The Pleasure of Learning

The central thesis of our civilization is found in the following passage from Plato’s Gorgias: "For no one who is not totally bereft of reason and courage is afraid to die; doing what’s unjust is what he’s afraid of. For of all evils, the ultimate is that of arriving in Hades with one’s soul stuffed full of unjust actions." If this is true, as it is, not a few are "bereft" of reason, but many more of courage. If a good man dies upholding justice, nothing evil has happened to him. The evil rather happens, as we know in the cases of Socrates and Christ, to those who contrive to kill the just man.
Often, it is said that we betray our civilization’s basic principle that it is never right to do wrong because of something called hedonism. Hedonism, of course, as an ideology means that we make our highest good or final end to be pleasure. Aristotle already had noticed this alternative in the first book of his Ethics. Pleasure was one of the classic definitions of happiness, or of our final end.
Pleasure is often spoken of as if it is a bad thing, only to be praised in rebuttal by its defenders as the highest of the good things. The fact is that pleasure is a good thing, but not necessarily the highest thing, even when it is good. Pleasure, as the same Aristotle taught, is worth thinking about.
Not too long ago, a student asked me whether we are made for "happiness." We had just read Aristotle, who held the remarkable opinion that we were. Evidently, the student ran into the view that maintains that we are not really made for happiness, what with suffering and evil and all.
I suggest that we suspect that we are made for happiness because of our relation to pleasure. How is it that certain particular things actually please us, while others do not? Some thinkers deny that we are made for happiness because that would be, well, selfish. The only reason we seek God or anything else, they say, is because we want something for ourselves. The truth is that we do want something. If we already had it, we would not have to worry about seeking it. The idea that benevolence, the doing good to others, means that ultimately we want nothing for ourselves is simply silly. It is not selfish to want for ourselves what is to be wanted.
Someplace I once heard of an experiment that supposed we were hooked up to a stimulus machine, from which we could receive every pleasure without actually having the experience that is originally designed to produce it. The question is: Would we still want the original experience if we had the pleasure without it? Obviously, we would. A world of pleasure alone is not a world of being in which pleasure is what accompanies, but does not define, what we are and do. Pleasure follows upon an action and "completes" it, not the other way around.
The title of this column is "the pleasure of learning," which comes from Plato, as do so many good things. In the ninth book of the Republic, we read: "What about the honor-lover? Doesn’t he think that the pleasure of making money is vulgar and that the pleasure of learning — except as brings him honor — is smoke and nonsense?" But we love learning, knowing — not for the honor we receive from this same knowing, but for itself, its own pleasure.
"A rich man is honored by many people, so is a courageous one, and a wise one," Socrates continued, "but the pleasure of studying the things that are cannot be tasted by anyone except a philosopher." That is to say, we won’t even see the things that are unless we look for them for their own sakes, unless we discipline the deviations and temptations that keep our attention mostly on ourselves. Yet there is a pleasure in knowing, just knowing.
Doesn’t this sound like few philosophers are found among us, so that very few know reality as such? Plato suspected that most professional "philosophers" and experts were sophists. They were in the knowledge business for money or honor, not for the truth.
In Plato’s Euthydemus, we read, "After all, we ought to admire every man who says anything sensible, and who labors bravely in its pursuit." I like that passage. I do admire any man who says anything "sensible" and who labors bravely in its pursuit. Knowing, being sensible is its own pleasure.
Truth, Plato often said, is to say of what is that it is. This knowing of truth results in its own delight. What is not ourselves becomes ourselves. Do we not want this truth also for ourselves? Of course we do. It is on this basis that we rejoice in the philosopher and the sensible man who labor bravely and delightedly in the knowing of what is.

Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Order of Things, is recently published by Ignatius Press.


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