In M. T. Gibbons, D. Coole, W. E. Connolly & E. Ellis (eds.), Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Blackwell. pp. 2716-2720 (2015)
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The history of the political thought on pleasure is not a cloistered affair in which scholars only engage one another. In political thought, one commonly finds a critical engagement with the wider public and the ruling classes, which are both perceived to be dangerously hedonistic. The effort of many political thinkers is directed towards showing that other political ends are more worthy than pleasure: Plato battles vigorously against Calicles' pleasure seeking in the Gorgias, Augustine argues in The City of God against the human tendency to hedonism in favor of a profound distrust of pleasure, and even Machiavelli claims in The Prince that it is in the prince's best interest to separate his pursuit of pleasure from his pursuit of political power. The thrust of the majority of political thought is to interrupt the popular equation that links pleasure with the good. Instead, political thought has largely followed Plato's lead and has worked to contain hedonism on two fronts. First, pleasure is rigorously separated from ethical and political good: what is good is not identical with what is pleasurable even if the two sometimes overlap. Second, even where the pursuit of pleasure is judged to be coincident with the good, pleasure should only be pursued to the degree it is rational to do so and pursued in the most rational way. Of course, it is not true that all thinkers hold to these two positions on pleasure. Epicureanism and utilitarianism are two major schools of thought that challenge the first precept equating pleasure with the good. Both Epicureanism and utilitarianism argue that the only good is pleasure. However, it is much less frequently that one finds a thinker challenging the second Platonic position that reason must master and guide our pursuit of pleasure—even the Epicureans and utilitarians believe that pleasure is best pursued rationally. However, Foucault has attracted recent attention by challenging the idea that reason should dominate the pursuit of pleasure.

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Cory Wimberly
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


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