The Pleasures of Reason in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic Hedonists, written by James Warren

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
Author: Emily Austin1
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The Pleasures of Reason in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic Hedonists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xii + 234 p. $95.00. isbn 9781107025448 (hbk).

Most major ancient Greek philosophical schools maintained that the intellectual life is the most pleasant life. James Warren’s clear, careful, and engaging book focuses on the way that Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic hedonists championed the pleasures of the life of reason over the lives of mindless animals and the profligate. Warren settles on a set of skills that mark humans off from other animals, at least by degree if not always by kind: learning, exercise of knowledge, memory, and anticipation. Warren twice traces the dialectic between the focal set of philosophers, each time chronologically. First, he addresses the pleasures of learning and knowing. He then turns to the pleasures of anticipating and remembering. The book is primarily exegetical in nature and does not substantively weigh in on who has the best account or whether the central shared commitment is itself argumentatively sustainable.

Warren’s first discussion of Plato centers on two puzzles – whether learning is purely pleasant and whether using and reflecting on one’s knowledge is distinctively pleasant. Warren points out a tension in the views of pleasure in the Philebus and other key dialogues. While learning is a pure pleasure in the Philebus, learning in other dialogues (esp. Theaetetus) seems more a painful struggle towards an uncertain understanding, motivated largely by the painful recognition of one’s own ignorance. Warren argues that the pains of ignorance and learning would be eliminated or minimized by the educational process of the ideal city of the Republic, though this risks overlooking the grave disappointments of those who fail to become philosophers and it does little to assuage the struggles of those outside the ideal city (i.e. all of us). Nevertheless, Warren contends that while Plato accounts for the pleasures of learning, he cannot explain the pleasure of exercising knowledge, since the pleasures of learning seem to end once knowledge is achieved.

In Chapter Three, Warren argues that Aristotle solves this latter concern by distinguishing between first and second actuality, defining pleasure as an activity rather than a coming-to-be, and widening the scope of intellectual pleasures beyond contemplation of the forms. As such, possessing and employing knowledge involves pleasures both contemplative and aesthetic. The combination of these chapters is very useful and elegant, in part because Aristotle comes to the rescue largely by tweaking Plato’s existing argumentative commitments. As Warren notes, Aristotle’s key distinction between first and second actuality squares with much of Plato’s own account (and is in fact suggested in the Theaetetus). Warren’s discussion of the pleasures of appreciating rational activities in the Rhetoric and Poetics is helpful and rounds out the discussion of Aristotle as an ecumenical contrast with Plato’s austere intellectual diet of contemplating the Forms.

Chapter Four turns to the Hellenistic period with a focus on Epicurus’ discussion of the intrinsic value of knowing and Plutarch’s critique of Epicurean hedonism in Non Posse. Though Epicurus explicitly claimed that knowledge is intrinsically valuable, his critics insisted that he must think knowledge is merely instrumental to pleasure. Worse, Plutarch accuses Epicurus of privileging the satisfaction of bodily and animalistic desires over distinctively contemplative pleasures. Unlike Plato (and like Aristotle), Plutarch expands the class of intellectual pleasures beyond contemplation of the Forms to other objects of intellectual consideration. Warren is surely right that Epicurus’ critics tended to be highly uncharitable in their own philosophical self-service. There is some legitimate worry, though, that Epicurus might be smuggling knowledge and virtue in by assuming that one cannot live pleasantly without living virtuously and wisely. Nevertheless, Epicurus clearly considered knowledge and its pleasures as essential to the good life, whether or not his hedonism itself was at odds with his desired result.

In Chapter Five, Warren transitions from the pleasures of learning and knowing to the role of pleasure in proper deliberation about the future, specifically in the Protagoras and Philebus. Warren draws attention to the different ways Plato thinks agents miscalculate or misjudge pleasures and pains through misleading appearances. The chief difference between the Protagoras and the Philebus is that the latter develops the inscrutable view of ‘false pleasures’ as miscalculations that contain false propositional content, while the former maintains that error lies in the discounting of future pains and overestimation of future pleasures. Warren also makes the interesting point that the Philebus shows that the process of deliberation about pleasures can itself be pleasant and efficient, at least if one possesses a well-developed character shaped by a history of conscientiously good decisions.

In Chapter Six, Warren fleshes out this latter point by turning more directly to the role of character in the pleasures of anticipation in the Philebus. Warren focuses on a key passage in which Socrates connects the ability to experience true anticipatory pleasures and the possession of virtue, especially piety. Warren argues that Socrates does not think that what makes a pleasure true is that it is a true prediction of what will in fact happen (e.g., winning the lottery). Vicious people, after all, might be good at predicting the future. Instead, the virtuous person knows whether something will actually be pleasant when it happens, and this knowledge arises from recognizing the past and future pleasures that form the arc and structure of a good life. Warren argues that Socrates’ account of false pleasures in the Philebus parallels Socrates’ critique of Protagorean relativism in the Theaetetus, where relativism also fails to account for the superior skill some people have of predicting the future and determining whether that future event will be good.

In Chapter Seven, Warren discusses the role of character in pleasant reflection on one’s past experiences. Aristotle thinks the virtuous person is best suited to look back on her life with pleasure and with little (if any) regret, since she enjoys recalling her virtue and reflecting on her moral development. Warren notes that the bar for positive reflection might not be impossibly high, since choices one would no longer choose in hindsight need not cause regret. Someone might, for instance, believe she would now opt not to enter or remain in the profession of philosophy, while not regretting her choice (my example, not Warren’s). Likewise, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between current and past states, since what was once painful might now be pleasant upon reflection, either because one has been saved from past pains or because those pains served as opportunities for the display of virtue or as instigators of moral growth. Again, pleasure and freedom from regret depend on a virtuous intellect.

Chapter Eight diverges slightly from the optimistic theme of the book by introducing the Cyrenaics, who express some pessimism about the wise person’s ability to live pleasantly, at least all the time. The Cyrenaics, like the Epicureans, were hedonists, but they diverge significantly in the details. Unlike the Epicureans, they did not maintain that one should pare down one’s desires to only those that are largely immune from frustration by fortune. They opened themselves up to the sort of misfortune that might rule out the pleasure they take to be the chief good of life. They also gave more weight to bodily pleasures and believed most pleasures were, all things considered, equal. Finally, and I think quite rightly, the Cyrenaics were skeptical of the Epicurean claim that one can entirely counteract significant bodily or mental pain by reflecting on past pleasures. They did believe, however, that one might benefit from considering the possibility of future misfortunes, not because one would thereby grieve less in the future, but because such thoughts make things better now. I admit that I find the Cyrenaics the most interesting characters in the text, if only because they seem most ready to countenance a virtuous and unhappy individual, limited and frustrated in her pursuit of the pleasures that bring goodness to life. This might also be true to some extent of Aristotle, though Warren does not seem to highlight that point.

If one finds oneself mysteriously drawn to the Cyrenaics, it might be because they seem to raise the only challenge to the central question of the book. Warren leaves off questioning the link between intellect and pleasure until the last three pages, in part because his aim is not evaluative. Someone might reasonably wonder whether knowledge gives one a keener eye for the pain of the world, the moral failings and misfortunes of one’s past, and the lack of control over one’s psychic and material future. Humans are for the most part limited deliberators with unstable characters (and some philosophers deny that humans have characters at all). Perhaps even the most virtuous person could fail to look back on a life of great physical and political suffering with pleasure and hopeful anticipation. Such concerns are perhaps better left to the existentialists, and they certainly do nothing to dull the quality, rigor, and intelligence of Warren’s important study of the topic.

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