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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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Unwinding A Confusion About the Faculty of Pleasure By Considering the Nature of Money

In a recent editorial, noted economic commentator Steve Forbes makes a point about “money” that provides a very useful analogy for those interested in the Epicurean view of “pleasure.” Before I quote Forbes, let’s remember an important aspect of what Epicurus said about “pleasure.”

Diogenes Laertius states the Epicurus held the faculties of pain and pleasure to be measures of truth.  In other words, just as the sense of seeing measures brightness and hearing measures loudness, the faculties of pleasure and pain are measuring devices by which we judge other things.   When we speak of “a pleasure” or “a pain,” we learn nothing from these words about the content of the experience other than our measurement of our feeling about it.  To say that a thing is “a pleasure” is a description that can be applied to innumerable activities and things, and tells us nothing else about the content of that activity or thing other than our reaction to it.

We know this to be Epicurus’ view because we have the following words from Diogenes Laertius, who wrote:  “Now in The Canon Epicurus affirms that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth...”  We know that the word “feelings” refers to the faculties of pain and pleasure because Diogenes Laertius further explained: “They [the Epicureans] affirm that there are two states of feeling, pleasure and pain, which arise in every animate being, and that the one is favorable and the other hostile to that being, and by their means choice and avoidance are determined.”  [Of course, the same observations made in this post about pleasure can also be made about pain, but let’s keep the focus on pleasure for the sake of clarity.]

Already from this cite we can see the potential ambiguity in the word “pleasure” and the urgent need for clarity:  we must separate the faculty of pleasure from the thing being judged by the faculty of pleasure.  A “thing” such as coffee can be a pleasure to one person (to someone who likes coffee) and not a pleasure to another person (to someone who prefers tea to coffee).  A thing can also be a very great pleasure to the same person at one time (in the morning when he wishes to wake up) or not a pleasure at another time (in the evening when he wishes to sleep).

What follows immediately from this is that we must always guard against thinking that the pleasure of any given “thing” is the result of some absolute “quality of pleasure” that is inherent in the thing itself.   A “thing” is not inherently pleasurable – it does not contain an “essence” of pleasure, as some might think in Aristotelian terms.  Nor does a thing partake of some “ideal form” of pleasure that exists in another dimension or as set by a god, as some might think in Platonic or religious terms.

Instead, we must remember that a thing is “a pleasure” for one reason, and one reason only:  because our “faculty of pleasure” has reported to us in the full context of the situation that the thing is pleasurable at that moment.  Pleasure is nothing more, and nothing less, than that which our faculty of pleasure reports to us is pleasurable.  The faculty of pleasure is therefore very different, and must always be distinguished from, things which bring us pleasure at a particular moment.

Here’s where Steve Forbes’ reference to “money” is useful.  In criticizing the confusion that some economists create about money, Forbes wrote:

What economists don’t seem to get is that money is not wealth. It measures value, the way clocks measure time, scales measure weight and rulers measure distances. Money has no intrinsic value; it’s a claim on products and services, just as a coat-check ticket is a claim on the coat you checked at a restaurant.  Money works best when it has a stable value. Imagine what life would be like if clocks and watches”floated” the way the Federal Reserve floats the dollar: 60 minutes in an hour one day, 35 minutes the next, 83 minutes the day after. Life would be chaotic. For example, if a cake recipe called for baking the batter 40 minutes, you’d have to figure out whether that was in nominal minutes or inflation-adjusted minutes. Was this a New York minute, a Mexican minute, a Chinese minute, etc.?  Yet this kind of destructive silliness is what the Fed and other central banks do on a daily basis regarding currencies.

Let’s play the game of word substitution, substituting “the faculty of pleasure” for “money” – since both of them are measuring devices, “pleasurable sensations” for “wealth,” since both are the goal of the discussion, and “anti-Epicurean philosophers” for “economists” – since both make a major mistake about the subject they are discussing:

What anti-Epicurean philosophers don’t seem to get is that the faculty of pleasure is not itself pleasurable sensation.  The faculty of pleasure measures pleasurable sensations the way clocks measure time, scales measure weight and rulers measure distances. The faculty of pleasure has no intrinsic value; it’s a claim on products and services [pleasurable sensations], just as a coat-check ticket is a claim on the coat you checked at a restaurant.  The faculty of pleasure works best when it has a stable value. Imagine what life would be like if clocks and watches “floated” the way the Federal Reserve floats the dollar: 60 minutes in an hour one day, 35 minutes the next, 83 minutes the day after. Life would be chaotic. For example, if a cake recipe called for baking the batter 40 minutes, you’d have to figure out whether that was in nominal minutes or inflation-adjusted minutes. Was this a New York minute, a Mexican minute, a Chinese minute, etc.?  

In other words, under Epicurus’ view, the faculty of pleasure operates as a standard of truth just as money operates as a standard of value. Neither coffee nor apple pie has intrinsic pleasure in itself; each is judged to be a pleasure only because our faculty of pleasure reports it to us as pleasurable.  While this manner of thinking may seem odd to those of us who are used to thinking of “pleasure” as things – as equivalent to coffee and apple pie – this view has major implications in separating Epicurean from non-Epicurean philosophies.  Under the Epicurean view we are no longer concerned about goals and values set by gods, or set in other dimensions, or set by essences within external objects.  We are concerned solely with the operation of the faculty of pleasure in our individual lives, and how the faculty of pleasure operates as our guide to life.

For the moment there is only one specific implication on which I have time to comment, and that arises from the last sentence of the Forbes passage.  I did not quote that in the re-written formulation, but here it is:  “Yet this kind of destructive silliness is what the Fed and other central banks do on a daily basis regarding currencies.”

This is how I would rewrite that last sentence:  “Yet this kind of destructive silliness is what the Stoics and other anti-Epicurean philosophers do on a daily basis regarding the faculty of pleasure.”  

And here is why they engage in this destructive silliness:  Anti-Epicurean philosophers know that the faculty of pleasure works best when it has a stable value.  That is, the faculty of pleasure can only serve its proper role when it is understood clearly and precisely: as the divine guide of life set by Nature.  The faculty of pleasure cannot serve this role when it is confused with specific things – with coffee and apple pie.  All of us know that specific things – coffee and apple pie – can be painful and undesirable depending on context, so anti-Epicurean philosophers dating back at least to Cicero have muddied the water by alleging that Epicurus held specific thing – coffee and apple pie – to be the total goal of life.  This is nonsense, but what these philosophers count on your forgetting – in order to make you swallow this nonsense – is easy to see, if you remember this:  that which is obvious to you – that coffee and apple pie can be painful depending on context – was obvious to Epicurus too.

That’s why Epicurus held that the faculty of pleasure, and not coffee and apple pie, is the guide of life.