The Pleases and the Thank-Yous: On Etymology and Natural Justice

In our usually over-simplified studies of Epicurean thought, we learn that, rather than a supernatural belief in laws handed down by a god or by a prophet which would constitute justice by the authority of whatever god or mortal claims the divine right to rule, our notion of natural justice consists of a man-made social contract where people agree neither to harm nor be harmed, a contract of non-violence.

We have lost most of Epicurus’ scrolls and sources, so that while this simple definition of natural justice is good and useful, we must dig deeper and seek to connect the ideas in our tradition to each other and find again the coherence that originally made Epicureanism so attractive to its adherents.

Epicurus dignified pleasure by making it the highest good, and the science of securing pleasure became therefore the science of ethics itself –ethics being defined as the good life.

In this article I will explore some of the intended meanings of words that we use in our social interactions in order to acquire pleasure for ourselves and as tokens of gratitude for favors given to us.  I will also seek to invigorate our discourse around the theory of hedonism and explain utilitarian hedonism.

I will make the case that many languages exhibit in their common courtesies an implicit sense of natural justice as defined by Epicurus.  I’m not familiar with all the languages spoken by humankind, but I have a suspicion that most, if not all languages, might display similar verbiage to the one discussed here. 

Through this exercise I wish to accentuate how the pleasure principle informs our sense of natural justice and how, rather than being apes who selfishly compete for resources, the civilized homo sapiens are hominids who use cooperation in order to further mutual interests.  We’re more like the bonobos, who have a robust culture of cooperation and pleasant exchange, and less like the aggressive chimpanzees.

French philosopher Michel Onfrey coined the term utilitarian hedonism to refer to this concept of a calculated hedonism that pays attention to our pleasure rather than my pleasure, to the common good and to mutual interests rather than individual ones.

Utilitarian hedonism wants the calculation of joys with the goal of attaining the most benefits for one and the other. – Michel Onfrey (my translation)

The difference between vulgar hedonism and philosophical hedonism has to do with how the philosopher hedonist seeks the pleasure of the other as well as his own. The teaching mission of the Gardens is not just about sharing didactic material to help others be happy.  It’s also about showing others how this process of joint happiness works in practice, how it’s mutually-affirming and not about using and exploiting the other.

This is of extreme importance for many reasons. People who favor ascetic models of ethics want the world to believe that pleasure will always be accompanied with unpleasantness and inconvenience and that it’s best to avoid pleasure. We reject that notion as a denial of life and of self, but then IT FALLS TO US TO DEMONSTRATE how one’s own affirmation IS also the affirmation of the other.

Interestingly, comedy also works that way: one actor makes a joke and the second actor must affirm his joke and make a joke on top of that, and then the first actor follows his lead again, and so on to absurdity. Like Joseph Campbell said, we must follow our bliss … and the bliss of others.

Utilitarian hedonism is opposed, according to Onfrey, to vulgar or selfish (immature) hedonism not by being selfless or based on some other false virtue but by being mature and calculated.

So, what are the common courtesies that people use daily in Western culture to enact the social contract?

To please is to give pleasure.  To ask to be pleased, to ask to be given pleasure by way of a favor, we use the word ‘Please!’ (or por favor, in Spanish, which literally means ‘as a favor’).  The term favor, in turn, reminds us of the idea of being favorable towards someone, or having a favorite.

Gratitude shares semantic roots with the Latin word ‘gratus’, which (like the Spanish word ‘grato’) translates as pleasant.  Gratitude translates, therefore, as having a pleasant attitude towards someone else or towards life or nature.  To gratify is to make someone feel pleasant, to give pleasure.

In French, the term for ‘please’ is s’il vous plaît, which translates as ‘if it pleases you’, where the original intention was for the term to be a plea for mutual pleasure.  In other words, it’s as if saying ‘may this act be pleasing to you as it is to me‘, ‘may we be mutual instead of selfish in our pleasant exchange‘.

These terms are now used thoughtlessly, as a matter of courtesy, but someone at some point in history used these terms first with a thoughtful intention.  We can only imagine that the universality of their use is owed to their great usefulness in creating civilized modes of interrelation.

The word ‘please’ initiates the social contract by calling for a thank you, by calling up the social duty of the party who is pleased, commonly known as the debt of gratitude. links the origins of the word ‘thank’ to thinking, to having someone else in one’s thoughts:

O.E. þancian “to give thanks,” …
Ger. danken “to thank”,
from *thankoz “thought, gratitude,”
from PIE base*tong- “to think, feel.”
For sense evolution, cf. related O.E. noun þonc, originally “thought,” but by c.1000 “good thoughts, gratitude.”


When a person remains in our thoughts, it can be said that that person remains in our conscience and that we remain thoughtful and caring towards them.  The other time when we have people ‘on our thoughts’ is when they are suffering or have lost a loved one, when we are concerned for them out of compassion.  Ergo, by favoring and pleasing others, we gain the social currency of their empathy.

In our theory of human happiness, gratitude is said to be one of the cure-alls within Epicurus’ pharmacology.

The cure for misfortunes lies in gratitude for what has been lost and the realization that it is impossible to undo what has been done. – Vatican Saying 55

Yet, if we study the terms used to express gratitude and to ask for favors, we will notice that gratitude is more than just a cure for the diseases of the soul and that pleasure serves as the social lubricant in most, if not all, of these terms.

It seems that there is a near-universal (even if usually unconscious) recognition that the pleasure principle lies behind the informal social contracts that everyday people enact with each other.  The people who coined these terms were seeking the pleasure both of the self and of the other.  They were enacting contracts of natural justice.

Written by Hiram Crespo


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