Friday, December 10, 2010

Pleasure and Sorrow and Heads of Pins

I have heard people say that medieval philosophers spent pointless time arguing about pointless questions and should therefore be ignored.  You all know the supposedly pointless question about heads of pins.  In reading Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica over the last fifteen years or so, I suppose I must admit I have read a question or two whose point did not jump out at me.  But mostly I see discussions (based on reason, observation, and authority) about vital and interesting issues in theology, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, law, and other point-full fields.

My section of Aquinas for 2010 included a series of questions on pleasure and sorrow.  According to Thomas, a human is a composite of body and soul that has a faculty, called appetite, that operates in both parts of the composite.  Our body has desires, preferences, pleasures, and pains, and so does our soul.  Pleasure can and does result from two related events: (a) attainment of a good (a good object, a good feeling, knowledge, etc,) and (b) knowledge of that attainment. 

Now right from the start we have a terribly interesting proposition.  If Thomas is right, my life can be better because of some factor of which I'm not aware, and then my life can be even more pleasant if I become aware of that pleasant factor.  (He calls this second pleasure, the pleasure of knowing about pleasure, enjoyment.)  I might even know something that benefits me without knowing that I know it, and then find joy in learning that I know it.  It sounded a little confusing at first until I started thinking of examples.  I grew up not knowing that I had what seem a king's riches when my middle-class suburban home was compared to the way most humans have lived (and still do).  My life was undoubtedly pleasant because of the warmth, food, toys, entertainment, books, and travel opportunities that I grew up with.  But as I continually become aware that I have no right to take these privileges for granted, they become even more valuable.  As another example, I might watch a movie, see a painting, or read a book that seems good even if I can't explain why; the experience brings me pleasure.  But how much more pleasure do I derive when someone explains the lighting technique, the organizing form, the hidden reference!

Pain, conversely, comes from a lack of good and from the perception of that lack.  Some pleasures bring a kind of pain by being incomplete.  If I'm simply not satisfied with the riches I have, that pain is a bad thing; but if my pain is sorrow from the knowledge that not everyone can enjoy the riches I have, that pain can be a good thing -- especially if it leads to a good, charitable action.  (The only complete pleasure, by the way, is union with God and knowledge of -- or enjoyment of -- that union.  Remember the Westminster Catechism: "The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."  And see the post called Happiness with Aquinas below.)

If you still think Thomas's questions sound pointless, consider his section on the remedies for sorrow and pain.  (1) Any kind of pleasure assuages any kind of sorrow, as bringing rest to weariness.  Think of a backrub after a hard day.  (2) Tears assuage sorrow as a release.  Practical!  Give yourself time to cry; you'll feel better.  (3) A friend's sympathy can assuage sorrow: the display not only seems to bear some of the burden; it also demonstrates love, which itself is pleasant to think about.  So talk to a friend.  (4) Think about God.  Or in fact, think about anything else but the pain.  Meditate.  Do Lamaze breathing.  Listen to music.  Go to a movie, and get your mind off the pain for a while.  (5) Go to sleep.  (6) Take a bath.  Does this sound like a fussy, ascetic monk arguing abstruse, pointless questions?

Thomas Aquinas's great book has a section on angels.  I read that section last year and did not find anything about heads of pins.  Knowing that people complain about Thomas in ignorance causes me sorrow.  I'm going to assuage that sorrow now by going to a friend's house and having a good meal.

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