Pleasure and Pain: Plato vs. the Bible

Plato's work, Phaedo, begins with Socrates, having been released from prison by the Eleven, the prison guard from the Athenian criminal court. The Eleven are responsible for making sure Socrates will drink poison and commit suicide. Socrates is sitting on a bed, reflecting on how ‘pleasant’ it is now to be able to rub his leg freed from its chains, that which was ‘painful’. He is amused as he thinks about the strange relationship between ‘the pleasant’ and ‘the painful’. On the one hand, they never visit a man at the same time. On the other hand, if one chases after and catches ‘the pleasant’ then he will almost certainly discover he has also taken hold of ‘the painful.’ Similarly, if one secures ‘the painful’ he will almost certainly also experience ‘the pleasant.’ It’s as if “the two of them were attached to a single head.” Anybody “visited by one of them is later attended by the other as well.’ So, his once discomfited, fettered leg is now experiencing the pleasure of its freedom.

From a biblical perspective, there is indeed a great deal of wisdom to be found in what Socrates here articulates. In the book of Ecclesiastes we are invited to enter the thought-world of the paragon of wisdom, the mind of Solomon.[1] In chapter 2 ‘he’ quite deliberately sets out after pleasure and succeeds in capturing it. However, this also brings with it the ‘pain’ of realising that it is all hebel/hevel. This key word, used 38 times in this book, is variously rendered. For example, in the NIV it is translated as “meaningless.” But in Hebrew this is the word for smoke or vapour.[2] The Teacher of Ecclesiastes in not claiming to know all there is to know about life and reality and on this basis to declare everything to be meaningless. Rather, he is saying that as we live our lives in a fallen world, that is, “under the sun”, we find that all the things we might depend upon, to provide us with the certainty and security for which we long, ultimately prove to be but smoke. Yes, these worldly things are real, but like smoke, prove to be impossible to hold on to. Our experience of life is enigmatic, paradoxical. Life is paradoxical in that, just as Socrates observed, pleasure and pain often accompany each other. In similar vein the New Testament, on the one hand, encourages believers to enjoy the pleasure of possessing every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:3) and yet, on the other hand, will also tell them that persecution and suffering is par for the course (Matthew 5:9-12; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 1:21; 4:12).

There is, however, a major point of difference between Plato’s (Socrates’) perspective and that which we find in the Bible. Socrates assumes that it is of the very nature of living with material bodies in a material world that pleasure and pain should accompany each other. By contrast, the Bible sees this paradoxical interplay of pleasure and pain as a phenomenon characteristic of living in a fallen world. However, the time will come when there will be a transformation of this world and God’s people will live in a new (radically renewed) heavens and earth. This is very much a material world in which God’s people will live with material, resurrected bodies, even though the glory of the new cosmos and of the new body will far exceed what we currently experience. Yet in this material world, because everything has been put right, there “will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Ultimately, then, there is no necessary and essential linkage between pleasure and pain.

[1] Scholars debate whether the book was written by Solomon himself or, as the majority suppose, is a literary technique. [2] For an excellent explanation of hevel see Ecclesiastes E1: Not Another Proverbs… BibleProject Podcast. Wisdom, Episode 3.

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