Hedonism: an addendum

In my previous post, I discussed how, with the loss of his land, Moeris lost as well the possibility of song – that is, of the shepherd’s pleasure. Song, of course, is not unique to shepherds. No doubt it exists in the city, too. But that does not mean it is the same.

What I said there was perfectly true, but it was one-sided. For Moeris did not lose merely the possibility of the shepherd’s pleasure, but also of the shepherd’s pain. Losing one’s land is not a painful event within the shepherd’s life. It is of a higher order: it denies the possibility of the shepherd’s life altogether. All of its pleasures and pains vanished. They may be replaced by others, but they are not the same. Any sophisticated hedonism (and Virgil’s is sophisticated) must recognize this entanglement of pleasure and pain, and that one may lament the loss of one’s pains as much as of one’s pleasures. My previous post was unsophisticated precisely for not sufficiently recognizing this, for presenting only the loss of pleasure.

I recognized my omission on reading the tenth and final Eclogue. There, Virgil sings a song for Gallus, who has been abandoned by his love, Lycoris. Love, which entangles pleasures and pains, is, after song, the central pleasure-pain in the Eclogues. Songs are sung for lovers, or to lament having been spurned by a lover. Happiness is requited love; unhappiness, unrequited.

But can I really speak of love as specifically a pleasure of shepherds? For love, like song, is present even in the city, and even in the city requited love is happiness and spurned love is unhappiness. What is the difference?

Consider the following passage:

……………………..even the laurels wept,
Even the tamarisks, for Gallus’s sorrow;
Even the mountains, even the cold cliffs
Of Lycaeus wept for him, and the pines that grow
On Maenalus’ slopses; the flock was standing still
As if transfixed in mute compassion for him.

For the sorrowing shepherd, the entire world joins in his sorrow: the laurels, the tamarisks, even the cold cliffs. All bear the character of his sorrow. In the city, one may certainly sorrow, and the world may even bear one’s sorrow with one, but it is a different world, and it gives the sorrow a different character. That is why they cannot be equated.

It is surely a virtue of Virgil’s hedonism that it recognizes the failure of pleasures and pains to translate across worlds.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.