TitleIs Pleasure an Emotion?: Historicism and Anachronism in the History of Emotions
William M. Reddy, Department of History, Duke University
What's Wrong with Pleasure?
Esther Cohen, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Date/TimeMonday 1 July 2013: 09.00-10.30
SponsorBoydell & Brewer, Woodbridge
SpeakerEsther Cohen, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
William M. Reddy, Department of History / Department of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, North Carolina
IntroductionPiroska Nagy, Département d'histoire, Université du Québec à Montréal
AbstractIntroduction: Piroska Nagy, Département d'histoire, Université du Québec à Montréal

'Is Pleasure an Emotion?: Historicism and Anachronism in the History of Emotions'
Pleasure and pain, like emotion, would seem at first glance to be constants, human universals, closely related to each other. Aristotle viewed all emotions as accompanied by pleasure or pain (Konstan, Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, p. 41.) Augustine wrote that sexual lust is a passion 'in which mental emotion is mingled with bodily appetite'. When consummated, 'all mental activity is suspended [quasi vigilia cogitationis obruatur]' (City of God, Book XIV, Dods translation, 1888, vol. II, p. 31.). In the 18th century, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Diderot, Rousseau, and others affirmed that certain socially beneficial sentiments were naturally pleasant; tears of pity were regarded as one of the chief pleasures one could derive from watching a good play. Present-day neuroscientists similarly regard all emotions as having a 'valence' or 'hedonic tone'. Some have recently insisted that sexual pleasure should be regarded as an emotion, recalling Augustine. Some pain researchers have come to similar conclusions.

Are all these commentators talking about the same thing? It would not be difficult to lay out the sharp differences and yawning discontinuities that separate them. But to assert that such things as pleasure, pain, or emotion are just cultural constructs that change incommensurably from one time and place to another, is hardly more satisfactory, because one must then try to account for the persistence of themes such as that of pleasure through many transformations and reworkings across the centuries. According to the Kamasutra, pleasure (kama) is only available to those who pursue it through the acquisition and deployment of a wide range of skills and refinements. It may be that pleasure cannot be understood except in relation to goals or intentions embraced by the self - what Augustine called the 'will'.

'What's Wrong with Pleasure?':
It is a common contemporary misconception that medieval Christian Latin writers unanimously derogated pleasure and praised suffering in this world, with the promise that the dichotomous relationship between the two would be inverted in afterlife. This misconception stems largely our present-day idea of pleasure, which consists largely of sensory pleasures, be they food, sex, entertainment, or leisure. These hedonistic ideas would not necessarily fit earlier periods or other areas of the world. It is my argument that high medieval ecclesiastical literature knew of various pleasures and praised many of them. The very fact that visions of heaven stressed the enjoyment of beauty, heavenly music, and fragrance shows that not all sensory pleasure was ipso facto condemned. Furthermore, even on earth there were many pleasures that the devout could enjoy. To name but a few that emerge from correspondence and didactic writing, the pleasures of friendship, exchanges of ideas, and contemplation are praised by many writers, from Anselm of Canterbury to Thomas Aquinas. Significantly, though, this praise of pleasure remains within monastic confines, not transcending their borders into literature meant for the laity. Were the latter considered incapable of appreciating the finer things of life?

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