Mini-Feature: The Painless Life

There's pleasure in virtue, not the other way around

Is a life that focuses on avoiding pain and seeking out pleasure a good and worthwhile life?

Pain will find you. Why try to avoid it?

Even if you mostly succeed, you will still feel pain—including the terrible pain of knowing you reduced yourself to a state that does not befit the stature of man and still did not achieve the goal for which you sacrificed such dignity to achieve.

In fact the pain you will encounter will most likely be the bad kind, the bitter kind, the denigrating and diminishing kind. Whereas if you charged ahead into life prepared to take your lumps, you will most likely encounter the best pain, worthy and toughening and even if weakening then weakening in an honorable or soul-deepening way.

But of course really people worry about the great mistakes concerning pain, which Nietzsche wrote a bit about as surprises of the naive. “How could this happen to me?” But here Nietzsche thought of the naive person strong enough to see surprising pain as an almost comedic event—not Nancy Kerrigan crying “why meeee” after being kneecapped by her elite figure skating rival’s crowbar-wielding goon. People largely worry that they will “do everything right” and still encounter diminishing and weakening pain. Pain, as Nietzsche said, which has no clear purpose, no redeeming quality. Not just a mystery but a curse.

This is where Job comes in for starters. Who are you to demand answers from the creator of the cosmos? But beyond that, based on my experience and faith as a Christian, I can’t speak in much of an ecumenical way. Stoicism doesn’t hold much thrill to me, no matter how honorable or noble or dignified it is as a Christian to take one’s lumps and forge on.

The way that rises to meet our stature in our hopes is one in which we must do our level best to honor God through discernment of which pains to seek out, which to avoid, and which at best only to suffer—and then to honor Him again by suffering even those arising from our due discernment leading us unintentionally astray, as always, in matters large and small, it is so apt to do.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

Pleasure without pain is like Harold Melvin without the Blue Notes—you'll never go platinum. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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Epicurus thought so, of course. He seems—from our fragmentary evidence—to have gone so far as to instrumentalize virtue itself in the name of pleasure. Witness the lengthy section of Cicero's On the Ends of Good and Evil in which Torquatus, in an apologia for Epicureanism, proceeds one by one through a canon of the virtues to show how each one is desirable not for its own sake, but for the sake of "happiness"—that is, the state achieved by the release from pain and the pursuit of noble pleasure.

It doesn't work, I'm afraid. It doesn't work first because of all the things which are manifestly virtuous but simply do not conduce to utility of the pleasurable kind—a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save the life of his platoonmate, for instance. But also it doesn't work because virtue itself seems to have a goodness all its own—to not merely produce good but be good. And indeed one of the chief marks of this fact is that virtuous action generates pleasure, or at least satisfaction, even in the instances when it costs great pain.

So it turns out Epicurus got it exactly backwards: we do not know the goodness of virtue because it conduces to pleasure; we know the goodness of pleasure because it attends upon virtue. This and many other shatteringly simple insights constitute the backbone of the Nicomachean Ethics, in which pleasure is revealed to be not an end in itself but the simple fact of the human perceptual apparatus experiencing what it is for something to be good. Of course that apparatus is quite twisted and broken in us, in need of much correction. But that is not virtue's problem, it is ours—and the work of all our days.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind