Pleasure: The Guide To Life

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”

Inscription at the entrance of the Epicurean Garden

If we were to describe the Epicurean philosophy in a single word, it would be “pleasure.” And if we were to sum it up in a sentence, it would be this excerpt from the letter of Epicurus to Menoeceus: “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of the happy life.” With this simple statement, Epicurus establishes the emotion of pleasure as both the means and the purpose of life, in contrast to all other philosophies that introduce rational means and ends such as achievement, success, wealth, status, morality, social justice, and so on.

The emotion of pleasure (and pain) in Epicurean philosophy and contemporary science alike is a mere physical reaction, a pure somatic expression. The health of the body and a smiling face are the true expressions of happiness. Similar to the sensations of vision, hearing, and so on, the emotion of pleasure is recognized in consciousness, and in that regard, it is the crude input of our rational judgment and decision. It reflects our inner truth on the consciousness.

Pleasure is a general term that incorporates all positive emotions. It is opposite to pain. It includes specific emotional states such as entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, euphoria, and so on. Its basic feedback is the motivation of the organism experiencing it to relive the event it has just found pleasing and to avoid past practices that produced pain. The experience of pleasure is subjective; no one feels exactly the same as another human being, even when he undergoes the same event or circumstances.

As a result, we are all capable of being happy, no matter how diverse our living conditions are, as long as our desires accommodate to the circumstances. Unsatisfied desire is the source of pain and unhappiness. Happiness truly is a choice. We can decide to focus on the positive and be happy with what we have, or we can concentrate on what we don’t have, which translates into unhappiness.

When we talk about pleasure, we’re generally referring to mixed pleasure rather than pure pleasure. An activity is said to be pleasant if the pleasure it provides is higher than the pain it involves. The more the pleasure and the less the pain, the higher the pure pleasure of the experience. However, when both exist, it is considered mixed pleasure.

Epicurus calls us to pursue pure pleasure, not to be carried away by pleasure that involves higher degrees of pain to achieve. Countless activities take place in an organism at any given moment; they generate an even larger mix of positive and negative emotions, the pure outcome of which defines our emotional state. Whether pleasant or painful, this pure emotional output is reflected through our body and on our face. It reaches its maximum when pain vanishes; thereafter pleasure can vary.

Epicurus’s research into the properties of pleasure is so elaborate and innovative that his views have had a great influence on the science of psychology until recent times.