The Balance of Pleasure and Pain

“Happiness existed only as a contrast to unhappiness, and one could not exist without the other. Therefore, they balanced out: ‘Since pain naturally and infalliably produces a pleasure in proportion to it, every individual creature must, in any state of life, have an equal quantity of each.'” – Walter Isaacson, The Autobiography of Benjaimin Franklin

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in America, and what better day than any to celebrate our Founding Fathers, the men who built the roots of the United States by designing a Democratic Republic that could flourish for hundreds of years to come.

Benjamin Franklin.jpgThe Founding Fathers, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams, they are most known for their writing and oratory which structured the government that still governs our lives today in the USA. But one of them above all, Benjamin Franklin, is instead more known for his accomplishments outside of the political arena rather than inside it. Franklin has an astounding resume, he started the first library in America, invented bifocals, created the first fire department, and of course, he is the man we credit with electricity. The list of inventions and discoveries goes on and on as Franklin rises to the top of ingenuity among the likes of Tesla, Edison, and Jobs. Franklin was an original creator of the free world but also a conductor of the free mind, expanding the understanding of the physical but also frequently publishing philosophical writings that helped others understand themselves. He achieved this perspective through constant humble self-reflection.

Yet to say Franklin’s life was full of nothing but whimsical fun and invention escapades would be unfair. Franklin endured much hurt throughout his life. Sitting at his four-year-old son Franky’s bedside and watching him die of small pox was just one of them. Thus, it is no surprise that throughout Franklin’s adventures and inventions, he commonly wrote about the similarities between that of nature and physics and that of the natural life of being human.

Franklin’s most credible claim is that he discovered electricity. While this is a far stretch to say he “discovered” it, Franklin did actually invent many of the practical uses of electricity and even designed and produced mechanisms that could harness and empower this natural phenomenon. While electrical currents and sparks were being used for entertainment purposes by showmen and magicians, Franklin found a way to use electricity for more practical purposes. One of these first demonstrations was using electricity to kill and cook a turkey for a large event he hosted in town. Later, he would go on to help other inventors along their journey in helping mankind by finding many other ways to use electricity to enhance the quality of life as we know it.

That Franklin discovered electricity and created many other fashions of our lives is no surprise. What is surprising and underappreciated are the life lessons left by Franklin with many of his discoveries. Specifically, Franklin’s theory of the “conservation of charge” may prove useful to expose and discuss here. “Franklin’s discovery that the generation of a positive charge as accompanied by the generation of an equal negative charge became known as the conservation of charge and the single fluid theory of electricity,” writes Walter Isaacson in his New York Times Best Selling Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, “The concepts reflected Franklin’s bookkeeper mentality, which was first expressed in his London ‘Dissertation’ positing that pleasure and pain are always in balance.” 

Pleasure and pain are always in balance.

Franklin’s theory goes that, like electricity, which requires a positive and negative charge, so too does life consist of a perfect balance of pleasure and pain. He writes in his Dissertation that “one cannot rise or fall without the fall or rise of the other.” His argument is that in life there exists a perfect balance between the two emotions and people who feel that there is an imbalance have an incorrect understanding of nature. He goes on to discuss that both duration and intensity must be taken into account when evaluating pleasure and pain. But the importance lay not in the measurement of these two balances but simply the understanding of their necessity. Without one there can not be the other.

This balance exists too in our common world today. A balance of positives and negatives. In a time of polarizing political distress, we also have the positives of unification, resources, and hope. And in our own individual lives too, yes, we do experience pain, discomfort, and hurt, but if we look within and around we will find also weighing quite pleasureful the existence of convenience, surplus, family, and friends. It seems to be a matter of perspective, or maybe a misunderstanding. Without the negative, we can not see the positive. Without the two extremes, we cannot make a choice to rise above, to live in the good and to push away the bad. Without evil, we cannot have good virtue. So then, evil must be embraced as part of nature.

Winston Churchill understood this about politics when he said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Churchill understood the balance between good and evil, positive and negatives, independence and dependence. Today, on one of the most celebrated holidays in America, Independence Day, we remember the freedom that our democracy brings us. We celebrate the good.


See, in order to create an electrical spark, in order to create something magical, such as a free and prosperous nation or a beautiful life, real magic isn’t required at all. No, in order to see that spark, in order to gaze into the beauty and wonder of that flash, like a sparkler being waved around on a summer night, one must embrace both negative and positive charges. In order to see the magic and beauty in life, we must embrace both pleasure and pain.

One cannot appreciate the fortune of riches without knowing the challenges of being poor. One cannot know how great her parents are until she sees others who are not so fortunate to have loving parents. One cannot truly appreciate what he has unless he understands what it feels like to have not.

This is why experiencing life, even with all of its hurt and pain, is imperative to being truly happy. This is why when a person feels loss, loneliness, or dispare, she should remain optimistic in her current circumstances. Because this is life, this is electric. In moments of pain, we must remember the pleasure. In moments of pleasure, we must not take them for granted, we must remember the pain.

Today, on this great day, we need not worry about politics. We need not worry about government. We do, however, need to worry about ourselves. Will you make the choice to live in the balance? Will you choose to accept the hurt? Will you push past it with a greater knowledge of how the world works? Just like electricity which requires both positive and negative charges, so too does life require both pleasure and pain. The next time you are feeling pain, hurt, or loss, remember this. This life isn’t perfect, in fact, it might even feel like it brings nothing but pain, it might feel like you were dealt the worst hand, but it is better to embrace life than to not live at all. It is better to be and to breath. You are a creation, an invention, a discovery. You are independent and free. Celebrate this.

Happy Independence Day.

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