When considering the periodisation of ancient philosophy, we regard the period between the years 341 – 270 BCE as the Hellenistic era (immediately succeeding Aristotle). The schools of thought that developed during this time included Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism, to name but a few. Of this period, one of the most prominent philosophers was Epicurus, a man born to Athenian parents on the Greek island of Samos, who later came to develop influential theories regarding ancient physics, epistemology and ethics. His school, which came to be known as ‘The Garden’, consisted of a community lifestyle that was regarded as a retreat from both politics and civic life. It is here that he aimed to teach other like-minded individuals, who shared his ultimate goals and views on the world around him. Though we do not have any of his 300 treatises (the number given to us by Diogenes Laertius, one of our major sources for Epicurean philosophy), his teachings do survive through a collection of quotes known as the ‘Principal Doctrines’, as well as three letters, quoted in their entirety, which were compiled by Laertius. Aside from this, we also find that he heavily influenced the works of succeeding philosophers, poets and orators such as Lucretius and Cicero, who were both of Roman descent. Some of his most complex and idiosyncratic ideas are those relating to the topic and pursuit of pleasure. Some say that his approach was hedonistic and did not lead to a virtuous and ‘good’ life, while others suggest that this was not the case and instead, have aimed to prove that his ideals were intended for and lent themselves to a ‘just’ and ‘happy’ existence.
According to Epicurus, pleasure and pain are to be regarded as the ultimate measures of good and bad. He agrees with his predecessor, Aristotle by highlighting the importance of happiness. Seeking pleasure, and therefore leading a good life, was seen as the sole objective of any individual. Even the other tenets that he advocated for were regarded as a means through which pleasure could be sought; happiness was to be found only with an understanding of both epistemology and atomism. The basis of his philosophy lies in the knowledge that one must eradicate all fear and anxiety in order to achieve ataraxia, meaning a state of tranquillity. He states that ‘the limit of pleasure is the removal of all pain’, which includes but does not limit itself to bodily pain. In fact, it is clear from Epicurus’ letter to Idomeneus, written on his death bed, where he suffered from intense physical pain, ‘that someone in bodily pain (sometimes unavoidable) may overcome this by the mental act of reliving past pleasures and anticipating new ones.’ It is the fear of death that haunts almost every individual’s existence which is seen as both irrational and a hindrance; I shall return later to this argument and, for now, continue to argue the topic at hand. It is the emphasis that he places upon the importance of an individual’s pleasure that has led many to believe that Epicurus’ values were not virtuous but rather hedonistic.
As has been clearly assessed by Sedley, there are two types of pleasure described by Epicurus: kinetic and katastematic. Kinetic pleasure, also known as moving pleasure, involves the act of satisfying an individual’s desire; from this satisfaction arises the removal of ‘bodily disturbance’, such as the act of sex, and anxiety over unpleasant feeling, like that of hunger. Katastematic pleasure on the other hand is a static state of pleasure; this is the state of being that follows the satisfaction of a particular desire, and which frees us from the pains of both need and want. To further an understanding of why the Epicurean philosophy cannot merely be regarded as hedonistic, we must look at what he considers to be the three types of desires. Natural and necessary desires consist of basic food and shelter, natural and non-necessary desires of luxury food, and shelter and vain desires consisting of fame, money and power (the kind of desire that can be attributed to political endeavours). It is of the first type that Epicurus places great importance; he also states that the second category can be indulged, provided one is able to control their greed so as not to go overboard. It his understanding that the third category is ‘bad’ which forms the basis for his belief that a life away from politics and civic confines is the means to true happiness. In terms of leading the ‘good life’ it is, in my opinion, impossible to separate both types of pleasure. Plato, in his work Gorgias, explains the distinction between kinetic and katastematic pleasure using a metaphor of two jars: one that is leaky and must continually be refilled and one that is solid and needs little refilling. He uses the figure of Callicles, an opponent of Socrates, to describe the second jar as a paralleling the existence of a corpse or a stone. As expressed by Sharples, the ‘pleasure in simply not being thirsty seems lacking in positive content’. She also states that ‘a life could not indeed be katastematically pleasant without some kinetic pleasures’; in my opinion, this lends itself to the idea that no one can live a truly pleasant life without kinetic pleasures as these lead to those that are katastematic. Some may argue that this satisfies of one of our most innate human characteristics – greed.
When we look at features including greed and selfishness, we are immediately confronted with negative connotations. How can we then separate these from Epicurus’ philosophy in order to provide him with the status of being a ‘virtuous’ individual? Joques Brunshcwig has been acclaimed for his ‘Cradle Argument’ where he states that the philosopher’s use of infant behaviour as a means of proving that some pleasures are to be favoured above others is an example of how humans must trust in their intuition in order for them to choose the kind of pleasures that would, in the end, bring them ultimate happiness. However, it seems to me that the philosopher abandoned the notion that as we grow, so do our desires. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate what one might consider a necessary pleasure from a non-necessary, or even vain one. When trying to identify whether Epicurus himself, let alone the students of his school, followed a just life, I think one must consider the fact that perhaps the philosopher did not lend enough importance to the subjectivity of want, desires and virtue.
As pointed out in Book I of Cicero’s De Finibus, ‘Epicurus did not believe that there was any intermediate between pain and pleasure…the highest pleasure finds its limits only in the absence of all pain, so that thereafter it can be varied and differentiated but not increased or expanded’ (a law that can be paralleled to Democritus’ atomist theory stating that atoms may bond together and take on varying forms, but cannot be increased or expanded). This can be used as an example to prove that Epicurus seems to regard everything as black and white, when this cannot be the case; critic Martha Nussbaum also highlights the fact that he seems to disregard what makes human life distinctively human, of which the nature of subjectivity is paramount. Pleasure and pain are innately subjective concepts – what may cause great pain to one may not to another.
The concept of friendship is one that is both complex and seemingly contradictory in terms of justice and virtue. Epicureanism places friendship on a pedestal while simultaneously referring to it as a contractual interaction. One of the greatest misconceptions pertaining to his ideas is that they shunned altruistic behaviour in pursuit of one’s own happiness. Instead, Epicurus sees justice as ‘an agreement not to harm or be harmed’ between individuals or the state. While he does not ignore the fact that these ‘contracts’ can be broken, hence the need for both legal sanctions and basic political institutions, he relies on the fact that one must possess the ability to understand that the anxiety that arises from a wrongdoing – out of the fear that one may be caught – outweighs the temporary pleasure that said wrongdoing may have caused. For example, Lucretius notes that many a criminal has been driven insane and given themselves away through speaking of their misdeeds in their sleep: this is the result of anxiety. Similarly in terms of friendship, one would only be prompted to act in favour of each other to avoid bringing themselves more anxiety. Regardless over whether the intentions behind such actions are based on an individual goal, they are mutually advantageous and promote virtue and justice amongst the people. An advantage of the Epicurean community would have been that the members were like minded, and so there would have been little room for arguments surrounding fundamental beliefs. As Cicero mentions, ‘the wise are able to love each other no less than they love themselves’, thus resulting in the fact that any virtuous action bestowed upon one’s friend would also bring oneself the same degree of pleasure.
In order for one to lead the good life, one must not be plagued by the fear of impending death. Lucretius states that if we have not feared the ‘endless ages that have elapsed before our birth’ how can we rationally fear those that shall come after? Critic Sedley provides us with a convincing argument, stating that there are many who are ‘concerned with future projects that death as annihilation seems to threaten’ or how one may have lived an unhappy life but could reform this if given more time by adopting Epicureanism. The first argument can be said to fail when we consider the prospect of ambition.
Throughout history, ambition has been the culprit of numerous injustices. Epicurus himself states that political careers fueled by desire are merely the search of false security that arise out of the fear of death. By this standard, surely his rejection of ambition, though not in line with innate human greed, seeks to limit the possibility of further injustice and therefore favours virtue above all else. Now returning to the concept of death, surely the fact that once ultimate pleasure has been achieved as it can no longer be furthered, an individual has every right to end his life as his purpose has been achieved. In terms of ‘modern’ ideas on virtue, particularly those linked with religious values, the act of suicide is considered one of the greatest sins. The fact that Epicurus did not live in fear of the Gods but rather regarded them as entities that were too emulated may hold the reason as to why he did not regard suicide as a sin. Though he did not advocate it, he did not label this as sinful but instead as a means to an end if an individual had completed his goal or if his life had been so painful that there was no scope for redemption.
Epicurus’ philosophy simply emphasised the innate human need to seek pleasure through the satisfactions of what our existence necessarily requires. To say that it was hedonistic is, on many fronts, incorrect. He aimed to show how individuals could live alongside each other while in the pursuit of a shared goal. It is wrong to assume that virtue means disregarding oneself in favour of some ‘greater good’ when the mere act of maintaining a peaceful existence is in itself virtuous. He advocated for cooperation and a mutual understanding of what the highest ‘good’ truly was, as such his teachings did largely relate to what others regard as an objectively ‘just’ existence.
Written by Kavisha Kamalananthan
Everson, S. ‘Epicureanism’, in: D. Furley (ed.), Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 2: From Aristotle to Augustine, London: Routledge, 1999, 188–221.
Long, A.A. and Sedley, D (eds.). The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol. 1, Cambridge, 1987. [Translations of the principal sources with philosophical commentary]
O’Keefe, T. Epicureanism, Durham, 2010.
Rist, J.M. Epicurus. An Introduction, Cambridge, 1972.
Sedley, D. “The Inferential Foundations of Epicurean Ethics” in Everson ed., Ethics, Cambridge, 1998, 129-150.
Sharples, R.W. Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy, London, 1996.