A quick recap of humanity’s situation is in a good place to start. We share with all sentient beings the experience of pleasure and pain. Damage to the body or disease will cause pain – perhaps more pain than we can bear. Harmful interactions with others will cause emotional and mental pain – again, possibly more than we can bear. A splinter may be sufficiently annoying that we make efforts to remove it, whereas bone cancer may inflict such pain that we seek death. Aggressive behavior by a driver may cause us to become irritated, while parental abuse and violence may cause a child to grow into a depressed and withdrawn adult. Animals suffer from things of this nature too – a splinter, a trapped leg that is gnawed off to become free of entanglement, rejection by the herd, being devoured by predators while still alive. However mankind has been granted a quite unique form of suffering – it is aware of its own mortality, and can anticipate suffering. This is the price that is paid for an intelligence that has become self-aware. It has allowed us to create weapons and devices that protect us and allow us to exploit other creatures, but it has also allowed us to see our inevitable death.
But life is not all pain, we also know pleasure – sex, a tasty meal, friendship, a job promotion, recognition, and so on. There is however a twist. Pleasure is always derived from extinguishing a desire, and desires are always painful. Thirst, hunger, sexual appetite, loneliness, low self-esteem, physical pain, and a thousand other desires generate pleasure when they are extinguished. A tasty meal eliminates the desire for food, friendship overcomes loneliness, pain killers diminish physical pain, and in all cases there is some sense of pleasure. Schopenhauer asserted that pain was the real driving force in life, and pleasure nothing more than a desire satisfied.
That we are constant participants in a cycle of pain and pleasure is due wholly to the will-to-life – our survival instincts. This self-promoting mechanism is the driver behind the success or otherwise of species. Those with a low survival drive would become extinct (obviously), with the prize going to those species that are most aggressive and cunning. We experience pain when, in some way, our survival prospects are being threatened – loneliness, hunger, lack of sexual partner, thirst, rejection by others – and so on. All desires come from one desire – the desire to exist. And so when this core desire is satisfied in any way we experience pleasure – a greater security in our ongoing existence.
We’ve already mentioned that man is cursed with an intelligence that is self-aware, allowing him to foresee his own death. Could their be a greater conflict within a creature? I think not. Every instinct and desire craves life, and yet our intelligence tells us we will die. As a result we are all neurotic, and the neurosis is greatest in those who are in most denial about their own mortality. The tension created by a conflict between the instinctive drive for life and knowledge of our certain death cannot be resolved without taking sides. We either suppress all thoughts about and awareness of our mortality, or we fully embrace it with our intellect.
It needs to be added here that all our emotions reflect the satisfaction, or otherwise, of our desires. When something happens that enhances our life prospects we experience positive emotions – excitement, euphoria, love. An event that diminishes our life prospects is accompanied by negative emotions – anger, hatred, resentment. If we are to study our dire situation without becoming depressed and morbid, then we need to ensure that our survival prospects are not being threatened. A person being evicted from their home will find it very difficult to study the alchemy of pleasure and pain in a dispassionate manner.
I’ve already covered several of the central tenets that an impartial study of pleasure and pain would involve. I’ll list them more explicitly:
- The desire to exist is the primary driver.
- All desires are derived from the desire to exist.
- All desires are painful and the life of all sentient creatures is driven by pain.
- When a desire is not fulfilled we experience pain (a diminished sense of existence).
- When a desire is fulfilled we experience pleasure (an enhanced sense of existence).
- Positive emotions accompany an enhanced sense of existence – love, joy, excitement.
- Negative emotions accompany a diminished sense of existence – depression, hatred, envy.
An intellectual study of pleasure and pain is just that. We are not seeking to pretend that we are happy when we are sad. If we are sad there is a reason – a diminished sense of existence. And so we investigate why we are feeling diminished. However, this article is not about treating the emotions, it is about understanding them – an intellectual exercise. This self-aware intellect that is the cause of our neurosis is also our get out of jail card. We can consume our neurosis by understanding it.
It cannot be stressed enough that there should be no mixing of the emotions and intellect. We cannot say to ourselves ‘What is the point of studying our neurosis when we will die?”. The study of the neurosis is done for its own sake, and not to satisfy the diminished sense that comes from contemplating death. The intellect must stand on its own ground, and by doing so will derive pleasure from understanding how our existence causes us pain – the alchemy of pleasure and pain.
This is a big topic, but I end with a quote from Spinoza’s Ethics – perhaps the most important sentence in the whole of that difficult and obscure work:
“… therefore, in so far as we understand God (existence) to be the cause of pain, we to that extent feel pleasure.”