exclaims, "Do you not see that our nature cries out for nothing other than that pain be absent from the body and that it may enjoy in the mind pleasant sensations, far from anxiety and fear?" (2.16–18). Beyond this, Epicurus avers, pleasures can only be varied, not increased. Epicurus further distinguished between two kinds of pleasure, which he dubbed katastematic (or "static") and kinetic. But which are the pleasures that fall under these two classes, respectively? The condition of wellbeing, when both the mind and the body are unafflicted, would seem a likely candidate for the static type of pleasure. Once you are not hungry, eating in itself will not increase your static pleasure. But there are pleasures that seem not to be related to pain at all. Examples of such pleasures, already noted by Plato, are the tastes of various foods, pleasing odors as of perfume and flowers, and the like. The consensus of most scholars, including this reviewer, has been that these constitute the class of kinetic pleasures: they [End Page 401] move us and they vary, as opposed to the stable nature of complete freedom from pain. Questions remain: how ought one to categorize the pleasures of replenishment, which arise as you satisfy your hunger or thirst, or sleep when tired? Are these independent pleasures or are they somehow included under the katastematic pleasure of wellbeing?
The core argument of Kelly Arenson's book is that, contrary to the view of most scholars, "kinetic pleasure is the perceived movement toward painless functioning, that is, the perception of the organism's restoration to a healthy state; katastematic pleasure is the perceived painless state itself" (137). As for the variable pleasures deriving from tastes, sounds, etc., Arenson argues that they "are painless in themselves and are therefore katastematic . . . they are perceptions of the painless workings of the organism" (137). Arenson traces Epicurus's argument back to Plato (the discussion of Plato's views of pleasure occupies the first third or so of the book), according to whom, she argues, "the intentional object of the whole soul's pleasure is the consonance among its parts, which . . . results in a state of mental health characterized by peace and contentment" (23). The crucial difference with Epicurus is that Plato does not conceive of pleasure as residing simply in the perceived absence of pain, which he, like others, treats as a neutral state rather than as positive pleasure. Plato also recognized restorative pleasures, but he was critical of them because they were accompanied by pain: "The pleasure of becoming sated, for instance, is mixed with the pain of deficiency . . . it is impossible to separate the pleasure of filling from its corresponding lack when the pleasurable experience is defined in terms of the removal of pain" (49).
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to Arenson's arguments, but I would note three points. First, for Plato, pleasure, which consists in filling a lack, is not the opposite of pain, which is a deficiency rather than a process. Second, I am not convinced that Epicurus recognized pleasures of replenishment at all, as opposed to the pleasure of the absence of pain. The problem is that, as one eats, for example, the pleasure of replenishment decreases while the pleasure that consists in the absence of pain increases. Epicurus talks about natural and necessary desires, as Arenson observes, but does not explicitly associate the fulfilment of these desires with pleasure. Finally, Arenson gives short shrift to Aristotle (just eleven pages), but I believe that...