Deeply seated within the being of every creature is the desire to persist in existence. If this was not the case, creatures would recklessly do things that would terminate their existence, since there would be no fear of annihilation. As a result, the cycle of life would quickly come to a full stop. And so evolution has favored those creatures which possess this desire to persist, and the others have ceased to be – obviously.
Now this desire to persist is not a passive thing. All creatures experience pleasure when their survival is enhanced. Similarly, they experience pain when survival is threatened. For human beings, an enhanced sense of survival comes from such things as financial affluence, good health, procreation, fame, and many other things. As such these things create pleasure. A diminished sense of survival comes from poor health, poverty, violence directed against a person, shame and a thousand other circumstances. These things cause pain.
And so we are pleasure seeking creatures, simply because pleasure increases our sense of power – the power of our existence. This desire for pleasure is a blind instinct, causing people to go to extreme modes of behavior. Some acquire unnecessarily large amount of money to enhance their power, others seek recognition and fame, yet others may seek out sensual pleasures to experience pleasure. As Spinoza points out in his “Improvement of the Understanding” many people actually end up damaging their survival prospects by pursuing these things – overwork, gluttony, stress and more generally the uncontrolled pursuit of things that bring some temporary pleasure. The reverse side of the coin is our avoidance of pain. No one wants poverty or poor health, and so great efforts are usually made to avoid these things.
Unfortunately pleasure is only experienced when we bring about a change in our survival status. Someone with a million dollars in the bank will eventually cease to experience pleasure from his acquired money, and will set out on a quest to make ten million dollars. This will bring pleasure if the goal is achieved, and pain if it is not. This applies to all pleasures – fine dining, physical health, and so on. It’s the same story with pain. If our bank balance diminishes from a million dollars to ten thousand dollars we will experience pain. But eventually we become familiar with the new state of affairs, and the pain diminishes.
In man, the desire to persist has become perverted. A lion is satiated once it has made a kill and eaten. But for man, it is often the case that no amount of money, power or sensual indulgence is enough. One thing is for sure. People who are addicted to pleasure, will also feel a great deal of pain, since the universe does not always oblige by satisfying our desires. And so we need to understand what pleasure and pain are and be able to moderate the way our behavior is driven by them. In reality they are both imposters, since neither is permanent, and one often leads to the other.
A more sensible approach to our existence is to seek something, some source of pleasure, that is our own and cannot be taken away. For Spinoza this was a quest for the eternal and infinite, since that which is eternal and infinite never ceases to be, and possesses infinite power. What is such a thing? Existence itself is such a thing.