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Anticipating the Worst: A Cyrenaic Technique to Increase Pleasure

Isabelle Chouinard

Université de Montréal and Université Paris-Sorbonne

In Book III of the Tusculanes (31.11-14), Cicero mentions an otherwise unknown Cyrenaic exercise. The Cyrenaic school of hedonism recommends to pre-rehearse future evils, i.e. to anticipate all the blows of fate in order to prevent the grief that an unexpected misfortune would cause. It is difficult, from the few fragments and testimonia that have come down to us, to understand how such a technique falls in line with Cyrenaic hedonism. The most recent attempt to reconstruct the argument underlying this exercise (Graver, 2002b) has come to unsatisfactory results. Following Graver’s theory, anticipating future evils does not lead to any overall increase or decrease in pain or pleasure, but only to a change in the temporal distribution of affections. In this presentation, I will argue, against Graver, that pre-rehearsal of future evils not only prevents grief, but also increases joy. The alternative account I propose is consistent both with Diogenes Laertius’ presentation of the Cyrenaic doctrine of affections and with the ultimate goal of hedonism, i.e. to experience pleasure.

According to the Cyrenaics (DL.2.86-90), there are two basic affections: pleasure and pain. Both are motions that can come about either in the body or the soul. It seems obvious that bodily motions are simultaneous with the source of the affection. If one suffers bodily pain caused by some wound, the pain will last as long as the wound is not healed.

In the case of soul’s motions, the temporal relationship between the motion and its source is not as straightforward and depends on our reading of DL.2.89: ‘The Cyrenaics claim that pleasure is not produced (οὐκ ἀποτελεῖσθαι) from the memory or expectation of goods, which is Epicurus’ claim, for they say that the movement of the soul ceases because of time.’ According to Graver, we should not translate οὐκ ἀποτελεῖσθαι as ‘is not produced’ (as did Döring, Laks, Tsouna, Long and Sedley), but rather as ‘is not the ultimate result’, meaning that memory and expectation do not yield an overall gain in pleasure.

Based on this reading, Graver elaborates a theory in which she assumes that, for the Cyrenaics, a source of affection encloses a definite amount of pleasure or pain that can affect one subject. Therefore, it would be possible for one to be affected by a past object, if the pleasure or pain it encloses is not completely ‘spent’, or by a future object, by ‘borrowing’ on the amount of pleasure or pain it can produce. The pre-rehearsal of future evils, by generating the painful movement of the soul prematurely, would lessen the pain felt when the source of the soul’s motion becomes present. One of the main problems with Graver’s theory is that, understood in this way, the exercise does not yield any gain of pleasure or decrease of pain in a lifetime. Thus, Graver fails to demonstrate the hedonistic benefit of the pre-rehearsal of future evils.

To make sense of the exercise from a hedonistic point of view, it is necessary to admit that anticipating future evils is a harmless technique. Indeed, following the most common reading of DL.2.89, according to which the memory or expectation of goods does not produce any pleasure, the anticipation of future evils, conversely, does not cause any pain. Just as bodily motions, soul’s motions come about simultaneously with their source. Moreover, Cicero says in the Tusculanes that, for the Cyrenaics, only unexpected evils cause grief. This thesis harmonizes well with DL.2.94, where it is stated that fortune generates suffering when it counters our hopes. I take this to mean that one feels grief solely when one’s expectations are higher than reality. Conversely, only unexpected goods cause happiness, and joy comes about solely when one’s expectations are lower than reality. Therefore, in anticipating the worst, the Cyrenaics do not experience any suffering and engage in a process of lowering their expectations, which diminishes chances of suffering and increases opportunities of pleasure.

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