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Pleasure vs Pain = Good vs Evil?

Pleasure vs Pain = Good vs Evil?

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Published by Anthony Read
Is the absence of pain equal to the presence of pleasure? And is the search for pleasure actually worth it?
Is the absence of pain equal to the presence of pleasure? And is the search for pleasure actually worth it?

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Anthony Read on Jul 04, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Pleasure vs. Pain = Good vs. Evil? 
 Anthony Read 
Is it better to avoid pain than risk seeking pleasures that lead to pain? Discuss
with respect to Epicurus’ views on the matter.
In a letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus outlines what he believes is the best and most holistic way of 
life. He says that “we only
feel the lack of pleasure when from its absence we suffer pain; but when
we do not suffer pain we are no longer in need of pleasure” (Geer, pp. 56). Freeman further helpsthis view by noting that Epicurus says, in the same letter, that “pleasure is the end
of life” (1938, pp.
157). With respect to this view of Epicurus, would one consider living with pain and pleasure to be
the ultimate way of life? Would one follow Epicurus’ view, and eliminate pain with the collateral
damage of pleasure included? Or are his definitions of pain and pleasure arbitrary at best?
Epicurus addresses the idea of pleasure as follows: “Pleasure is the chief and natural good”(Geer, pp. 56). A statement that potentially derails the preceding idea then follows this quote: “We
do not choose every pleasure, but there are time we must bypass pleasure if they are outweighed by
the hardships that follow”. Firstly, Epicurus asks us to recognise that pleasure is the prime natural
good thing to occur to us in life. Some critics of Epicurus have noted that he may be making a case
for blind hedonism, but Epicurus himself brushes these claims away, stating that “by pleasure wemean the state wherein the body is free from pain and the mind from anxiety” (Geer, pp. 57). So
why try and avoid this state of pleasure, if it is wholly a pure state of mind? His next idea of avoidingpleasure, if the pains involved in gaining it are too much, makes sense in a modern context. Think of the credit card. This invention allows us to buy whatever we want, whenever we want, and to ignore(at least for a time) the reality of paying back the debt. This short-
term ‘pleasure’ of gaining an itemof desire is soon taken over by the ‘pain’ of paying back the money owed to the bank. The same goes
for extra-marital affairs: while pleasurable in the short-term, the reality of dealing with tworelationships at once becomes a pain, and can lead to losing one (or both) partners in a flurry of anger and pain.Now Epicurus presents us with a confounding situation: if pleasure is the state of mind whereinone is free from pain, how can we gain it? Epicurus seems to have two definitions of pleasure in hisvocabulary. Removing pain should allow us infinite, ideal pleasure, yet when pain is removed there isno need for pleasure. So what now? How can we have pleasure at the same time as not havingpleasure? Perhaps what Epicurus is trying to suggest is that when pain (and therefore pleasure) isremoved from oneself, then they enter a state of ataraxia: a perfect mental peace. This is achieved
by “sober calculation … and banishing those beliefs which are the cause of greatest agony to themind” (pinktriangle.org.uk 1997). We can organise these different definitions as such: Pleasure (with
a capital P to denote the state of ataraxia) and pleasure (such as ordinary daily pleasures weexperience).What Epicurus is essentially saying is that to understand and experience pleasure, we must firstexperience and understand pain. The language game immediately places us in trouble here, as inGerman the opposite of pleasure is not pain, but unpleasure. This also places us in the issue of 
having mental pains and physical pains: they may have the same name, but they are not the sameexperience (Mezes 1895, pp. 22). Epicurus noted earlier in his lett
er to Menoeceus that “every painis an evil, yet not every pain is of a nature to be avoided on all occasions” (Geer, pp. 56). So why
should we not avoid these pains, physical and mental, that cause us so much tension and anxiety?Epicurus also mentions that one should sometimes experience pains at length to attain somepleasure at the end. Speaking purely philosophically, this idea of attaining pleasure is almost
impossible, for how can one point out an end point in anything? ‘The ends justify the means’:
have heard this many times before. Perhaps a better saying would be ‘the means justify the means justify the means justify the means…into infinity’.
 The question posed at the beginning of the essay was whether pain with pleasure is better thanno pleasure and pain at all. What Epicurus is meaning to say is that without pain (or unpleasure, asMezes likes to term it), we would not understand pleasure (with a small p), and we would neverachieve Pleasure, true and full. What he also seems to suggest is that these two concepts areinextricably linked: that removing one removes the other. What the questions fails to remember isthat pleasure and pain is different to different people. Somebody may gain pleasure from seeingothers fail and suffer immense pains, and some people may see everyday pleasures as pointless andfrustrating (therefore leading to anxiety/pain). The question should not be which choice is better: itshould be which one is preferable to one in the context of their lives and experiences. Or for thosewho choose to straddle the fence, there is another way to consider: one where the lines betweenpleasure and pain are blurred beyond ultimates.In the Socratic method, one can question ill-founded truths and societal norms to underminethem and find a different route (de Botton 2000). While this is used by de Botton as primarily a way
to find flaws in other’s truths, it can be applied to any philosophy as well (including the Socratic
method itself). Let us apply this method to the essay question,
and to Epicurus’ philosophy in
general. Pleasure and pain, as discussed earlier, are simply terms used to describe a personal feeling.There are no ultimate pleasures or pains, and in the same tact, it is impossible to apply a universaldefinition to both. Epicurus takes his philosophy one step further by saying that pleasure equals
good, and pain equals evil. Again, if we use the Socratic method, we discover that the terms ‘good’and ‘evil’ are simply relativistic ideas that change in many ways from one s
elf to the next. So how
can Epicurus say that “pleasure is the chief and natural good” when, for all he knows, pleasure can
be considered an evil to some? Vice versa, how can he say that pain is an evil, when some consider itto be good and right? The issue here is language: as soon as we put these abstract, transient ideasinto words, they fail miserably at allowing us to see a true definition (if there even is one).We can use, as an example, the idea of sado-
masochism as a counterpoint to Epicurus’
ment. Sadism is defined as “
a sexual perversion in which gratification is obtained by the

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