November 2011

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Beyond pleasure and pain


by Carmine Gorga



I think I have discovered an interesting constant (k) in literature.


A circle of thought lies unbroken across the millennia and the cultures, roughly from Leucippus and Democritus through Nietzsche and beyond. Reformulating the world anew at its periphery, arguments go back and forth. Yet, the centrality of the thought remains fixed. This is the materialistic conception of the cosmos: The world is made of matter, and there is nothing else besides matter.


The conception is complex. Nothing is firm in it. The arc of this thought, at times concave and at times convex, changes in details from writer to writer. The constant is that it starts from materialism and ends with extolling the principle of pleasure.


This vortex of words seems to enjoy a steady, and lately increasing, readership. Who can resist the allure of pleasure? Who can resist the allure of pleasure, especially when it is accompanied by the implicit or explicit promise that any such system of thought has the power to destroy the scourge of pain from the earth?


It is extraordinary how many authors in this series of writers leave you with the impression they have discovered the world anew—and rarely do they acknowledge the debts they owe to each other. I do not know for sure, because I have not been more than a superficial student of their systems of thought, but the lack of acknowledgment of the debts to each other seems to me symptomatic either of pride or ignorance, or both pride and ignorance.


Pride and ignorance are two vices. So you will immediately know why it has lately occurred to me that I might be able to accomplish what seems to be an impossible dream. Might we take the discussion beyond the confines of pleasure and pain?


Make no mistake. The “principle” of pleasure and pain seems to be so self-evident as to have gradually come to dominate the culture of our world.


This principle has even made God good! What does this mean? It means that God is acknowledged only when he gives us pleasure.


And when he does not give us pleasure? Off with his head; the mechanism of the guillotine is always available to the self-seekers of power. God is dead.


No sooner had I put these words down that, as if in confirmation, I ran across these lines by Jonathan Wallace at


“Charles Darwin travelled to the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle, and the divergence of species that he observed in the isolated islands helped set him on the path to the theory of evolution. He was still a religious man then, but, over the years, as he worked out his theory, there was less room for God in his cosmos, and finally none at all. He said later in life:


I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [digger wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars...

(Quoted in Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2d ed., p. 284.)”

The reason why many of us deny the existence of God is our inability to believe that God could create such a thing as pain.

I have a simple announcement to make: We need to get over it. We would not know pleasure, if we did not know pain.

And then we would be zombies.

These are the alternatives: either human beings or zombies.

The alternatives are that stark. In order to get a better grip on how we can rid ourselves of this poison, we have to dig deeper into history, philosophy, and common sense of the principle of pleasure.


The existence of pleasure and pain was elevated to the status of “principle” by Jeremy Bentham. We know what a principle is. A principle is something universal: true in itself everywhere and every time.


And there we have the first hurdle. We have to swallow a first inner contradiction of this conception: Pleasure is not a term uniquely understood in itself everywhere and every time. In order to define pleasure we have to define pain.


Just because it is not a true principle, axiomatic and valid at first sight, the statement has imperialistic tendencies. The attempt to establish this proposition as a universal entity creates havoc. It destroys everything it comes across.


The first assumed obstacle that perishes is religion. With Nietzsche God is dead.


Comes Freud: Love is dead. Long live sex!

This is our culture today.


Only one problem. A huge one. Our culture is not producing happiness.


Our culture is producing only opportunities to spend money to purchase happiness.


We have a sexual dysfunction? God forbid! We must get rid of it! But how? We must visit a psychiatrist.


Oh, wait. Now that we have discovered the many moral and intellectual fallacies of psychiatry, we go a step farther. We go directly to the source of pleasure: we buy a chemical pill. We buy Cialis.


I can not stop being astonished at the list of symptoms to be aware of when using Cialis. This advertisement reaches all of us throughout the evening news.


I guess if I were to use Cialis I would have a heart attack just listening to that ad.


Benjamin Franklin, one of my heroes, knew the perpetual story well: a fool and his money are soon parted.


Along with money here come the most insistent peddlers of pleasure; the merchandisers. Just like motorcycles, they are everywhere!


Stop. How do we get rid of this nefarious infestation of our culture by the principle of pleasure?


It really does not take much of an effort to realize the fundamental weakness that stands at the root of this conception of life. The bottom-line belief is that life is made of material atoms—and nothing else. Inadvertently, materialists have carried over from the inception of this conception a subtle inner contradiction that explodes in the end into a leap of faith. They attribute to matter the ability to feel pleasure or pain.


A simple query, by the way. Who is sure that caterpillars do not enjoy being eaten by digger wasps?


In the end, materialists do not look for explanations. They generally look for a cure to soothe their existential pains.


This is the prescription I offer without claiming originality or asking for financial compensation: Practice the virtues.


Practice any virtue “remorselessly” and you will, first, encounter all other virtues along the way; along this WAY you will also overcome many causes of pain.


And you will reach your nirvana.




Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at  http://me-a-new-economic-atlas-and-you/