“They are inexperienced in pleasure and so are deceived when they compare pain to painlessness, just as they would be if they compared black to grey without having experienced white.” Socrates, in Plato’s Republic
It is hard to imagine what it would be like never to have seen the color white. One thing seems clear: such a person could not see grey for what it is. Colors that in reality are dark would seem to be bright, given this person’s inexperience in color.
Socrates thus offers an analogy for the condition of most humans: we are inexperienced in pleasure because we have not really experienced the highest and brightest. This inexperience discolors our perception of all pleasures. Even the pleasures we’ve known we do not see for what they are.
The idea is arresting. Who of us have the self-knowledge to consider ourselves inexperienced in the pleasures of human life?
The lower pleasures are low-hanging fruit–they are quite readily available. The higher, or we could say deeper, pleasures of life are not so ready-to-hand. They must be cultivated. And in one of the most dramatic paradoxes of life they can only really be tasted by those who have learned to say no, to wait, to put other people first, and first things first. Daily. These people taste, and they see. They are experienced in pleasure.
Home life should be a school in pleasure. This school will unite a disciplined rejection of a myriad of pleasures, from the evil to the banal, with a cultivation of higher pleasures, from the wholesome (such as family games) to the sublime (such communal reading of great texts, or prayer). We adults must take the lead in pleasure-training, for ourselves and for our families. If we don’t, the degrading forces of our culture will.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.
Image: Henry VIII