Book 7.5: Of Pleasure.

Chapter 14: Of the bodily pleasures, and the distinction between naturally and accidentally pleasant.

Those who say that though some pleasures are very desirable — to wit, noble pleasures — the pleasures of the body, with which the profligate is concerned, are not desirable, should consider the nature of these pleasures of the body. Why [if they are bad] are the opposite pains bad? for the opposite of bad is good. Are we to say that the “necessary” pleasures are good in the sense that what is not bad is good? or are they good up to a certain point?

Those faculties and those motions or activities which do not admit of excess beyond what is good, do not admit of excessive pleasure; but those which admit of excess admit also of excessive pleasure. Now, bodily goods admit of excess, and the bad man is bad because he pursues this excess, not merely because he pursues the necessary pleasures; for men always take some delight in meat, and drink, and the gratification of the sexual appetite, but not always as they ought. But with pain the case is reversed: it is not excess of pain merely that the bad man avoids, but pain generally; [which is not inconsistent with the proposition that pain is bad,] for the opposite of excessive pleasure is not painful, except to the man who pursues the excess.

But we ought to state not only the truth, but also the cause of the error; for this helps to produce conviction, as, when something has been pointed out to us which would naturally make that seem true which is not, we are more ready to believe the truth. And so we must say why it is that the bodily pleasures seem more desirable.

First of all, then, it is because of its efficacy in expelling pain, and because of the excessiveness of the pain to which it is regarded as an antidote, that men pursue excessive pleasure and bodily pleasure generally. But these remedies produce an intense feeling, and so are pursued, because they appear in strong contrast to the opposite pain.

(The reasons why pleasure is thought to be not good are two, as we said before: (1) some pleasures are the manifestation of a nature that is bad either from birth, as with brutes, or by habit, as with bad men: (2) the remedial pleasures imply want; and it is better to be in a [natural] state than in a transition to such a state; but these pleasures are felt while a want in us is being filled up, and therefore they are only accidentally good.)

Again, these pleasures are pursued because of their intensity by those who are unable to take delight in other pleasures; thus we see people make themselves thirsty on purpose. When the pleasures they pursue are harmless, we do not blame them (though when they are hurtful the pursuit is bad); for they have no other sources of enjoyment, and the neutral state is painful to many because of their nature: for an animal is always labouring, as physical science teaches, telling us that seeing and hearing is labour and pain, only we are all used to it, as the Peters1893: VII. 14, 6saying is. And thus in youth, because they are growing, men are in a state resembling drunkenness; and youth is pleasant. But people of a melancholic nature are always wanting something to restore their balance; for their bodies are always vexing them because of their peculiar temperament, and they are always in a state of violent desire. But pain is expelled either by the opposite pleasure or by any pleasure, if it be sufficiently strong; and this is the reason why such men become profligate and worthless.

But pleasures that have no antecedent pain do not admit of excess. These are the pleasures derived from things that are naturally and not merely accidentally pleasant. I call those things accidentally pleasant that have a restorative effect; for as the restoration cannot take place unless that part of the system which remains healthy be in some way active, the restoration itself seems pleasant: but I call those things naturally pleasant that stimulate the activity of a healthy system.

But nothing can continue to give us uninterrupted pleasure, because our nature is not simple, but contains a second element which makes us mortal beings; so that if the one element be active in any way, this is contrary to the nature of the other element, but when the two elements are in equilibrium, what we do seems neither painful nor pleasant; for if there were a being whose nature were simple, the same activity would be always most pleasant to him. And on this account God always enjoys one simple pleasure; for besides the activity of movement, there is also activity without movement, and rest admits of truer pleasure than motion. But change is “the sweetest of all things,” as the poet says, because of a certain badness in us: for just as it is the bad man who is especially apt to change, so is it the bad nature that needs change; for it is neither simple nor good.

We have now considered continence and incontinence, and pleasure and pain, and have explained what each is, and how some of them are good and some bad. It remains to consider friendship.


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