Sitting in prison, having just received a visit from his distraught wife and his little son, surrounded by a few devoted friends, and rubbing the painful mark that the chains have left upon one of his legs, a man remarks on the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain:
“What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think,” he said “if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.” (1)
Any man who has the strength of will to philosophize awaiting execution is no ordinary man. These are, of course, the words of Socrates. A profound observation presented not in the usual form of a statement, question or dialogue, but a simple Aesopic fable that captures a universal truth: pain and pleasure are conjoined and follow soon after one another.
Dualism was fundamental to ancient Greek thought, philosophy and language. Dualistic concepts such as Greek/barbarian, male/female, and freedom/slavery underpinned ancient Greek social definition and status; Greek philosophy is replete with discussions of dualistic concepts such as bad/good, form/material and body/soul; Greek expression is full of contrasts and opposing concepts and ideas (sooner/later, on the one hand/on the other hand, one/another).
What I like about Socrates’ story is that, just as in so many things in life, it takes a third party to intervene in the war between dualistic opposites (in this case, pleasure and pain) and to insist upon unity (in this case, the intervention of Zeus, by fastening their heads together).
But given Socrates’ instructive fable, why is it that when we are consumed by either pleasure or pain, we tend to forget the inevitable and imminent arrival of its opposite? And is there an exactly proportional relationship between the two phenomena (the bigger the pleasure, the bigger the pain that follows, and vice versa)? And is it possible for pain and pleasure to exactly coincide, or by definition, can they only ever follow, one after the other? Questions, and more questions. Socrates might have reflected further on these topics had he not been interrupted by his companion Cebes. And alas, we have no further musings on the subject, for we all know what happened to dear Socrates.
(1) Plato, Phaedo 60b-c;
(2) Header image: Eternal Love by Igor Mitoraj, sculptural exhibition at Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, 2011.
Image sourced from: http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/igor-mitoraj/