Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTERS 1–5.: PLEASURE. - The Nicomachean Ethics
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTERS 1–5.: 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Reasons for discussing pleasure.
Our next business, I think, should be to treat of pleasure. For pleasure seems, more than anything else, to have an intimate connection with our nature; which is the reason why, in educating the young, we use pleasure and pain as the rudders of their course. Moreover, delight in what we ought to delight in, and hatred of what we ought to hate, seem to be of the utmost importance in the formation of a virtuous character; for these feelings pervade the whole of life, and have power to draw a man to virtue and happiness, as we choose what pleases, and shun what pains us.
And it would seem that the discussion of these matters is especially incumbent on us, since there is much dispute about them. There are people who say that the good is pleasure, and there are people who say, on the contrary, that pleasure is altogether bad—some, perhaps, in the conviction that it is really so, others because they think it has a good effect on men’s lives to assert that pleasure is a bad thing, even though it be not; for the generality of men, they say, incline this way, and are slaves to their pleasures, so that they ought to be pulled in the opposite direction: for thus they will be brought into the middle course.
But I cannot think that it is right to speak thus. For assertions about matters of feeling and conduct carry less weight than actions; and so, when assertions are found to be at variance with palpable facts, they fall into contempt, and bring the truth also into discredit. Thus, when a man who speaks ill of pleasure is seen at times to desire it himself, he is thought to show by the fact of being attracted by it that he really considers all pleasure desirable; for the generality of men are not able to draw fine distinctions. It seems, then, that true statements are the most useful, for practice as well as for theory; for, being in harmony with facts, they gain credence, and so incline those who understand them to regulate their lives by them. But enough of this: let us now go through the current opinions about pleasure.
Arguments of Eudoxus that pleasure is the good.
Eudoxus thought pleasure was the good, because he saw that all beings, both rational and irrational, strive after it; but in all cases, he said, that which is desirable* is the good, and that which is most desirable is best: the fact, then, that all beings incline to one and the same thing indicates that this is the best thing for all (for each being finds out what is good for itself—its food, for instance); but that which is good for all, and which all strive after, is the good.
The statements of Eudoxus were accepted rather because of the excellence of his character than on their own account; for he seemed to be a remarkably temperate man; and so people thought that it was not from love of pleasure that he spoke thus, but that what he said really was the fact.
Eudoxus also thought that his point could be proved no less clearly by the argument from the opposite of pleasure:—pain is, in itself, an object of aversion to all beings; therefore its opposite is desirable for all.
Again, he argued, that is most desirable which we choose, not on account of something else, but for its own sake: but this is admitted to be the case with pleasure; for we never ask a man for his motive in taking pleasure, it being understood that pleasure is in itself desirable.
Again, he argued that any good thing whatsoever is made more desirable by the addition of pleasure, e.g. just or temperate conduct; but it can only be by the good that the good is increased.
Now, this last argument seems indeed to show that pleasure is a good thing, but not that it is one whit better than any other good thing; for any good thing is more desirable with the addition of another good thing than by itself.
Nay, Plato actually employs a similar argument to show that pleasure is not the good. “The pleasant life,” he says, “is more desirable with wisdom than without: but if the combination of the two be better, pleasure itself cannot be the good; for no addition can make the good more desirable.” And it is equally evident that, if any other thing be made more desirable by the addition of one of the class of things that are good in themselves, that thing cannot be the good. What good is there, then, which is thus incapable of addition, and at the same time such that men can participate in it? For that is the sort of good that we want.
But those who maintain, on the contrary, that what all desire is not good, surely talk nonsense. What all men think, that, we say, is true. And to him who bids us put no trust in the opinion of mankind, we reply that we can scarce put greater trust in his opinion. If it were merely irrational creatures that desired these things, there might be something in what he says; but as rational beings also desire them, how can it be anything but nonsense? Indeed, it may be that even in inferior beings there is some natural principle of good stronger than themselves, which strives after their proper good.
Again, what the adversaries of Eudoxus say about his argument from the nature of the opposite of pleasure, does not seem to be sound. They say that, though pain be bad, yet it does not follow that pleasure is good; for one bad thing may be opposed to another bad thing, and both to a third thing which is different from either.* Now, though this is not a bad remark, it does not hold true in the present instance. For if both were bad, both alike ought to be shunned, or if neither were bad, neither should be shunned, or, at least, one no more than the other: but, as it is, men evidently shun the one as bad and choose the other as good; they are, in fact, therefore, opposed to one another in this respect.
Argument that it is not a quality; that it is not determined; that it is a motion or coming into being. Pleasures differ in kind.
Again, even though pleasure is not a quality, it does not follow that it is not a good thing. The exercise of virtue, happiness itself, is not a quality.
It is objected, again, that the good is determinate, while pleasure is indeterminate, because it admits of a more and a less.
Now, if they say this because one may be more or less pleased, then the same thing may be said of justice and the other virtues; for it is plain that, with regard to them, we speak of people as being and showing themselves more or less virtuous: some men are more just and more brave than others, and it is possible to act more or less justly and temperately.
But if they mean that one pleasure may be more or less of a pleasure than another, I suspect that they miss the real reason when they say it is because some are pure and some are mixed. Why should it not be the same with pleasure as with health, which, though something determinate, yet allows of more and less? For the due proportion of elements [which constitutes health] is not the same for all, nor always the same for the same person, but may vary within certain limits without losing its character, being now more and now less truly health. And it may be the same with pleasure.
Again, assuming that the good is complete, while motion and coming into being are incomplete, they try to show that pleasure is a motion and a coming into being.
But they do not seem to be right even in saying that it is a motion: for every motion seems necessarily to be quick or slow, either absolutely, as the motion of the universe, or relatively; but pleasure is neither quick nor slow. It is, indeed, possible to be quickly pleased, as to be quickly angered; the feeling, however, cannot be quick, even relatively, as can walking and growing, etc. The passage to a state of pleasure, then, may be quick or slow, but the exercise of the power, i.e. the feeling of pleasure, cannot be quick.
Again, how can pleasure be a coming into being?
It seems that it is not possible for anything to come out of just anything, but what a thing comes out of, that it is resolved into. Pain, then, must be the dissolution of that whose coming into being is pleasure. Accordingly, they maintain that pain is falling short of the normal state, pleasure its replenishment.
But these are bodily processes. If, then, pleasure be the replenishment of the normal state, that in which the replenishment takes place, i.e. the body, must be that which is pleased. But this does not seem to be the case. Pleasure, therefore, is not a replenishment, but while the process of replenishment is going on we may be pleased, and while the process of exhaustion is going on we may be pained.*
This view of pleasure seems to have been suggested by the pleasures and pains connected with nutrition; for there it is true that we come into a state of want, and, after previous pain, find pleasure in replenishment. But this is not the case with all pleasures; for there is no previous pain involved in the pleasures of the mathematician, nor among the sensuous pleasures in those of smell, nor, again, in many kinds of sights and sounds, nor in memories and hopes. What is there, then, of which these pleasures are the becoming? Here there is nothing lacking that can be replenished.
To those, again, who [in order to show that pleasure is not good] adduce the disgraceful kinds of pleasure we might reply that these things are not pleasant. Though they be pleasant to ill-conditioned persons, we must not therefore hold them to be pleasant except to them; just as we do not hold that to be wholesome, or sweet, or bitter, which is wholesome, sweet, or bitter to the sick man, or that to be white which appears white to a man with ophthalmia.
Or, again, we might reply that these pleasures are desirable, but not when derived from these sources, just as it is desirable to be rich, but not at the cost of treachery, and desirable to be in health, but not at the cost of eating any kind of abominable food.
Or we might say that the pleasures are specifically different. The pleasures derived from noble sources are different from those derived from base sources, and it is impossible to feel the just man’s pleasure without being just, or the musical man’s pleasure without being musical, and so on with the rest.
The distinction drawn between the true friend and the flatterer seems to show either that pleasure is not good, or else that pleasures differ in kind. For the former in his intercourse is thought to have the good in view, the latter pleasure; and while we blame the latter, we praise the former as having a different aim in his intercourse.
Again, no one would choose to live on condition of having a child’s intellect all his life, though he were to enjoy in the highest possible degree all the pleasures of a child; nor choose to gain enjoyment by the performance of some extremely disgraceful act, though he were never to feel pain.
There are many things, too, which we should care for, even though they brought no pleasure, as sight, memory, knowledge, moral and intellectual excellence. Even if we grant that pleasure necessarily accompanies them, this does not affect the question; for we should choose them even if no pleasure resulted from them.
It seems to be evident, then, that pleasure is not the good, nor are all pleasures desirable, but that some are desirable, differing in kind, or in their sources, from those that are not desirable. Let this be taken then as a sufficient account of the current opinions about pleasure and pain.
Pleasure defined: its relation to activity.
As to the nature or quality of pleasure, we shall more readily discover it if we make a fresh start as follows:—
Vision seems to be perfect or complete at any moment; for it does not lack anything which can be added afterwards to make its nature complete. Pleasure seems in this respect to resemble vision; for it is something whole and entire, and it would be impossible at any moment to find a pleasure which would become complete by lasting longer.
Therefore pleasure is not a motion; for every motion requires time and implies an end (e.g. the motion of building), and is complete when the desired result is produced—either in the whole time therefore, or in this final moment of it. But during the progress of the work all the motions are incomplete, and specifically different from the whole motion and from each other; the fitting together of the stones is different from the fluting of the pillar, and both from the building of the temple. The building of the temple is complete; nothing more is required for the execution of the plan. But the building of the foundation and of the triglyph are incomplete; for each is the building of a part only. These motions, then, are specifically different from one another, and it is impossible to find a motion whose nature is complete at any moment—it is complete, if at all, only in the whole time.
It is the same also with walking and the other kinds of locomotion. For though all locomotion is a motion from one place to another, yet there are distinct kinds of locomotion, as flying, walking, leaping, etc. Nay, not only so, but even in walking itself there are differences, for the whence and whither are not the same in the entire course and in a portion of the course, or in this portion and in that, nor is crossing this line the same as crossing that; for you do not cross a line simply, but a line that is in a given place, and this line is in a different place from that. I must refer to my other works* for a detailed discussion of motion; but it seems that it is not complete at any moment, but that its several parts are incomplete, and that they are specifically different from one another, the whence and whither being a specific difference.
Pleasure, on the other hand, is complete in its nature at any moment. It is evident, therefore, that these two must be distinct from each other, and that pleasure must be one of the class of whole and complete things. And this would also seem to follow from the fact that though duration is necessary for motion, it is not necessary for pleasure—for a momentary pleasure is something whole and entire.
From these considerations it is plain that they are wrong in saying that pleasure is a motion or a coming into being. For these terms are not applied to every thing, but only to those things that are divisible into parts and are not wholes. We cannot speak of the coming into being of vision, or of a mathematical point, or of unity; nor is any one of them a motion or a coming into being. And these terms are equally inapplicable to pleasure; for it is something whole and entire.
Every sense exercises itself upon its proper object, and exercises itself completely when it is in good condition and the object is the noblest of those that fall within its scope (for the complete exercise of a faculty seems to mean this; and we may assume that it makes no difference whether we speak of the sense, or of the sensitive subject as exercising itself): of each sense, then, we may say that the exercise is best when on the one side you have the finest condition, and on the other the highest of the objects that fall within the scope of this faculty.
But this exercise of the faculty will be not only the most complete, but also the pleasantest: for the exercise of every sense is attended with pleasure, and so is the exercise of reason and the speculative faculty; and it is pleasantest when it is most complete, and it is most complete when the faculty is well-trained and the object is the best of those that fall under this faculty.
And, further, the pleasure completes the exercise of the faculty. But the pleasure completes it in a different way from that in which the object and the faculty of sense complete it, when both are as they should be; just as health causes healthy activities in a different way from that in which the physician causes them.
(That the exercise of every sense is accompanied by pleasure is evident: we speak of pleasant sights and pleasant sounds.
It is evident also that the pleasure is greatest when both the faculty and that upon which it is exercised are as good as they can be: when this is the case both with the object of sense and the sentient subject, there will always be pleasure, so long, that is, as you have the subject to act and the object to be acted upon.)
So long, then, as both the object of thought or of sense and the perceptive or contemplative subject are as they ought to be, so long will there be pleasure in the exercise; for so long as the object to be acted upon and the subject that is able to act remain the same, and maintain the same relation to each other, the result must be the same.
How is it, then, that we are incapable of continuous pleasure? Perhaps the reason is that we become exhausted; for no human faculty is capable of continuous exercise. Pleasure, then, also cannot be continuous; for it is an accompaniment of the exercise of faculty. And for the same reason some things please us when new, but afterwards please us less. For at first the intellect is stimulated and exercises itself upon them strenuously, just as we strain our eyes to look hard at something; but after a time the exertion ceases to be so intense, and becomes relaxed; and so the pleasure also loses its keenness.
The desire for pleasure we should expect to be shared by all men, seeing that all desire to live.
For life is an exercise of faculties, and each man exercises the faculties he most loves upon the things he most loves; e.g. the musical man exercises his hearing upon melodies, and the studious man exercises his intellect upon matters of speculation, and so on with the rest.
But pleasure completes the exercise of faculties, and therefore life, which men desire.
Naturally, therefore, men desire pleasure too; for each man finds in it the completion of his life, which is desirable.
But whether we desire life for the sake of pleasure, or pleasure for the sake of life, is a question which we may dismiss for the present. For the two seem to be joined together, and not to admit of separation: without exercise of faculties there is no pleasure, and every such exercise is completed by pleasure.
Pleasures differ according to the activities The standard is the good man.
And from this it seems to follow that pleasures differ in kind, since specifically different things we believe to be completed by specifically different things. For this seems to be the case with the products both of nature and of art, as animals and trees, paintings, sculptures, houses, and furniture. Similarly, then, we believe that exercises of faculty which differ in kind are completed by things different in kind.
But the exercises of the intellectual faculties are specifically different from the exercises of the senses, and the several kinds of each from one another; therefore the pleasures which complete them are also different.
The same conclusion would seem to follow from the close connection that exists between each pleasure and the exercise of faculty which it completes. For the exercise is increased by its proper pleasure; e.g. people are more likely to understand any matter, and to go to the bottom of it, if the exercise is pleasant to them. Thus, those who delight in geometry become geometricians, and understand all the propositions better than others; and similarly, those who are fond of music, or of architecture, or of anything else, make progress in that kind of work, because they delight in it. The pleasures, then, help to increase the exercise; but that which helps to increase it must be closely connected with it: but when things are specifically different from one another, the things that are closely connected with them must also be specifically different.
The same conclusion follows perhaps still more clearly from the fact that the exercise of one faculty is impeded by the pleasure proper to another; e.g. a lover of the flute is unable to attend to an argument if he hears a man playing, since he takes more delight in flute-playing than in his present business; the pleasure of the flute-player, therefore, hinders the exercise of the reason.
The same result follows in other cases, too, whenever a man is exercising his faculties on two things at a time; the pleasanter business thwarts the other, and, if the difference in pleasantness be great, thwarts it more and more, even to the extent of suppressing it altogether. Thus, when anything gives us intense delight, we cannot do anything else at all, and when we do a second thing, we do not very much care about the first; and so people who eat sweetmeats in the theatre do this most of all when the actors are bad.
Since its proper pleasure heightens the exercise of a faculty, making it both more prolonged and better, while pleasure from another source spoils it, it is evident that there is a great difference between these two pleasures. Indeed, pleasure from another source has almost the same effect as pain from the activity itself. For the exercise of a faculty is spoilt by pain arising from it; as happens, for instance, when a man finds it disagreeable and painful to write or to calculate; for he stops writing in the one case and calculating in the other, since the exercise is painful. The exercise of a faculty, then, is affected in opposite ways by its proper pleasure and its proper pain; and by “proper” I mean that which is occasioned by the exercise itself. But pleasure from another source, we have already said, has almost the same effect as its proper pain; i.e. it interferes with the exercise of the faculty, though not to the same extent.
Again, as the exercises of our faculties differ in goodness and badness, and some are to be desired and some to be shunned, while some are indifferent, so do the several pleasures differ; for each exercise has its proper pleasure. The pleasure which is proper to a good activity, then, is good, and that which is proper to one that is not good is bad: for the desire of noble things is laudable, and the desire of base things is blamable; but the pleasures which accompany the exercises of our faculties belong to them even more than the desires do, since the latter are distinct both in time and in nature, while the former are almost coincident in time, and so hard to distinguish from them that it is a matter of debate whether the exercise be not identical with the pleasure.
It seems, however, that the pleasure is not the same as the act of thinking or of feeling; that is impossible: but the fact that the two are inseparable makes some people fancy that they are identical.
As, then, the exercises of the faculties vary, so do their respective pleasures. Sight is purer than touch, hearing and smell than taste* : there is a corresponding difference, therefore, between their pleasures; and the pleasures of the intellect are purer than these pleasures of sense, and some of each kind are purer than others.
Each kind of being, again, seems to have its proper pleasure, as it has its proper function,—viz. the pleasure which accompanies the exercise of its faculties or the realization of its nature. And a separate consideration of the several kinds of animals will confirm this: the pleasures of a horse, a dog, and a man are all different—as Heraclitus says, a donkey would prefer hay to gold; for there is more pleasure in fodder than in gold to a donkey.
The pleasures of specifically different beings, then, are specifically different; and we might naturally suppose that there would be no specific difference between the pleasures of beings of the same species. And yet there is no small difference, in the pleasures of men at least: what pleases this man pains that; what is grievous and hateful to one is pleasant and lovable to another. This occurs in the case of sweet things, too: a man in a fever has a different notion of what is sweet from a man in health; and a feeble man’s notion of what is hot is different from that of a robust man. And the like occurs in other matters also.
But in all matters of this kind we hold that things are what they appear to be to the perfect man.
Now, if this opinion is correct, as we hold it to be—if, that is, in every case the test is virtue, or the good man as such—then what appears to him to be pleasure will be pleasure, and what he delights in will be pleasant.
If what is disagreeable to him appears pleasant to another, we need not be astonished; for there are many ways in which men are corrupted and perverted: such things, however, are not pleasant, but only pleasant to these men with their disposition. It is plain, then, that we must not allow the confessedly base pleasures to be pleasures at all, except to corrupt men.
But of the pleasures that are considered good, which or what kind are to be called the proper pleasures of man? We cannot be in doubt if we know what are the proper exercises of his faculties; for the proper pleasures are their accompaniments. Whether, then, the exercise of faculties proper to the complete and happy man be one or many, the pleasures that complete that exercise will be called pleasures of man in the full meaning of the words, and the others in a secondary sense and with a fraction of that meaning, just as is the case with the exercises of the faculties.
[* ]τὸ αἱρετόν covers, as no English word can, the transition from desired to desirable.
[* ]The neutral state, neither pleasure nor pain, which they hold to be good.
[* ]Adopting Spengel’s conjecture, κενούμενος for τεμνόμενος.
[* ]Physics, Book iii. f.: cf. especially viii. 8, 264 b, 27, quoted by Ramsauer, who founds on it an ingenious emendation of this passage.
[* ]As already remarked, there is no one English word which includes these various senses of ἕξις, (1) habit of body, (2) moral habit or character, (3) intellectual habit or trained faculty.
[* ]At other periods of life the various organs of the body may perform their functions completely, but in youth this is accompanied by an inexpressible charm which all other ages lack.
[* ]Sight and touch are classed together on the one hand, and hearing, smell, and taste on the other, because, while the announcements of all the senses are, in the first instance, of secondary qualities (colours, sounds, etc.), it is mainly from the announcements of sight and touch that we advance to the knowledge of the mathematical properties or primary qualities (number, figure, motion, etc.).