What is our Highest Pleasure?

Submitted by Tom Last on Thu, 06/05/2008 - 1:14am.

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The Philosophy Of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)
Chapter 13, The Value Of Life (Optimism and Pessimism), Video 2 of 2
What is the Value of Life?

Value of Pleasure
[31] All this presupposes that pleasure is the yardstick for the value of life. Now life manifests itself through a number of instinctive desires (needs). If the value of life depended on its producing more pleasure than pain, an instinct which brought to its owner a balance of pain would have to be called valueless. Let us, therefore, examine instinct and pleasure to see whether the former can be measured by the latter. In order not to arouse the suspicion that we consider life to begin only at the level of "aristocracy of the intellect", we shall begin with the "purely animal" need, hunger.

[32] Hunger arises when our organs are unable to continue their proper function without a fresh supply of food. What a hungry man wants first of all is to satisfy his hunger. As soon as the supply of nourishment has reached the point where hunger ceases, everything that the instinct for food craves has been attained. The enjoyment that comes with being satisfied consists primarily in putting an end to the pain caused by hunger. But to the mere instinct for food a further need is added. For man does not merely desire to repair the disturbance in the functioning of his organs by the consumption of food, or to overcome the pain of hunger; he seeks to effect this to the accompaniment of pleasurable sensations of taste. If he feels hungry and is within half an hour of an appetizing meal, he may even refuse inferior food, which could satisfy him sooner, so as not to spoil his appetite for the better fare to come. He needs hunger in order to get the full enjoyment from his meal. Thus for him hunger becomes at the same time a cause of pleasure. Now if all the existing hunger in the world could be satisfied, we should then have the total quantity of enjoyment attributable to the presence of the need for nourishment. To this would still have to be added the special pleasure which the gourmet achieves by cultivating his palate beyond the common measure.

[33] This quantity of pleasure would reach the highest conceivable value if no need aiming at the kind of enjoyment under consideration remained unsatisfied, and if with the enjoyment we had not to accept a certain amount of pain into the bargain.

[34] Modern science holds the view that nature produces more life than it can sustain, that is to say, more hunger than it is able to satisfy. The surplus of life thus produced must perish in pain in the struggle for existence. Admittedly the needs of life at every moment in the course of the world are greater than the available means of satisfaction, and that the enjoyment of life is affected as a result. Such enjoyment as actually does occur, however, is not in the least reduced. Wherever a desire is satisfied, the corresponding quantity of pleasure exists, even though in the desiring creature itself or in its fellows there are plenty of unsatisfied instincts. What is, however, diminished by all this is the value of the enjoyment of life. If only a part of the needs of a living creature finds satisfaction, it experiences a corresponding degree of enjoyment. This pleasure has a lower value, the smaller it is in proportion to the total demands of life in the field of the desires in question. One can represent this value by a fraction, of which the numerator is the pleasure actually experienced while the denominator is the sum total of needs. This fraction has the value 1 when the numerator and the denominator are equal, that is, when all needs are fully satisfied. The fraction becomes greater than 1 when a creature experiences more pleasure than its desires demand; and it becomes smaller than 1 when the quantity of pleasure falls short of the sum total of desires. But the fraction can never become zero as long as the numerator has any value at all, however small. If a man were to make up a final account before his death, and were to think of the quantity of enjoyment connected with a particular instinct (for example, hunger) as being distributed over the whole of his life together with all the demands made by this instinct, then the pleasure experienced might perhaps have a very small value, but it could never become valueless. If the quantity of pleasure remains constant, then, with an increase in the needs of the creature, the value of the pleasure diminishes. The same is true for the sum of life in nature. The greater the number of creatures in proportion to those which are able to satisfy their instincts fully, the smaller is the average value of pleasure in life. The cheques on life's pleasure which are drawn in our favour in the form of our instincts, become less valuable if we cannot expect to cash them for the full amount. If I get enough to eat for three days and as a result must then go hungry for another three days, the actual pleasure on the three days of eating is not thereby diminished. But I have now to think of it as distributed over six days, and thus its value for my food-instinct is reduced by half. In just the same way the magnitude of pleasure is related to the degree of my need. If I am hungry enough for two pieces of bread and can only get one, the pleasure I derive from it had only half the value it would have had if the eating of it has satisfied my hunger. This is the way that the value of a pleasure is determined in life. It is measured by the needs of life. Our desires are the yardstick; pleasure is the thing that is measured. The enjoyment of satisfying hunger has a value only because hunger exists; and it has a value of a definite magnitude through the proportion it bears to the magnitude of the existing hunger.

[35] Unfulfilled demands of our life throw their shadow even upon satisfied desires, and thus detract from the value of pleasurable hours. But we can also speak of the present value of a feeling of pleasure. This value is the lower, the smaller the pleasure is in proportion to the duration and intensity of our desire.

[36] A quantity of pleasure has its full value for us when in duration and degree it exactly coincides with our desire. A quantity of pleasure which is smaller than our desire diminishes the value of the pleasure; a quantity which is greater produces a surplus which has not been demanded and which is felt as pleasure only so long as, whilst enjoying the pleasure, we can increase the intensity of our desire. If the increase in our desire is unable to keep pace with the increase in pleasure, then pleasure turns into displeasure. The thing that would otherwise satisfy us now assails us without our wanting it and makes us suffer. This proves that pleasure has value for us only to the extent that we can measure it against our desires. An excess of pleasurable feeling turns into pain. This may be observed especially in people whose desire for a particular kind of pleasure is very small. In people whose instinct for food is stunted, eating readily becomes nauseating. This again shows that desire is the standard by which we measure the value of pleasure.

[37] Now the pessimist might say that an unsatisfied instinct for food brings into the world not only displeasure at the lost enjoyment, but also positive pain, misery and want. He can base this statement upon the untold misery of starving people and upon the vast amount of suffering which arises indirectly for such people from their lack of food. And if he wants to extend his assertion to nature outside man as well, he can point to the suffering of animals that die of starvation at certain times of the year. The pessimist maintains that these evils far outweigh the amount of pleasure that the instinct for food brings into the world.

[38] There is indeed no doubt that one can compare pleasure and pain and can estimate the surplus of one or the other much as we do in the case of profit and loss. But if the pessimist believes that because there is a surplus of pain he can conclude that life is valueless, he falls into the error of making a calculation that in real life is never made.

Will For Pleasure
[39] Our desire, in any given case, is directed to a particular object. As we have seen, the value of the pleasure of satisfaction will be the greater, the greater is the amount of pleasure in relation to the intensity of our desire. On this intensity of desire also will depend how much pain we are willing to bear as part of the price of achieving the pleasure. We compare the quantity of pain not with the quantity of pleasure but with the intensity of our desire. If someone takes great delight in eating, he will, by reason of his enjoyment in better times, find it easier to bear a period of hunger than will someone for whom eating is no pleasure. A woman who wants to have a child compares the pleasure that would come from possessing it not with the amount of pain due to pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and so on, but with her desire to possess the child.

[40] We never aim at a certain quantity of pleasure in the abstract, but at concrete satisfaction in a perfectly definite way. If we are aiming at a pleasure which must be satisfied by a particular object or a particular sensation, we shall not be satisfied with some other object or some other sensation that gives us an equal amount of pleasure. If we are aiming at satisfying our hunger, we cannot replace the pleasure this would give us by a pleasure equally great, but produced by going for a walk. Only if our desire were, quite generally, for a certain fixed quantity of pleasure as such, would it disappear as soon as the price of achieving it were seen to be a still greater quantity of pain. But since satisfaction of a particular kind is being aimed at, fulfillment brings the pleasure even when, along with it, a still greater pain has to be taken into the bargain. But because the instincts of living creatures move in definite directions and go after concrete goals, the quantity of pain endured on the way to the goal cannot be set down as an equivalent factor in our calculations. Provided the desire is sufficiently intense to be present in some degree after having overcome the pain -- however great that pain in itself may be -- then the pleasure of satisfaction can still be tasted to the full. The desire, therefore, does not compare the pain directly to the pleasure achieved, but compares it indirectly by relating its own intensity to that of the pain. The question is not whether the pleasure to be gained is greater than the pain, but whether the desire for the goal is greater than the hindering effect of the pain involved. If the hindrance is greater than the desire, then the desire gives way to the inevitable, weakens and strives no further. Since our demand is for satisfaction in a particular way, the pleasure connected with it acquires a significance such that, once we have achieved satisfaction, we need take the quantity of pain into account only to the extent that it has reduced the intensity of our desire. If I am a passionate admirer of beautiful views, I never calculate the amount of pleasure which the view from the mountain top gives me as compared directly with the pain of the toilsome ascent and descent; but I reflect whether, after having overcome all difficulties, my desire for the view will still be sufficiently intense. Only indirectly, through the intensity of the desire, can pleasure and pain together lead to a result. Therefore the question is not at all whether there is a surplus of pleasure or of pain, but whether the will for pleasure is strong enough to overcome the pain.

[41] A proof for the correctness of this statement is the fact that we put a higher value on pleasure when it has to be purchased at the price of great pain than when it falls into our lap like a gift from heaven. When suffering and misery have toned down our desire and yet after all our goal is reached, then the pleasure, in proportion to the amount of desire still left, is all the greater. Now, as I have shown (page 189), this proportion represents the value of the pleasure. A further proof is given through the fact that living creatures (including man) give expression to their instincts as long as they are able to bear the pain and misery involved. The struggle for existence is but a consequence of this fact. All existing life strives to express itself, and only that part of it whose desires are smothered by the overwhelming weight of difficulties abandons the struggle. Every living creature seeks food until lack of food destroys its life. Man, too, does not turn his hand against himself until he believes, rightly or wrongly, that those aims in life that are worth his striving are beyond his reach. So long as he still believes in the possibility of reaching what, in his view, is worth striving for, he will battle against all misery and pain. Philosophy would first have to convince him that an act of will makes sense only when the pleasure is greater than the pain; for by nature he will strive for the objects of his desire if he can bear the necessary pain, however great it may be. But such a philosophy would be mistaken because it would make the human will dependent on a circumstance (the surplus of pleasure over pain) which is originally foreign to man. The original measure of his will is desire, and desire asserts itself as long as it can. When it is a question of pleasure and pain in the satisfaction of a desire, the calculation that is made, not in philosophical theory, but in life, can be compared with the following. If in buying a certain quantity of apples I am obliged to take twice as many rotten ones as sound ones -- because the seller wants to clear his stock -- I shall not hesitate for one moment to accept the bad apples as well, if the smaller quantity of good ones are worth so much to me that in addition to their purchase price I am also prepared to bear the expense of disposing of the bad ones. This example illustrates the relation between the quantities of pleasure and pain resulting from an instinct. I determine the value of the good apples not by subtracting the total number of the good ones from that of the bad ones but by assessing whether the good ones still have value for me in spite of the presence of the bad ones.

[42] Just as I leave the bad apples out of account in the enjoyment of the good ones, so I give myself up to the satisfaction of a desire after having shaken off the unavoidable pain.

[43] Even if pessimism were right in its assertion that there is more pain then pleasure in the world, this would have no influence on the will, since living creatures would still strive after the pleasure that remains. The empirical proof that pain outweighs joy (if such proof could be given) would certainly be effective for showing up the futility of the school of philosophy that sees the value of life in a surplus of pleasure (eudemonism) but not for showing that the will, as such, is irrational; for the will is not set upon a surplus of pleasure, but upon the amount of pleasure that remains after getting over the pain. This still appears as a goal worth striving for.

Magnitude Of Pleasure
[44] Some have tried to refute pessimism by stating that it is impossible to calculate the surplus of pleasure or of pain in the world. That any calculation can be done at all depends on whether the things to be calculated can be compared in respect of their magnitudes. Every pain and every pleasure has a definite magnitude (intensity and duration). Further, we can compare pleasurable feelings of different kinds one with another, at least approximately, with regard to their magnitudes. We know whether we derive more entertainment from a good cigar or from a good joke. Therefore there can be no objection to comparing different sorts of pleasure and pain in respect of their magnitudes. And the investigator who sets himself the task of determining the surplus of pleasure or pain in the world starts from fully justified assumptions. One may declare the conclusions of pessimism to be false, but one cannot doubt that quantities of pleasure and pain can be scientifically estimated, and the balance of pleasure thereby determined. It is, however, quite wrong to claim that the result of this calculation has any consequences for the human will. The cases where we really make the value of our activity dependent on whether pleasure or pain shows a surplus are those where the objects towards which our activity is directed are all the same to us. If it is only a question whether, after the day's work, I am to amuse myself by a game or by light conversation, and if I am totally indifferent to what I do as long as it serves the purpose, then I simply ask myself: What gives me the greatest surplus of pleasure? And I shall most certainly abandon the activity if the scales incline towards the side of displeasure. If we are buying a toy for a child we consider, in selecting, what will give him the greatest happiness. In all other cases we do not base our decision exclusively on the balance of pleasure.

Highest Pleasure (Realization Of Moral Idea)

[45] Therefore, if the pessimists believe that by showing pain to be present in greater quantity than pleasure they are preparing the ground for unselfish devotion to the work of civilization, they forget that the human will, by its very nature, does not allow itself to be influenced by this knowledge. Human striving is directed towards the measure of satisfaction that is possible after all difficulties are overcome. Hope of such satisfaction is the foundation of all human activity. The work of every individual and of the whole of civilization springs from this hope. Pessimistic ethics believes that it must present the pursuit of happiness as an impossibility for man in order that he may devote himself to his proper moral tasks. But these moral tasks are nothing but the concrete natural and spiritual instincts; and man strives to satisfy them in spite of the incidental pain. The pursuit of happiness which the pessimist would eradicate is therefore nowhere to be found. But the tasks which man has to fulfill, he does fulfill, because from the very nature of his being he wants to fulfill them, once he has properly recognized their nature. Pessimistic ethics declares that only when a man has given up the quest for pleasure can he devote himself to what he recognizes as his task in life. But no system of ethics can ever invent any life tasks other than the realization of the satisfactions that human desires demand and the fulfillment of man's moral ideals. No ethics can deprive man of the pleasure he experiences in the fulfillment of his desires. When the pessimist says, "Do not strive for pleasure, for you can never attain it; strive rather for what you recognize to be your task," we must reply, "But this is just what man does, and the notion that he strives merely for happiness is no more than the invention of an errant philosophy." He aims at the satisfaction of what he himself desires, and he has in view the concrete objects of his striving, not "happiness" in the abstract; and fulfillment is for him a pleasure. When pessimistic ethics demands, "Strive not for pleasure, but for the attainment of what you see as your life's task," it hits on the very thing that man, in his own being, wants. Man does not need to be turned inside out by philosophy, he does not need to discard his human nature, before he can be moral. Morality lies in striving for a goal that one recognizes as justified; it is human nature to pursue it as long as the pain incurred does not inhibit the desire for it altogether. This is the essence of all genuine will. Ethical behaviour is not based upon the eradication of all striving for pleasure to the end that bloodless abstract ideas may establish their dominion unopposed by any strong yearnings for the enjoyment of life, but rather upon a strong will sustained by ideal intuitions, a will that reaches its goal even though the path be thorny.

[46] Moral ideals spring from the moral imagination of man. Their realization depends on his desire for them being intense enough to overcome pain and misery. They are his intuitions, the driving forces which his spirit harnesses; he wants them, because their realization is his highest pleasure. He needs no ethics to forbid him to strive for pleasure and then to tell him what he shall strive for. He will strive for moral ideals if his moral imagination is sufficiently active to provide him with intuitions that give his will the strength to make its way against all the obstacles inherent in his constitution, including the pain that is necessarily involved.

[47] If a man strives for sublimely great ideals, it is because they are the content of his own being, and their realization will bring him a joy compared to which the pleasure that a limited outlook gets from the gratification of commonplace desires is a mere triviality. Idealists revel, spiritually, in the translation of their ideals into reality.

[48] Anyone who would eradicate the pleasure brought by the fulfillment of human desires will first have to make man a slave who acts not because he wants to but only because he must. For the achievement of what one wanted to do gives pleasure. What we call good is not what a man must do but what he will want to do if he develops the true nature of man to the full. Anyone who does not acknowledge this must first drive out of man all that man himself wants to do, and then, from outside, prescribe the content he is to give to his will.

[49] Man values the fulfillment of a desire because the desire springs from his own being. What is achieved has its value because it has been wanted. If we deny any value to what man himself wants, then aims that do have value will have to be found in something that man does not want.

[50] An ethics built on pessimism arises from the disregard of moral imagination. Only if one considers that the individual human spirit is itself incapable of giving content to its striving can one expect the craving for pleasure to account fully for all acts of will. A man without imagination creates no moral ideas. They must be given to him. Physical nature sees to it that he strives to satisfy his lower desires. But the development of the whole man also includes those desires that originate in the spirit. Only if one believes that man has no such spiritual desires can one declare that he must receive them from without. Then one would also be entitled to say that it is man's duty to do what he does not want. Every ethical system that demands of man that he should suppress his own will in order to fulfill tasks that he does not want, reckons not with the whole man but with one in which the faculty of spiritual desire is lacking. For a man who is harmoniously developed, the so-called ideals of virtue lie, not without, but within the sphere of his own being. Moral action consists not in the eradication of a one-sided personal will but in the full development of human nature. Those who hold that moral ideals are attainable only if man destroys his own personal will, are not aware that these ideals are wanted by man just as he wants the satisfaction of the so-called animal instincts.

Joy Of Achievement
[51] It cannot be denied that the views here outlined may easily be misunderstood. Immature people without moral imagination like to look upon the instincts of their half-developed natures as the fullest expression of the human race, and reject all moral ideas which they have not themselves produced, in order that they may "live themselves out" undisturbed. But it goes without saying that what is right for a fully developed human being does not hold good for half-developed human natures. Anyone who still needs to be educated to the point where his moral nature breaks through the husk of his lower passions, will not have the same things expected of him as of a mature person. However, it was not my intention to show what needs to be impressed upon an undeveloped person, but what lies within the essential nature of a mature human being. My intention was to demonstrate the possibility of freedom, and freedom is manifested not in actions performed under constraint of sense or soul but in actions sustained by spiritual intuitions.

[52] The mature man gives himself his own value. He does not aim at pleasure, which comes to him as a gift of grace on the part of Nature or of the Creator; nor does he fulfill an abstract duty which he recognizes as such after he has renounced the striving for pleasure. He acts as he wants to act, that is, in accordance with the standard of his ethical intuitions; and he finds in the achievement of what he wants the true enjoyment of life. He determines the value of life by measuring achievements against aims. An ethics which replaces "would" with mere "should", inclination with mere duty, will consequently determine the value of man by measuring his fulfillment of duty against the demands that it makes. It measures man with a yardstick external to his own being. The view which I have here developed refers man back to himself. It recognizes as the true value of life only what each individual regards as such, according to the standard of his own will. It no more acknowledges a value of life that is not recognized by the individual than it does a purpose of life that has not originated in him. It sees in the individual who knows himself through and through, his own master and his own assessor.

Author's addition, 1918

[1] The argument of this chapter will be misunderstood if one is caught by the apparent objection that the will, as such, is the irrational factor in man and that once this irrationality is made clear to him he will see that the goal of his ethical striving must lie in ultimate emancipation from the will. An apparent objection of exactly this kind was brought against me from a reputable quarter in that I was told that it is the business of the philosopher to make good just what lack of thought leads animals and most men to neglect, namely, to strike a proper balance of life's account. But this objection just misses the main point. If freedom is to be realized, the will in human nature must be sustained by intuitive thinking; at the same time, however, we find that an act of will may also be determined by factors other than intuition, though only in the free realization of intuitions issuing from man's essential nature do we find morality and its value. Ethical individualism is well able to present morality in its full dignity, for it sees true morality not in what brings about the agreement of an act of will with a standard of behaviour in an external way, but in what arises in man when he develops his moral will as an integral part of his whole being so that to do what is not moral appears to him as a stunting and crippling of his nature.

 

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