The Problem of Pleasure

May 2012By Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sa­pien­tia Press); The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius Press; preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), about her late husband, Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand; and By Love Refined (Sophia Institute Press). She has written extensively for many Catholic periodicals and works closely with the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, whose aim is to translate her late husband’s work into English.

Jeremy Bentham won fame without much fatigue. His claim that nature has given us two masters, pleasure and pain, was bound to find favor among his readers. His teaching is unequivocal: We should maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Whether Bentham’s foundation is a sound one for ethics can be questioned. Yet it guaranteed him Lord Byron’s enthusiastic endorsement: Byron declared Bentham to be “the greatest man of his time, and possibly the greatest man of all time.” One normally expects an ethic to inform us of what we should do and, conversely, abstain from doing. Can one justify the title Ethics for a work whose foundation is the undeniable fact that pleasure is pleasant?

It would be ludicrous to think that it is necessary to “teach” people to enjoy what is pleasurable and to reject what is painful. Yet today one will hardly find a college ethics textbook that does not give Bentham prominent mention, even pride of place. One thing, however, is certain: He addresses a topic worth discussing, for to maximize pleasure and eliminate pain ranks very high in modern man’s agenda of priorities. This topic was addressed also by Plato, but his presentation differs radically from the British thinker’s: “Each of us has two counselors that are foolish and antagonistic,” said the Greek philosopher, “pleasure and pain.” Can modern man, simply because he is modern, claim that he is wiser than a Greek thinker born in the fifth century B.C.?

This king of Greek philosophy warned us that even though many of us might be defeated by pain, a much greater danger is to be defeated by pleasure — i.e., to be incapable of protecting oneself from its poisonous attraction. This is why he adds that one of the most important aims of education should be to train a child to achieve victory over pleasure.

From the very moment of birth, man is attracted to what is pleasant, sweet, comfortable, and enjoyable, and rejects violently what is harsh, difficult, and bitter. History teaches us that tribes and nations often trained their members to “endure” pain. In Indian tribes, when a young boy reached a certain age, he passed a “rite of initiation,” a sort of “maturity test,” by courageously refusing to be defeated by pain. To endure pain without flinching proved his manhood.

You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.

Back to May 2012 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
We are therefore commanded by morality to renounce pleasure as often as the faculties we posses in common with animals are in opposition to those peculiar to our humanity ,or whenever these are not in harmony with each other.
The necessary conditions of freedom : Intellect to make a choice among motives,a plurality of motives,the influence of intellect on voluntary motion; liberty acquire the character of morality by the victory of the powers proper to man over his brute nature.
Posted by: laguerre12
May 25, 2012 04:09 PM EDT
I Quote Plotinus, First Ennead,Iv ,12 " The pleasure demanded for the Sages's life cannot be in the enjoyment of the licentious or in any gratification of the body- there is no place for these, and they stifle happiness- nor in any violent emotions- What could so move the Sage? - it can be only such pleasure as there must be where Good is, pleasure that does not rise from movement and is not a thing of process , for all that is good is immediately present to the Sage and the Sage is present to himself : his pleasure , his contentment,stands,immovable"
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches on " The Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit # 1830-1832 ; I will quote # 1832
" The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory. The tradition of the Church lists twelve of them : "charity,joy,peace,kindness,goodness,generosity,gentleness,
Faithfulness,modesty,self- control,chastity"
Catechism # 1832 can be cross reference with scripture passage Gal 5:22-23( vulgate) according to the catholic catechism.
catechism#1831 can be cross reference with scripture passage Rom 8:14,17 according to the catechism and Isaiah
11:1-2 according to The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church ( compendium of texts referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Posted by: laguerre12
June 25, 2012 11:25 AM EDT
Health and Disease : Aristotle Ethics 1150b33
" Wickedness is like a disease such as dropsy or consumption ,while incontinence is like epilepsy; the former is a permanent,the latter an intermittent badness.And generally incontinence and vice are different in kind; vice is unconscious of itself, incontinence is not, ( of incontinent men themselves,those who become temporarily beside themselves,are better than those who have the rational principle but do not abide by it, since the latter are defeated by a weaker passion, and do not act without previous deliberation like the others) ; for the incontinent man is like the people who get drunk quickly and on little wine,I.e. on less than most people."
Posted by: laguerre12
July 10, 2012 03:02 PM EDT
Theological reflection Attributes of God as a Person " Longsuffering" Psalm 86:15" But thou,O Lord ,art a God full of compassion,and gracious,Longsuffering,and plenteous in mercy and truth "
Posted by: laguerre12
July 11, 2012 03:16 PM EDT
Add a comment