previous next
3. Nor yet does it follow that if pleasure is not a quality, therefore it is not a good. Virtuous activities are not qualities either, nor is happiness.

[2] Again they argue1 that good is definite, but that pleasure is indefinite, because it admits of degrees. Now (a) if they base this judgement on the fact that one can be more or less pleased, the same argument will apply to Justice and the other virtues, the possessors of which are clearly spoken of as being more or less virtuous; for example, A may be more just or brave, and may act more, or less, justly or temperately, than B. If on the other hand (b) they judge by the nature of the pleasures themselves, I am afraid they do not state the right ground for their conclusion, if it be true that there are two kinds of pleasures, unmixed as well as mixed.2

[3] Again, (c) why should not pleasure be like health, which is definite although it admits of degrees? For health is not constituted by the same proportion of elements in all persons; nor yet by one particular proportion in the same person always, but when it is in process of dissolution it still lasts for a certain time, and therefore it varies in degree. It is possible therefore that the same may be the case with pleasure.

[4] Again, they postulate3 that the Good is perfect, whereas a motion or process of generation is imperfect, and then they attempt to prove that pleasure is a motion or process. This appears to be a mistake. (a) It would seem that pleasure is not a motion; for we hold it to be a property of all motion to be quick or slow—if (as with the motion4 of the firmament) not absolutely, then relatively to some other moving body. But pleasure possesses neither absolute nor relative velocity. You can become pleased quickly, just as you can get angry quickly: but you cannot be pleased quickly, nor yet more quickly than somebody else, as you can walk, grow, etc., more quickly than somebody else. It is possible to pass into a pleasurable state quickly or slowly, but not to function in that state—i.e. to feel pleasure—quickly. [5] And (b) in what sense can pleasure be a process of generation? We do not think that any chance thing can be generated from any other chance thing, but that a thing at its dissolution is resolved into that from which it is generated; and if pleasure is the generation of something, pain is the destruction of that thing. [6] Also (c) they say5 that pain is a deficiency of the natural state and pleasure is its replenishment. But these are bodily experiences. Now if pleasure is a replenishment of the natural state, the pleasure will be felt by the thing in which the replenishment takes place. Therefore it is the body that feels pleasure. But this does not seem to be the case. Therefore pleasure is not a process of replenishment, though while replenishment takes place, a feeling of pleasure may accompany it, just as a feeling of pain may accompany a surgical operation.6 The belief that pleasure is a replenishment seems to have arisen from the pains and pleasures connected with food: here the pleasure does arise from a replenishment, and is preceded by the pain of a want. [7] But this is not the case with all pleasures: the pleasures of knowledge, for example, have no antecedent pain; nor have certain of the pleasures of sense, namely those whose medium is the sense of smell, as well as many sounds and sights; and also memories and hopes. If these are processes of generation, generation of what? No lack of anything has occurred that may be replenished.

[8] In reply to those who bring forward the disreputable pleasures, one may (a) deny that these are really pleasant: for granted they are pleasant to ill-conditioned people, it cannot therefore be assumed that they are actually pleasant, except to them, any more than things healthy or sweet or bitter to invalids are really so, or any more than things that seem white to people with a disease of the eyes are really white. [9] Or (b) one may take the line that, though the pleasures themselves are desirable, they are not desirable when derived from those sources; just as wealth is desirable, but not if won by treachery, or health, but not at the cost of eating anything and everything. [10] Or (c) we may say that pleasures differ in specific quality; since (a) those derived from noble sources are not the same as those derived from base sources, and it is impossible to feel the pleasures of a just man without being just, or the pleasures of a musician without being musical, and so on. [11] And also ( β) the distinction between a friend and a flatterer seems to show that pleasure is not a good, or else that pleasures are specifically different; since a friend is thought to aim at doing good to his companion, a flatterer at giving pleasure; to be a flatterer is a reproach, whereas a friend is praised because in his intercourse he aims at other things. [12] And ( α) no one would choose to retain the mind of a child throughout his life, even though he continued to enjoy the pleasures of childhood with undiminished zest; nor ( δ) would anyone choose to find enjoyment in doing some extremely shameful act, although it would entail no painful consequences. Also ( ε) there are many things which we should be eager to possess even if they brought us no pleasure, for instance sight, memory, knowledge, virtue. It may be the case that these things are necessarily attended by pleasure, but that makes no difference; for we should desire them even if no pleasure resulted from them.

[13] It seems therefore that pleasure is not the Good, and that not every pleasure is desirable, but also that there are certain pleasures, superior in respect of their specific quality or their source, that are desirable in themselves.

Let this suffice for a discussion of the current views about pleasure and pain.

1 Plat. Phileb. 24e, Plat. Phileb. 31a.

2 i.e., when they attribute ‘indefiniteness’ to pleasure, they are really thinking of the ‘mixed’ pleasures only; it does not apply to the ‘pure’ pleasures, in which there is no admixture of pain; and the distinction between these two kinds of pleasure is Plato's own.

3 Plat. Phileb. 53c-54d.

4 This motion being uniform, it can only be spoken of as quick or slow in comparison with some other motion. not absolutely, i.e. in comparison with itself at some other time.

5 Plat. Phileb. 31e-32b, Plat. Phileb. 42c.

6 i.e., we do not say a cut is a pain, but it is accompanied by pain.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (5):
    • Plato, Philebus, 24e
    • Plato, Philebus, 31a
    • Plato, Philebus, 31e
    • Plato, Philebus, 42c
    • Plato, Philebus, 53c
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: