Aristotle On Pleasure

Aristotle On Pleasure After nine books of contemplating different aspects of the human good, Aristotle uses this opportunity to claim contemplation as the highest form of pleasure. The final book in Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with pleasures: the understanding of each kind, and why some pleasures are better than other pleasures. The book is essentially divided into two main parts, being pleasure and happiness. I will use Terence Irwin’s translation and subdivisions as a guiding map for my own enquiry, and any quotation from will be taken from this text. Irwin divides the book into three sections: Pleasure, Happiness: Further discussion, and Ethics, Moral Education and Politics. With this order in place, I will go chronologically through each claim and argument, using both the text and commentaries on the text to provide an understanding and clarify any misconceptions of the arguments presented.

At 1172a20 Aristotle makes his case for the ethical importance of pleasure. He says that not only do “we educate children .. by pleasure and pain, [but] enjoying and hating the right things seems to be most important for virtue of character”. It because of this importance that pleasure needs to be considered. Aristotle also cites the importance of pleasure because of the controversy that surrounds it with regards to the dispute about whether pleasure is the good or it is altogether base (1172a 28).

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The question as to whether or not pleasure is altogether base lies in the argument that “since the many lean towards pleasure and are slaves to pleasures, we must lead them in the contrary direction, because that is the way to reach the intermediate condition” (1172a 30). Anyone who offers the claim that all pleasures are altogether base would have to be free from ever seeking any type of pleasure, in any degree to award any sort of truth to this claim. St. Thomas Aquinas responds similarly to this in saying: It hardly seems correct for people to say what they do not believe – that pleasures are just evil to withdraw us from them, because in questions of human actions and passions we give less credence to words that to actions. For if a man does what he says is evil, he incites by his example more than he restrains by his word (Aquinas, 862). Following the lead of both Aristotle and Aquinas, it becomes clearer that neither believe that it is pleasure is evil in itself. Since the groundwork is then laid out, and there can be no objection to Aristotle’s calling pleasure what it is, he proceeds with his arguments.

At 1172b10 Aristotle marks that that no sound argument can prove that pleasure is the good. He then uses Eudoxus’ arguments as his starting point. Eudoxus thought that pleasure is in the category of the good, and divided his thoughts into three parts. For each of the parts, I will quote in full, to ensure that the arguments are not misinterpreted. In the first, he saw that those animals: Both rational and non-rational seek it.

(b) In everything, what is choiceworthy is decent, and what is most choiceworthy is supreme. (c) Each thing finds its own good, just as it finds its own nourishment. (d) Hence, when all things are drawn to the same thing [i.e. pleasure], this indicates that it is best for all. (e) And what is good for all, what all aim at is the good (1172b 10-15). In an initial response to this, Aristotle remarks that that Eudoxus’ arguments were considered good because of the arguments in themselves, but because of the character of the man.

His second argument makes the same claim from the contrary. He said that: (a) pain in itself is to be avoided for all. (b) Similarly, then, its contrary is choiceworthy for all. (c) What is most choiceworthy is what we choose not because of, or for the sake of, anything else. (d) And it is agreed that this is the character of pleasure, since we never ask anyone what his end is in being pleased, on the assumption that pleasure is choiceworthy in itself. His final argument is simply that “when pleasure is added to any other good, e.g.

to just or temperate action, it makes that good more choiceworthy; and good is increased by the addition of itself.”(1172b20-25). Aristotle sees the third argument placing pleasure as one good among others, and being no more or less good than any other. And he is correct in saying that the addition of any good to any other good makes it more choiceworthy. He then cites the opinion of Plato who argued that “the pleasant life is more choiceworthy when combined with intelligence than it is without it; and if the mixed [good] is better, pleasure is not the good, since nothing can be added to the good to make is more choiceworthy”(1172b30). This seems true enough; that if one was to find the good, there would be no other qualities that could make it more good, because by definition it is the good of all goods. At 1173a he explains that there is no sound argument that proves that pleasure is not a good. This leads into the Aristotle’s reply for the first two arguments that Eudoxus gave.

When there are opinions that object to the idea that what everything aims at is not good, there must be credence given to that argument. If things were called good by all then it would seem that they are good. He then says that if both intelligent beings and beings without understanding follow this claim, how can there be anything in it? He also presumes that even in the inferior animals that there is something that seeks its own proper good that is superior to them. The argument against Eudoxus about pain also seems to be incorrect (1173b8). It is argued that if pain is an evil, it does not follow that pleasure is a good.

The general point of the objection is correct, but what is said in the case that is mentioned is false. If pleasure and pain are evils, both would need to be avoided, and if both were neutral they would either have to be avoided completely or equally. Since pain is avoided as evil and pleasure is pursued as good, this must then be an opposition between them. Before Aristotle continues on how to define the status of pleasure, at 1173a18, he says that if pleasure is not a quality it does not follow that it is not a good. Neither are virtuous activities or happiness qualities.

The good is defined as definite, and pleasure is indefinite. It is indefinite because it allows for degrees of more or less. If it is the state of being pleased that is called definite, then it must also hold true for conditions like justice and the other virtues, Aristotle explains before. Certain characters can be seen as more and less and virtues can be explained similarly. If the judgement of pleasure rests on the variety of the pleasures that there are, then the reason of the admittance of degrees is ignored.

Some pleasures are pure while others are mixed with pain. Aristotle mentions next that health allows for a variance of degrees even though it itself is definite. So he asks, why should pleasure not be the same? (1173a25) Pleasure is not definite then because of the varying degrees. It is then stated that it is also not a process because the good is complete and are processes and becomings are, by definition, incomplete. But pleasure cannot fit even into the category of a process.

1773a 30, Aristotle says that pleasures are not quick or slow, “for quickness and slowness seems to be proper to every process-if not in itself, then in relation to something else. But neither of these is true with pleasure”. While it is as possible to become pleased quickly as to any other emotion, it is “not possible to be pleased quickly” (1173b1). Though the Greek and English are obviously different, as an English translation, following the proper rules of grammar, one cannot, be an adverb. Aristotle then explains how the relation of pleasure to pain cannot be used for a process. Continue from his previous thought, Aristotle continues to question the status of pleasure. He questions next how pleasure can be a becoming. For, he says, “not just any random thing, it seems, comes to be from any other; but what something comes to be from is what it is dissolved into.

Hence whatever pleasure is the becoming of, pain should be the perishing of it” (1173b5). It is said that pain is the emptying and that pleasure is the refilling. Because emptying and filling are things that happen to the body, it will be the body that has the pleasure. Aristotle comments that this relation of pleasure and the body seems to come from the bodily relation to food. He then says that this is not true of other pleasures.

His claim that pleasures in mathematics and in perceptions as well as with memories and expectations arise without any sort of previous pain. His question is of what they would be comings to be of. At 1173b20 he says that “since no emptiness of anything has come to be, there is nothing whose refilling might come to be.” What I question at this point is what Aristotle would say to someone who has sight, then loses it and then regains it again. Because this, like aural sense or even memories are pleasures when they are there, even if they are not thought of such at the time. When they cease to be, there is pain, especially when accompanied by the knowledge or awareness that they were once present.

If these senses are to return, as is what happens in the case of temporary blindness, deafness, or memory loss, there is an immense feeling of pleasure that comes with it. In the case of a temporary sense loss, there is an emptiness of something that had come to be. It is just like the emptying and refilling of the body after a prolonged period, like a fast. This does not necessarily change the outcome of the argument for pleasure, but it does deserve noting. Aristotle then moves to discuss the good and bad pleasures (1173b21).

Because there are some people who use the disgraceful pleasures in order to demonstrate that it is not a good, it is important to show why these claims are not valid. His first reason is to show that these pleasures are not pleasant except to those who claim them to be. If someone is a bad person and calls a disgraceful pleasure pleasant, then there is nothing to say that this is a pleasure to anyone not in that bad condition. Aristotle uses appetites and tastes of sick people to healthy people to show that in different conditions, different people desire different satiation. His second reason follows that the pleasures are choiceworthy, except when they come from disgraceful sources.

His example is the obvious one of wealth. The desire for money is fine, but not when it is required to do ill of another in order to get it. His final account is that pleasures could be different in different species. Pleasures that are “from fine sources are different from those from shameful sources; and we cannot have the just person’s pleasure without being just” (1173b30). Aristotle concludes the third chapter by discussing the argument for pleasure differing in species. He uses the friend and the flatterer as his example, stating at 1174a that “the friend seems to aim at what is good, but the flatterer is reproached, whereas the friend is praised, on the assumption that in their dealings they have different aims”.

His next thought is that no one would choose to live with a child’s thought for his whole life while taking as much pleasure in what pleases children. There are things that people are eager to posses despite their not bringing pleasure in itself. No matter what pleasures would subsequently follow from having something like knowledge of the virtues, having the knowledge without the pleasures would not deter anyone from wanting it. With this said, it seems obvious that “pleasure is not the good, that not every pleasure is choiceworthy in themselves, differing in species or in their sources [from those that are not] (1174a10). Chapter 4 begins with the clarification that pleasure is not a process, and that pleasure is an activity. Next Aristotle explains that pleasure, like seeing, seems to be complete at any time.

If pleasure is like this, then it is a whole. Because its form cannot be completed by “coming to be for a longer time” (1174a15). Again, pleasure is not a process. Aristotle then gets into the explanation of the process and completions. His points consist of the idea every process aims at some end.

The process consists of dissimilar sub-processes, and each “process is incomplete during the processes that are in its parts”(1174a20). So because of all of the processes within a process there is a differing in form at any given time as well as in the whole time. So, this means that pleasure is different from a process. At 1174b 14, Aristotle attempts to explain the nature of pleasure, and its properties. Pleasure is the thing that completes an activity.

Every sense works in relation to the object that it is sensing. It works the best when the sense is at its finest point and the object is the finest object. Its best possible activity then is when both the sense and the object are in their perfect states and are in relation to each other. From 1174b 20-24, Aristotle continues on this, “the pleasantest activity is the most complete; and the most complete is the activity of the subject in good condition in relation to the most excellent object of the faculty”(1174b21-23). When the best sense and the best object have their pleasure present, because everything has its pleasure, they are complete, and it is because of the pleasure.

After establishing the perfect pleasure, Aristotle then compares the sense with the object in their excellence to health and a doctor. Health and a doctor are both causes of being healthy but in different ways. Pleasure, he continues, exist and function with the senses; this is a given because we are aware that there are things that we acknowledge with our senses that are called pleasant. His next criterion is also obvious in that pleasure is best when the senses are their best. Something like the smell of a flower would not be a perfect relation if the person with the nose had a cold and subsequently an impaired sense of smell.

He concludes that “pleasure completes the activity – not however, as the state does, by being present [in the activity], but as a sort of consequent end, like the bloom on youths” (1174b32). Aquinas wrote that at this point He clarifies a previous statement about the manner in which pleasure perfects activity. For it was stated that pleasure perfects activity not efficiently but formally. Now, formal perfection is twofold. One is an intrinsic constituting a thing’s essence, but the other is added to a thing already constituted in its species.

He says first that pleasure perfects activity not as a habit that is inherent, i.e., not as a form intrinsic to the essence of the thing, but as a kind of end or supervenient perfection, like the bloom of health comes to young peopl …