Opinion philosophy

Between Pleasure and Pain: The Story of the Sacrificial Animal

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Adam and Eve by Gustave Courtois

Pleasure and Rationality

In trying to understand human nature more deeply, I have read what some philosophers and psychologists have had to say, to get a starting point. To understand what man is, it is first necessary to understand what he wants, and more crucially, what he does not want.

One of the first ideas that caught my attention was Freud’ Pleasure Principle. Simply, man will seek out activities that bring pleasure. This reminded me of the Homo-Economicus idea that I was taught as an Econ undergrad, that each member in society seeks to maximize their utility, and that they will buy objects that return to them a degree of satisfaction, also represented as units of pleasure (Utils).

Being rational, they will avoid buying anything that does not give them units of pleasure and will buy items that bring the highest amount of pleasure. But this fundamental assumption, that humans are pleasure-seeking animals, contradicts the intellectual traditions have survived.

In ancient Greece, the Stoics did not think that pleasure was essential. Neither did the Cynics, nor the Platonists, who though that life was worthless without contemplation, and that the human mind, rather than the body, was essential. Even the Epicureans, who are now synonymous with pleasure, were not hedonists in the modern colloquial sense. They were more interested in a sustainable pursuit of pleasure, which included contemplation, tranquility, and the freedom from fear.

Before the Epicureans, there were the Cyrenaics. They were an ultra-hedonistic school. They held that the only intrinsic good was pleasure. This was not the mere absence of pain, but the positively enjoyable momentary sensations. Among the Ancient Greeks, they are the closest instance of a philosophical school that can be thought of as hedonistic. But they understood the value of altruism and social obligations. The school was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. Aristippus, who was a student of Socrates, was also the teacher of Theodorus the Atheist, who was an exponent of atheism and hedonism. The school died out less than a hundred years later, to be replaced by the Epicureans.

But the oldest tradition that promoted the pursuit of physical pleasure, were the ancient Babylonians. In the epic of Gilgamesh, soon after the invention of writing, Siduri gives us the following advice: “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night.… These things alone are the concern of men.” 

The more modern philosophers have focused much less on the Greek mission of the “good life” and much more on existential, political, metaphysical, and ontological questions. So one must assume, that by default, the hedonistic mission of the Cyreniacs have no place in their lives. And as far as what constituted a life worth living, unconventional philosophers like Nietzsche argued for man to follow his natural impulses, but these were rarely indulging in physical pleasures, but were either the immersion in artistic pursuits, or following the instinctual urge to power.

What about the psychoanalysts? Freud, who after writing The Pleasure Principle, figured that he too was wrong, that man was motivated by things other than pleasure. He discussed these ideas in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Adler took note of the inferiority complex in man (how man was motivated, not by what would maximize his success or pleasure, but what gave him the most anxiety or what made him feel weak and vulnerable).

Jung carried on the spirit of Romanticism in his own works by emphasizing the importance of the shadow, man’s darker impulses that are subconscious, and calling on those who are willing, not to disfigure and deform themselves in the pursuit of rational goals that are often socially conceived, but to look inwards, and to become more attuned to the “self”, and more comfortable with their own violent, irrational impulses, and to learn how to accept them as a fundamental aspects of their identity. Contrary to the Enlightenment tradition, the Romantics have insisted that man should make peace with his self-contradictions, and even to embrace them. Jung emphasizes too the existence of the collective unconscious, which, in contrary to Freud’s hypothesis that man is primarily driven by sexual instincts, recognizes in man the need to conform to ancient drives and impulses which have nothing to do with either pleasure or sexuality.

If Not Pleasure, then What?

It may be, that instead of pleasure, man is really motivated by the avoidance of pain. If we look at some religions and ancient philosophical ideologies, this seems to be a consistent idea.

In Ancient Greece, the Epicureans were much more concerned with the avoidance of pain (by emphasizing to eat small meals), than with the indulgence in pleasure.

The central message of Christianity is not the Epicurean pursuit of happiness, but the acceptance that “life is suffering” and to see suffering as a virtue and as a pathway to salvation. Jesus was tortured for our sins, he died on the cross – his suffering was noble and heroic. If you are a Christian, your goal in life is to “imitate Christ”, to suffer like he did, and to let go of your vain attempts at creating an earthly paradise. Although I am less familiar with the Islamic message, the word “Islam”, in Arabic, literally translates to “surrender”, and that is, of course, to the will of God, at the expense of earthly pursuits.

And in Buddhism, the goal is to seek Nirvana, which is not an archipelago of pleasures, but is, in fact, a state of mind where suffering ceases to exist. Buddhism does not just tell you to avoid suffering, but it makes clear, that the biggest evil you can inflict on yourself is the constant pursuit of pleasure.

Each of these religions deals with the problem of suffering in its own way. In Christianity, it is the idea that if you do not get what you want in this life – if you suffer – it is good. Heaven is for the meek, and not for the strong.

It is like the Aesop fable, where the fox solves the dilemma of being unable to reach for the grapes, by finally proclaiming that they are too sour. Thus the idea is not to stave off suffering through your actions, by trying to gain power, for example, but to embrace suffering. And once you accept this idea psychologically, you are less prone to being consumed by your inevitable suffering in life.

There is a similar logic in Buddhism, in the sense that, if you abandon your pursuit of pleasure altogether, then the disconnt between expectation and reality is resolved. This can be summarized with the pithy slogan, “No expectations, no disappointments.” If you do not enter the eternal loop of desire, then you protect yourself from the suffering that is associated with the constant dissatisfaction of never having enough. Think of the billionaire, who after having finally achieved his life-long financial goal, has now fully focused his attention on making the next billion dollars, and who only briefly can enjoy his accomplishment. And since you are not affected by the perceived gain of pleasure, you are likewise unaffected by the perceived loss of pleasure, or even the increase in pain.

If we travel to back to Greece and have a discussion on the porch with Seneca or the other Stoics, they will tell us something that will be familiar by now. That is, to expect nothing of the future, never to anticipate rewards, but to ground yourself in hard work and to embrace privations.  

What are all these systems of thought trying to accomplish exactly, by convincing people to let go of the pleasures of today, to accept suffering, and to learn how to become a friend to pain rather than a stranger to it? In an essential way, they are priming the individual to adopt the notion of sacrifice. The individual either sacrifices present pleasure to avoid future pain, or sacrifices affinities to physical sensations for the well-being of their physical, psychological, and spiritual health.

Repetition Compulsion

Before we explore the idea of sacrifice further, we could ask ourselves a basic question: why do people harm themselves?

One answer could be that they have an implicit tendency to deceive themselves and given that they have conflicting sub-personalities and desires within your psyche, it is inevitable that, from time to time, you will cause yourself harm. But that answer is not satisfying, particularly if you see human beings as intelligent animals, who do not behave arbitrarily, but in sophisticated ways to protect themselves or their egos, even if the motive is not immediately obvious. I will later try to show that the need to suffer is at its root, one that confers a survivalist advantage.

Freud talked about, “Repetition Compulsion.” In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one of the kinds it manifested was “Destiny Neurosis.”

‘the life-histories of men and women … [as] an essential character-trait which remains always the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experience’.

The central idea that man always seeks pleasure is false.  There is a tendency for people to repeat mistakes, to engage in compulsive behaviors that have in the past clearly harmed them. Humankind’s ability to rationally assess his behavior is limited to a few people, and even then, they must be afforded the luxury of either one or a combination of good luck, education, and genetic predisposition.

The Sadomasochistic Animal

If we turned our attention to a different propensity, that is much more universally prevalent in man, that is, the homo economicus standardized pursuit of utility maximization, then we might learn something truly fascinating. Here, I am talking about a peculiar feature of human psychology: sadomasochism.

In Becker’s Denial of Death, the argument is made that mankind’s basic repression is not sexual in nature, but rather, the repression of their own finitude and mortality. Everything around us, the arts, culture, politics, business – they are all attempts to distract us from a fundamental truth, that we are at root, animals, that babies are sometimes born with tails, that we have an expiry date, and that we habitually defecate.

The image he recalls is from a famous quote, on man’s highest throne, he still sits on his ass – this is a comical reminder that no matter what man achieves in life, he is still the essentially the same as everyone else. But Becker alludes to the deeper implication, that man not only sits on his ass, but he sits atop a warm pile of feces.  

In masochism, mankind has found a way to profoundly control their experience of pain. Instead of taking in the morbidity of life in its entirety, he takes in pain in small doses, he administers them to himself as you would with a vaccine. Thus, masochism is a way to control pain, to temper anxiety by accepting a little bit of poison at a time. This concept undoubtedly has Christian (and other religious) connotations associated with it.

Returning to our question, why do some people choose to put themselves in situations that they know will be humiliating, painful, and hurtful? Is it because man feels a basic sense of worthlessness?

In the Biblical story of the Fall. When God finds out about what Adam and Eve had done, Adam does not confront him forthrightly. Instead he hides in the bushes, and when he is finally in confrontation with God, he claims that nature itself, Eve, and even God have played tricks on him.

But it is this sense of shame that Adam experienced that many relate to. And because of this shame, it may not be surprising that people so often engage in behavior that causes them harm and degradation. This basic sense of guilt and worthlessness can be overcome, at least momentarily, through masochism.

There are, of course, many reasons why someone would carry with them the burden of shame and guilt, including engaging in harm, deception, and violence, against others and against themselves. And, of course, the Freudian hypothesis of the superego, which is the social conscience that is embedded in the individual’s psyche, and reprimands him when he overindulgences, or ignores his social responsibilities.

And when I talk about masochism, I mean both sexual and moral masochism.

In Masochism in Modern Man, there is a long discussion of the specific cases, which I will not go into – a quick synopsis will be enough. Of the two types of masochism, sexual masochism has a clear end date: orgasm. And so the idea is that the anxiety and the guilt feelings are resolved through an experience where punishment is anticipated and longed for, and where the termination of the act, in the form of the orgasm, marks the end of this experience, that can be administered, in the way that Becker described, in small doses, similar to a vaccine.

But with moral masochism, there is no end point, there is no orgasm that marks the end of the experience. It more like an indefinite acceptance of pain in all the areas of life. The moral masochist jeopardizes his relationships and career and physical health, with no anticipation of a theatrical punishment with a clear end in sight. And that can be seen with addicts of all kinds, who inflict self-harm, with their general attitude and their lifestyle, and with their tendency to compulsively repeat self-destructive behavior as a ritual.

Thus, there are many reasons why people harm themselves, from the need to master pain, to having no other alternative, to resolving feelings of guilt and anxiety. The next question for me, that is relevant in further investigating the nature of man, is to ask how they know that this self-harm will be good in any way?  

How come, when pain is inflicted, the fear of mortality is staved off, and feelings of guilt and anxiety are temporarily resolved? Why are we wired this way? And it is my intuition, that in connecting this idea with sacrifice, we may have an answer.


We have sacrificed since the beginning of time. And there is something about the idea of sacrifice that is deeply fundamental to the way we think. We sacrifice the present for a better future. We sacrifice pleasure now for pleasure later. If you lift weights, you unconsciously (or consciously) follow the simple dictum: without pain in the present, there will be no gain in the future. In watching what you eat today, will afford yourself more variety of experiences in the future.

We think and obsess about money in our youth, so that we don’t have to spend our time thinking about it when we are older. Children are disciplined when they are young, so that life does not harshly discipline them in the future. Present suffering makes the future less painful.  

Some cultures, such as the Aztecs, acted out this idea in the actual sacrifice of their people. The Christians symbolically do so every year while commemorating the sacrifice of Christ, and some groups, such as Opus Dei, inflict physical punishment on themselves. The Shiite Muslims do so each year during the festival of Ashura, and other practices can be seen in Sikhism, another offshoot of Islam. If religious traditions are representations of unconscious ideas, as Jung would say, then the idea of sacrifice, is one of man’s deepest unconscious ideas.

And yet, it is not unfounded, because it is true that sacrifice brings benefit. It is an unspoken law that impels us to admit to the benefit of sacrifice. And what is masochism, in all its forms, whether moral masochism or sexual masochism, if not an attempt to resolve anticipated pain with sacrifice? The person who chooses to administer to himself the pain in small doses, can take either sexual form or moral form. It may be, that the person who positions themselves for failure by choosing to do something socially and personally humiliating, is overcoming a personal angst of the future, where such humiliations are inevitable. “I will smoke and drink now because I can control how much damage I bring to myself, whereas in the future, I will lose control.” By experiencing pain in the present, the individual immunes himself against pain in the future.

Here is another, less obvious example. Think of people who are very truthful, even rude in their sincerity. These people usually demand the same level of honesty from others. They hold others to the same standard of behavior. A pathological liar, or swindler, will not go around insisting that people be as honest with them as they are to others. But someone who is extremely honest, will do so emphatically, they will demand that their closest friends and family members are as honest and as forthright as they are. This may partly be because of the need for reciprocity, but I think it’s more than that, it is about sacrifice. The honest person sacrifices the comforting illusion now, that will bring future pain, for a painful truth now, that will stave off future pain.

Those that are extremely honest, may have been violently harmed by deception, and so in an excessive counter-reaction, or “overcompensation”, they now have zero tolerance for further deception. They want the truth now, even if it hurts, rather than the truth later, when it will, in their estimation, hurt much more. This is also a common feature in seekers of knowledge and truth, the people who renounce a lot in the present, so that they may learn harsh truths about life and themselves. Scientists and philosophers come to mind.

Our bargaining with time is at the root of our compulsions, vices, and virtues. Our virtues are disguised as virtues, but they are often defense mechanisms against potential vices. And our compulsions are systems or routines that protect us against what we perceive as vices, whether the vice is death or meaninglessness or deception or poverty or illness. Sacrifice is not coincidental, but it is something that works. We are not sure why it works, or how it works, but just that it works.

And we have encoded it into our systems of law, religion, and education, and despite our best efforts to rebel against it in the name of freedom or exploration, it remains an unbroken law. With sacrifice, there is only the possibility of gain. But without sacrifice, there can be no gain. So far, we have only discussed the notion of sacrifice as it relates to the individual, but there is, of course, a similar mechanism that takes place on a societal level.

Mythology and religion has had much to say about sacrifice, but when is sacrifice not a useful idea, and instead, one that leads to perpetual conflict. Here, mimetic theory is relevalent.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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