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Hedonism and the Pleasureless Life in Plato's Philebus

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This paper re-evaluates the role that Plato confers to pleasure in the Philebus. According to leading interpretations, Plato there downplays the role of pleasure, or indeed rejects hedonism altogether. Thus, scholars such as D. Frede have taken the "mixed life" of pleasure and intelligence initially submitted in the Philebus to be conceded by Socrates only as a remedial good, second to a life of neutral condition, where one would experience no pleasure and pain. Even more strongly, scholars such as Irwin have seen the Philebus' arguments against false pleasures as an actual attack on hedonism, showing in Irwin's words "why maximization of pleasure cannot be a reasonable policy for the best life." Against these claims, I argue that the mixed life of pleasure and intelligence is presented in the Philebus as a rst best and not just as a second best for humans, and that, accordingly, Socrates proposes to incorporate rather than reject pleasure as one of the intrinsically desirable aspects of the happy life. Thus, I offer alternative readings of controversial passages that have given rise to the prevalent interpretation criticized here, and advance positive evidence that at least some pleasures are seen by Plato as inherently good. In addition, I demonstrate that Plato's arguments against false pleasures do not by themselves constitute an attack on hedonism. Rather, they can be seen as a strategy to show the hedonist that, in order to be a maximal, or even a consistent, hedonist, he should go for true, and not fake pleasures, if after all pleasure is the object of his pursuit. But, since this cannot be achieved without intelligence, then the mixed life of pleasure and intelligence is to be accepted even by hedonist themselves.


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