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Pleasure and the Plotinian Good

Pleasure and the Plotinian Good
by Sumi Sivaratnam
in Dirk Baltzly, Douglas Blyth and Harold Tarrant, eds.,
Power and Pleasure, Virtues and Vices,
(Prudentia, Supplement 2001, ISBN: 0-9582211-5-4), pp. 75-88

Reprinted with permission of the Author and Publisher.

This online version is essentially identical that published in Prudentia; page numbers from printed text have been inserted at start of each page in red brackets [##].

1. Transcending the scratch of the itch

[75] When tackling Plotinus it is mandatory to keep Plato’s works in mind. Yet it is often comforting, not to say instructive, to compare his views with other systems of religious philosophy, and to remember that his philosophical experience is not as unusual as it sometimes seems when considered against a background of Greek philosophy alone. Indian philosophical systems, past and present, have often served as such a point of comparison, and for the present paper Buddhism will occasionally play this role.

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism states that the human condition (samsâra) is one of suffering (duhkha).1 The term duhkha, does not merely refer to the experience of pain but also includes the illusory pleasures of the world which are inevitably fraught with pain. All pleasures are like those that Xenophon described as ‘pains glazed in pleasure’ (Oeconomicus 1.20). On a similar note, Plato, in Philebus (46a-c), uses a striking, if somewhat crude, metaphor of itching and scratching to describe certain pleasures that cannot be divorced from pain. The scratching of an itch seems pleasurable only as a result of the prior irritation of the itch. Plato’s intention here is to show that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin, and it is thus unlikely that we would ever achieve a balance of pleasure over pain.

[76] The question that both strands of thought, eastern and western, seek to address is the nature of this itch—that prior pain which leads us seeking in the labyrinth of worldly desire, and the way by which one might escape the tyranny of this restlessness. Are we justified in seeking pleasure to camouflage our ills? Would not a truer pleasure be in curing the itch itself? For Plotinus, as for Plato, our cure lies in transcending our earthly self, and he quotes a famous passage from Plato’s Theaetetus (176a-b):

Since it is here that evils are, and ‘they must necessarily haunt this region,’ and the soul wants to escape from evils, we must escape from here. What then, is this escape? ‘Being made like god,’ Plato says. And we become godlike ‘if we become righteous and holy with the help of wisdom’ and are altogether in virtue.2

Similarly, Buddhism’s answer to this human dilemma is simply this: desire prompted by Ignorance is the root of suffering, hence its demise must lie in the knowledge of the true nature of the self and the objects of desire. We shall return to this later.

Let us now investigate Greek views on that Good which we truly desire, and on how we are to discern a genuinely desirable goal. We would not be wrong in saying that the one real human desire is to find that which would not be accompanied by pain, and which would be better than anything else we could have pursued if we had known and understood them all. Hieronymus of Rhodes, for instance, considered the chief good to be freedom from pain.3Speusippus held that the badness of pain does not prove the goodness of pleasure; both are opposed to the ‘good’ as the greater and lesser are both opposed to the equal (F80-81 Tarán). The hedonist answer to man’s inherent search for the good, however, is pleasure, and hedonists such as Eudoxus maintain that humans are naturally programmed to pursue pleasure (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 10.2). On the surface this seems to ring true. But the exact definition of pleasure [77] in this sense is a difficult one. Does pleasure refer to sensory and earthly pleasures or rather to the state of tranquillity that Epicureans associated with eudaimonia? Could it not be that even in seeking pleasure what we are in fact seeking is to be in a condition of everlasting happiness? Indeed, the whole of our human life seems to be devoted to the search for that elusive property called happiness be it through the path of the body, mind, or soul.

But why do we seek happiness? The answer to this, to a Greek, is self-evident. In the Symposium (205a), Socrates agrees with Diotima that there is not ‘any need to ask why a man desires happiness; the answer is already final.’ The perfect life or happiness is one in which nothing is lacking. It is sufficient in itself. It is a condition where all longing comes to rest and a man seeks nothing else. Happiness is that intrinsic good desired for its own sake and not as a means to something else. Plato, in Philebus (20d) writes: ‘it is the characteristic of the good that it is complete (teleon) and consequently sufficient (ikanon), and therefore it is the one thing and the whole of the thing at which any creature which apprehends it ever aims, the whole and complete fulfilment of desire.’4 Hence all men desire the good, and what they gain by possessing it is happiness.

For Plato, it is only the path of the rational soul, leading to assimilation of one’s soul to the Good itself, that delivers true and everlasting happiness. Plotinus is more explicit in affirming this. He writes (Enn 1.4.4): ‘There is evidence for this5 in the fact that the man in this state does not seek for anything else; for what could he seek? Certainly not anything worse, and he has the best with him.’ For Plotinus, this supreme happiness may be described as the perfect identity of soul and One (Enn 6.7.34); this is what we all really seek. And all our endeavour is for this, the blessed vision. For this, the soul will gladly relinquish all else, ‘if all the other things about it perished, it would even be pleased, that it might be alone with this: so great [78] a degree of happiness has it reached’ (Enn. It is man’s deepest desire for that which he cannot articulate, but yearns for so deeply that all the pleasures here ultimately lead only to dissatisfaction and disappointment. As Plato states in the Republic (505d), the Good is

what every soul pursues and for the sake of which it acts in everything, divining that it is something, but perplexed and unable to grasp adequately what it is or to form any stable belief about it.6

Similarly, Plotinus (Enn. 5.5.12) writes,

Men have forgotten that to which from the beginning onwards their longing and effort are pointed; for all that exists desires and aspires towards the Supreme by a compulsion of nature, as if divining by instinct that they cannot exist without it.

Since the identity with the Good is the ultimate and complete fulfilment of desire, any shift away from this state of perfect equilibrium and wholeness towards difference and multiplicity is the painful condition of lack. In Plotinian terms this state of separation from the One, we might say, is that prior pain, the cause of the nagging itch that seeks to heal itself. It is this pain of alienation in the soul, which seeps into the human heart as desire and drives the search for the unnameable self, in whatever form or fashion.

2. Restorations, neutral states, and the true object of desire

We may perhaps employ Plato’s concept of pleasure as a ‘restoration’ to draw an analogy here. In the Philebus (31d-e) Plato states that the disturbance of organic equilibrium is attended by pain, and the restoration of the equilibrium, by pleasure. Thus, when the body is unduly heated or chilled, we have a lusiz thz jusewz, or disturbance of the normal organic equilibrium, and it is painful; the antithetic process of recovering the normal temperature, which is a return to ousia (its ‘being’), is pleasant. This defines one kind or form of pleasure. By analogy, we might expect to [79] say that the soul too would suffer a similar disturbance when it is in a state of disunity, and a similar restoration when reunited. Here too disturbance and restoration would be expected to be painful and pleasant respectively. Next, if there are antithetic processes of disturbance and recovery of the organic balance, and these are respectively painful and pleasant, there must also be an intermediate or neutral state (32e). To live forever like this, for Plato, is a life appropriate only to a god (33b), but for Plotinus this is a state obtainable by those of us who would achieve ‘likeness to god’ (Enn. 1.2.1). For, in essence, we are ourselves gods.

The Good then is the absolute reality, and the ultimate explanation of the function of all that is in it. And man’s response to the Good, determined by the nature of the Good itself, is desire or Eros. In the Symposium (204a) Diotima explains Eros as the desire for that which we lack. Consequently, in the state of difference and particularity, Eros is the operative force that propels us towards wholeness. In the same vein Plotinus writes:

The individual souls, certainly, have an intelligent desire (orexei… noera) consisting in the impulse to return to itself springing from the principle from which they came into being.’ (Enn.

However, since our immediate consciousness is in a state of forgetfulness of ‘that which from the beginning’ we have truly desired, Eros degenerates into its lesser nature of epiqumia, desire of the particular for the particular. It is this misdirected activity of Eros, which, like the force of gravity, keeps us earthbound. Or in the words of Plato’s Phaedrus (246c), contributes to the ‘loss of wings’. The illumination which Eros generates, as derived from the particular, is not so much false but incomplete. The vision we get from this lower level is distorted, and the happiness fleeting and incomplete. The fundamental force of desire is identical. It is the direction of its activity which determines its quality and function.

[80] R.E. Allen points out that Plato treats epithumia7 as desire for the apparent good, but boulêsis, as desire for the real good. Since men do what seems good to them, they do what they desire. But since they are often mistaken about where their good lies, they often do not do what they wish. In the Meno (77b-78b), Socrates argues that all men wish for (boulesthai) the good, that no man willingly or wittingly wishes evil. The nature of boulêsis is explained in the Gorgias. As Allen (Symposium, 56) puts it (quoting from 467d):

‘If a man does something for a purpose, he does not wish the thing he does, but that for the sake of which he does it.’ Boulêsis is the rational wish of the self for what is truly good as distinct from what is apparently good.

Similarly Plotinus appeals to Symposium 203a-e in the tractate on eudaimonia (Enn.

But the real drive of desire of our soul is towards that which is better than itself. When that is present within it, it is fulfilled and at rest, and this is the way of living it really wills (kai outoz o boulhtoz ontwz bioz). We cannot be said to ‘will’ (boulhsz) the presence of necessities, if ‘willing’ (boulhsiz) is used in its proper sense and not misapplied to the occasions when we prefer the necessities also to be there.

In this context we might draw another analogy from Philebus (34e) wherein Plato states we may understand what desire is by considering its simplest forms, such as hunger or thirst. A thirsty man, being in a state of depletion, craves for a drink. But what he really desires is not simply ‘drink’ but to be filled up with the drink. He desires not the water but the drinking of it, the quenching of his thirst. Similarly, the soul desires the quenching of its deepest thirst, but due to a misdirection of Eros, it attempts to drink from its own mirage. Ironically, even the hedonist in pursuit of sensory pleasures is answering a call that issues from the depths of his soul though he fails to recognise it as such. Like a man whose true [81] love is beyond reach seeks comfort in the arms of another, the hedonist attempts to take pleasure in worldly goods when the true ‘object’ of his desire lies hidden by his Ignorance.

Plotinus (Enn. further develops this bi-polar activity of Eros with reference to the allegory Eros as the child of Poverty (Penia) and Plenty (Poros) found in Symposium:

Therefore, since a rational principle came to be in something which was not rational, but an indefinite impulse and as obscure expression, what it produced was something not complete or sufficient, but defective, since it came into being from an indefinite impulse and a sufficient rational principle. So Eros is not a pure rational principle, since he has in himself an indefinite, irrational, unbounded impulse; for he will never be satisfied as long as he has in him the nature of the indefinite.

As rationalised desire Eros is that very desire for the Good that impels us to the supreme effort of abandoning all lesser desires, but as the indefinite and the irrational it is petty, capricious and constantly thirsting.

But why is unrationalised desire always to be found wanting? Why are pleasures derived from the world, the mere scratching of the itch, unfulfilling? Could we not have heaven and earth? The reason why we cannot may perhaps lie in the law of nature itself. We cannot grasp an object in its reflection. To try to do so would be to suffer the fate of Narcissus (Enn. 1.6.8). Rather, we must hear the call of our true beloved, the Echo of our souls. We must turn inward like a tortoise drawing in its limbs, or be ‘fortunate enough “to be plucked by the hair as Achilles was by Athena”‘ (Enn. 6.5.7), to find the very thing we pursue with outstretched arms. For Plotinus so long as the soul is looking towards its highest most rational principle it moves towards self-sufficiency. ‘Our soul as well, if it comes to be with that perfect soul, is perfected itself (teleiwqeisanEnn.’ But when it looks towards the body, it is immediately infected by difference, and becomes deficient and is in want (endeia). Now, ever begging to be fulfilled, it pleads alms at Poverty’s door:

our individual bodies need a great deal of troublesome thought… and they are continually in the grip of poverty… [and with the soul’s fellowship with it the body] fills the soul with pleasures, desires and griefs. (Enn. [82]

3. Ignorance, the bodily world, and the causes of false desire

Buddhism’s reason as to the unsatisfactory nature of earthly desire is expressed in the second Noble Truth, the doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratîtya-samutpâda). Somewhat reminiscent of Plato’s conception of Becoming, the doctrine of Dependent Origination states that in the empirical world dominated by the intellect, everything is relative, conditional, dependent, subject to birth and death, and hence impermanent. The causal formula is:

That being present, this becomes; from the arising of that, this arises. That being absent, this does not become; from the cessation of that, this ceases.8

That is, depending on the cause, the effect arises. Thus, every object of thought is necessarily relative. And because it is relative it is neither absolutely real nor absolutely unreal. Awakening to the knowledge of this leads to the cessation of plurality and difference, and hence to bliss. The root cause of duhkha is Ignorance (avidyâ) since Ignorance is the main cause out of which false desire springs. It is the first link in the chain of Dependent Origination.9

A corollary to Dependent Origination is the theory of Momentariness (kSana-bhanga-vâda). Because things are relative, dependent, conditional and finite, they must be momentary. To say a thing arises depending on its cause is to admit that it is momentary, for when the cause is removed the thing will be cease to be. That which arises, that which is born, that which is produced, must necessarily be subject to death and destruction. And that which is subject to death and destruction is not permanent, and thus momentary. All things are impermanent, and that which is impermanent and transient is painful. Desire causes suffering since we desire that which is impermanent. This also admits the theory of the falsehood of the individual self. The self as we know it is transient and subject to birth and death. With birth there is already death. Thus if only what is permanent [83] deserves to be called the Self, then nothing on earth is self.10 Since the so-called objective world is momentary, the self as reflected in the world is also momentary, and hence relative and false. In his sermon on the non-existence of the self as we know it Buddha says:

The body is not the eternal soul, for it tends towards destruction. Nor do feeling, perception, disposition and intelligence together constitute the eternal soul, for were it so, it would not be the case that consciousness likewise tends towards destruction.11

Radhakrishnan explains:

Our form, feeling, perception, disposition and intelligence are all transitory, and therefore evil, and not permanent and good. That which is transitory, evil and liable to change, is not the eternal soul. … ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my eternal soul.’12

Plotinus expresses a similar idea in the tractate What is a Living Being? (Enn.

So ‘we’ is used in two senses, either including the beast or referring to that which even in our present life transcends it. The beast is the body which has been given life. But the true man is different, clear of these affections.

The discursive intellect of soul, our dualistic mode of thought, draws boundaries and separates and isolates things. It divides in mind what is in nature undivided. That is, it creates difference and considers difference as inherent in things. This results in subject-object distinction including the objectivisation of the self as a discrete, independently existing being. From this notion of selfhood and the resulting opposition of subject and object, arises desire, which in turn begets pleasure and pain. Thus we have a chain of causation with an iterative process, where Ignorance begets difference, which in turn begets desire, which begets pleasure and pain. And this is [84] samsâra; the nature of which is duhkha. Thus a Buddhist Sûtra says, ‘The one who wisely understands that things are non-things is never obsessed with things. The one who is never obsessed with things attains peace of mind beyond definition.’

On a similar note, reminiscent of the lesson derived from the Symposium (210a-211b), Plotinus writes:

When [we] see the beauty in bodies [we] must not run after them; we must know that they are images, traces, shadows and hurry away to that which they image. (Enn.

Attachment is that which binds us to the lower self:

Everything else is just something he wears; you could not call it part of him because he wears it without wanting to; it would be his if he united it to him by an act of will. (Enn.

The soul, by desiring the ‘things here’ which are no more than thought constructs and projections, roams incessantly in the realms of sense and is reincarnated according to its deeds and desires.13 Trapped in this self-perpetuating loop, it is in a state of torment, since it goes against the natural order. The inherent desire and secret longing of all things is to return to its source—its most perfect, divine self.14

Now, the escape and release from samsâra, as we have seen in both Buddhism and Plotinus, lies in the negation of false desire and in the knowledge of the nature of the ‘self’; but ‘who’ is it that desires and what is the nature of this desiring subject?

For Plotinus, this so called ‘self’ is a binary creature (to sunamjoteron). He writes (II.3.9.31-2): ‘For every man is double, one of him is the sort of compound being and one of him is himself’. This leads to the distinction between the inner man and the outer shadow-man. The outer man is a composite of body and the trace of soul (parousia, ellamyiz, icnoz). He is the man of sensation who expends the energy of [85] soul in the employment of his senses, and is hence constantly in lack (Enn. The inner man is our essential nature, the pure and Universal ‘self’. This, however, is not to say that the two are completely different entities. That part of the soul which does not descend into the body is at once the same and not the same as that which does: we may identify ourselves with either, but must look in different directions to do so.15 The divine or essential soul, we might say, is the primary, pure consciousness, while the compound, the ‘I’ of individuality, is the limited and partial, secondary consciousness, the subject-object complex. It is the agent and enjoyer, acquires merit and demerit, experiences pleasure and pain, while the unitive primary consciousness remains untouched. In Enn. 6.4.14 Plotinus refers to the lower self as the ‘other’ man:

‘But now another man, wishing to exist… wound himself round us and attached himself to that man who was then each one of us… and we have come to be the pair of them

It is this other-man who is the subject of experience, while the true self remains aware but unaffected. He continues at Enn.

and the coming to be of desires and pleasures and pains grew up in it… Now the soul which comes from the divine was quiet, standing in itself according to its character.

Plotinus is always careful to preserve his essential soul from any disturbance or change. The essential soul does not participate in these affections (paqh) but stands as a witness, aware but unconcerned. He writes at Enn. 1.4.13:

that which suffers pain is one thing, and there is another which, even while it is compelled to accompany that which suffers pain, remains in its own company.

It merely wears the qualified body like a garment (Enn. For Plotinus pleasure and pain belong neither to the body nor the soul, but the compound. Physical pleasure and pain are not pure sensations, since they [86] are states of consciousness; and on the other hand, they are not affections (paqh) of the soul. What is characteristic of pleasure and pain is that they tell us nothing beyond themselves, have no meaning and suggest no object or idea. And when they are over, they are as if they had never been. Hence, owing to this ephemeral character, physical pleasure and pain have no real connection with the spiritual world. They are associated exclusively with the finite and cannot pass beyond them.16

Thus it is the outer shadow-man, who, through ignorance of his essential nature, identifies with the level of the body and, is tinged with the false notions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Plotinus writes:

So we are concerned with its pains and pleasures, more in proportion as we are weaker and do not separate ourselves, but consider the body the most honourable part of ourselves and the real man, and, so to speak, sink ourselves in it. (Enn.

As long as these false notions persist, the result is the ‘I’ of the subject and the objective world. But this peculiar ‘I’ is intricately linked with time, and only arises in relation to the world. It is not an entity, but a relationship. Without the world there can be no ‘I’ that appears as the subject of experiences. The differentiated world, we might say, is an effect of mind, which is itself conditioned by difference. As the anti-realist Hilary Putnam, says, both mind and the world together make up the mind and the world. And again, in the Yoga-VasiSTha, ‘it is the perceiver that appears as the perceived, and it is but the perceptions that appear as the perceiver and the perceived’. But, since the world, for Plotinus, is only an image, an illusion, as he so hauntingly describes it in 3.6.7, and since subject and object arise together, the self as reflected in the world is in a sense also an illusion. The self that we identify with the first person pronoun is merely the ever changing and evanescent guise of the ego. The abiding self is something else. According to Plotinus at Enn. 3.2.15:

We should be spectators of murders, and all deaths, and takings and sackings of cities, as if they were on the stages of theatres, all changes of [87] scenery and costume and acted wailings and weepings. For really here in the events of our lives it is not the soul within but the outside shadow of man which cries and moans and carries on in every sort of way on a stage which is the whole earth… Doings like these belong to a man who knows how to live only the lower and external life and is not aware that he is playing in his tears, even if they are serious tears.

The self that partakes in the world is part of the flux and belongs in the realm of becoming. And it is this causal self or the ‘other’ man who undergoes the semblance of change and experience, while the abiding soul remains as the silent witness, unmoved, untouched.

4. Escaping from unreal pleasures

For Plotinus, the pleasures and pains we experience are not ultimately real, but are like those performed by actors on a stage. To identify with the role and the garment is to live at a lower level of reality similar to considering our dream experiences as waking ones. The idea seems to be that we must play our part with the awareness that we are merely playing a role in this great stage of life. However, in order to initiate this awareness we must undergo a process of awakening. For the soul given to the body is but ‘a sleep and a forgetting’. In Enn. 3.2.15 Plotinus writes,

for it is the part of the soul that is in the body that sleeps; but the true awakening is a true getting up from the body, not with the body. Getting up with the body is only getting out of one sleep into another, like getting out of one bed into another; but the true rising is a rising altogether away from bodies.

As in Buddhism, for Plotinus, we must awaken from this dream of Ignorance to our true nature. The pleasures ‘here’ are like the pleasures which children derive from their toys. They are desired and experienced as real, but only within the context of Ignorance. It has its own level of ‘reality’ which is sublated upon the awakening of knowledge. For instance, to a drunken man who views a rope as a snake, the snake is nevertheless his reality within the context of his inebriation. The fear and alarm he experiences are real within the context of his false perception. [88] Hence Plotinus exhorts: ‘Close your eyes and change to and wake to another way of seeing, which everyone has, but few use.’ (Enn., 25-7). After slumbering in Ignorance, when the shadow is wakened, it realises that it is not the body, senses, or mind, but the non-dual universal self.

As we have seen in both Buddhist and Platonist thought, happiness is not the mere relief from pain. It encompasses pleasure and pain while at once transcending it. Pleasure and pain belong to the world built on binary oppositions. They are codependent and depend on the tension between antithetic processes. They are like two ends of the same stick. Each is an accomplice of the other. Being relative to each other they must stand or fall together. But for the sage who lives in his partless soul, which admits no division, there is neither sorrow nor evil, for the wise know that even the man who weeps is at play. For the sage, pleasure and pain are just the crests and troughs of waves in the ocean of bliss. The sage identifies himself not with the outer man who rides on the surface with the tumultuous waves, but with the inner man who even while in movement, remains at rest. Thus for the seeker of the highest Good there is the promise of a joy not subject to the flux of the world, but an inner state of eudaimonia (happiness) which is independent of external factors and sense experience. Or in terms of our somewhat crude metaphor, it is a joy not dependent on some prior itch. It is absolute and independent of all other things (Enn. 6.7.34). All other things are lesser since they derive from it. As long as we turn steadfastly away from the objects of sense and desire, the Good, which pulsates in our hearts as Eros, will draw us inexorably upward. In the diffusing of binary oppositions, in dissolving the opposition of subject and object, that is, when difference comes to rest, all desire evaporates. Now, we have found the true self that knows no lack.

Sumi Sivaratnam,
University of Newcastle


  1. ‘Now, this is the noble truth concerning suffering. Birth is painful, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful, union with the unpleasant is painful; painful is the separation from the pleasant and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful.’ See S. Radhakrishan,Indian PhilosophyI (Delhi, 1994), 362.
  2. Plotinus,Enneads1.2.1.1-6. This and all subsequent translations are from the Loeb Classical Library edition, trans. A.H. Armstrong, 7 vols. (London, 1966-88)
  3. Cicero,De finibus, 2.16, 2.8, 5.14, 5.20
  4. A. E. Taylor,Plato: The Man and his Work, (London: University Paperbacks, Methuen, 1966) 413.
  5. That a good man is the good for himself, because the transcendent good is the cause of the good in him, and makes him good in a different way from the way that it is itself good.
  6. Cf. R. E. Allen,The Dialogues of Plato 2: The Symposium(New Haven, 1991), 55.
  7. epiqumia, ‘a denominative noun that suggests setting one’s heart on something’, as opposed toboulhsiz, ‘a denominative noun that suggests intention, counsel, advice’: Allen, Symposium, 56-7.
  8. Majjhima Nikaya2.32, cited in Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, 371.
  9. C. Sharma,A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy(London: Rider and Company, 1960) 73-4.
  10. See Radhakrishnan,Indian Philosophy, 366
  11. Cited in Radhakrishnan, ibid.
  12. Radhakrishnan,Indian Philosophy, 383-4; the final quotation is fromMahavagga 1.21.
  13. Enn.,Enn. 3.4.2-3
  14. Enn. 6.5.1,Enn.
  15. S. Clark, ‘Plotinus: Body and Soul’ in Lloyd P. Gerson (ed.),The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus(Cambridge, 1996), 283.
  16. W. R. Inge,The Philosophy of Plotinus(Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1968) 1.225- 226.