Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTERS 11—14.: OF PLEASURE. - The Nicomachean Ethics
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CHAPTERS 11—14.: OF PLEASURE. - Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 
The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. 5th edition (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co., 1893).
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We must now discuss pleasure. Opinions about it.
The consideration of pleasure and pain also falls within the scope of the political philosopher, since he has to construct the end by reference to which we call everything good or bad.
Moreover, this is one of the subjects we are bound to discuss; for we said that moral virtue and vice have to do with pleasures and pains, and most people say that happiness implies pleasure, which is the reason of the name μακάριος, blessed, from χαίρειν, to rejoice.
Now, (1) some people think that no pleasure is good, either essentially or accidentally, for they say that good and pleasure are two distinct things; (2) others think that though some pleasures are good most are bad; (3) others, again, think that even though all pleasures be good, yet it is impossible that the supreme good can be pleasure.
(1) It is argued that pleasure cannot be good, (a) because all pleasure is a felt transition to a natural state, but a transition or process is always generically different from an end, e.g. the process of building is generically different from a house; (b) because the temperate man avoids pleasures; (c) because the prudent man pursues the painless, not the pleasant; (d) because pleasures impede thinking, and that in proportion to their intensity (for instance, the sexual pleasures: no one engaged therein could think at all); (e) because there is no art of pleasure, and yet every good thing has an art devoted to its production; (f) because pleasure is the pursuit of children and brutes.
(2) It is argued that not all pleasures are good, because some are base and disgraceful, and even hurtful; for some pleasant things are unhealthy.
(3) It is argued that pleasure is not the supreme good, because it is not an end, but a process or transition.—These, then, we may take to be the current opinions on the subject.
Answers to arguments against goodness of pleasure. Ambiguity of good and pleasant. Pleasure not a transition, but unimpeded activity.
But that these arguments do not prove that pleasure is not good, or even the highest good, may be shown as follows.
In the first place, since “good” is used in two senses (“good in itself” and “relatively good”), natures and faculties will be called good in two senses, and so also will motions and processes: and when they are called bad, this sometimes means that they are bad in themselves, though for particular persons not bad but desirable; sometimes that they are not desirable even for particular persons, but desirable occasionally and for a little time, though in themselves not desirable; while some of them are not even pleasures, though they seem to be—I mean those that involve pain and are used medicinally, such as those of sick people.
In the second place, since the term good may be applied both to activities and to faculties, those activities that restore us to our natural faculties [or state] are accidentally pleasant.
But in the satisfaction of the animal appetites that which is active is not that part of our faculties* or of our nature which is in want, but that part which is in its normal state; for there are pleasures which involve no previous pain or appetite, such as those of philosophic study, wherein our nature is not conscious of any want.
This is corroborated by the fact that while our natural wants are being filled we do not take delight in the same things which delight us when that process has been completed: when the want has been filled we take delight in things that are pleasant in themselves, while it is being filled in their opposites; for we then take delight in sharp and bitter things, none of which are naturally pleasant or pleasant in themselves. The pleasures, then, which these things give are not real pleasures; for pleasures are related to one another as the things that produce them.
Again, it does not necessarily follow, as some maintain, that there is something else better than pleasure, as the end is better than the process or transition to the end: for a pleasure is not a transition, nor does it always even imply a transition; but it is an activity [or exercise of faculty], and itself an end: further, it is not in becoming something, but in doing something that we feel pleasure: and, lastly, the end is not always something different from the process or transition, but it is only when something is being brought to the completion of its nature that this is the case.
For these reasons it is not proper to say that pleasure is a felt transition, but rather that it is an exercise of faculties that are in their natural state, substituting “unimpeded” for “felt.”
Some people, indeed, think that pleasure is a transition, just because it is in the full sense good, supposing that the exercise of faculty is a transition; but it is in fact something different.*
But to say that pleasures are bad because some pleasant things are unhealthy, is like saying that health is bad because some healthy things are bad for money-making. Both are bad in this respect, but that does not make them bad: even philosophic study is sometimes injurious to health.
As to pleasure being an impediment to thinking, the fact is that neither prudence nor any other faculty is impeded by the pleasure proper to its exercise, but by other pleasures; the pleasure derived from study and learning will make us study and learn more.
That there should be no art devoted to the production of any kind of pleasure, is but natural; for art never produces an activity, but only makes it possible: the arts of perfumery and cookery, however, are usually considered to be arts of pleasure.
As to the arguments that the temperate man avoids pleasure, that the prudent man pursues the painless life, and that children and brutes pursue pleasure, they may all be met in the same way, viz. thus:—
As we have already explained in what sense all pleasures are to be called good in themselves, and in what sense not good, we need only say that pleasures of a certain kind are pursued by brutes and by children, and that freedom from the corresponding pains in pursued by the prudent man—the pleasures, namely, that involve appetite and pain, i.e. the bodily pleasures (for these do so), and excess in them, the deliberate pursuit of which constitutes the profligate. These pleasures, then, the temperate man avoids; but he has pleasures of his own.
Pleasure is good, and the pleasure that consists in the highest activity isthegood. All admit that happiness is pleasant. Bodily pleasures not the only pleasures.
But all admit that pain is a bad thing and undesirable; partly bad in itself, partly bad as in some sort an impediment to activity. But that which is opposed to what is undesirable, in that respect in which it is undesirable and bad, is good. It follows, then, that pleasure is a good thing. And this argument cannot be met, as Speusippus tried to meet it, by the analogy of the greater which is opposed to the equal as well as to the less; for no one would say that pleasure is essentially a bad thing.*
Moreover, there is no reason why a certain kind of pleasure should not be the supreme good, even though some kinds be bad, just as there is no reason why a certain kind of knowledge should not be, though some kinds be bad. Nay, perhaps we ought rather to say that since every formed faculty admits of unimpeded exercise, it follows that, whether happiness be the exercise of all these faculties, or of some one of them, that exercise must necessarily be most desirable when unimpeded: but unimpeded exercise of faculty is pleasure: a certain kind of pleasure, therefore, will be the supreme good, even though most pleasures should turn out to be bad in themselves.
And on this account all men suppose that the happy life is a pleasant one, and that happiness involves pleasure: and the supposition is reasonable; for no exercise of a faculty is complete if it be impeded; but happiness we reckon among complete things; and so, if he is to be happy, a man must have the goods of the body and external goods and good fortune, in order that the exercise of his faculties may not be impeded. And those who say that though a man be put to the rack and overwhelmed by misfortune, he is happy if only he be good, whether they know it or not, talk nonsense.
Because fortune is a necessary condition, some people consider good fortune to be identical with happiness; but it is not really so, for good fortune itself, if excessive, is an impediment, and is then, perhaps, no longer to be called good fortune; for good fortune can only be defined by its relation to happiness.
Again, the fact that all animals and men pursue pleasure is some indication that it is in some way the highest good:
But as the nature of man and the best development of his faculties neither are nor are thought to be the same for all, so the pleasure which men pursue is not always the same, though all pursue pleasure. Yet, perhaps, they do in fact pursue a pleasure different from that which they fancy they pursue and would say they pursue—a pleasure which is one and the same for all. For all beings have something divine implanted in them by nature.
But bodily pleasures have come to be regarded as the sole claimants to the title of pleasure, because they are oftenest attained and are shared by all; these then, as the only pleasures they know, men fancy to be the only pleasures that are.
But it is plain that unless pleasure—that is, unimpeded exercise of the faculties—be good, we can no longer say that the happy man leads a pleasant life; for why should he need it if it be not good? Nay, he may just as well lead a painful life: for pain is neither bad nor good, if pleasure be neither; so why should he avoid pain? The life of the good man, then, would be no pleasanter than others unless the exercise of his faculties were pleasanter.
Of the bodily pleasures, and the distinction between naturally and accidentally pleasant.
Those who say that though some pleasures are very desirable — to wit, noble pleasures — the pleasures of the body, with which the profligate is concerned, are not desirable, should consider the nature of these pleasures of the body. Why [if they are bad] are the opposite pains bad? for the opposite of bad is good. Are we to say that the “necessary” pleasures are good in the sense that what is not bad is good? or are they good up to a certain point?
Those faculties and those motions or activities which do not admit of excess beyond what is good,* do not admit of excessive pleasure; but those which admit of excess admit also of excessive pleasure. Now, bodily goods admit of excess, and the bad man is bad because he pursues this excess, not merely because he pursues the necessary pleasures; for men always take some delight in meat, and drink, and the gratification of the sexual appetite, but not always as they ought. But with pain the case is reversed: it is not excess of pain merely that the bad man avoids, but pain generally; [which is not inconsistent with the proposition that pain is bad,] for the opposite of excessive pleasure is not painful, except to the man who pursues the excess.*
But we ought to state not only the truth, but also the cause of the error; for this helps to produce conviction, as, when something has been pointed out to us which would naturally make that seem true which is not, we are more ready to believe the truth. And so we must say why it is that the bodily pleasures seem more desirable.
First of all, then, it is because of its efficacy in expelling pain, and because of the excessiveness of the pain to which it is regarded as an antidote, that men pursue excessive pleasure and bodily pleasure generally. But these remedies produce an intense feeling, and so are pursued, because they appear in strong contrast to the opposite pain.
(The reasons why pleasure is thought to be not good are two, as we said before: (1) some pleasures are the manifestation of a nature that is bad either from birth, as with brutes, or by habit, as with bad men: (2) the remedial pleasures imply want; and it is better to be in a [natural] state than in a transition to such a state; but these pleasures are felt while a want in us is being filled up, and therefore they are only accidentally good.† )
Again, these pleasures are pursued because of their intensity by those who are unable to take delight in other pleasures; thus we see people make themselves thirsty on purpose. When the pleasures they pursue are harmless, we do not blame them (though when they are hurtful the pursuit is bad); for they have no other sources of enjoyment, and the neutral state is painful to many because of their nature: for an animal is always labouring, as physical science teaches, telling us that seeing and hearing is labour and pain, only we are all used to it, as the saying is. And thus in youth, because they are growing, men are in a state resembling drunkenness; and youth is pleasant. But people of a melancholic nature are always wanting something to restore their balance; for their bodies are always vexing them because of their peculiar temperament, and they are always in a state of violent desire. But pain is expelled either by the opposite pleasure or by any pleasure, if it be sufficiently strong; and this is the reason why such men become profligate and worthless.
But pleasures that have no antecedent pain do not admit of excess. These are the pleasures derived from things that are naturally and not merely accidentally pleasant. I call those things accidentally pleasant that have a restorative effect; for as the restoration cannot take place unless that part of the system which remains healthy be in some way active, the restoration itself seems pleasant: but I call those things naturally pleasant that stimulate the activity of a healthy system.*
But nothing can continue to give us uninterrupted pleasure, because our nature is not simple, but contains a second element which makes us mortal beings;* so that if the one element be active in any way, this is contrary to the nature of the other element, but when the two elements are in equilibrium, what we do seems neither painful nor pleasant; for if there were a being whose nature were simple, the same activity would be always most pleasant to him. And on this account God always enjoys one simple pleasure; for besides the activity of movement, there is also activity without movement, and rest admits of truer pleasure than motion. But change is “the sweetest of all things,” as the poet says, because of a certain badness in us: for just as it is the bad man who is especially apt to change, so is it the bad nature that needs change; for it is neither simple nor good.
We have now considered continence and incontinence, and pleasure and pain, and have explained what each is, and how some of them are good and some bad. It remains to consider friendship.
FRIENDSHIP OR LOVE.
[* ]Cf. infra, 14, 7. I have frequently in this chapter rendered ἕξις by faculty, in order to express the opposition to ἐνέργεια, activity or exercise of faculty; but no single word is satisfactory.
[* ]The argument in full would be thus: pleasure is good; but good is exercise of faculty (ἐνέργεια), and this is a process or transition (γένεσις); ∴ pleasure is a transition. But according to Aristotle the highest ἐνέργεια involves no transition or motion at all (cf. 14, 8), and in every true ἐνέργεια, even when a transition is involved, the end is attained at every moment. Cf. Met. ix. 6. 1048b.
[* ]The argument is, “Pleasure is good because it is the opposite of pain, which is evil.” “No,” says Speusippus; “it is neither pleasure nor pain, but the neutral state, which is opposite to both, that is good.” “No,” replies Aristotle, “for then pleasure will be bad.”
[* ]Virtuous faculties and activities (II. 6, 20) do not admit of excess, because by their very nature they are right and occupy the mean; too much of them would be a contradiction in terms.
[* ]Pain generally (ὅλως) is bad, to be avoided.
[† ]As these words disturb the order of the argument, I have, following Ramasauer, put them in brackets; but I see no sufficient reason for regarding them as spurious.
[* ]Cf. supra, 12, 2.
[* ]Cf. X. 7, 8.