THE MEANING OF LIFE – The Role of Physical Pleasure

“For whether pleasure is present or not, the person who positively maintains that pleasure is the end will have to submit to perturbations.” – Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Chapter XXXI.

Last time we looked at the question of the meaning of life in the natural or biologic context. Today we investigate the common sense assumption that the goal of life is to seek sensual pleasures and avoid physical pain. This option likely appeared at the dawn of civilization, when emerging technology and social structure unleashed a number of new or heightened pleasures including: enhanced sexual relations, food delicacies, alcohol-induced euphoria, and so on.

In speaking of happiness several ancient Greek philosophers consider the place for sensual pleasure. Aristippus, a friend and follower of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school of hedonism. His metaphysical skepticism and focus on practical ethics led him to the belief that physical enjoyments are the richest source of pleasure and should be fully cultivated.1 However he imposed a Socratic element of self-control in order to avoid slavery to pleasure.

Aristotle discounts physical pleasure as a means to happiness, attributing it to the vulgar or common person. He argues there are three lifestyles, the sensual, the political, and the life of thought. “Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts…”2  But for most men these types of pleasures are in conflict, happiness is not achieved, and we see that “pleasure is a state of the soul.”3

Epicurus is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by avoiding the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He sees the ‘limit of pleasure” as the simple cheerfulness in knowing our needs can be easily met.

More recent philosophers assign value to pleasure; for example John Locke and Thomas Hobbes see pleasure as integral to happiness. Utilitarianism goes further, urging a political strategy of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in the populace. Jeremy Bentham attempts a Hedonic calculus of net pleasure over pain in defining what is useful to society. This concept of hedonism is based on the theory that pleasant experiences and pleasure are the only goals desired in and of themselves, hence the only goods. All other ‘goods’ are merely instrumental to obtaining pleasure.

But hedonism and the focus on pleasure appear to fail as a key means to make life meaningful for four reasons. First pleasure cannot be sustained, as it lessens when prolonged – consider consumption of desserts. Second many people attach greater importance to non-sensual features of life such as fame, honor, and aesthetic creation. Third pleasure may occur at another’s expense diminishing its desirability or goodness. Last pleasure can be induced by drugs, but it is unlikely anyone would consider a permanent drug induced euphoria as a meaningful life.

In summary, sensual pleasures and freedom from pain, if not artificial or at another’s expense, may be components of the meaningful life, but ultimately are too superficial or inconsistent to satisfy most earnest people. Next time we will consider whether non-physical gratifications can provide a path to the meaningful life.


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, page 148 and Volume 3, page 432.

2Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I Chapter 5

3Ibid, Book I Chapter 8.

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