Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mixed Pleasure in Plato

In Book IX of Plato's Republic, Socrates makes a distinction between mixed pleasures and pure pleasures which is somewhat curious (583c-587a). The mixed pleasure is pleasure that is only really caused by the cessation of pain, for example if you've been holding it for a long time and then finally get to go the bathroom, it can be very pleasurable. Plato sets up three levels of pleasure: pain, a middle state of neither pleasure nor pain, and pleasure. This mixed pleasure would be reaching the middle state after previously being in pain. On the other hand, there is pure pleasure which is pleasurable in itself. Plato thinks the only things that would be fall under this category are reason and virtue. A person with unclouded access to true good and true virtue alone can experience pure pleasure. Mixed pleasure really is just the middle state between pleasure and pain that only seems pleasurable by contrast to pain, and pure pleasure is actually true pleasure and really is only something that the rational part of us will reach. Thus, all bodily pleasures are necessarily relegated to the realm of mixed pleasure, and thus only fall in that middle state between pleasure and pain and only seem pleasurable because they are preceded by pain. This requires one to assume that everything in the realm of the bodily is pain, except those treasured moments when we move up into the middle state, and only think it is pleasurable by comparison.

As one might imagine, this is a controversial position. Even just looking at it on the surface before reflecting on whether it is correct, it seems like Plato's general philosophical values (praising the rational and denigrating the bodily) has clouded his judgment and tainted his whole interpretation of the world. Plato of course, thinks that paying too much attention to the physical and turning away from the purely rational is the road to ignorance, but he is here showing that paying too much attention to the rational, can also lead to ignorance.

Admittedly, there are some pleasures which frequently do follow on pain, like the pleasure of relieving oneself, or the pleasure of eating when hungry or sleeping when tired, but certainly not all are like that. Unless one frequently mixes sex with spanking or whipping or torture or something like that (maybe Plato was really into BDSM), then orgasm is actually usually reached in fact after considerable pleasure. Unless Plato is going to argue that an orgasm is some sort rational pleasure or some form of true virtue, then I think he might have a problem. Even eating is pleasurable when you're not hungry. And going to the bathroom and sleeping have undoubted independent pleasure beyond just the cessation of pain. Pleasure that is merely the cessation of pain is distinct and discernible from true pleasure to anyone who pays attention and requires no special philosophical aptitude. Plato's motives of denigrating the bodily are clear, but this is a good case of being clouded by your values.

And the pleasure of thinking I'm suspicious of. It seems to me, that the only pleasure in thinking is in figuring things out, the pleasure of ending the pain of unsated curiosity, the pleasure of Eureka! moments, the pleasure of solving difficult problems; in short, the pleasure of overcoming a difficulty. I like it, but it has its limitations.

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