Sisters, Pennsylvania, 1962. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum



Philosophers have traditionally been highly suspicious of fleeting pleasures, but to enjoy the moment is a radical act

by Sandy Grant + BIO

Sisters, Pennsylvania, 1962. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum

One fine evening a band is playing. People are dancing and enjoying themselves. A woman is there, relishing the event. Then she thinks to herself:

Everywhere, imperceptibly or otherwise, things are passing, ending, going. And there will be other summers, other band concerts, but never this one, never again, never as now. Next year I will not be the self of this year now. And that is why I laugh at the transient, the ephemeral; laugh, while clutching, holding, tenderly, like a fool his toy, cracked glass, water through fingers.

These thoughts from the journal of the American poet Sylvia Plath ask whether there is something inescapably painful about enjoyment. Maybe enjoyment makes you anguished and miserable; perhaps this vitiates its worth entirely. Certainly, there have been many philosophers who have endorsed just such a negative position. But they are wrong.

To understand why that is so, we need to clarify what we are debating. Philosophers have puzzled over the question of what enjoyment is, proposing competing accounts of pleasure, but we can take a straightforward view that enjoyment is a distinctive state of finding an experience pleasurable. The hallmark feature of pleasure, in turn, is its feel-good quality. An enjoyable experience feels good. And it can be distinguished thus from a painful one, which feels bad. Does then the transitory nature of enjoyment undermine its worth? Or might that very brevity of enjoyment be part of its importance in human life?

Even those philosophers who have advocated for pleasure as a good have struggled with the issue of its brevity. Aristippus of Cyrene, a pupil of Socrates, is remembered as the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, which was centred on hedonism, or the belief that pleasure is the Good. In his view, we should live for the pleasures of the moment. Aristippus insisted that the brevity of pleasures does not detract from their worth, and his followers in the Cyrenaic school continued to explore the significance of the present moment of pleasure over future experiences. Indeed, for the Cyrenaics, immediate and bodily pleasures were most valuable, rather than any sort of elaborate accounting of which pleasures are ‘better’ or longer-lasting than others, which would form part of an account of long-term happiness such as Aristotle proposed. Aristippus is reported to have said: ‘The art of life means enjoying pleasures as they pass.’

However, for him that very brevity warranted an ideal of self-control, a contentment with what present pleasures there are. So the good life rests upon the exercise of self-constraint. You avoid desiring. And you attempt a sort of self-sufficiency: you don’t let yourself get attached to any particular pleasure, since moments are ever passing and all is changeable. Such brevity requires a regulatory self-control, and Aristippus is supposed to have counselled: ‘What is best is not abstaining from pleasures, but instead controlling them without being controlled.’

Another classical hedonist, Hegesias, became known as ‘the Death-Persuader’. He took the momentary character of pleasure to render the quest for ‘true lasting pleasure’ fruitless, and advocated for the avoidance of pain instead. In his view, pleasure is rarely attainable and always escapes us, whereas its contrary, pain, predominates in life. So while pleasure is the Good, a life of pleasure is unattainable. Epicurus similarly emphasised the avoidance of pain, and the seeking of lasting pleasure. But ‘lasting pleasure’ was actually an enduring state of tranquillity consisting of the absence of pain. Epicurus contrasted this with ‘kinetic’ pleasures, which were transient and insecure. This is a fantasy of invulnerability writ large. No wonder, then, that critics ridiculed the Epicureans for recommending a condition of quietude resembling that of sleep or death.

Perhaps, then, we should simply enjoy the present moment? No, says Schopenhauer (ever the killjoy)

Yet the Epicurean’s recommended state of lasting non-pain seems relatively delightful when we compare it with the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s dismal views on the human condition. For Schopenhauer, ‘the ever-fleeting present’ is the only form in which actuality exists. All is ceaseless ‘continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists’. All of our striving is worthless, as nothing exists but the present, which is always slipping through our grasp. Perhaps, then, we should simply enjoy the present moment? No, says Schopenhauer (ever the killjoy) in On the Vanity of Existence (1851), for ‘you could just as well call this mode of life the greatest folly; for that which in a moment ceases to exist, which vanishes as completely as a dream, cannot be worth any serious effort’.

Unlike Schopenhauer, some modern philosophers defended pleasure. The utilitarians advocated for it to be promoted extensively. Their arguments were based on the principle of minimising pain and maximising pleasure. But they, too, struggled with the brevity of enjoyment. In Utilitarianism (1863), John Stuart Mill wrote:

[A] continuity of highly pleasurable excitement … is impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame.

Mill is saying that an enjoyable life is not full of constant rapture but rather it consists of moments of pleasure, along with few, and short-lived, pains. He adds that if we accept this modest share of enjoyment, and believe that the greatest human pains are removable, we will see that we are all capable of an enviable existence.

This could be a way to take the sting out of the ephemeral nature of pleasures. But Mill’s position relies upon a self-constraint that tries to control the effects of time’s passing upon our lives. Focus on making pains transitory, and don’t expect too much enjoyment, he says. Choose pleasures that are more lasting and thereby freer from pain. Ultimately, Mill’s case is for the utility in pleasure, not its mere pleasurableness. Seeing pleasure as a relatively transient experience, he imagines something more durable – happiness – deemed a relatively abiding positive experience of life. Such a position notably led Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958) to acidly disdain the utilitarian belief in ‘some illusory mathematical certainty of happiness’.

Should we accept Schopenhauer’s claim that the transience of pleasures is a cause of pain? And should we agree with Mill, that brief pleasures weigh less in the pain-pleasure calculus? On the contrary, perhaps part of the joy and the intensity of pleasurable moments is that we can’t possess them or hold onto them. And perhaps there are things we enjoy because they are impermanent. Sunsets, rainbows and the aroma of coffee are short-lived delights. And there are bittersweet experiences such as the one recounted by Plath at the concert.

So it would be absurd to suggest that no pleasure can be derived from the impermanence of brief things. Indeed, our enjoyment of a thing might be enhanced by its short-livedness. Impermanence might arouse pleasure and confer value. If the goal is a form of life that is enjoyable, this does not require the permanent or secure possession of pleasure. And so a robust defence of enjoyment embraces the fleeting, and recognises the distorting effects of illusions about the durable and the dependable.

One of the most potent of such illusions is that of a stable and enduring self. There is none such. Let’s say that the self is not some unalterable essence, enduring through time, and waiting to be discovered. It is instead an ephemeral thing, never to be completed, a work-in-progress par excellence. And once we accept this idea, the brevity of pleasure can be seen as an asset in the ever-becoming of human selfhood. Perhaps then practices of pleasure have an important role in change – in becoming otherwise than we are. In this way, enjoyment could be seen to have especial value in those practices of self-transformation by which a person aims at freedom.

We experience fabricated leisure: planned ‘free time’ sandwiched between typically unpleasant work times

But what is it about enjoyment that makes self-transformation possible? First and foremost, there is the unmissable subjectivity of pleasure. You feel pleasure. That is, pleasure exists only insofar as it is felt by the person feeling it. And then there is the way in which pleasure goes beyond the subject. Every pleasure refers the enjoying person to a future and to others; enjoyment always relates to things, people and times beyond itself. Pleasure is thus a kind of experience by which a person goes beyond the given of her current situation. And enjoyment can be creative, bearing the possibility of creating different ways of feeling that disrupt extant modes of selfhood.

We find ourselves entrapped in late capitalism, on a treadmill of apparent but meretricious pleasures. What can we do to resist this, and what role does enjoyment play in our resistance? First, we need to realise what our situation is, to see just how things are. That alone is no mean feat. In recognising our situation, we see the failings of a simple carpe diem approach, by which a person vows to ‘seize the day’ and engage in pleasures of the moment. The notion of ‘seizing’ pleasures might tempt with a fantasy of immediate possession but this belies the challenge of experiencing real enjoyment. Our social and cultural practices do not serve us well in the search for transformative pleasure.

In our societies, we experience fabricated leisure – a kind of planned ‘free time’ that is sandwiched between typically unpleasant work times. And we are bombarded with advertisements that promise we will have a great time if only we get the latest phone or the latest computer game. Ours is a culture that, under the guise of consumption, actually counsels the renunciation of enjoyment. In such a society, wants come apart from pleasures. If you get an expensive car because that’s what you think your status requires you to have, that is not the same as enjoying it. The individual who succumbs to this idea does not relish owning the car. She just thinks she must have and display it. We inhabit a world that devalues pleasure while apparently serving it up in large doses. Rather than enjoyment playing a central role in people striving to become otherwise than they are, our culture works a strange ascetic turn. I am what I desire. I am what I consume. We are absorbed in an existence as desiring and consuming subjects, living as though we really are just those selves and no more.

In late capitalism, the subjective character of enjoyment is appropriated into circuits of consumption. Philosophers have long remarked the self-subjugating effects of peoples’ absorption in the standard practices of their day, those taken to be ‘what everyone does’. In Being and Time (1927), Martin Heidegger pointed out that ‘We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure.’ If you like an activity because you have unthinkingly assumed an approving view of it from others, does this still count as an authentic pleasure? An experience that really feels good, feels good for you, as someone choosing freely. But what feels purely subjective to us might actually be deeply influenced by the contingent forms of feeling of our time – what our society and families and workplaces tell us that we can legitimately feel. We have a job on our hands to recognise how our ways of feeling and being are historically and culturally shaped.

Even if we accept that authentic pleasures can be had, we might still feel worried that seeking subjective pleasure is a perniciously self-absorbed goal and thus incompatible with an ethical life. In a time when self-improvement practices are big business, it might be hard to imagine that enjoyment is a practice of resistance to current forms of unfreedom.

Philosophers including Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Foucault have considered the role of pleasure in the making of selfhood. Kierkegaard and Levinas adopt G W F Hegel’s view that in enjoyment the individual develops an awareness of herself as the particular individual she is. Yet both see enjoyment as necessarily and exclusively egoistic. They claim that the enjoying person is concerned only with her own enjoyment. Furthermore, she enjoys wholly without reference to other persons.

Foucault argued that pleasure could be a practice of ethical self-fashioning

Kierkegaard thought that brevity diminished enjoyment’s worth, and that the self that developed ‘aesthetically’ in enjoyment could end up only in despair. He concluded that ethical selfhood could not be founded in enjoyment. Levinas saw enjoyment as the primary way in which one emerges as an independent self, and deemed pleasure’s momentariness to be one of its central characteristics. He, too, saw the experience of enjoyment as wholly egoistic, writing in Totality and Infinity (1961): ‘In enjoyment I am absolutely for myself. Egoist without reference to the Other.’

In saying this, Levinas claimed that the enjoying person is becoming a unique subject while being entirely deaf to the situation of other persons, and remaining separate from them. According to Levinas, pleasure could not be the starting point of ethical subjectivity for, in the experience of enjoyment, the concerns, needs, wishes, pleasures of others are absent.

Like Kierkegaard and Levinas, Foucault thought of enjoyment as a way that people could differentiate themselves from the mass or norm of their day. Indeed, he saw great possibilities of resistance to unfreedoms if people could experiment with new forms of pleasure. Foucault argued that pleasure could be a practice of ethical self-fashioning. He thought that people could come to recognise themselves as doers, as inventive ‘agents of pleasure’ instead of seeing themselves as possessing some secret sort of identity residing in a self that they must discover and embrace. Pleasure could be a way of escaping modernity’s dominant forms of subject-formation. But even this can appear somewhat egoistic. The practices that Foucault envisages bear plausible transformative prospects, but the very focus on practices of pleasure as forms of self-care can make the proposed enterprise sound strikingly self-referential.

Let’s say then that enjoyment has a special role in the passion of the self, in one’s becoming other than what one is. If this is so, attending to one’s own self-fashioning can be of great ethical import, and practices of pleasure could have a potent role. But enjoyment becomes truly transformative when it questions the egoistic self. Against Levinas, I take the view that the phenomenology of enjoyment, its what-it-is-likeness, does not preclude regard for others. Nothing about the experience of enjoyment requires that it be merely self-referential. Indeed, it is through practices of pleasure that we realise that we are not simply individual centres of experience and action.

Our ways of enjoying are profoundly shaped by the culture of our time. But more importantly, pleasure, while subjectively experienced, is often also shared – indeed pleasure is frequently contagious. I delight in our enjoying the movie together. And the greatest enjoyment is generous and mutual – neither merely for the self, nor merely for the other. So we might seek enjoyment together. And we might see others as a source of enjoyment, and indeed celebrate their enjoyment. Riding a train, I glimpse a bunch of kids having fun with a tyre on a bit of wasteground. The pleasures of others move us, not just their pains. We might live in a time when egoistic forms of enjoyment predominate and are socially valorised. But we have the opportunity to care for the pleasures of the other, and in so doing to resist the order of the day.

Enjoyment is available in principle to all. But in the world as it now is, access to pleasure is unequal. Who then has what Karl Marx in The German Ideology (1846) called ‘the privilege of enjoyment’? Who gets the time to enjoy? Whose enjoyments are allowed, recognised, valorised, sponsored, and whose are disdained, marginalised or criminalised? To care for the pleasures of others is to recognise the importance of access – of opening up the means to pursue pleasure. It is also to recognise that pleasure can be had at the expense of others. From calling out sexual harassment to refusing to eat animal foods, many people are starting to challenge the oppressive and exploitative pleasures that come at the cost of others’ lives.

Practices of enjoyment mean changing the way you feel and who you are, not just the way you think

Just imagine living in a world in which I really care about your prospects of enjoyment. Imagine living in that kind of pleasure economy. Instead of enjoying the exclusivity of things – cars others cannot afford, holidays others cannot take – I enjoy my life insofar as you can, too. What if I decline enjoyments that exploit or hurt others? What if universal enjoyment was desired, an enjoyment equally available to all, and in which the enjoyments of everyone matter? Some people might well be attuned already to the generosity of shared and vicarious pleasures, and aware of unequal and exploitative enjoyments. But few of us can honestly say that such things really matter to us deeply, such that we seek to live differently because of them.

It is not just a matter of rectifying a few silly habits into which people have fallen, but of disrupting current models of selfhood and oppressive regimes of power. And achieving these changes in the economy of pleasure is not just a matter of talking about it. Practices of enjoyment mean changing the way you feel and who you are, not just the way you think. They entail major work on the self. But who I am and who I can become is not merely a function of my own endeavours. The work on one’s self is a shared, intersubjective task, undertaken in communities, in families and friendships, and between lovers.

So it looks as though enjoyment has a role to play in projects of social and self-transformation. But if this is true, it is far from a comforting thought. For the life we now have falls short. Maybe it amounts to a tragic view of the world, as currently constituted. Pleasure is central to the transformative project of the self, yet we have a world that is averse to pleasure, limiting who and how we can be. Enjoyable life can be seen as an urgent task then, calling for a reworking of our relations with ourselves, with others and with the world.