Wednesday, November 20, 2013


David Wolfsdorf, Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Key themes in ancient philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 299. ISBN 9780521149754. $34.99.

Reviewed by Katharine O'Reilly, King's College London (

Version at BMCR home site


In Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy, David Wolfsdorf explores the history of treatments of the concept of pleasure. The book is organized into two overarching but unequal parts, the first focusing on conceptions of pleasure in the ancient schools, the second examining the work done on these same questions in modern scholarship. Wolfsdorf's text falls in line with work like that of Fred Feldman (Pleasure and the Good Life, 1994) and Julia Annas (The Morality of Happiness, 1995) in taking ancient contributions seriously both as a matter of historical interest, and as relevant to contemporary debate of the issues. This is a self-conscious methodology, which Wolfsdorf defends in his opening and concluding chapters, the latter of which argues for the philosophical relevance of the ancient discussions to current research.

The text is considerably more accessible than existing historical treatments of the concept of pleasure such as Gosling and Taylor's classic The Greeks on Pleasure (1982) and Gerd van Riel's Pleasure and the Good Life: Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists (2000). Rather than overwhelming the reader, the bird's-eye view of pleasure across the ancient and modern periods forces both Wolfsdorf and his readers to consider and articulate the relevance of ancient authors to contemporary discussions of pleasure, the natural outcomes of which are new connections and fruitful dialectic between the two.

One of the many virtues of the book is Wolfsdorf's effective modelling of his research practice – a strategy which brings the novice reader into the fold of what would otherwise be the obscure habits of ancient-philosophy specialists. Examples of this are his description of a TLG word search, and the inferences he drew from his findings (26); as well as the introduction to chapter 8, where he effectively scaffolds the reader's understanding of the ancient Stoic material, and models how to deal with diverging primary texts (194). The non-standard ordering of the index, set out with the non-Greek/Latin-speaking reader in mind, is another example of thoughtful accessibility. The book also includes a very helpful list of suggested readings for each chapter.

One less fortunate outcome of the structure and strategy of the book is that Wolfsdorf frequently tables questions which are interesting, but which he chooses not to take on in the context of this text. Sometimes this is dictated by the scope of the discussion, sometimes not. When Wolfsdorf does take on an interpretive puzzle, on the other hand, his skill as a philosopher shines. This is frequently his starting point for the individual chapters, and I shall now turn to an overview of the chapters and their arguments.

Wolfsdorf's first chapter orients the reader to the project of the text. His treatment of each philosopher or school in the subsequent chapters is organized around their answers to what he calls the 'identity' and 'kinds' questions: "What is pleasure?" and ""What kinds of pleasure are there?". In his second chapter, Wolfsdorf makes some interesting and plausible suggestions about how to understand Prodicus' reported division between types of pleasure, as well as Democritus' advice about the distinction between dynamis and physis in relation to contentment and a category he calls 'measured pleasures'. He then problematizes Antisthenes' complex view of pleasure, demarcating a category of 'foolish pleasures'. He addresses the puzzle of how to reconcile what he terms Aristippus' 'somatic hedonism' and his 'present hedonism' with the suggestion that Aristippus' distinguishing ability was to derive somatic pleasures from a variety of circumstances, which lends his attitude to pleasure a distinctive versatility.

The focus of Chapter 3 is pleasure in the early tradition of physiologia. Wolfsdorf effectively analyzes the debates in this tradition using later criticisms, such as Theophrastus' reading of Empedocles. He suggests Diogenes of Apollonia's physical account of pleasure as a contender for the first answer to the identity question, and goes on to expose the fascinating advice on the relation between depletion, replenishment, and pleasure in Diseases IV, so far largely overlooked as a source on these issues. He delays drawing on this source as an explicit precursor to restoration theories of pleasure until later chapters, though even then more could be made of this as yet unappreciated background.

Chapters 4 and 5 address Platonic conceptions of pleasure, with the former focused on Plato's answer to the identity question, and the latter focused on true and untrue/false pleasures (though it is not clear that this is equal to the 'kinds' question). These chapters are amongst the strongest and most important contributions of the text, as Wolfsdorf carefully distinguishes the treatments of pleasure in Republic 9, Timaeus, Philebus, and to some extent Gorgias and Hippias Major. Wolfsdorf skilfully analyzes the restoration model of pleasure, especially prominent in Republic 9, drawing links between that account and the earlier physical tradition, although only briefly. He then suggests insightful connections from the distinction between base and fine pleasures found in the Hippias Major to Prodicus' hedonic categories. Chapter 5 finds Wolfsdorf criticising Plato for the use of the concept of purity in the context of his discussion of genuine and pseudo-pleasures. The chapter concludes with a systematic analysis of all the types of false pleasure in the Philebus, including an important discussion of the role of lamentation, longing, and dramatic festivals in Plato and Classical Greek culture more generally.

In Chapter 6, Wolfsdorf turns to Aristotle's answer to the identity and kinds questions, arguing convincingly for the Platonic background of these discussions (linguistic and conceptual), and giving evidence for his developmentalist take on Aristotle's theory of pleasure. He advances a powerful criticism of Gosling and Taylor's reading of Rhetoric I.11, and uses that text as the principal evidence for his view that Aristotle at first held a restorative conception of pleasure, then a homonymous view (according to which the term can encompass both restoration and radically different types, with one type being most properly so termed), and ultimately a view in which pleasures as restorations or genesis of any kind are excluded. Pleasure is defined, by the time he wrote Eudemian Ethics 6 as "the unimpeded activation of a natural disposition" (123). The chapter continues with a discussion of kinds of pleasure, the distinction between apparent pleasures and pleasures properly speaking (the normative aspects of which would benefit from further discussion), and, finally, an appendix connecting Aristotle's account of sexual pleasure with the Peripatetic Problems, where Wolfsdorf argues that Aristotle's treatment appears to respond critically to some treatment like the Hippocratic On Generation. Overall, Wolfsdorf's handling of Aristotle is in general not as systematic as that of Plato, which is perhaps in part a result of the nature of the evidence. Nonetheless it provides an interesting survey of what Wolfsdorf considers to be Aristotle's shifting views on pleasure.

Wolfsdorf's Chapter 7 takes on both the Epicureans and, to some extent, the Cyrenaics. He explores these schools with a focus on their ideas about katastematic and kinetic pleasures, arguing against the traditional understanding of restorative pleasures as those which are felt while pain or distress recedes as well as those kinetic pleasures which do not involve antecedent pain, such as listening to music, or talking philosophy. Wolfsdorf argues instead that the correct way to read the evidence about kinetic pleasure is to understand it as restricted to only those pleasures which do not involve antecedent pain, and which are not kinds of restoration. In essence, he argues that "strictly speaking Epicurus does not admit restorative pleasure . . . he admits that restoration may involve pleasure, but that the pleasure that restoration may involve does not entail change" (160). He argues against the view that kinetic pleasure includes restoration with the claim that, since restoration cannot always involve smooth motion, it falls outside the Epicurean definition of pleasure. He further claims that, since pleasure and pain are exclusive according to his reading of Principal Doctrine 3, no pleasure can be experienced while pain of any kind is present, whether physical or psychological.

But against the claim about the exclusivity of pleasure in Principal Doctrine 3, we find evidence such as Principal Doctrine 4, which supports the more mainstream understanding of Epicurean restorative pleasures, and which I would like to see Wolfsdorf consider in his discussion:

"The feeling of pain does not linger continuously in the flesh; rather, the sharpest is present for the shortest time, while what merely exceeds the feeling of pleasure in the flesh lasts only a few days. And diseases which last a long time involve feelings of pleasure which exceed feelings of pain ".1

Given this conflicting evidence, it is at least clear that more work needs to be done to establish this alternative reading. I also found it strange that Wolfsdorf does not seem to puzzle over the normative nature of this material, and who the intended audience is: much of the discussion seems premised on the idea that the Epicureans are as interested in advising the everyman as they are the Sage, which is a big assumption to make. Chapter 7 goes on to analyze and critique Cicero's treatment of the Epicureans, and to consider the Epicurean account of wisdom, and concludes with an important discussion of attention (epibolē) and mixed pleasure.

The discussion of the Old Stoics in Chapter 8 is organized around an attempt to answer the question of how the common-sense and technical conceptions of pleasure, both of which the Stoics term hedonē, are related. This lends the discussion an effective structure and motivation. The parts of the Stoic definition of soul are each discussed in turn, with Wolfsdorf providing a good analysis of the connection between the physics and psychology of pleasure and pain. The chapter concludes with a valuable philological analysis of Stoic pleasure-terms.

The extended discussion in Chapter 9 surveys contemporary treatments of pleasure, first in the work of Ryle and Williams from the '40s and '50s onwards, then in more recent critics from the '90s onwards. Again the focus is on their answers to the identity and kinds questions, though the flavour of the chapter is more critical than in the ancient sections, with Wolfsdorf raising objections especially in regard to the work done in the recent modern period on pleasure, intentionality and representation. Overall the discussion is detailed yet accessible, such that it makes an excellent resource, especially for the ancient specialist who wants a sense of the inherited, contemporary debate. It seems to aim to fill a gap, or at least start the work of doing so, as Wolfsdorf observes when he comments that "there are no comprehensive or even partially comprehensive works on contemporary conceptions of pleasure" (286).

In his final chapter, Wolfsdorf steps back from his surveys of the ancient and modern accounts of pleasure, and specifically the identity and kinds questions, in order to draw comparisons between them. This final chapter reveals the strength of the set-up of this text, in that it allows Wolfsdorf to show how the historical perspectives on pleasure are relevant to the current debate in a philosophical, rather than purely historical sense.

Having set out with a challenging brief of bridging a gap between general introductions and specialist monographs on the history of philosophical treatments of pleasure, Wolfsdorf largely succeeds in the endeavour, despite in some cases sacrificing the pursuit of interesting puzzles in favour of more generalist material. Though the more specialist reader is likely to find points of disagreement in Wolfsdorf's interpretations, and at times to experience frustration that arguments and connections are not pursued further, this does nothing, overall, to diminish the value of the text, which includes many comprehensively researched, well-argued and important contributions to debates about the nature of pleasure as it is conceived by philosophers from antiquity to the present.


1.   Principal Doctrine IV as translated in L. P. Gerson, L. P. and B. Inwood (trans. and eds.), The Epicurus Reader (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), p. 32. Emphasis mine.

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