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The Philosophy of Epicurus

Learning to master the hedonistic calculus.

[Article updated on 7 July 2019.]

Source: Pexels

Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC), who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens. Called 'the Garden', this school dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and rational principles, and, in a highly stratified and sexist society, admitted both women and slaves.

According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually had in mind. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.

On the divine

Epicurus wrote prolifically, but the early Christians thought of him as especially ungodly among the ancient philosophers, and almost none of his works survived their disapprobation. Epicurus held that the gods exist, but have absolutely no concern for, or even awareness of, humankind. Indeed, for the gods to involve themselves in the menial matters of men would be to perturb the supreme happiness and tranquillity that characterizes and defines them. Instead of fearing the gods, human beings should seek to emulate them in their supreme happiness and tranquillity.

On death

Neither should human beings fear death, and this for two principal reasons. (1) The mind is a part of the body, and, just like other parts of the body (and everything else in the universe), is made up of atoms. The death of a person entails the death of both body and mind and the re-dispersion of their atoms. As there is no longer any person to be troubled, death cannot trouble the person after she is dead. And if death cannot trouble the person after she is dead, then nor should it trouble her while she is still alive (this is an early formulation of the ‘no subject of harm argument’). (2) The eternity that comes before a person’s birth is not regarded as an evil, and, therefore, neither should the eternity that comes after her death (an early formulation of the ‘symmetry argument’).

Epicurus himself died at the age of 72 from renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the sharpest and most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he penned this remarkable letter to his friend and follower Idomeneus, which is nothing if not a testament to the overriding powers of philosophy.

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Some three centuries later, in his famous Letters to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger compared his relationship to Lucilius to Epicurus' relationship to Idomeneus.

It is your own studies that will make you shine and will render you eminent. Allow me to mention the case of Epicurus. He was writing to Idomeneus and trying to recall him from a showy existence to sure and steadfast renown. Idomeneus was at that time a minister of state who exercised a rigorous authority and had important affairs in hand. 'If,' said Epicurus, 'you are attracted by fame, my letters will make you more renowned than all the things which you cherish and which make you cherished.' Did Epicurus speak falsely? Who would have known of Idomeneus, had not the philosopher thus engraved his name in those letters of his? All the grandees and satraps, even the king himself, who was petitioned for the title which Idomeneus sought, are sunk in deep oblivion. —Seneca, Letters, On the renown which my writings will bring you.

On pleasure

Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is an end-in-itself and the highest good of human living. However, he identifies happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain rather than with the pure exercise of reason. Pleasure is the highest good, and anything else that is good is so only by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. The behaviour of infants confirms that human beings instinctively pursue pleasure and that all of their actions, including those that may be construed as being either virtuous or altruistic, are ultimately aimed at obtaining pleasure for themselves. Just as human beings can immediately feel that something is hot or cold, colourful or dull, so they can immediately feel that something is pleasurable or painful. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that many people are unable to handle.

Types of pleasure

To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after eating a meal. Static pleasures, says Epicurus, are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstructions to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, we need to avoid anxiety, which we can do by learning to trust in the future.

Types of desire

Pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, says Epicurus, three types of desires, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied, natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and vain desires should be entirely eliminated. By applying this recipe for the selective elimination of desires, we can minimize the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring ourselves as close as possible to ataraxia.

In closing

Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy’, he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Top 10 Epicurus quotations

1. The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.

2. Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

3. A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

4. Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.

5. Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

6. Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.

7. It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.

8. Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.

9. Misfortune seldom intrudes upon the wise man; his greatest and highest interests are directed by reason throughout the course of life.

10. The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.

Neel Burton is author of Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.