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A Different Take on the Bodily Pleasures

Many people place a large amount of value on the bodily pleasures and, consequently, believe that their fulfillment is necessary to a good life. I have in mind such pleasures as food and drink and sex. Much of our time is spent thinking about and striving for ways to go about achieving such pleasures. We schedule our lives around our eating habits. We desperately seek after romantic relationships, in large part because of the physical aspects involved. This is all well and good. After all, these are not mere pleasures but requirements for a healthy and happy life. But there is a sense in which I wish this were not so. There is a sense in which these are not pleasures but pains in disguise: pains in need of neutralizing. This view does seem to fit some of our culinary and sexual experiences. The pleasure received from filling one’s stomach does seem to derive from appeasing the pain of an empty one (much like the pleasure received from scratching derives from the appeasement of an itch). These pleasures, in other words, are dependent on antecedent discomfort. Not all pleasures are like this (e.g. watching a film).

Many people will not be bothered by this realization. Some may want to contend that the pleasures of food and sex, however they are derived, are mighty and powerful and our lives are better with them than without them. This may be so, although I do not think it is obvious (our lives seem quite enjoyable when full on food or free of nagging itches). The real pain of such so-called pleasures, however, is that they serve as time-consuming distractions, drawing our attention away from other areas of real importance. One area of importance that I have in mind is the vast amount of projects that people undertake for the betterment of society. A second area of importance, one dearest to my own life, is that of scientific discovery and philosophical reflection. Without such overwhelming bodily desires, we could devote increasing amounts of time and effort to such areas. All too often it happens that in the midst of efficient and productive work or of moments of entertainment, we are interrupted by the unnecessary naggings of our nature. It appears that what may at first seem like a gift from the gods is but an unfortunate side-effect of our biology.

As harsh as this view may seem toward the bodily pleasures, none of it takes away from the enjoyment derived from them. I merely wish to point out that there are conceivable alternatives to the way in which minds such as ours could exist that are, in my view, preferable to the way things turned out. Stated differently, there are logically possible alternatives to the way we could have been that are better geared toward the fulfillment of our (or at least my) higher-order values.

I was pleased to learn that my very sentiments were echoed by Plato (or Socrates) over two thousand years ago in his work, the Phaedo.

For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food, and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth.

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