Utilitarian Reasonings II: Of the Higher Pleasures


One of the archaeological objects found in the villa of the papyri at Herculaneum, together with the Epicurean scrolls written by Philodemus of Gadara, was the leaping pig sculpture which has become symbolic of the Epicurean community. The origin of this symbol is traced to the enemies of Epicurus who accused hedonists of living like pigs. Because the Epicureans were graceful, rather than nurture resentment, they cheerfully adopted the poor mascot as their symbol.

That the pig made its way into Horace’s poetry and Herculanean sculpture serves as testimony of the enduring hostility and name-calling that the other schools unleashed upon the Epicureans. Of this, Mill writes in the second chapter of his Utilitarianism:

When … attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.

He then delves into the subject of the varying kinds of pleasure available to humans, and how not all are equally desireable, beginning with a consideration that justifies Epicurean discussions about the importance of having a confident expectation that friends will help in time of need, and other kinds of confident expectation for the sake of which we undergo many sacrifices and do things that may seem, at first, inconsistent with a hedonist lifestyle. For the sake of these things, we spend time and energy nurturing friendships, working hard to earn a living or an education, and many other things that swine don’t bother with, because these things lead to a greater stability, to more money, or richer relations which then become a source of steady and reliable pleasure. In other words: we can scheme and work to gain self-sufficiency in our pleasure.

… If one of the two (pleasures) is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.

Having established this, he then concludes that pleasure, to a human, is both very different from a swine’s pleasure, and also harder to acquire.

A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type …

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect.

There are many more things that could be said of the different kinds of pleasure, but the main take-away from Mill’s passage is that the purpose of the study of the various kinds of pleasure available is so that we can more easily and clearly calculate between them in our choices and avoidances. The ancient Epicureans did this, and proposed–together with things like PD 26a doctrine of the chief goods or kyriotatai (those desires that are natural and necessary) in order to help our evaluation of priorities.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. 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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