Pleasure and The Good Life

In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles and Socrates have a debate over where the good life consists. Socrates offers the following example:

“Suppose there are two men, each of whom has many jars. The jars belonging to one of them are sound and full, one with wine, another with honey, a third with milk, and many others with lots of other things. And suppose that the sources of each of these things are scarce and difficult to come by, procurable only with much toil and trouble. Now one man, having filled up his jars, doesn’t pour anything more into them and gives them no further thought. He can relax over them. As for the other one, he to has resources that can be procured, though with difficulty, but his containers are leaky and rotten. He’s forced to keep on filling them, day and night, or else he suffers extreme pain.” (Pg. 67)

Socrates gives this example in an effort to persuade Callicles that the orderly and disciplined life is better than the life spent chasing after pleasure. But Callicles remains unconvinced. He replies that:

“The man who has filed himself up has no pleasure any more, and when he’s been filled up and experiences neither joy nor pain, that’s living like a stone, as I was saying just now. Rather, living pleasantly consists in this: having as much pleasure flow in.” (Pg. 67)

Of course, to have an endless supply of pleasure flowing in requires, in this analogy, holes in the jars. Pleasure must flow out of the jars in order for there to be space for more pleasure to flow in. That is, pleasure slips through one’s fingers. One never has one’s life full of pleasure. One can never put the lids on the jars and just rest.  Callicles argues that this endless flow is a good thing, bringing new experiences and giving new purpose to each moment of our lives, as we continually seek pleasure. By contrast, Socrates argues that the good life is not found in an endless stream of pleasure. Instead, it is found in order and harmony. In this way, one can, as he says, relax.

Socrates goes on to illustrate the ways in which pleasure is distinct from goodness (he argues that there can be pleasure with pain, but there can never be good with evil and that there can be evil pleasures). But what interests me is the discussion of pleasure itself here. The analogy with the jars suggests that if one follows reason, takes care of one’s soul, and doesn’t just chase pleasure, one will be able to rest and relax, with a full and pleasant life. Whereas, if one chases pleasure, then one will never be able to relax, because one will continually need to top-up one’s pleasure-jars.

I think there’s something right, and something wrong with this Socratic analogy. I’m going to try to discuss both aspects. First, what’s right. Well, it strikes me that in our western culture of compulsive happiness, the pressure to be happy doesn’t really allow for any relaxing. We are told to be happy. And if we aren’t happy, well, we’d better do something about that. Usually retail therapy.

The idea seems to be that a lot of us live our lives in search of the next big thing that will bring us pleasure. But life doesn’t supply constant pleasure. So, eventually, something will cause us pain, and we will become unhappy again. Here is where I think Socrates is correct. If you place the value of your life on happiness (understood in terms of pleasure) you will spend the rest of your life in futility, because you can’t always be in a pleasant state. Sometimes life just sucks.

However, this brings me to where I think Socrates is incorrect. He suggests that if you spend your life cultivating your soul by seeking goodness (as opposed to pleasure) at some point you can just relax. On the one hand, I suspect that cultivating one’s soul (or, more secularly, caring for one’s self) is a life-long project. Much like chasing after pleasure, I think that caring for one’s self is something one will have to do continuously for the rest of one’s life. It’s never going to be done. Life not only sometimes sucks, but you yourself will sometimes slip back into old habits, or find the temptations from your desires to be too much to resist. Or you will find yourself thrust into new situations, where you aren’t sure how to best handle morally and socially grey areas. So, caring for yourself doesn’t stop, in the same way the seeking pleasure doesn’t stop. Aiming for the good life is a continual process.

Furthermore, I think Callicles has got something right here, and something that challenges Socrates’ idea of relaxing when understood in terms of resting. I think Callicles is right that once those jars are full (be they pleasure-jars or good-life jars) our lives lose direction. It isn’t so much as case of resting as a case of boredom and listlessness. We will simply drift, with no new goal. So, whether we seek after pleasure or cultivate the self, I think Callicles point is an important one to recognize. We need to recognize the value in endless tasks. If the work will never be done, then you always have something to do that makes your life feel worthwhile. (Incidentally, this is why I tend to seek out really long novels for my vacations. I can’t stand the thought of finishing the book. What will I do with myself if I can’t read?!!)

In essence, I think Callicles is right (and Socrates is wrong to dismiss him so quickly) when he points out the benefits of a task that is never completed. Relaxing may be all well and good, but we don’t want to do it forever. But, if cultivating goodness, like seeking pleasure, is an endless task (and I hope it is), then why does Socrates think its a better goal than seeking as much pleasure as possible? Here’s one suggestion: If you cultivate your soul, or care for yourself, rather than chasing after the latest smart phone (okay, but the newest one I saw is water proof! How will that not make me happy?) then you won’t be as susceptible to the occasional suckiness of life. Yes, life will still suck. Yes, sometimes you will be in pain, or will be unhappy. But, when this happens, you won’t have decided that all the value of your life is caught up in pleasure. So it won’t be a blow to your life’s value when the pleasure inevitably slips through your fingers.

By contrast, when you give into desires, or slip back into old habits and have to begin again to care for yourself, this will give your life value. Yes, you failed to live up to the ideal of a cultivated soul, but there is another opportunity tomorrow to try again.

I think the main point being made here is one that’s been made again and again. If you look outside yourself for happiness, you are at the whim of the world. So, look within.

Not within a smartphone store. Within yourself.

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Filed under Arts One, Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature

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