In earlier posts, I talked about the Greek concepts of eudiamonia and makarios as found in Aristotle.  Each refers to a form of happiness, with the first consisting of being fulfilled and virtuous and the second consisting of being fortunate and blessed.  Aristotle also talks about hedonia, or pleasure.  Aristotle took it as a given that humans (and other creatures) pursue pleasure.  After considering the views of other philosophers concerning pleasure, he concluded that it is good and that it serves to complete the activities that it accompanies (thus, for example, the experience of listening to music would be more complete if accompanied by pleasure than it would without pleasure).  However, pleasure can accompany either good or bad activities (with the good activities being those that are proper to man).  Pleasure accompanying good activities is good; pleasure accompanying bad activities is bad.   

As is only fitting for someone who thought virtue resided in the mean, Aristotle had a moderate view of pleasure.  He was favorably disposed to it for the most part.  He did not see it as the highest or only form of good, though, since, for the person lacking in virtue, pleasure often accompanies bad deeds, not good ones. 



In contrast to Aristotle’s moderate beliefs about pleasure, current cultural beliefs regarding pleasure seem rather immoderate.  The dominant view seems to be that pleasure as an unmitigated good to be sought at every opportunity.  This “if it feels good, do it” mentality (one of my college roommates endorsed this phrase as his guiding philosophy of life) has been a driving force in many works of popular culture, though some works exploring the theme make it clear that using pleasure as one’s compass is more likely to result in a shipwreck than a satisfying voyage (I’m thinking here of movies such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Autofocus”).  A less prevalent element in society is a Puritanism consistent with the characterization of the original Puritans by Thomas B. Macaulay “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  In some quarters, there certainly is suspicion of the pleasures that life has to offer.  I’ve probably run into the aversion to pleasure most when working with clients who feel guilty whenever they take time to do something enjoyable.  I certainly don’t encounter this view as much now as I did years ago, though.  I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Dutch Calvinist denomination.  Up until at least the sixties, the denomination disapproved strongly of movies, dancing, and card playing.  The idea was that these were mere worldly amusements, not fit to occupy citizens of the kingdom of God.  There certainly was some Puritanism in that stance.  It’s probably been at least twenty years since anyone prominent in the CRC argued seriously against such entertainments, though. 

So, at present the danger for our society seems to be that we overemphasize pleasure and confuse it with happiness.  One question to consider is whether it’s useful to distinguish, like Aristotle did, between the pleasures that accompany good activities and the pleasures that accompany bad activities.  How can we tell which is which?