Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.02.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.02.26

Kelly Arenson, Health and Hedonism in Plato and Epicurus.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury, 2019.  Pp. x, 217.  ISBN 9781350080256.  $114.00.  

Reviewed by Attila Németh, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University (


Arenson’s Health and Hedonism offers an arresting comparative study of Plato’s treatments of pleasure in the Republic (ch. 1) and the Philebus (chs. 2-3), the debates that followed among Platonists and Aristotelians (ch. 3), and Epicurean hedonism (ch. 4-7). She concludes (ch. 8) that Epicurus conceived pleasure in terms of organic functioning. She contends that Epicurus and his followers were interested in essentially the same questions as the Platonists when they parsed the relationship between health and hēdonē, asking for instance whether the relation between pleasure and health make the former a viable telos. But, although their investigations sometimes coincided, Platonists and Epicureans came to quite different conclusions. In articulating her main arguments, Arenson considers several important secondary topics, such as the philosophical and historical influences of Plato, the debates between the Academy and the Peripatetic school, and the credibility of Cicero’s account of the different types of Epicurean pleasures, all of which she illuminates from a new and highly polemical perspective.

In Chapter 1, “The Pleasure of Psychic Harmony in the Republic”, Arenson analyses Socrates’ arguments for the superiority of the pleasures of the philosophical life in Book 9 of Plato’s Republic. She argues convincingly for a connection between Socrates’ equation of harmonious psychic functioning with health in the middle books of the Republic and his defence of the hedonic superiority of the just life in Book 9. The ensuing pleasure enjoyed by the entire soul is thus its psychic health, which can be brought about only through virtuous and rational activities.

In Chapter 2, “Restorative Pleasure and the Neutral State of Health in the Philebus”, Arenson outlines Plato’s metaphysical explanation of pleasure and health. Then she turns to Socrates’ ‘restoration’ model of physical pleasures, and to what she calls his ‘perception requirement’, according to which processes of restoration and disturbance can be pleasurable and painful, respectively, only if they are perceived. This is also a significant condition for Epicurus. This conclusion allows Socrates to deny that neutral conditions, such as the absence of pain, are pleasurable—a challenge set for Epicurus.

Chapter 3, “Plato’s Anti-Hedonistic Process Argument”, is the historically most complex part of Arenson’s discussion. This chapter revolves around the role of restoration in Plato’s demonstration that pleasure is not the “good”. Since all processes belong to the realm of becoming and not to the realm of being, and the good belongs to the class of being, pleasures that are processes are not goods in themselves; at best, they are instrumental to the good. Arenson evaluates the role this “process argument” plays not only in the Philebus, but also in the Platonists’ debates with the Aristotelians, who held that pleasure belongs to the activity of healthy functioning and not to the process of attaining such outcome. Arenson’s speculative reconstruction makes Epicurus’ distinction between kinetic and katastematic pleasures a reply to Plato’s description of pleasure as process, and to Aristotle’s reaction to Plato’s view. In justification of this historically neat theory of Epicurus’ response to earlier thinkers, Arenson must give a coherent explanation of Aristotle’s views on pleasure in his different works, which somewhat overcomplicates her arguments. She formulates an interpretation of Aristotle’s claims concerning pleasure in the Rhetoric which, compared with competing explanations,1 seems unconvincing and does not really move the arguments forward. By the end of her book, the reader in any case recognizes that Arenson’s historical claims about Platonic and Aristotelian influence on Epicurus are compelling.

In Chapter 4, “Cicero’s De Finibus and Epicurean Pleasure”, Arenson examines Cicero’s account of Epicurean pleasure in De Finibus. She contends that there are problems with Cicero’s way of formulating the difference between Epicurus’ kinetic and katastematic pleasures, with the former characterized by changes and/or motions in one’s state and the latter not. In her view, Cicero misrepresented the role of sensory pleasures in Epicurus’ hedonism. This also led him to introduce the following paradox into Epicurus’ conception of the summum bonum: since the active stimulation of the sense organs is the criterion for (kinetic) pleasure, why should tranquillity and painlessness (which are katastematic pleasures) be ends for the hedonist, since they do not involve the motivational power of change or motion? Arenson contests that Cicero’s representation might have been influenced by earlier ancient interpretations familiar to him, such as the divisio Carneadea. She decides, therefore, to sideline Cicero’s account and to pursue her exploration of Epicurean hedonism on the basis of other ancient sources.

In Chapter 5, “Epicurean Pleasures of Bodily and Mental Health”, Arenson argues that “Epicurus defines katastematic pleasure in terms of the perception of the healthy functioning of a living organism” (p. 86). In other words, katastematic pleasure is a conscious awareness that counts as pleasurable because it is a perception of painless organic functioning constituted by various bodily and mental activities – a goal worth pursuing for itself. Arenson believes that such an understanding of Epicurus’ hedonism should not be allowed to collapse into a position she calls the “Unitary View” (UV), which holds that if all pleasure is related to an organism’s natural functioning, it makes no sense to distinguish different types of pleasure. She accordingly rejects first of all the interpretations put forward by the major proponents of that view such as Gosling, Taylor, and Nikolsky. Her reasonable objection to Gosling and Taylor, that they fail to provide a clear account, does not in fact put clear blue water between her interpretation and theirs. I think she demonstrates convincingly, however, that while Epicurus did not believe that one’s katastematic state is independent of the process that brought it about (a point made by Nikolsky), it does not follow that there is no difference between the causally related kinetic and katastematic pleasures.

In Chapter 5, Arenson makes her case for katastematic pleasure being the healthy functioning of a living organism. Here, one may question whether her arguments are entirely satisfying, and whether they are not merely based on a bodily characterization of the highest good. I think she is on the right track when she draws attention to passages that describe optimal mental functioning in terms of health; but then she confuses her account in her conclusion (cf. p. 107) when she describes mental katastematic pleasure in terms of the “healthy bodily functioning and a confident expectation thereof”. Bodily conditions cannot be either (1) necessary, or (2) sufficient for mental katastematic pleasure—that is, for tranquility (ataraxia)—for the following reasons: a person, for example, who is in a perfectly healthy bodily condition and is confident that he will remain in that shape still might have various sorts of painful anxieties about the future—which cuts against (2); or, if you consider Epicurus’ notorious claims how mental pleasures such as remembering some past philosophical conversations can dispel bodily suffering (as in the example Epicurus set on his deathbed: DL 10.22), we also find that neither the absence of bodily pain nor the expectation of a healthy bodily condition in the future is necessary for being in the state of ataraxia—which cuts against (1). These objections raise the question how bodily and mental health (aponia and ataraxia) relate to one another in Epicurus’ robust conception of the highest good. We do not get an adequate answer to this at this point of Arenson’s argument, and the reader can only construct a tentative answer based on the findings of Chapter 7.

In Chapter 6, “Pleasurable Restorations of Health in Epicurean Hedonism”, we finally arrive at Arenson’s positive conception of Epicurean kinetic pleasure, which is necessary for a clearer understanding of the argument of Chapter 4. Arenson builds a strong case for kinetic pleasures being the outcomes of processes that restore an organism to its natural state, both bodily and mental, with the former states depending on a prior physical deficiency, and the latter on a prior mental deficiency. Pleasurable sensory variations that are not restorative, such as the pleasures of hearing or seeing, do not fit the category of kinetic pleasures according to Arenson, which is why she excludes Cicero’s evidence from her discussion. On her account, a kinetic pleasure stems from the psychological recognition of a deficiency, where the recognition takes the form of a desire for replenishment, the satisfaction of which is perceived as pleasant. Arenson now can harvest the results of her work in the first three chapters and make a comparison between the theories of Epicurus, Plato and Aristotle (pp. 115-16), as she will also do in Chapter 8 (“Conclusion: Health and Hedonism in Plato and Epicurus”). Nonetheless, as Arenson recognizes, this interpretation calls up the same niggling worries raised by the argument of Chapter 5. Since Arenson has built her case mainly on the evidence considering physiological functioning, can her restoration model be applied to mental pleasures as well? She gives what I think is a very original answer to this question, suggesting that we should think of restorative kinetic mental pleasures in the context of the medical model of philosophical therapy. This goes hand in hand with her explanation of mental katastematic pleasure's being an awareness of a healed and therefore healthy condition. Arenson then turns to six possible major objections to her account, most of which depend on the claim that Epicureans did not recognize the existence of any restorative pleasure. Much hangs on her answers to these objections; but as it was difficult to judge her case in Chapter 4 without her positive interpretation of kinetic pleasure in Chapter 6, many things remain similarly hanging until her further discussion in Chapter 7 (“Epicureans on Taste, Sex, and Other Non-Restorative Pleasures”). Consequently, I discuss both chapters together.

I think the strongest objection Arenson raises to her own interpretation is the fact that some pleasures, such as the pleasure one might take in fame, are not connected either to restoration or painless functioning, and thus fall outside the scope of kinetic and katastematic pleasures. Consequently, Epicurus’ two kinds of pleasure do not account for all known pleasures. Arenson attempts to account for how the case of fame can fit her general lines of interpretation of kinetic and katastematic pleasures, but she fails to give a compelling answer, given the further worry that, even if fame is connected to restoration and painless functioning, it is unclear how it would be also linked to health. She tries to resolve this difficulty by saying that “when I satisfy my desire to be famous and overcome my crippling anxiety about getting others to recognize me”, “I feel better because I am better; my mind is momentarily untroubled by pain, and this is healthy and good” (p. 123, her emphasis). I think this solution points to the gravest difficulty with her book: its regular claim to give a completely coherent explanation of Epicurean hedonism. I am rather sceptical that the Epicureans would have conceived of pleasure derived from fame as healthy, even momentarily, because it is based on false beliefs, which are the fundamental reason for the disturbance fame also causes (cf. Lucretius on fame in DRN 5.1117-35). Perhaps the arguments Arenson puts forward could meaningfully be extended into the wider context of Epicurean ethics. If one points to Epicurus’ taxonomy of desires (Ep. Men. 127-8), one can easily establish the claim that pleasures taken in the satisfaction of unnecessary and unnatural desires are unhealthy. One could list countless examples of such pleasures, such as those one might take in drugs or in many other forms of bodily or mental overindulgence. Arenson, instead of rejecting the objection she raises here, could have resolved it by simply situating her interpretation within Epicurus’ normative ethical context and saying that Epicurus conceived of unhealthy, non-restorative pleasures as a sort of excess (cf. Ep. Men. 131). This would do no harm to her overall very novel conception of Epicurean hedonism.

Arenson, however, is not willing to embrace such a solution because she wishes to limit the scope of Epicurus’ non-restorative pleasures to the perception of healthy, painless functioning—pleasures that manifest the well-being and painless functioning of an organism as well as its underlying health. These pleasures she classifies as katastematic, against the communis opinio of modern scholarship that takes them to be kinetic. On her view, this communis opinio was misled by Cicero’s evidence. She not only manages to put forward compelling arguments for her interpretation of taste, sex and other non-restorative pleasures being katastematic pleasures but, in consequence, she frees our conception of Epicurean hedonism from a number of familiar tensions, thanks to which we can now see it in a completely different, more balanced and nuanced light.

Arenson’s book is therefore a success. Although its narrow focus and the lack of a wider narrative of Epicurean ethics makes strong demands on the reader, it has significantly advanced our account of Epicurus’ kinetic and katastematic pleasures.2


1.   D. Wolfsdorf, Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Cambridge 2013, pp. 108-9; J. C. B. Gosling and C. C. W. Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure, Oxford 1982, pp. 196-8.
2.   This review was written with the support of the Hungarian Research Fund, NKFI, no. 128651.

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