Complex Pleasures

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Talking last night with friends about ‘pleasure’, we recognised it’s a complex beast. One of our party admitted she was happy with her life but generally not happy as she lived it. How could this be?

I listened again to Thomas Hurka on Philosophy Bites today to remind me. Hurka identifies four types of pleasure in two categories: ‘felt’ and ‘thought’.

The two ‘felt’ pleasures are: first, ‘simple pleasures’ i.e. specific immediate sensations: “mmm tasty” or “ahh comfortable.” And second, moods – which are a general and last for a duration.

The two ‘thought’ pleasures are specific: “I’m happy that… my daughter is in the school play” or “my football team won” and general: “overall I’m happy with how my life is going”, aka Aristotle’s flourishing.

Of course they are all intertwined. A life of physical pleasures – pure hedonism – might come up short on achievement. Or get cut short by a heart attack. But a life of too much ‘thought’ might lack passions and pleasures and the achievements of love and family.

Apparently, most parents say that the thing which has given them most pleasure in their lives has been the raising of children.

But also, apparently, if you give parents of young children an electronic ‘clicker’ to register every time they feel a sensation of pleasure during their day, they register fewest clicks of personal pleasure when they are actually with their kids. Probably haven’t got time to click…

So Hurka’s four pleasures explain how our friend can think “I am happy with how my life is going” whilst feeling in a permanent bad mood – they have three kids who run them ragged. Doesn’t sound great. But she’s happy, at least on one level.

Sleep’s the big one for me. Now I’m getting my sleep and enjoying my work – as well as enjoying time with my kids – I’m in a pretty permanent good mood. Feeling good is a great addition to my life. Simple to feel, complex to achieve.

The Harp Player

In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.

He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?

As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself. 

In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.

This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.

Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.

This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why. 

The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.