Plato on Pure Pleasure and the Best Life

In: Phronesis
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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA

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In the Philebus, Socrates maintains two theses about the relationship between pleasure and the good life: (1) the mixed life of pleasure and intelligence is better than the unmixed life of intelligence, and: (2) the unmixed life of intelligence is the most divine. Taken together, these two claims lead to the paradoxical conclusion that the best human life is better than the life of a god. A popular strategy for avoiding this conclusion is to distinguish human from divine goods; on such a reading, pleasure has merely instrumental value, and it benefits human beings only as a result of their imperfect nature. I argue that certain ‘pure’ pleasures are full-fledged, intrinsic goods in the Philebus, which are even worthy of the gods (thus Socrates ultimately rejects thesis 2). This positive evaluation of pure pleasure results from a detailed examination of pleasure, which reveals that different types of pleasures have fundamentally different natures.

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  • 5

    E.g. Butler 2007, 108; Evans 2007a; D. Frede 1997, 296-7; 1993, pp. xliii-iv, 60 n. 2; 1992, 444; and Tuozzo 1996, passim. Gosling 1975 questions the application of the restoration account to the pleasures of anticipation as well as the mixed pleasures of the soul, such as malice (122). Cf. Gosling and Taylor 1982, 140: ‘It seems clear that in the Philebus Plato had no general formula to encapsulate the nature of pleasure.’ It is noteworthy that both passages in which Socrates raises doubts about whether the gods experience pleasure immediately follow discussions of the restoration account of pleasure, according to which pleasure implies the destruction (and hence imperfection) of an organism. As a result, the question of whether or not the restoration account is a general account of pleasures is directly relevant to the question of whether the gods experience pleasure.

  • 23

    E.g. D. Frede 1993, 60 n. 2; Tuozzo 1996, 505; and Wolfsdorf 2013, 97 and 101. See Section 2 above for general arguments against this view.

  • 48

    Cf. Carone 2000, 263 n. 12, 264 n. 14; and Tenkku 1956, 187 with n. 1.

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