Pleasure (Hēdonē)

Category: Ancient Learning > Deities

1 Introduction

In the opening of Plato’s Philebus, Socrates sets up the terms of the dialogue as a debate between two logoi, the first that of the eponymous Philebus, who holds that “the good for all living beings is to be glad (khairein), and pleasure (hēdonē) and joy (terpsis)”, the second that of Socrates himself, that it lies in “thinking (phronein) and understanding (noein) and remembering (memnēsthai)” (11b).

For Plato, of course, the winner in this contest is prudence (phronēsis), not pleasure (hēdonē). One does not have to read the Philebus to know this, but can find the same thing stated more or less clearly in his other works. Plato’s Socrates says, for instance, that “it is not possible for evils to perish […] nor for them to be seated (hidrysthai) in the gods, but by necessity, they surround mortal nature and this realm. Hence, one must attempt to flee from here to there as fast as possible. That flight is assimilation to the gods (hoimoiōsis theōi)* insofar as possible; and this assimilation lies in becoming just and holy, with prudence” (Theaetetus 176ab). And evils are not seated in the gods because “the divine is seated (hidrytai) beyond pleasure and displeasure (lypē)” (Third Letter 315c).

*From context, theōi must be a generic singular,
to be translated as a plural. ‘The divine’
also refers to the gods as a genus.

And yet eight centuries later, the last known head of the Platonic Academy at Athens, Damascius, would claim in his commentary on the Philebus that pleasure itself – or herself, to follow Greek grammar – was a goddess. How can we understand this discrepancy between the master and his exegete? And what role does the goddess Pleasure have in Greco-Roman religion at large?

2 Pleasure as Goddess in Plato and his time

Xenophon, Sophocles

3 Damascius‘ view of Pleasure and its precedents

Philebus – Damascius; some other I cited in ‚Aphrodite‘