Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 57 (3):433-460 (1995)

What is the 'good life'? Is it a life completely devoted to intellect, or should we take for granted the hedonistic position, which says that pleasure is the absolute good? The hedonist subordinates everything to pleasure, and tests anything in a rigorous calculus for the amount of pleasure it yields. It is against this hedonism that Plato turns himself in a unique manner in his dialogue Philebus. After having reached a deadlockin a sterile opposition between hedonism and intellectualism in his former works, Platonow wants to dig deeper. He wants to criticize hedonism from within. In the first place, Plato investigates the proper nature of pleasure. It is to be situated within the continuous fluxus of our lives; a going back and forth between lack and replenishment. The limit that gives sense to this movement is the 'natural state', which we never attain in its purity. The role of intellect is hereby reduced to a strictminimum. It seems to be mainly a faculty which concerns the recognition and experience of pleasure as pleasure. In this way, Plato strives to establish a certain degree of consensus of opinion with hedonism, in order to be able to refute it afterwards. This refutation is supported by the formal structure of the dialogue: it consists in a gradual 'conversion' of a hedonist, who will eventually be brought into the intellectualist camp of Socrates. The critique to which Socrates' interlocutor yields is based on three main ideas. 1.Hedonism pretends to know what the good is. Plato counters this with a moderate intellectualism, taking the good to be undecided, and providing a place also for pleasure within the good life. 2. Moreover, Plato reveals an internal contradiction in hedonism: every hedonist will, if possible, prefer a 'pure' pleasure, in which the mixture with its contrary, pain, is as small as possible. However, this purity cannot be reduced to the hedonistic calculus. 3. Finally, the choice of the title of this dialogue is to be seenas a part of Plato's critique against hedonism. The main character Philebus refuses to engage in the debate. Plato suggests by this that he who proclaimspleasure to be the only intrinsic good is unable to partake in a discussion about pleasure. For he would, before any argument whatever, subordinate pleasure to truth and reason. If a hedonist is willing to argue he has already surrendered, and will be 'converted' whether he wants it or not
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