BMCR 2000.09.13

Pleasure and the Good Life: Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists. Philosophia Antiqua 85

, Pleasure and the good life : Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists. Philosophia antiqua, v. 85. Leiden: Brill, 2000. x, 207 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004117970.

In this monograph van Riel pursues a straightforward thesis in a straightforward manner. He claims, correctly, that even an anti-hedonist has to argue that his way of life is the most desirable, or in other words that it yields the most or the best kind of pleasure. Given that an anti-hedonist will not want to lay claim to the most intense pleasures, because that would make him a hedonist, he will be led to distinguish ‘true’ from ‘false’ or base pleasures. Van Riel argues that this is the case for those Neoplatonists who discuss pleasure, despite the low profile given in general by the Neoplatonists to pleasure. The background to Neoplatonic views is given by the two models of pleasure established respectively by Plato and Aristotle. For Plato pleasure is the replenishment of a lack and the restoration of one’s natural state; for Aristotle pleasure is an epiphenomenon that supervenes when an activity is performed without any impediment (this is the position van Riel takes on this controversial issue). The Neoplatonists combine Plato and Aristotle, using Plato’s model for base or physical pleasures, and Aristotle for the higher pleasures of contemplation. Though Plato would argue that all pleasures are replenishments, he is notoriously vague (as van Riel well shows on pp. 37-40) about the higher pleasures where there is no perceived lack to be replenished; hence Plotinus and Proclus felt justified in bringing in Aristotle’s views at this point and in claiming that the good life yields the epiphenomenon of eupatheia or euphrosyne (well-being). Van Riel claims that this is not a Platonic pleasure: ‘For it cannot be reconciled with the general definition of pleasure as the replenishment of a lack or the movement towards the natural condition, and thus it cannot be a genuine pleasure. This Neoplatonic analysis combines the opinions of Plato and Aristotle, leading to a very strange conclusion: the “pleasure” that occurs in the highest activity is not a genuine pleasure’ (p. 4). This is a weak argument, I think. The fact that there is no perceived lack in the highest pleasures does not mean that there is no actual lack. In order for van Riel to substantiate his claim that there is an internal contradiction in the position adopted by Plotinus and Proclus, he would have to argue that there is no actual lack. Since the distinction between perceived and actual lack underlies the position of Damascius, as van Riel himself acknowledges, it is at least tendentious for him to ignore the distinction in the case of Plotinus and Proclus.

The book consists of three chapters: one elucidating and to some extent criticizing the views of Plato and Aristotle, one on Plotinus and Proclus, and one on Damascius. This final chapter is especially welcome, since Damascius’ views are little studied and hard to fathom. In addition to these chapters there is an excursus on the Stoics and Epicureans and a short conclusion. The book ends with a good bibliography and indexes, and is as well produced as one would expect from Brill.

The first chapter contains few surprises in its survey of Plato and Aristotle. Since it is not van Riel’s purpose to resolve old chestnuts, such as reconciling the positions of Protagoras and Gorgias, but to elucidate Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on the nature of pleasure, he focuses on Philebus and the relevant books of NE. His main criticism of both Plato and Aristotle is that the both assume that they have stated necessary conditions, such that if (to take Plato’s model) lack is replenished, pleasure will necessarily follow. But, argues van Riel, the recurrent replenishment of a lack becomes boring, not pleasurable. Again, I think this is a weak criticism. In order for replenishment to be boring there would surely have to be no true perceived lack preceding it. If I miss my partner, I will feel pleasure when I see her; if I see her twenty-four hours a day, that may become boring, but that is only because I am not missing her. Part of the problem is van Riel’s lack of rapport with ancient views of pleasure; as he shows repeatedly in the book (e.g. pp. 4-5, 41, 74-6, 181), for van Riel pleasure is often an unexpected experience, and so there can be no necessary conditions for its occurrence. This is a philosophical position with which I have some sympathy (since it takes account of the complexity of the human psyche), but it seems to have led van Riel to a certain blindness when he is assessing some of Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments. Again, where Plato is concerned, van Riel seems attracted by Aristotle’s criticism that Plato’s basic mistake was to assimilate all pleasures to the bodily and especially nutritional pleasures of replenishment, but he does not give us an argument to show that Plato is wrong to think that even mental pleasures conform to this model.

Van Riel provides a good analysis of Aristotle’s views on pleasure. He argues that pleasure is neither a final nor a formal cause, but something that supervenes on an activity, which is the formal cause. If we enjoy listening to a piece of music, listening is the formal cause, and the pleasure is an ephiphenomenon that attends the listening (as Aristotle says at 1174b31-3). Aristotle recognizes (more clearly than Plato) that this does not mean that the pleasure is, as it were, detachable from the activity: the pleasure of hang-gliding is just the pleasure of hang-gliding, and one cannot attach that pleasure to another activity. With half an eye on the later Neoplatonists, van Riel is particularly concerned to bring out the fact that Aristotle’s position enables him to explain better than Plato the higher pleasures: ‘true and pure pleasure is no longer the replenishment of a lack, but rather the highest performance of our highest activity, a state of rest that occurs when our faculties are perfectly functioning’ (p. 72). This is a more attainable ideal than Plato’s, for whom it was difficult to explain how any pleasures could be pure, unmixed with pain.

Van Riel starts his chapter on Plotinus and Proclus (‘The Standard Neoplatonic Theory’) with a useful survey of Plotinian psychology. There follows a clear discussion of the main Plotinian passages where he rejects hedonism and discusses the nature of pleasure; a recurrent theme is Plotinus’ indebtedness to Plato and Aristotle (and to a lesser extent to the Stoics, especially in their distinction between hedone and khara). Plotinus is correctly presented as trying to follow Plato as far as he can, and as relying on Aristotle when he simply cannot follow Plato any further — when his idealism transcends the more human concerns of Philebus. Proclus’ remarks on pleasure are far less systematic, but van Riel pulls the scattered comments together to show that his views are essentially the same as those of Plotinus. Platonic pleasure is a feature of our lower condition; once we have attained our natural state, no Platonic pleasure is possible, and the Aristotelian model explains the extra, but almost disposable, phenomenon of pleasure accompanying pure intellectual contemplation.

Again against the background of Damascius’ psychology (which differs crucially from the canonical views of Plotinus and Proclus), van Riel expounds his position on pleasure. At every level, the soul’s activities involve a mixture of desire (for pleasure) and cognition ( gnosis). The difference is that at the level of perception, but not at the level of intellect, the soul perceives a lack that requires replenishment. Damascius ends with a hierarchy of seven kinds of pleasure; the significant point about this is that even the highest activities of the soul do involve pleasure. He disagrees with Plato, then, in that Plato saw all pleasure as a movement towards the natural state; for Damascius, even the natural state involves pleasure, and this is where Damascius invokes Aristotle and the katastematic pleasures of Epicurus. This is a brief summary of a very important chapter. The only weakness in it that I can perceive is that again van Riel ignores the distinction between perceived and unnoticed lacks. He wants to characterize Damascius’ views on the ‘true pleasure’ on intellectual activity as occurring without any previous lack, but it is clear from what Damascius himself says (and as quoted often enough by van Riel himself) that this means ‘without any perceived previous lack’. Otherwise Damascius could not say that at every level the soul was affected by a mixture of desire and cognition.

The Neoplatonists were not quite slaves to Plato’s views on pleasure, though they struggled at times to accommodate their views to his. They used Aristotle (and to a certain extent the Stoics and Epicureans) to add to and modify his theories. This is the basic point of van Riel’s monograph; it is on the whole well and lucidly argued. The book will be a valuable addition to the libraries of, especially, students of later Greek thought.