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pleasure Several philosophical movements have been explicitly directed towards pleasure, treating it as an end in itself rather than as the consequence of some higher ideal, such as virtue, knowledge, or faith. These include Epicureanism, Utilitarianism, and psychoanalysis. All three systems evaluate human behaviour in practical terms: what matters is not whether a given action is right or wrong, but whether it is conducive to happiness. Pleasure philosophies tend to be empirical and materialistic, taking sensations as a starting point and referring only to lived experience. Not surprisingly, they all evolved in opposition to the dominant world view.

Epicureanism arose in Greece in the fourth century bc. The school's founder, Epicurus, was trained in the Platonist tradition then popular in Athens, but came to reject Plato's philosophy because it undervalued day-to-day life. In place of the abstract reasoning which emphasized thought over feelings and subordinated worldly concerns to pure ideas, Epicurus taught that nothing exists beyond the realm of sensations. Nature is the best guide to behaviour; by appreciating our human instincts, and learning how best to satisfy them, we ensure that our lives will be happy.

Epicureanism has been misrepresented as favouring physical pleasure over other modes of experience. In fact, the greatest good to the Epicurean was not ecstasy, the gratification of the senses alone, but tranquility or peace of mind. Recognizing that physical pleasure is fleeting and may ultimately entail pain, Epicurus encouraged his followers to strive for the more durable happiness that would result from selecting intelligently among competing pleasures. Not only physical sensations but emotions, dreams, memories, fears, and fantasies affect our feelings in painful or pleasurable ways. The trick is to cultivate a state of mind that minimizes the painful while enabling us to experience pleasure as fully as possible.

The Epicurean way of life put happiness within everyone's reach. Also appealing, and absolutely unprecedented, was the egalitarianism of the community Epicurus established, where slaves and women, including prostitutes, were full-fledged participants. Following his death, the movement spread throughout the Greek world, as far as Egypt and Asia. It endured into the Roman era and coexisted with Stoicism and Christianity, was revived by humanists during the Renaissance and was espoused by the philosophes during the Enlightenment. What later admirers found so congenial was the Epicureans' realism. Their avoidance of the supernatural and the stress they placed on the material world were compatible with the more secular and scientific outlook that came to characterize the modern mind.

These currents fed into the movement known as Utilitarianism, which developed in nineteenth-century Britain. Utilitarians assumed that the amount of pleasure intrinsic to any course of action can be precisely calculated, making it possible to choose between rival activities according to the degree of happiness each is likely to produce. In the words of the school's founder, Jeremy Bentham, ‘quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin (a children's game) is as good as poetry.’ Abstract considerations do not enter into the equation; the principle of utility implies neither moral nor aesthetic judgments. In the end, all that counts is whether the outcome is pleasurable or painful.

Consistent with the egalitarian spirit of Epicureanism, Bentham's goal was the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Here lies the originality of Utilitarianism: its definition of happiness is formulated in social, not personal terms. What is good for the individual should benefit the community as a whole. John Stuart Mill developed this doctrine into a total ethical philosophy, an alternative to the Christian reliance on duty. Mill saw no contradiction between the pursuit of self-interest and advancing the common good. Pleasing ourselves necessarily involves pleasing others, he believed, since the best way to achieve happiness as an individual is within a truly democratic society, one in which the needs of every member are met.

Utilitarianism had radical implications for political and legal reform. For Bentham, the best institutions and laws were those that increased pleasure and decreased pain, a proposition he set out to prove by drafting a model civil and criminal code. Underlying this system is the assumption that men and women are rational agents capable of recognizing their true interests and pursuing these at all times. To the objection that rational motivations alone do not determine behaviour, however, the Utilitarian had no reply.

Understanding the non-rational component of human experience (behaviour that seems to contradict our best interests) was the project of Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis began with pleasure. Indeed, Freud viewed the instinct for pleasure as the primary incentive for all activity. But he also saw that the way in which we achieve pleasure is neither a simple nor a straightforward process. Religious prohibitions, cultural institutions, and social structures — the parameters of the environment we inhabit — all serve to thwart the gratification of our desires, and this frustration causes pain. In response, we develop strategies for avoiding pain, not all of which are productive.

Psychoanalysis judges behaviour in purely functional terms. Those strategies which permit people to obtain fulfilment are good or healthy; bad or unhealthy behaviours prevent us from living comfortably in the world. By making us aware of the origins of our unhealthy behaviour, psychoanalysis helps us to adapt to external reality. But in the end, it is the individual who must decide which compromises to make.

In his later years, Freud devoted much effort to exposing the negative impact of civilization on human development. The experience of World War I also prompted him to modify his theory, leading him to postulate the existence of a destructive impulse in perpetual conflict with the instinct for pleasure. This critical tendency within Freud's thinking lent a pessimistic cast to his writing and probably accounts for the hostility with which his ideas were greeted. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis has exerted a significant influence on the twentieth century. Like other pleasure philosophies, it equips individuals with a sense of their own potential, instilling them with greater acceptance of themselves and tolerance for others.

Lisa Lieberman


Gay, P. (ed.) (1989). The Freud reader. W. W. Norton and Company, New York and London.

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pleas·ure / ˈplezhər/ • n. a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment: she smiled with pleasure at being praised. ∎  enjoyment and entertainment, contrasted with things done out of necessity: she had not traveled for pleasure for a long time. ∎  an event or activity from which one derives enjoyment: the car makes driving in the city a pleasure. ∎  sensual gratification. • adj. used or intended for entertainment rather than business: pleasure boats. • v. [tr.] give sexual enjoyment or satisfaction to: tell me what will pleasure you. ∎  [intr.] (pleasure in) derive enjoyment from: risky verbal exchanges that the pair might pleasure in. PHRASES: at someone's pleasure as and when someone wishes: the landlord could terminate the agreement at his pleasure. have the pleasure of something used in formal requests and descriptions: he asked if he might have the pleasure of taking her to lunch. my pleasure used as a polite reply to thanks: “Oh, thank you!” “My pleasure.” take pleasure in derive happiness or enjoyment from: they take a perverse pleasure in causing trouble. what's your pleasure? what would you like? (used esp. when offering someone a choice): “What's your pleasure?” “A cappuccino, please.” with pleasure gladly (used to express polite agreement or acceptance).

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320. Pleasure

See also 195. HAPPINESS ; 347. RECREATION

a mania for pleasing delusions.
epicurism, epicureanism
1. the cultivation of a refined taste, as in food, art, music, etc.; connoisseurship.
2. a devotion or adaptation to luxurious tastes, especially in drinking and eating, or to indulgence in sensual pleasures. epicure, n. epicurean, n., adj.
the characteristics of a pleasure trip. excursionist, n. excursional, adj.
1. Ethics. the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest good. See also epicurism .
2. a devotion to pleasure as a way of life. hedonist, n. hedonistic, adj.
Rare. the study of human pleasure. Also called hedonics .
a mania for pleasure.
Rare. a person devoted to worldly pleasure; hedonist or sybarite.
a form of conduct conforming to the precepts of the Stoics, especially as characterized by indifference to pain and pleasure. stoic, n., adj. stoical, adj.
devotion to sensual pleasures. sybarite, n. sybaritic, adj.

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pleasure •azure •leisure, made-to-measure, measure, pleasure, treasure •countermeasure •Australasia, embrasure •seizure •closure, composure, enclosure, exposure, foreclosure •Hoosier

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