The Natural Limits of Pleasure

A recent thread on the Epicurean Philosophy discussion group has brought about discussion on the important distinction.

This distinction is important for many reasons. It helps us to clearly understand the science of happiness, but also protects us from the attacks of the people who hate life and who hate pleasure and hedonism who, either out of willful ignorance or willful misrepresentation, characterize hedonism as instant gratification and do not evaluate the necessary distinctions made by sages like Epicurus.

The initial question posted in the thread was:

We say that the ultimate goal is happiness/pleasure. And the path to pleasure is through some known (or at least can be known) ways. E.g. very basic pain/pleasure balance, simple life with friends etc. So the maximazing of pleasure implies that we have looked into what is a person (A human being) and found ways to increase the pleasure of this human being.

So I feel our philosophical model of what is a person will inform our understanding of how to maximize pleasure/pain.

e.g. For someone that sees a person as a ‘brain in a body’ then maybe mental stimulation such as art, media, philosophy can be a big part of pleasure. In contrast, someone that sees a person as primarily a ‘consumer of commodities’ then they would assume that having many diverse things to consume is a big part of pleasure.

There are many diverse mental models of what a person is. Which of these are compatible with our thought? Which ones are not or need to be tweeked. Which ones do YOU generally follow? Meaning what do you think a person is primarily?

To which I replied:

Mindless consumption can lead to addiction, debt, and many other problems. Therefore without understanding clearly the natural limits of our desires we can’ t maximize happiness.

… if one is an autarch and can experience the pleasure of satiation without constantly consuming things, isnt that self sufficiency in one’s pleasure a sign of prudence? I think consumption can be a source of pleasure but it’s important to understand that pleasure is not addiction or instant gratification. If people can’t grasp that pleasure requires no object, it will be difficult to understand what Epicurus meant by this pleasure, this state of satiation, ataraxia and satisfaction that is part of our nature in its healthy state

There are many problems with the consumerist model of the human being as a consumer, and nothing more. There is also a huge amount of propaganda out there to get us to consume, therefore there’s the additional problem of cultural corruption around this. We see a burger commercial, and we are left craving for the thing even if we just ate, and this happens all the time throughout the day with many other items that we do not need.

The key here is not that it’s “bad” to consume, but it’s misleading to say that this or that level or kind of consumption equals pleasure and happiness. We only need a little food to sustain ourselves, a good measure of wholesome friends, and a variety of other goods, and if our minds are grateful and content, we can live like kings and queens.

Finally, someone on the thread brought up three of the Principal Doctrines relevant to the problem of the limits of desires:

Doctrine 19. If we measure the limits of pleasure by reason, infinite and finite time both provide the opportunity for complete pleasure.

Doctrine 20. We assume that physical pleasure is unlimited, and that unlimited time is required to procure it. But through understanding the natural goals and limits of the body, and by dissolving the fear of eternity, we produce a complete life that has no need infinite time. The wise man neither flees enjoyment, nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he had missed any essential aspect of life.

Doctrine 21. He who is acquainted with the natural limits of life understands that those things that remove the pain that arises from need, and those things which make the whole of life complete, are easily obtainable, and that he has no need of those things that can only be attained with trouble.

So the key here is hedonic calculus is usually the answer, particularly when it comes to individual choices regarding pleasures and the annoyances they may carry. This is a matter that must be decided in each case separately, according to the particular circumstances.

A sister tradition that tackles this issue of desires and how they may lead to annoyances is Buddhism. In the Dhammapada, Shakyamuni Buddha addressed his disciples also teaching them about hedonic calculus–although most people would not consider him a hedonist, or label his teachings in the same way we do. But here it is … it’s the same teaching:

If by giving up small pleasures great happiness is to be found, the wise should give up small pleasures seeing (the prospect of) great happiness.

Verse 290 of the Dhammapada, or Gospel of Buddha

… and notice how implied in the teaching is the view that the goal of life is the increase of long-term happiness. Like with Epicurus, it seems here self-evident that this is what our own nature seeks.

This English translation misleadingly differentiates between pleasure and happiness, but in the original version the same word, sukkha, is used in all cases. Buddha’s system was meant to lead from dukkha (suffering) to sukkha (pleasure, bliss), yet–except for a few enlightened souls–our prejudice keeps us from seeing Shakyamuni Buddha as a hedonist.

In future blogs, I will be taking on the task of exploring in detail the differences and the parallels between Epicurus and Buddha, which is a subject that has been brought up time and again in my work, and even in interviews I’ve given. Stay tuned!


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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