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EARNING PLEASURE: Which is the more effective strategy, trying to grab pleasure whenever it’s within reach, or trying to “earn” it? IMO, the more you seize or grasp pleasure, the more it starts to pall—that is to say, the more you become jaded. But if you try to earn it, then pleasure doesn’t disappoint, or disappoints less.
(Although C. E. M. Joad has been largely forgotten, I need to say a few words about him because he’s part of my case. Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was a successful popularizer of philosophy, and, in the 1940s, became the best known voice on radio after the news. He achieved this status by being one of the stars, along with Julian Huxley, of the BBC wartime discussion program called The Brains Trust.)
OK, the kind of pleasure I’m talking about is “need” pleasure and not “appreciative” pleasure. It’s been known for a long time that pleasures can be divided into two classes: those which would not be pleasures at all unless they were preceded by desire, and those which are pleasures in their own right. An example of the first type would be a drink of water. This is a pleasure if you’re thirsty and a great one if you’re very thirsty. But probably nobody ever poured himself a glass of water and drank it just for the fun of the thing. An example of the other type would be the unexpected pleasures of smell, perhaps the fragrant aroma of freshly cut grass or, in my case, a Cuban cigar—Kipling said something poetic on this subject: ‘smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack’. So, you were in want of nothing, completely contented, and the pleasure came like a gift, unsought and unneeded. For clarity’s sake I’ve used simple examples. There are, of course, many complications and many intermediate cases.
There was a time when you could say, without feeling self-conscious, that unchecked indulgence in the more obvious types of pleasure is unsatisfying; that that has been the unanimous teaching of those who have had the leisure and opportunity to try them in all ages; but, unfortunately, that it’s a truth which nobody believes to be true until he has discovered it for himself—or herself. And then you could conclude by saying that one can’t take the kingdom of pleasure by storm.
In fact, that’s exactly what C. E. M. Joad, the public philosopher of his day, did say in the England of 1930. And Joad was very far from being a Puritan. After his marriage ended in separation in 1921, Joad became a man of many mistresses. But I wonder if a public intellectual today could say what Joad said without feeling a little nervous, without people looking at him askance, as if to say “Hey, what’s with you?”
In any case, Joad’s thoughts about pleasure don’t get much of an airing today. Maybe that should change. Young people, and even those who are not so young, might benefit if they were informed (or reminded) that instant gratification is bad psychology. Pleasure must be earned because part of its very intensity comes from resistance or self-control. If you gratify every impulse at once it destroys this intensity. To use an analogy, if you break of a dam you reduce all water to the same level. But if you cultivate the patience to let the water build up until it has reached a much higher level, and only then open the flood gates, the force of the water will be very much greater. So also with pleasure.
All this should be pretty obvious, but do people ever think about these things? I think most of them just grab the nearest available pleasure and live with the consequences. If we turn to more sophisticated pleasures—if that’s the right word—we find that there are very intense enjoyments in abstractions—like mathematics, logic, or chess. But these pleasures of the mind are like pleasures of the body, that is to say they are only pleasures, and even though they may be enormous pleasures they can never by a mere increase of themselves amount to happiness. That’s not to say anything against them, but just to discourage people from expecting happiness when all they’re going to get is pleasure.
Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) said that those who are now pursuing pleasure are not only fleeing from boredom, but are acutely suffering from it. I think most people could accept that. It’s just another illustration that if you try to grab pleasure without earning it, it loses its impact, eventually becomes boring. However, if we go a step further and claim that to a happy soul, pleasures are no longer necessary, while to a pleasure- seeking soul, happiness is not yet possible, we might get resistance. Many naturalists, I think, would say that happiness is just a particular kind of pleasure, and therefore the claim is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps, but that’s a matter for philosophical debate. Less controversial would be the claim that people feel joy—or, if you wish, a special kind of pleasure—to the extent that their activities are creative. Once again we’re back to the idea of earning pleasure, this time through creative activity.
Many decades ago, the author of some popular spiritual books wrote that the pleasure of the moment begins to wither almost as soon as it blossoms, that our pleasures are soon swallowed up in time’s relentless torrent. You may find that a bit hackneyed, but before deciding whether it’s overly pessimistic, consider what William James had to say in 1900 in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s pretty high- flown prose. He wrote:
Unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy, things that sound a knell, for fugitive as they may be, they bring a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness. The buzz of life ceases at their touch as a piano-string stops sounding when the damper falls upon it. Of course the music can commence again;—and again and again—at intervals. But with this the healthy-minded consciousness is left with an irremediable sense of precariousness. It is a bell with a crack; it draws its breath on sufferance and by an accident.
We can argue about that, but I think it’s consistent with the claim that surest way to guarantee that the music will commence again and again, without losing too much of its delight, is to earn each pleasure in what seems the appropriate manner. Also, that there’s no earthly pleasure, sensual, emotional, or aesthetic, that can’t be made tedious by repetition, and therefore to maximize your enjoyment you mustn’t draw too frequently from any one source. So, go out of your way to vary your pleasures, or at least space them by decent intervals. Hopefully, that way you can avoid the fate of Gore Vidal who said, “I am past all serious desire for anything.” It’s not a trivial matter, for meaninglessness, according to G. K. Chesterton, does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.
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