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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Jeremy Bentham: Pleasure and Pain

In the last four months my experience with pain has been problematic. Neuropathic pain is difficult to manage and poorly understood. My threshold for pain is exceptionally high--a physical trait that came in handy as a morbidly sick kid and a paralyzed adult. I am quite capable of putting the pain I experience out of my mind on a daily basis. If I concentrate on something intellectually stimulating during the work day I can work effectively. The key here is to be active physically or intellectually at every moment. The problem arises when the work day is over and I am physically and intellectually spent. This is when I struggle. I have had some very long nights in recent months. For me the pain is largely in my hips and feels like an unrelenting burning sensation. Usually I can fall asleep but am woken by the pain between 2am and 3am. Sleep after pain wakes me up is elusive.

There is no doubt I am very lucky. Many people with neuropathic pain truly suffer. No medications I am aware truly eliminate neuropathic pain. Clouding the mind with narcotics is out of the question. THC found in recreational marijuana provides some relief but I do not like the high associated with it. Cardiologists frown upon alcohol so I drink in strict moderation. No more rum and coke for me. CBD oil and creams are something I have started to explore. None have been effective to date. In short, pain relief is illusive.

Middle of the night pain sucks. Again, I am lucky. I rest and read. Lately I have been reading on my phone. There is an amazing amount of high quality classic scholarship readily available. Lately I have been reading work by Jeremy Bentham. Today, Bentam is known for his moral philosophy and utilitarianism. I tried reading enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and David Hume but found Benthem more relevant. Bentham's empiricism appeals to my anthropological mind. Bentham's hedonistic account of what motivates people in terms of pleasure and pain presents an interesting dichotomy. When one is sitting up in the middle of the night experiencing neuropathic pain happiness or pleasure is reduced to living pain free. Life is very simple when this dichotomy is at the forefront of one's mind. In the Introduction to the Principals of Morals and Legislation Benthram wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjugation, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.

Life is exceedingly complex yet when reduced to principals of pleasure and pain at 2am constructing a calculus of value becomes possible. Since last June when I started reading Bentham again, I have found solace in the pain pleasure dichotomy. I accept the pain that washes over my hips late at night and appreciate the ability of my mind to block out pain during the day. This is especially helpful as my pain is wildly unpredictable. I can go days or weeks without pain. I can experience pain every day and it can be relentless for an hour, a day, a month or many months. It comes and goes and flows over  me like water. For me, pain is a glacial process. It is present or not present. It is like a light switch. Pain is on or off. Hence I experience pain or pleasure in a visceral way. Thank you Mr. Bentham.

I set eyes upon Jeremy Bentham's body on display at the University College London in the late 1980s. Way back then, I had no pain. Frankly, his head was and remains gross. His body has been on display for more than 150 years. Here is proof in its preserved glory.

Bentham has been in the news the last week because his head is going to be on display for the first time in decades. Upon his death, Bentham wished his body would be put on display. Bentham was an atheist and did not believe in Christian burial practices. He wanted his body to be of use both in life and death or so the legend goes. While his body has been on display, his head has been deemed too grotesque for public consumption (a mummification error took place).  At University College London a new exhibit examining death and preservation is is being held and in the estimation of Subhadra Das, Curator of collections at University College London Culture, "I think Bentham would certainly have approved of his head going on public display. It's what he intended." I agree with this whole heartedly. What I am not so sure about is the fact samples of Bentham's DNA have been taken to test theories that he may or may not have had Autism or Aspergers. I am not opposed to testing ancient  DNA or the DNA of Bentham. I do wonder though why we have a morbid fascination with whether Bentham had Autism. Is it not enough he considered Christian burial practices to be "nonsense on stilts". Regardless, I agree with Das it is worth exploring what drove Bentham to donate his body and address the challenges of putting human remains material on display.

Back to neuropathic pain. For me burning is the most common sensation I feel. Imagine a cast iron hot poker being pressed against your skin as though you were being branded. That is what I feel. I also feel tingling, shooting, sharp, and jabbing pain. Prickling pain is also common. Pain reminds me I am alive. Pain also makes me appreciate pleasure. There is so much pleasure we humans overlook and dismiss. The feeling of a warm shower. The sensation of sun on your face. Being outside in frigid temperatures and feeling a bone chilling cold blow across your body. The pleasure of my burning shoulders after a long handcycle ride.  Sexual pleasure in all its breadth. The pleasure associated with food. The joys and pleasures of life are as bottomless and enduring as the pain I experience. Again, thank you Mr. Bentham for making me think. Maybe being awoken in pain at 2am is not such a bad thing.