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The Arithmetics of Pleasure

The hedonistic philosophy of Epicurus.

Key points

  • Epicurus taught that pleasure is the highest good.
  • He defined pleasure broadly, emphasizing mental tranquillity and the absence of pain.
  • To maximize long-term pleasure, we must learn to accurately measure pleasures and pains.

The Epicureans put pleasure at the centre of their philosophy. For centuries, they presented the main alternative to Stoicism as a comprehensive way of life. With an appealing message elevated and propagated by poets such as Horace, Lucretius, and Virgil, Epicureanism vied with Stoicism for the hearts and minds of Roman elites. So, who was Epicurus, and what exactly did he teach?

Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BCE) and Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism) were almost exact contemporaries in Athens but may never have met. Just a few years before Zeno began teaching, Epicurus founded a school of philosophy in a garden outside the city’s Dipylon gates. This school, called “the Garden,” dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason, and, in a highly sexist and stratified society, admitted both women and slaves.

Pleasure as the highest good

According to Epicurus, reason leads to the conclusion 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 rampant call for unbridled hedonism, rather than the absence of physical and mental suffering that Epicurus actually had in mind. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, since overindulgence so often leads to pain. “The pleasant life,” he wrote in the Letter to Menoeceus (the most important of his three surviving letters), “is produced not by a string of drinking bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning.”

Pleasure is the highest good, and all 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. All our actions, including those that may be construed as virtuous or altruistic, are, in the final analysis, aimed at obtaining pleasure for ourselves. Just as we can instantly sense whether something is hot or cold, or colorful or dull, so we can instantly sense whether something is pleasurable or painful.

Even so, not everything that is pleasurable ought to be pursued, and not everything that is painful ought to be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus ought to be applied to determine which things are most likely to result, over time, in the greatest pleasure and least pain—and it is above all with this arithmetics of pleasure that people struggle.

Two types of pleasure and three classes of desire

To help us along, Epicurus began by distinguishing between two types of pleasure, “moving pleasures” and “static pleasures.” Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire—for example, tucking into a meal when hungry. Static pleasures, on the other hand, involve the state of having had a desire satisfied—for example, feeling sated after having eaten the meal. According to Epicurus, static pleasures are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want.

Because pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration, Epicurus also distinguished between three classes of desire: natural and necessary desires, such as those for food and shelter, which are hard to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy; natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and housing, which offer ever diminishing returns; and vain desires such as those for fame and fortune which, being inculcated by society, are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Epicurus advised that desires of the first class ought to be satisfied, desires of the second class can be satisfied if doing so is easy, but desires of the third class should be entirely eliminated. “If though wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

The two greatest fears: Death and the gods

Epicurus divided pleasures and pains into physical and mental, and argued that fear of the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstacles to happiness.

Although the gods exist, they 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, we would do better to emulate them in their supreme removal and detachment.

Neither should we fear death, and this for two main reasons. First, the mind is a part of the body, and, like the body and everything else in the universe, is made up of atoms. Our death entails the disintegration 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 us after we are dead. And if death cannot trouble us after we are dead, neither should it trouble us while we are still alive. Second, the eternity that comes before our birth is not regarded as an evil; therefore, neither should the eternity that comes after our death. These two arguments are early formulations, respectively, of the “no subject of harm” argument and the “symmetry” argument, which have both, more or less, withstood the test of time.

Epicurus’ death

Epicurus died at the age of 72 from the complications of renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he purportedly penned this 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 [Idomeneus’ brother-in-law], in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Epicureanism versus Stoicism

Some three centuries later, Seneca, in his Letters to Lucilius, compared his relationship with Lucilius to that between Epicurus and Idomeneus. Given that the headline Epicurean slogan (“You’re right to pursue pleasure, but you’re doing it wrong”) is much easier to peddle than the Stoic one (“You’re wrong to pursue pleasure, and should be pursuing virtue instead”), why did Epicureanism not outcompete and overrun Stoicism?

With its emphasis on public works and the public good, Stoicism proved a more natural fit for conservative Romans, who were occupied with imperial expansion and administration, and would have balked at the equation of the good with, as they would have seen it, self-indulgent enjoyment and retreat.

Another strength of Stoicism was its openness to revision and interpretation, which enabled it to adjust to Roman imperatives and the Roman temperament, whereas Epicurus’ teachings were, quite literally, set into stone—by one Diogenes of Oenoanda, who, in the second century, etched Epicurus’ doctrines over 260 square metres of portico wall.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories, which is part of his Ancient Wisdom series.

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