Mick Jagger sang it long before Janet Jackson gave us her take on “The Pleasure Principle”:
“What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss.
You can take a bow;
It was all just one big night out on the town.”
For Jeremy Bentham, echoing Epicurus, “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”. For Sigmund Freud, it is the instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. Specifically, the Pleasure Principle is the driving force guiding the id. Maturing, the Reality Principle, is having to endure the pain of deferred gratification.
So much for Philosophy and Psychology. You know what I think ? I think I’ll have another drink. Why ? Because I like it. It’s not so much the taste as that incipient glow of euphoria I can count on after the first two or three (after that it’s downhill all the way).
We all got up this morning – unless we are paralyzed, bed-ridden or chained to a clammy dungeon wall somewhere – with an unconscious purpose : to feel good, or at least better than we did yesterday. Regular elimination of bodily wastes is hopefully a habit and often a relief. The shower is a soothing start to the day, so long as it is Baby-Bear perfect. “Baby” (the baby bear with the bare bottom), “it’s cold outside”, so we choose the comfort of warm clothes; nothing worse than being bone-cold. Breakfast need not be caviar on golden toast, washed down by Brut Impérial, but it needs to taste good (Pass the sugar, please). And so the day goes on, with a series of unconscious choices in keeping with the Pleasure Principle. Unless . . .
Unless, of course, we believe in Mortification and the Salvific Value of Suffering. Not hair-shirts, mind you, but deliberate voluntary choices to control our concupiscence, our innate yearning for immediate pleasure – be it personal comfort, physical (including gastronomical and sexual) pleasure, entertainment, enrichment, empowerment, or the finer satisfactions that come from attention, affection, love and tenderness given and received, from achieving personal and professional, academic and sporting objectives,or from being admired, appreciated, praised and honored. Mortification itself can, of course, be a source of satisfaction : can we deny ourselves the elevator, or that second helping, or that Havana cigar ? Yes, we can ! Man, it feels good, makes us proud, to know we can muster such admirable self-control. (Generosity too carries a self-satisfaction that Jesus warned us is its own reward . . .). Religious people think that they chalk up brownie points with the deity by such self-abnegation. God expected His Son to suffer. He never promised us a rose-garden but a Way of the Cross, a Via Dolorosa, a Vale of Tears.
Most people don’t see it that way. They may or may not do anything to lessen other people’s suffering, but they damn sure intend to avoid it for themselves. “Eat, drink and get sloshed” (and laid, if possible) : the creed of the Epicureans we are by nature and by the instinct Freud spoke of.
Most of us, nonetheless, are sensitive to and admiring of people whose priority is not their own pleasure but that of others – or at least the protection of their fellowman from pain and suffering. There is hope for the race as long as we continue to recognize, and as best we can, imitate their self-sacrifice, their rejection of the Pleasure Principle in favor of altruism, abnegation and generosity. “Greater love than this no man has than to give up his life for others.”
Such an ideal remains beyond the reach of most of us. But even if heroism rewards the hero with a certain measure of pleasure – like everything else we do – it reminds the rest of us that selfish pleasure can never truly bring that elusive satisfaction which we, like Mick Jagger, never cease to seek.