- “. . . pleasure is the starting point and goal of living blessedly. For we recognized this as our first innate good.” [Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.]
- “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.” [Epicurus, Principal Doctrines.]
Pleasure describes mainly the domains of sensation and emotion but also thought and action, because thoughts and actions can also be pleasurable. However, the pleasure experience of a thought or action is mainly emotional.
People derive pleasure, and pain, from the senses: the visual arts and images of nature through vision; music through hearing; sensuality and sex through touch; the smell of a romantic partner or a flower; the taste of good food. People also derive pleasure, and pain, from each other’s company: a child’s laughter, a loved one’s affirming smile, a challenging intellectual exchange. However, pleasure can also be experienced in solitude, or from solitude itself. Pleasure can come from giving or receiving, from wealth or through a vow of poverty, from skill and accomplishment, from learning or from teaching, from amity or from solitude, from the respect of others or from equanimity, from memory or expectation or from living in the moment, from relief or from anticipation. Medications, alcohol and illicit drugs can be used to alleviate pain. This field has expanded to include cannabis (marijuana) as an accepted medical treatment. Tragically, opiate prescription appears to have played a major role in the public health problem of drug addiction. We have a growing wealth of brain studies on acute and chronic pain, and also low back pain, abdominal pain, groin pain, chest pain, headache, and pain in many other parts of the body. Functional MRI results have been compared in adults versus infants.
Pain can be physical, and also emotional. Emotional pains (suffering) include separation from others, alienation, powerlessness, awareness of mortality, privation, awkwardness, enmity, disapproval, rejection, guilt, shame, greed, envy, jealousy, fear, and many others. We will explore many of these later on.
Hedonism is a philosophical position, dating at least from the ancient Greeks, and holding that pleasure is of ultimate importance. More recently, Jeremy Bentham argued that pain and pleasure were humankind’s “two sovereign masters”. In general, ceteris paribus (Latin for “with other conditions remaining the same”, or “all other things being equal”), people prefer pleasure over pain. However, people may seek to experience the anguish of a lost relationship: this can be necessary to healing, or the anguish can in itself be a kind of pleasure. A bodybuilder’s mantra is “no pain, no gain”: the muscle groups will not develop to their fullest without the pain that comes from progressive resistance exercises. A student may develop a headache doing geometry, using parts of the brain that are not accustomed to the activity. A parent may discipline a child to improve the child’s behavior or attitude; we may discipline ourselves for similar reasons. Bentham probably would point out that each of these voluntary excursions into pain is for the purpose of creating the conditions for more enduring pleasure. This is consistent with a common view of heaven, which many people see as a state of eternal bliss – the ultimate pleasure, perhaps. We could argue, with considerable justification, that health, satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment all fit under the more general heading of pleasure, and longevity allows us to experience pleasure for a long time. In that sense, perhaps Bentham and the other hedonists were correct. However, their philosophy must be carefully distinguished from momentary pleasure, which can interfere with pleasurable experiences long term. In an ethical model, one person’s pleasure is not the only consideration: we should consider other people, because their experiences of pleasure and pain are essentially the same as our own. Hedonism can be and often is conceived too narrowly. Whatever we might say about it in our philosophies, pleasure is a basic human preference.
Liz Phair's review of Keith Richards' autobiography for The New York Times begins by calling him "a global avatar of wish fulfillment for over four decades and managed to eke more waking hours out of a 24-hour day than perhaps any other creature alive . . ." He may not be some people's ideal of an ethical role model but surely this Rolling Stones guitarist illustrates enjoying life in the fast lane.
- Keith Richards, Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2010).
To study the history of pleasure one could study the history and philosophy of Epicureanism.
- James Warren, The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2008).
- James Birdsall, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020): “Beard, with little money of his own but a gift for cooking and making people laugh, took on a role somewhere between gofer and impresario, mixing drinks, passing around nubs of fried battered squab as hors d’oeuvres and strategically flitting in and out of the glittering talk.”
Or one could study the pursuit of pleasure in its various forms.
- Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure (Vintage, 1990).
- Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (Continuum).
- Thomas M. Kavanagh, Enlightened Pleasures: Eighteenth-Century France and the New Epicureanism (Yale University Press, 2010).
- Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (Harper & Row, 1972).
- Christopher Turner, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011): ". . . what is extraordinary is the number of apparently level and careful people who, in pursuit of better and bigger orgasm, were prepared to lower themselves into Reich's jerry-built 'orgone box' and await blissful developments."
Many people take great pleasure in something simple. It may be a curio or a work of art.
- Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights (Doubleday, 2010).
True narratives about the erotic:
- Toni Bentley, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir (Ecco, 2004): “a manifesto for anal sex.”
- Erica Garza, Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction (Simon & Schuster, 2018): “The memoir shines light on the lonely (albeit impressively multi-orgasmic) world of a woman who binges not on food or pills, but on hookups and ‘getting off.’ Oh, and porn. Lots of porn.”
On sex toys:
- Hallie Lieberman, Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (Penguin Books, 2017).
- Lynn Comelia, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke University Press, 2018).
Technical and Analytical Readings
- In Epicurus' time (341-270 B.C.E.), philosophy was considered to be the technical study of a matter. Epicurus' philosophy of pleasure
Technical writings on pleasure:
- David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good (Viking, 2011): “ . . . Johns Hopkins neurobiologist David J. Linden explicates the workings of (certain) regions (of the brain), known collectively as the reward system, elegantly drawing on sources ranging from personal experience to studies of brain activity to experiments with molecules and genes.”
- Salvador Dali, The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933)
- Anton Raphael Mengs, Pleasure (1754)
- Diego Velazguez, Triumph of Bacchus (1628)
- Guido Reni, The Boy Bacchus (1615)
- Kitagawa Utamoro, Midnight Revelry at Dozo Sagami
- Francis Picabia, Two Women with Poppies (1942-44)
- Boris Kustodiev, Merry Go Round (1920)
- Wassily Kandinsky, Small Pleasures (1913)
- Henryk Semiradsky, Bacchanalia (1890)
- Claude Monet, Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (The Picnic) (1865-66)
- Nicolas Poussin, Adrians or the Great Bacchanal with Woman Playing a Lute (1628)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Telemann, Tafelmusik: Georg Philipp Telemann wrote this music for the dinner table. It consists of eighteen chamber pieces for various combinations of instruments, organized into three productions. The tenor of the music suggests the pleasures of dining (full performance conducted by Belder).
- Verdi, Falstaff (1893): an operatic celebration of a hedonist (full performances conducted by Muti, Giulini and Abbado)
- Hindemith, Symphonia Serena (1946): “ . . . an agreeable work making no pretence of plumbing emotional depths, but exploiting various instruments and orchestral groups in an amiable and ingenious way.” [Norman del Mar]
- Percy Grainger and Louis Marie Gottschalk composed substantial bodies of pleasant musical baubles in the classical idiom, broadly defined. Mainly they are piano tunes and arrangements, songs and brief orchestral pieces.
- Gillis, Symphony No. 5 1/2, “A Symphony for Fun” (1946)
- Gillis, Symphony X: Big D (1968): a little light entertainment.
- Banchieri, Il Zabaione Musicale (1603)
- Brahms, Rinaldo, 50 (1863): in this cantata, which draws on three Goethe poems, a young man seeks solace.
- Haydn, Notturni
- Zelenka, Concerto a 8 concertanti in G major, ZWV 186
- Weill, Dance arrangements
- Hoagy Carmichael’s music
- Raga Basant a Hindustani classical raag for spring, any time of day (performances by Shankar, Sharma and Kumar)
- Eric Coates, British light music
O, it was out by Donnycarney / When the bat flew from tree to tree / My love and I did walk together; / And sweet were the words she said to me.
Along with us the summer wind / Went murmuring -- - O, happily! -- - / But softer than the breath of summer / Was the kiss she gave to me.
[James Joyce, “O It Was Out by Donnycarney”]
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Bacchus”
- Pablo Neruda, “Ode to My Socks”
- John Keats, “Give Me Women, Wine, and Snuff”
- John Keats, “Hither, Hither, Love”
- John Keats, “Teignmouth”
- James Joyce, “In the Dark Pine-Wood”
Books on poets and poetry:
- Richard Siken, Crush (Yale University Press, 2005): a book of erotic-obsessive poems.
Marius' pleasure consisted in taking long walks alone on the outer boulevards, or in the Champs-de-Mars, or in the least frequented alleys of the Luxembourg. He often spent half a day in gazing at a market garden, the beds of lettuce, the chickens on the dung-heap, the horse turning the water-wheel. The passers-by stared at him in surprise, and some of them thought his attire suspicious and his mien sinister. He was only a poor young man dreaming in an objectless way. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume III – Marius; Book Fifth – The Excellence of Misfortune, Chapter V, Poverty a Good Neighbor for Misery.]
. . . a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition . . . [Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851), Chapter 15. Chowder.]
Iconic novels on eroticism:
- E.L. James, Fifty Shades trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey (Doubleday, 2011); Fifty Shades Darker (Doubleday, 2012); Fifty Shades Freed (Doubleday, 2013): though not well-reviewed, this trilogy attracted public attention.
- Maya Banks, Breathless Trilogy: Rush: A Novel (Berkley, 2013): a teenage girl grows up, and a socially powerful man has been waiting; Fever: A Novel (Berkley, 2013); Burn: A Novel (Berkley, 2013).
- Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet: A Novel (Riverhead, 1999): a lesbian relationship in late Victorian England.
- Jeanette Winterson, Written On the Body: A Novel (Knopf, 1992): “. . . a love story and a philosophical meditation on the body as both physical manifestation and objective correlative of our innermost selves, our bodies as our embodiment.”
- Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior (Simon & Schuster, 1988): a collection of short stories