In the Platonic dialogue Philebus, the topic of discussion is the status of the ultimate good and whether it belongs to pleasure or to knowledge and wisdom. Philebus has his friend Protarchus argue for the case of pleasure on his behalf, while Socrates defends the primacy of wisdom. First, Socrates gets Protarchus to concede that there are various sorts of pleasures and that some pleasures are unlike others. Even though Protarchus tries to argue that all pleasures should be classified as good since pleasure is one kind, Socrates draws on the many in one doctrine to say that within one category various subcategories can be distinguished with different qualities. (Therefore, there can be various types of pleasure, good and bad, within the umbrella category of pleasure.) This touches upon the many/one paradox of how one item, though one, can be reclassified as a variety of different items that are all separate. Socrates says the goal of classification is to find multiplicity within oneness; to take sound(one) and to subdivided into a finite category of types of sounds, vowels and consonants. The same would apply to music; musical sound (one) should be defined by its parts (a set of musical notes.)

Socrates then goes on to take the elements of the cosmos (one) and to divide them into several classes that he later associates with pleasure and wisdom. One class of elements is finite. These elements are measured and defined by ratio, proportion, and number. The second class is infinite and is defined by unlimited/infinite elements: qualities that could become infinitely hotter or colder, drier or wetter, ever-changing and not fixed or determined. The third class is the compound class that mixes the finite and the infinite; the infinite and ever-changing qualities of heat and cold become fixed and determined by specific quantities and ratios. This supposedly produces harmony. Heat and cold are set about in the right proportions for the creation of life, a healthy body, and the weather of the seasons.

Socrates then goes on to give a mystical explanation for the coming about of this harmonious mixture. Since within a person, there is a balancing factor, the soul, that mixes the infinite ever-changing elements in the proper proportions for the functions of health, life, and action, there exists a similar factor on the larger scale of the cosmos. Within the universe, the universal soul, defined as the fourth class of elements, is responsible for regulating the infinite forces of heat, cold, dryness, wetness, speed, and slowness to create a balanced, well-functioning whole by uniting the infinite class of unstable mutable elements with the finite class of proportion and ratio. Ironically enough, Socrates asks for the help of a god during the dialogue to help him come up with this conclusion, which underlines the rather mystical bent of what could otherwise be interpreted as a simply “rational” philosophical argument. In pursuing this argument, Socrates adds a further literary, mythical touch to it by saying that since the element of fire within us is but a small and puny force that is a part of the much larger, more powerful force of fire in the universe as a whole, so is the soul within us only a weak microcosm of the more powerful universal soul. In this way, the fire and the soul of the body transcend the human individual and gain a cosmological force, imbuing Plato's discourse on the elements with a theological grandeur worthy of Hesiod.

Of course, the four class division (three defined first, the soul added as a fourth class later) serves to undermine the status of [pleasure[. You see, pleasure is in the infinitive class of elements where everything is chaotic and lacks order, proportion, and harmony. Hence, this very definition of pleasure already gives us a hint that Socrates will define it at best as something wild and unpredictable, at worst as something degenerate and dissolute. Dissolute is the perfect word for the conception of pleasure advocated by Socrates since he defines pleasure as a phenomenon that results from the restoration of the dissolved harmony of the infinite and the finite. When the moisture in an animal required for health dries up, the restoration of this natural state brings about feelings of pleasure. However, this pleasure does not come about without preceding pain, since restoration is preceded by dissolution. The implication of this, however, is that on the balance, pleasure is not really worthy of pursuit, since it is always balanced out by pain. Socrates points out that the most intense pleasure is to be encountered in severe states of illness since the pleasures of restoration to a healthier state, however temporary, will reach incredible heights of sensation. The relief of minor pains, itching by scratching, by contrast, will produce rather faint experiences of pleasure. Socrates argues that the best pleasures are those that don't involve concomitant pains; unsurprisingly these pleasures involve the contemplation of objects in the finite class – the reveling in the beauty of the form of perfect lines, planes, and circles] that have been measured out by experts in their craft. (Just like the best white is the one that is the purest and less mixed with other colors, the best pleasure is the one that is pleasure only and has the least admixture of pain.) Socrates does raise the possible objection that the knowledge of perfect forms may be accompanied by the pain of regret that one has forgotten them, only to put it aside by concluding that such regret is abstract. It only takes place in thought and reflection and therefore does not involve pain. This is unlike the pleasure of eating which involves the previous, viscerally felt pain of hunger.

However, it turns out that without reflection, those visceral pleasures are meaningless; that in and of itself serves to disqualify pleasure as the ultimate good. Socrates describes a life of pleasure without knowledge and gets Protarchus to admit that pleasure cannot trump mind since without knowledge pleasures will be forgotten. The person who experienced pleasure won't either be aware of it or able to anticipate and plan for future instances. The life of pleasure without mind is summed up in a dehumanizing metaphor: to live pleasure and not to know that you are living it is to be akin to an oyster. However, the life of mind without any pleasure or sensation is deemed as worthless too. The mixed life of sensations and pleasures “mixed” with ratio and proportion for harmony and health is the favored good life.

But the key ingredient and the ultimate good that creates the mixture is measure. Socrates therefore establishes the arts and sciences dealing with exact calculation and measurement as the most important ones that are to be more valued than sciences involving inexact/approximate calculation and intuition/skill. (One of the arts involving intuition is music.) It is noteworthy that in the mix that constitutes the desired mixed life, the impure pleasures that are mixed with pains are left out of it by Socrates because they cause madness. It is noteworthy that Socrates leaves out the impure pleasures that are accompanied by pains out of the mix that constitutes the desired life because they cause madness. Precise calculations required for a balanced harmonious life are thwarted by the mental pleasures of anticipating illusory scenarios of fortuitous events. Furthermore, the proportions of pleasure are exaggerated at close distance. This may lead a person to mistake a small pleasure for a bigger one and potentially to experience a greater magnitude of pain than pleasure.

In this dialogue, Plato establishes himself as a lover of fair climes and good weather. He certainly would be no fan of Romanticism and its paintings focused on wild storms, frothy, gushing waves, furious winds, and lashing rain. The rhythms of nature are too crazy and too prone to disasters. Plato wants to tame those infinite forces that know no rhyme or reason. Temperance, moderation with a precision that would lend itself to mathematical calculations would be his predilection. Hence the quest to submit pleasure to measure.

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