The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Mystical Theology: A Broad Spectrum of Orthodox Prose

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In web design, as in graphic-related design since the 1500's, it is traditional to use a standard block of text called "lorem ipsum" when you're trying to see how the page will look graphically and you don't want to be distracted into reading the text itself. The standard block of "pseudo-text" reads:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

The text above, somewhat shortened and corrupted, comes from a quotation of "de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum", section 1.10.32, by Cicero, written in 45 BC. The original text interests me not because it is at the root of the standard piece of dummy text, but for what it says (H. Rackham, 1914):

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

The copyright date is 45 BC, were such ancient works to be under copyright, but I'll take this to be a straightforward statement of the obvious in our day. Let me repeat the last sentence: "But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?" There is a real flaw in this way of looking at things.

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Certain selections of the Philokalia suggest an understanding that imply this statement to be based on a philosophical error. Physical pleasure and pain are tied together, and trying to experience pleasure with "no annoying consequences" is like trying to withdraw money from your bank account without making your bank balance any lower. It's a get-rich-quick scheme that boils down to poor math skills. It is a sign of confusion to try to separate the sugar rush from the sugar crash.

There are certain points where we are warned of the pleasure-pain syndrome: the warnings children are given about street narcotics is not that they fail to deliver pleasure, but after delivering pleasure they deliver all the pain that comes with it. It's kind of like Disney'sAladdin, where Aladdin goads Jafar into wishing, "I wish to be an all powerful genie!", and then tells him, "You wanted to be a genie, you got it! And everything that goes with it!" Shackles appear on Jafar's wrists, and he is sucked into a lamp's "itty bitty living space"—if anything, a sunny and optimistic image to compare with "everything that goes with" addiction to street drugs.

The passages in the Philokalia adapting and elaborating St. Maximos Confessor's teaching make highly emphatic claims about the pleasure-pain syndrome. They very emphatically state that Christ, who was born of a virgin, was conceived without any trace of physical pleasure (sexual or otherwise), and born without pain: a sufficient Redeemer, in other words, needed to be conceived and born outside of the pleasure-pain syndrome. He took the redemptive effects of sufferings he would not earn; other writers have stated that sinless Christ couldn't have died of ripe old age, but in order to die would have to have a "borrowed" death imposed from outside as occurred in the Crucifixion. Mankind entered the pleasure-pain syndrome in a fall to pleasure and sensuality, and to be rescued from drowning, we need a Savior with one foot solidly planted on the dry land of the shore. This is the extent to which that work frames both our destruction and our salvation in terms of the pleasure-pain syndrome.

Speaking in terms of the pleasure-pain syndrome is not a central feature of Orthodox theology, but dispassion is beyond being a central point; it is crucial and receives center stage not just in the Philokalia but in other classics like The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is read during Lent as a consistent feature of monastic discipline.

There is a direct and vital relationship between dispassion and the pleasure-pain syndrome: dispassion is a state of spiritual freedom where one is no longer shackled and governed by the pleasure-pain syndrome or any passion allied to it.

There are many ways one could frame things, and the pleasure-pain syndrome does not appear to be a central theme in the Philokalia overall, let alone an encompassing theme in Orthodox spirituality. But the insight is valid, and for that matter may not be distinctively Orthodox. One Orthodox friend explained to me why he had stopped watching movies: he noticed that an hour or two after a movie ended, he found himself in a depression. Jerry Mander may provide a theory as to why in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, a 1978 title that is still salient, and the book has no pretensions of speaking from a religious tradition. But he argues at length that when you gaze long into television, television gazes long into you: he makes some rather chilling suggestions about what effect television has on where people look for and experience pleasure (in a word, the argument is, "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."). He suggests that when television provides a major source of pleasure, there are things that follow in its wake. It would not seem too difficult to transpose his basic insights in terms of having a cell phone that occupies your attention all the time. Treacherously addictive Internet porn may be a much worse kind of pleasure than most others one might discuss, but it is not the only one where a pleasure-pain syndrome is at play.

Even if the economy is dire, I am concerned we are in an age of pleasures of all kinds, and these are the pleasures of the pleasure-pain syndrome. The Philokalia discusses people who try to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and perhaps times have not changed much... or perhaps we have put the problem on steroids. Think about the short, short list of pleasures that were around when the Philokalia was being written, warning of the pleasure-pain syndrome. Then compare that list to today. If it is a basic philosophical error to pursue pleasures and try to avoid invisibly attached pains, and if the observation is true when pleasure means simple foods, then we've really put things on steroids if pleasure is TV, movies, smartphones, internet, and so on. It's not just "friendship with benefits" (or other kinds of more casual sex) that brings pleasure entangled with pain, and there are things about those passages in the Philokalia that seem like they had been written yesterday; the portrayal of human nature remains insightful today (1st century of various texts, 53):

[M]an finds by experience that every pleasure is inevitably succeeded by pain, and so directs his whole effort towards pleasure and does all he can to avoid pain. He struggles with all his might to attain pleasure and he fights against pain with immense zeal. By doing this he hopes to keep the two apart from each other—which is impossible... [H]e is, it appears, ignorant that pleasure can never exist without pain. For pain is intertwined with pleasure, even thought his seems to escape the notice of those who suffer it.

The microcosm of praise

Becoming attached to praises is another example of the pleasure-pain syndrome at work. Mark Twain reportedly said, "I can live for two months on a good compliment," and he was emphasizing the point partly by exaggerating how long one can live on a compliment. If one does live off of compliments, there's a problem: one gets hungry again. Praise is very powerful at the beginning, but after time men require stronger and stronger doses. And this may be why the Orthodox leaders I have known give very, very few compliments. They decisively treat other people with love and respect, but they rarely make a minor social compliment to help others feel better. Some of them are not very comfortable when others give them compliments to help them feel better. Some run from it like fire and poison.

One of the basic rules of the Orthodox life is that while monastics are called to abandon all property, the rest of us may own property but are required to own it with detachment. Monasticism aims at being impervious to pleasure and pain alike, but the Bible also provides a foundation for owning things, being married and pursuing ventures, while attempting the difficult work of detachment (I Corinthians 7:29-31, RSV):

I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.

As regards human compliments, the lesson would seem to be this: Listen, but do not inhale. Do not let compliments become the nourishment you feed off of. Better by far not to receive compliments at all than to become dependent on them as your spiritual food. And you might be particularly cautious about those compliments that are peppered throughout conversation to make you feel better; they are even more treacherous.

Deep Magic

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Emperor's headsman, the White Witch, incredulously asks the Lion if he does not know the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time: that a traitor must die and if the traitor does not die, Narnia will perish in fire and water. The Royal Lion in fact does know the Deep Magic. And he moves on.

But Aslan also knew something the White Witch didn't. He knew from withini the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time, that if an innocent victim were willingly slain in a traitor's stead, even death would begin working backwards: and so the White Witch slew Alsan to her defeat.

There is Deep Magic with pleasure and pain: what you sow, so shall you reap. If you sow pleasure to the flesh, you will reap pain to the flesh. The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome is not the sort of thing you can escape by pleasure.

But there is Deeper Magic, and its supreme example is found in Philippians 2:5-11, RSV:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

St. John's Paschal homily pours out the Deeper Magic even more plainly:

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.


And what is going on here is no unique exception. What is going on here is the supreme instance of a universal law, the same as in the glorified "Hall of Fame" in Hebrews 11, RSV:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named." He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

The universal law, the Deeper Magic, plays out in Christ, in his saints, and ultimately the whole Church. Never mind that we do not do the feats of saints; we probably shouldn't try, and it is a trick of the demons to tempt inexperienced monks to take on impossible virtues. If we suffer for Christ, however small the way, it genuinely matters.

A more excellent way

Is there any alternative to the pleasure-pain syndrome?

St. Paul, in the great hymn to love, writes (I Corinthians 13, RSV):

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The part in bold seemed to me, at least at first glance, like it didn't belong. But there is something in the passage that hinges on giving up childish ways. Faith, hope, and love are virtues of Heaven, the virtues of Heavenly life lived on earth. Giving up childish ways, in effect, is giving up the quest for earthly comfort. As C.S. Lewis observed, Heaven cannot give earthly comfort no matter how hard we seek it. Earth cannot give Heavenly comfort: you are shopping at an empty store to ask earth for Heavenly comfort. But earth cannot give earthly comfort either: you are still shopping at an empty store to ask earth for even earthly comfort, and in fact stepping into the pleasure-pain syndrome. The only comfort to be had is Heavenly comfort. The words in bold could be paraphrased, "When I was a child, I sought earthly comfort, inescapably embracing the pleasure-pain syndrome. When I became a man, I put the search for earthly comfort behind me—and sought and received heavenly comfort instead." Those who sow to the flesh will reap pain from the flesh, but those who sow to the Spirit will reap joy from the Spirit. The words about "I put childish ways behind me" serve as a hinge between letting go of the pleasure-pain syndrome, and the virtues of the Life of Heaven begun here, now.

Let us return to the beginning of Cicero's quotation behind "lorem ipsum:" "But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born..." Can we say that Cicero was right all along? Only if we really stretch his words' meaning. Saints in pursuit of Heaven's comfort and Heaven's joy spurn mere material comfort and are purified through material pain. Arguably the text can be stretched to say that the saints reject pleasure in the pursuit of greater pleasure, and they accept pain likewise in the pursuit of greater pleasure. But something deeper than pleasure is going on, and Cicero's passage quoted above is stretched to the point of not meaning very much if it is interpreted this way. While the ancients were very open to the idea of finding "Christians before Christ" among the pagans, it is a real stretch to interpret Cicero's passage as describing a Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. Perhaps this Son of Man finds the deepest, fullest, richest pleasure there is: but Cicero will not take us there, and his argument is shortsighted with no power to free us from the pleasure-pain syndrome.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God and its heavenly comforts with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin and its pleasure-pain syndrome.