August 3, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Pleasure Principle

What! Out of senseless Nothing to provoke

A conscious Something to resent the yoke

Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain

Of Everlasting Penalties if broke!

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Sigmund Freud enunciated the pleasure principle, that people tend to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. That principle was known long before Freud. It is a guide to human behavior.

Many things that yield pleasure can also cause pain. Eating gives pleasure, but eating too much can cause extreme discomfort, vomiting, incapacitating overweight and some diseases. I have read about medieval feasts where everyone gorged themselves into a stupor. This is no longer considered the proper thing to do. An intelligent person enjoys food, but doesn't eat to the point of discomfort.

Sex is exquisitely pleasurable. It is natures way of insuring that animals reproduce. It can result in pregnancy, which may or may not be desirable. It is also the way that a number of diseases are spread. Many more diseases are spread by eating and breathing, but that is neither here nor there. Most people enjoy sex without any ill effect. It not only provides pleasure, but it can be a calming influence. There are effective ways to prevent conception so that you can have just the number of children that you want. There are also effective ways to prevent disease, the most effective of these being monogamy by both partners.

There are a variety of drugs that produce pleasure. It is evident that too much of a drug for too long can disable you and lead to death. Many people use alcohol and do not suffer for it. Some severely incapacitate themselves or kill themselves with it. There are a variety of drugs that produce pleasure, but which are addicting if used continually.

How do you deal with all of these two-edged swords?

An intelligent and perceptive person can manage to get much of the pleasure and avoid most of the pain. It may be possible to avoid all of the pain. The problem is that it might take the experience of the pain in order to know how to avoid it. Many of the substances in question cloud the judgment. One consequence is that you may no longer have the judgment to quit before the stuff zonks you.

No one has really figured out why some people can handle pleasure, with few or no side effects, while others can't. It has nothing to do with intelligence, because some very intelligent people become alcoholics and drug addicts. Some very intelligent people acquire incapacitating or fatal venereal diseases. The encouraging thing is that the majority of people, intelligent and not so intelligent, do not become addicted to any of these things. Of those who do become addicted, many realize what it is doing to them and kick the habit.

What I have said so far is a long prelude to a brief consideration of the ways that organized religions cope with the problem. Most religions are based on the dialectic that there is good and evil and that there is a continual war between these opposite poles. The Old Testament glorifies marriage, yet old-world Judaism treats sex as something to be hidden and to be practiced only in marriage. This is true of Islam and Christianity; yet prostitution has existed throughout recorded history, in all religions despite their opposition to it.

Both Judaism and Catholicism treat alcohol with respect and use it. A few cultures use it to excess, and some cultures consider drunkenness to be socially acceptable, especially in males. Islam forbids the use of alcohol. It seems strange to me that western religions haven't really dealt with opiates and other intoxicants.

The idea that there is good OR evil doesn't make much sense to me. The very same substance can be both good and evil depending on how it is used.

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