Sunday, February 7, 2016


James Warren, The Pleasures of Reason in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic Hedonists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 234. ISBN 9781107025448. $95.00.

Reviewed by Georgia Mouroutsou, Western University Canada; King's University College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This marvelous book is the result of Warren's long and productive research, and adds to his existing contributions on the topic of pleasure in ancient philosophy. Warren focuses on the human pleasures and pains of reason: that is, the affectivity that accompanies all kinds of reasoning, including learning, understanding, believing, planning, remembering and anticipating; but he excludes aesthetic, though rational, pleasures (4). To use the language of the Philebus, Warren is not engaging himself with and restricting himself to the entire spectrum of pure pleasures, but is focusing on intellectual pleasures, both impure and pure. His partners in the dialogue are, on the one hand, Plato and Aristotle, critics of hedonism, and, on the other, the Hellenistic hedonists: the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics.

Given this agenda, it is not surprising that the Stoics are not invited to the party, since the extant material treats meagerly of the good emotion of joy and, moreover, does not accommodate the pleasures and pains of recollection or anticipation, but confines pleasure (and joy) to the events occurring in the present moment. That a Platonist like Plutarch should pop up in the discussion is, at first sight, a bonus, and pleasantly exceeds the expectations raised by the title, but is not really unexpected for adepts in Hellenistic philosophy. There is also some space for modern and current philosophers such as Bentham, Sidgwick and Nagel in Warren's feast of dialectics, though the discussions of their views are mostly contained in the footnotes.

Logismos, as introduced in the Philebus, sets the tone in the three chapters devoted to Plato: Warren is well aware that he is restricting logismos to "the capacity for self-awareness and for considering one's well-being or hedonic state at non-present times" (26). Opting for this understanding, he constructs a narrative based on the weighing and measuring of pleasures and pains in Protagoras, a narrative that is augmented but not substantially developed by the other Platonic dialogues (119, 153 and passim). Protagoras becomes the model not merely of Plato's critique of hedonism, but of "the procedure of prudential reasoning and of anticipating future pleasures and pains" (104; but compare 179). As we unify the picture in Plato in this way, we are moved smoothly first to the Philebus and then to Epicurus, a straightforward and unified line of narrative logic which Warren lays out quite clearly: "Similar recommendations for accurate and reliable prudential reasoning also appear in Epicureanism" (105, just for instance). Despite appearances, this book is not a mere collection of independent chapters. The reader will gain the greatest intellectual pleasure and benefit by reading the book as a whole and understanding Warren's line of thought and how his portrayal of Plato is generated.

The first Plato chapter concerns Plato's Republic. In Republic IX, the problems are basically two: do we experience intellectual pleasure only when acquiring new philosophical knowledge, and not when possessing and exercising the philosophical knowledge we have acquired? Moreover: how can the tension be resolved between the view that the philosophers' life is the most pleasant, and the seemingly opposed view that intellectual pleasure involves the satisfying of some kind of lack, the awareness of which is always painful (29)? To the former: Warren admits that ambiguity shows its ugly face and culminates in one of the familiar Platonic sentences that mean, in essence, "I want to have it both ways" (R. 581d9-e1). He thus pleads for a complex affective aspect in the philosophers' pleasures (36). As for the latter, the tension is never resolved, as I see it: Plato is confronted with the insuperable limitations of understanding pleasure as filling a lack, especially in the case of intellectual pleasures. Having learnt from Gail Fine's example, Warren argues cautiously that there is no simple and exhaustive dichotomy, in the Republic or in the Philebus, between the philosophers' knowing the Form and the process of learning the Form (48).

Having ably explained away the potential discrepancy between the pains of the Cave and the view that the philosopher's life is the most pleasant, Warren is quite justified in arguing that "philosophical progress is not entirely straightforward", and that "under ideal circumstances the pain involved will be significantly lessened" (32). That said, I think that it should be possible to attribute to Plato the more straightforward argument that the philosopher's reason is, in all circumstances, affected per se by the twists and turns of his inquiry: see Socrates' autobiography in the Phaedo, which provides clear evidence that the pleasures of learning are free from pain and that the philosopher does not delve into the business of calculating and comparing opposing affective episodes in order to secure his pleasure. Moreover, Warren is justified in placing the different dialogues side by side. More than just a playwright of dramas with literary unity, Plato is a philosopher. None the less, when putting the Republic and the Philebus — Plato's later word on pleasure — side by side in order to compare the pure pleasures of learning, one should keep in mind the following caveat: the former's evaluation of the life of philosophers as the most pleasant life gives way to the latter's clear rejection of such an evaluation (Warren underestimates this difference: 122). Grounding the experience of pleasure in our being-in-time (see 145), the later Plato explains how we anticipate future pleasures and pains, something which differs considerably, to say the least, from calculating and measuring pleasures and pains using a single standard. In addition, a more scientific division of different kinds of pleasure replaces the fusion of the three Republic metaphors, and to some readers, like me, there is a more evident openness to understanding pleasure as not only the process of filling a lack but also the end-state of having filled a lack. While this does not extinguish ambiguity, it does show that Plato is not unaware of the problem or confused. It is in this light that I read Socrates' rejecting the business of calculating benefits and costs of knowledge in the case of the pure pleasures of learning (Phlb. 52a-b).

In Warren's reading, Socrates underlines why there is consistency and connection throughout good and pious lives, and argues that to lead a pious life means nothing more than to live a stable and unified life: an interesting and distinctive perspective, which acknowledges Verity Harte's brilliant solution in The Philebus on Pleasure: The Good, the Bad and the False (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104, 2004, 111-28). Warren makes his move with the aid of the Epicurean characterization of the sage (see 155 n. 41).

Warren devotes two chapters to Aristotle. In them he carefully depicts the continuity between Plato and Aristotle: despite Aristotle's serious metaphysical disagreement with Plato's view of pleasure as a process (of restoration), he sides with him when distinguishing the intellectual pleasures as the highest pleasures we attain while philosophizing or, to put it differently, when undertaking to become like god.1 Regarding the pleasures of learning and knowing, Warren develops Aristotle's solutions to Plato's challenges by drawing upon Platonic arguments from both the Republic and the Philebus. And Warren is absolutely right: Plato and Aristotle share a hierarchy of pleasures, at least in the Republic and NE (it would however be wise, prior to generalizing, to re-read the surprising Philebus); the good person will be the judge in the case of pleasure, and different grades of purity and stability in the objects will guarantee differently divine forms of pleasures. In support of this line of argument, I would add that the continuity goes even deeper: Plato also acknowledges pleasures that accompany a variety of inferior intellectual activities: see how his Timaeus speaks about the pleasure of doing physics in Tim. 59d!

Continuity in Aristotle wins the game over discontinuity when Warren considers the pleasures of learning and knowing in Rhetoric 1.11. Moreover, the sense of "wonder" grounds Aristotle's general account of our natural human drive for understanding (Rh. 1.11 and Metaph. 1.1-2) and is, to Warren, what we might call "curiosity" with the qualification of our awareness of our ignorance (71). I agree with this point when we restrict ourselves to Aristotle; but I must add that "wonder" becomes a much more complicated mental and affective state in Plato, a state to which the philosophers do not say goodbye when attaining knowledge, although they are quite successful at and aware of their solving puzzles (euporia) and breaking new ground in the history of philosophy.

Warren's second chapter on Aristotle focuses on the pleasures and pains of memory, to discuss which Aristotle adopts and modifies the Platonic account of it in the Philebus. Like Plato, Aristotle is interested in how memory and expectation are sources of pleasure and how characters are distinguished by their different experiences of pleasure and pain in the course of exercising memory and expectation. The life that a noble and consistently virtuous person decides to live is like a well-ordered object of aesthetic pleasure (162).

In order to investigate the Epicurean understanding and value of pleasure, and given the heated back-and-forth debates between Epicurus, Epicureans and Platonists, Warren considers Plutarch's polemic against the Epicurean recipe for how to live a happy life. Pleasure and metaphysics are the bones of contention for the Platonist, and Plato's Republic the source of his battery of arguments: to him the Epicureans are patients (R. 583c10) and prisoners in the cave (R. VII), or even pigs or sheep (Non Posse 1092A-B). Unsurprisingly, Plutarch distorts the Epicurean perspective: on his view, Platonism requires a specific form of intellectualism to elicit the truth about our nature. Epicurus' instrumentalization of reason as rationally calculating and comparatively evaluating, and thus as maximizing pleasure (or at least reducing pain) over time does not pass the test.2

Warren does justice, in his last chapter, to the nuances that Plutarch and some modern critical voices (175 n. 1) overlook. As represented here, the Epicurean language concerning prudential calculation is not crude, but subtle, though deployed towards a generalized and underdetermined account. Warren improves Epicurus with an (educational) sleight of hand: knowledge is intrinsically, and not instrumentally, pleasant. He would have even more strongly corroborated the Epicurean finesse against Plutarch's critique had he highlighted the distinction between Epicurean bodily and mental pleasures with regard to the dimension of time, which Plutarch disregards: whereas the former are restricted to the present moment, in the latter the mind is not confined to the present moment, but embraces all three dimensions: past, present and future (D.L. 10.136-7, Cicero, Tusc. disp. 5.95, and De fin. 1.55, and Diogenes of Oenoanda 38.1.8-3.14). As regards the Cyrenaics, the evidence is too thin. Their embracing of or rejecting eudaimonism is a hotly debated issue (91 for Warren's vacillating; for Aristippus' anti-eudaimonism, see T. Irwin, 'Aristippus against happiness', The Monist 74 [1991], 55-82.). Even more problematic is the reconstruction of their prudential planning with the help of a calculation, given their focus on particular and immeasurable pleasures which have no retrospective or prospective value.

Warren perfects the virtues exemplified in J. C. B. Gosling and C. C. W. Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford 1982), thanks to his historical accuracy, his subtle analysis of metaphors and analogies (consider, paradigmatically, the weighing and measuring of pleasures and pains in his Chapter 5) and of other literary elements in the works he reads. He treads carefully whenever needed, and nurtures the sensitivity for aesthetic enjoyments, although they go beyond the scope of this inquiry. Consequently, I highly recommend this book to all specialists in ancient philosophy as well as budding ancient philosophy students.3 Both groups will benefit from experiencing anew, or for the first time, the understanding that trailblazing contributions do not emerge primarily from proposing a new exegesis of this or that line of text. After all, the more history of ancient and modern philosophy we familiarize ourselves with, the more we realize that most interpretations have been represented throughout the centuries.

Let us observe, rather, that new models in interpretation are born because their representatives discover themselves in Plato's writings. It is only through this mode of philosophical self-knowledge that we shape Plato's given openness in new and interesting ways. In this spirit, Warren's interpretation is another new interpretation of Plato. Why should I highlight Plato when the book's scope extends far beyond the Athenian philosopher? To answer this question, let us consider Aulus Gellius' claim – "admittedly peculiar", as Warren says – that all subsequent philosophical accounts of pleasure are dependent on one or other of Plato's descriptions of pleasure's various forms. (Noct. Att. 9.5). Warren's book has done nothing less than wonderfully prove the truth of Aulus Gellius' – or is it Calvenus Taurus'? – view.


1.   The narrative about Plato's and Aristotle's take on pleasure which Warren adopts is the traditional version as we know it, for example, from Dorothea Frede and Verity Harte: Plato, having started with the bodily pleasures, struggles to account for the intellectual pleasures; whereas Aristotle encounters difficulties when describing the nature of the bodily pleasures, having generalized the account of cognitive pleasures instead.
2.   See both p. 180 for Warren's underestimating the difference between the two kinds of intellectualism at play, and n. 10 for a more nuanced evaluation.
3.   If I had to choose brief examples that manifest Warren's fine-grained analysis, I would recommend the discussion of the memories of Eumaeus (168-74), and the discussion of what it means to take pleasure when remembering past pains (Rh. 1.11); or, the analysis of the Platonic background in Plutarch's Non Posse at 86-95.

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