Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Plato's Pleasure Principle

Plato's ethics are built on a pleasure system--what is pleasurable is right, and what is painful is wrong, or at the very least, what is wrong causes pain, and what is right causes pleasure. This concept shows up throughout his dialogues, particularly those of the middle period, and they've always rung false to my Presbyterian mind. In Timaeus, however, he gives us a scientific defense of his ethics; in this passage, he deals with the mechanics of taste:
Whenever the composition of the particles which enter into the moist parts is naturally akin to the state of the tongue, they oil its roughened parts and smooth it, contracting the parts that are unnaturally dilated or dilating those that are contracted, and thus settling them all, so far as possible, in their natural condition; and every such remedy of the forcible affections, being pleasant and welcome to everyone, is called "sweet." (66C)
I guess that's not really a defense of his ethics, per se, but we can extrapolate one. What is right has the effect on the soul that sweet things have on the body--it sets it right, and since pleasure is the effect of everything being in its right place, right equals pleasure.

Can the dour Presbyterian mind get behind such a formula? Perhaps, if we tweak it a little. Calvinists believe that everything (yeah, depending on the Calvinist) is predetermined; therefore, God is always already in control of everything; therefore, everything is naturally in its proper place (and proper is always a good word for Presbyterians). Doesn't that produce a certain pleasure (the patriarchs call it joy), even as it may also cause pain? Calvinists are fond of the idea that we do the right thing at the expense of our comfort, but it seems more accurate to say we exchange one (lower) pleasure for another higher one:
Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter very various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in
nothing. (James 1:2-4, NAS)
St. James modifies Plato, then: Pleasure is not uniformly good, but in its higher, divine form (that knowledge of/faith in God's properly ordering the universe), it can be. It is this knowledge and this faith that properly orders the soul and comforts us, provided we do the right thing through them.

I think this is my first positive post about Plato, and it was going to be negative until I worked this out. Maybe Nathan is right--I should be more open and charitable to him.

1 comment:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Timaeus (being a sequel of sorts to Republic) in the passage you cite seems to be building off of the metaphor of the climbers and the two plateaus: the climbers who reach the highest point realize that their former pleasure at reaching the midpoint was a lesser pleasure than that accompanying the full climb.

Plato's not so bad; one could do worse. (And most of my freshman comp students haven't done any better.) I do worry sometimes that my favorite book to teach is also Allan Bloom's and Leo Strauss's, but I comfort myself by remembering that I teach it as an entry into rather than a stopping point for the intellectual life. A trip through Republic makes the Federalist or Jefferson's essays positively refreshing.