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Foundations of Ethics, Vol. II:

Pleasure as the Good in Epicureanism

Daniel J. Castellano (2010, 2013)

Part I - Background and Context
1. Introduction
2. Aristippus and the Cyrenaics
3. Variations in Cyrenaic Thought
  3.1 Hegesias
  3.2 Anniceris
  3.3 Theodorus
4. Epicurus and His School
5. Epistemology
6. Physics
7. On the Soul
8. On the Heavens
9. Ethical Function of Physics
Part II - Epicurean Ethical Doctrines

Part I - Background and Context

1. Introduction

While there is much that is noble in the ethical teachings of the Stoics, they appear to have departed from good sense in insisting that pleasure and pain are always matters of moral indifference. Often we find that people perform acts of courage, generosity and justice in order to preserve someone else's temporal good or to prevent pain or injury to another. Pleasure and pain, then, are at least objects of ethical action, even if they are not necessarily to be identified with moral virtues.

At the other extreme, we find the Epicureans, who held that there is no ethical good apart from pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Although today the term 'Epicureanism' is used as a synonym for hedonism, the original Epicurean school had a much more subtle philosophy than most of its modern analogues. Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC) found pleasure not only in overt sensual gratification, but also in the satisfaction derived from virtuous behavior. Epicurus, then, forces us to consider the extent to which pleasure and ethical good may coincide, even to the point of identity.

The works of Epicurus are no longer extant, as his doctrines fell out of favor in the Christian era. This was not a matter of overt suppression; rather, the expense and labor involved in transcribing manuscripts guaranteed that only the most highly valued works would remain in circulation through the centuries. Epicurus' doctrines are preserved only indirectly, through fragmentary citations in other works, most of which take a hostile stance toward his school. A notable exception is the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers, which expounds a fairly detailed defense of the person and teachings of Epicurus. The Lives of Diogenes Laertius has been criticized as focusing too much on inconsequential (and sometimes dubious) biographical details, while giving only a cursory and superficial description of his subjects' teachings. This is not the case with his treatment of Epicurus, and the exceptional care shown in this part of the Lives has led some to speculate that the biographer himself was an Epicurean. At any rate, we find a sufficiently sympathetic account that enables us to discover Epicurus' core doctrines and some arguments in their favor. Since we are concerned more with the ideas themselves than with the accuracy of their attribution, Diogenes' shortcomings as a historian need not trouble us too much.


2. Aristippus and the Cyrenaics

Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435-350 BC), a student of Socrates, was the earliest known philosopher to teach the doctrine that pleasure is the only good. He enjoyed luxurious pleasures as a courtier to Dionysius in Athens, and boasted that philosophy enabled him to flourish in society. He saw no contradiction between living extravagantly and living well, and defended his hedonism by saying, "it is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without being worsted." None of his works are extant, and Diogenes Laertius reports that all other philosophers wrote abusively of him, with the exception of Theodorus.

The disciples of Aristippus were known as the Cyrenaics. Like most subsequent thinkers who thought of pleasure as the good, they attempted to reduce ethics to non-teleological physics. Pleasure and pain were explained in terms of smooth and rough motions, which were respectively attractive and repellent to all living things. By "pleasure" (hedone), they primarily meant bodily pleasure, and thought there was no consequential difference (diapherein) among pleasures. Man's only "end" (telos) was the desire for pleasure (meros hedonen).

This attempt at biological reductionism, like its modern analogues, suffers from the inconsistency of deriving a telos from non-teleological physics. We are not told why we should seek pleasure, or indeed pursue one course rather than another, if there is no teleological aspect to nature, such as the Stoic Logos. The desirability of pleasure is taken as a brute fact, as a sort of minimalist concession to teleology.

Indeed, the Cyrenaics taught that pleasure alone is choiceworthy for its own sake, needing no other reason. Even happiness (eudaimonia) is not choiceworthy for its own sake, but only in accordance with the desire for pleasure. Happiness, in the Cyrenaic view, is nothing more than the sum of all pleasures experienced—past, present, and future. The pursuit of happiness, then, is subordinate to the pursuit of pleasure.

The decision to make pleasure rather than happiness the end was not logically necessary. One could have made the pursuit of particular pleasures subordinate to achieving a happy state of mind, where one reflects on pleasures enjoyed and those yet to come. Yet the Cyrenaics chose to make the momentary experience of pleasure the highest end, as being best in accord with their physical reductionism. This led the rest of their ethics to become extremely short-sighted, even to the point where it was not preferable to avoid pleasure now in order to gain greater pleasure later.

The present-oriented teleology of Cyrenaic ethics was motivated by their simple physics. Since pleasure consists of a smooth motion, that motion must be occurrent in order for there to be pleasure. Thus the mere absence of pain and distress is not allowed to be pleasure. Similarly, the mere memory or expectation of pleasure cannot be regarded as pleasure, since the smooth motion is not occurring. It is clear that the Cyrenaics found the locus of pleasure in its determinate sensation, not in the idea or recollection of pleasure. They did allow that some mental pleasures, such as delight in the country's prosperity, might not have bodily analogues, yet they always conceived of pleasure in terms of the immediate psychological sensation. They did not reduce pleasure to the physical senses, since one might derive pleasure from a dramatic depiction of tragedy, yet mourn at the sight of a real tragedy. Rather, the locus of pleasure was in the psychological qualia one perceives during pleasure, that sensation now known to have a neurological analogue. The Cyrenaics were correct, then, in their intuition that pleasure is physiological in origin.

The Cyrenaics definitely favored bodily pleasure over mental pleasure, while regarding bodily pain as worse than mental pain. It is not clear exactly how they made this distinction, since even bodily pleasure or pain is mentally experienced. Aside from their doctrine of smooth and rough motion, the Cyrenaics found physics to be useless and uncertain, and restricted their inquiries to logic and ethics. Their analysis of psychology is purely from the perspective of subjective experience, with little attempt to ascertain the physical basis of such experience.

Aristippus said of philosophers, "Should all laws be repealed, we shall go on living as we do now." It is a common boast of those who reject traditional morality that they do not need the law in order to act rightly. In fact, we usually find that such thinkers retain conventional morality more for cultural reasons than because of any real consistency with their rationalistic theories of ethics. Such tension is apparent between Cyrenaic doctrine and classical moral virtues.

The Cyrenaics held that nothing is just or unjust, noble or base by nature, but only by convention. Still, the earnest (spoudaios) man will shun wrongdoing in order not to arouse the prejudices of others and to avoid the penalties imposed by society. Similarly, prudence is desirable not for its own sake but for its consequences. Even friendship is motivated by self-interest, so that we cherish friends as parts of our own body. Thus a Cyrenaic philosopher may superficially resemble a traditionally virtuous man in his deeds, though having entirely different motivations.

It is easy to see how this position eviscerates the traditional virtues of any ethical import. If justice and decorum are purely arbitrary conventions, the Cyrenaic who acts justly and abstains from public vice is a playacting hypocrite. He secretly has no regard for the distinction between virtue and vice, but acts according to conventional morality only to avoid arousing the ignorant populace against him. He lives parasitically on the social capital of established moral order and laws, and has no rational basis for deciding what the laws ought to be instead, since all justice is mere convention.

In the Cyrenaic view, prudence and liberality are also reducible to the pursuit of self-pleasing consequences. Prudence is merely practical wisdom, rather than knowledge of truth desirable for its own sake. Liberality is really clandestine selfishness, so there is nothing truly generous about it. Friends are sought for our utility, so their real relation to us resembles slavery or bribery more than friendship. The Cyrenaic preserves only the external form of virtue; in his heart, he values only his own pleasure.

We have seen variations of this line of thought among atheistic intellectuals since the Enlightenment. Believing that traditional morality is merely arbitrary convention, yet at the same time lacking a theological or metaphysical basis for objective ethics, such thinkers pretend to observe social forms only out of prudent respect toward the ignorant majority, or out of some supposed bonhomie. This hypocritical sociability is then invoked as evidence that traditional religion or metaphysics is unnecessary to ethics. Yet our modern iconoclasts are effectively piggybacking onto the social capital established by conventional morality, without proposing a rational basis for an alternative convention. If everyone were openly hedonist or selfish, we should not expect the same results as when only a few are clandestinely amoral.


3. Variations in Cyrenaic Thought

3.1 Hegesias

Several variants of Cyrenaic thought are mentioned by Diogenes Laertius. First we are told of the school of Hegesias, which frankly declares that "there is no such thing as gratitude or friendship or beneficence," since we do these things solely "from motives of interest." The Hegesians, at least, were not guilty of the hypocrisy described above, as they candidly maintained that all human relations are purely utilitarian.

This school also "denied the possibility of happiness, for the body is infected with much suffering... and fortune often disappoints." This is an astute, if ironic, insight, for hedonism leads to pessimism in the rational man. If pleasure is the only good, we are sure to be disappointed in our pursuit of happiness, for discomfort, pain and inconvenience abound all around us, and moments of pure hedonic bliss are usually fleeting. As we age, the life of pleasure becomes ever more difficult to sustain, so that, by hedonistic standards, life usually ends in failure rather than success. Thus we find that sensual hedonists cling in vain to their disappearing youth, and that every pain to them seems a tragedy. It is no accident that, in hedonistic societies, people find it difficult to believe in a benevolent Providence (whether of Nature or of God), since they can see no positive value in the suffering or pain that fills this world. In order to sustain the desired state of pleasure, they must make themselves oblivious to hard reality, through drink, narcotics or other means.

Note also that the hedonist is dependent on fortune, for pleasure and pain often derive from extrinsic circumstances. Unlike the Stoic, who can make himself happy by acting virtuously, regardless of external circumstances, the hedonist depends on accidents of fortune to create the material conditions for happiness. Since fortune is fickle, lasting happiness is impossible.

The Hegesians denied that anything is naturally pleasant or unpleasant; rather, circumstances make them so. Poverty and riches, slavery and freedom, honor and dishonor, are matters of indifference regarding pleasure. That is to say, pleasure may be present or absent in any of these conditions. Even life itself is a matter of indifference, since the next moment might bring pleasure or pain.

Wisdom, for the Hegesians, consists in pursuing one's own interests above all others, so they shared with other Cyrenaics a purely selfish notion of hedonism. They held that no one else could help a man as much as himself in pursuing his interests.

Since the Hegesians believed, with other Cyrenaics, that one pleasure was not preferable to another, they held that the wise man would have the advantage of focusing his energies on avoiding pain, rather than choosing between goods.

The Hegesians, no less than the Stoics, were troubled by the notion of erroneous opinions, yet unlike the Stoics, they allowed that even a wise man may err in judgment. For the Hegesians, a rational judgment meant identifying whether something would bring pleasure or pain. One may err in judgment "under constraint of some suffering," which is why we should not hate criminals, since they are not erring voluntarily. Note this early anticipation of certain modern liberal views that criminality is attributable to mental or physical illness. The proposed cure, then and now, is to teach people how to pursue what is pleasant.


3.2 Anniceris

The school of Anniceris, according to Diogenes Laertius, agreed with the Hegesians in most things, except they held that there really are such things as friendship, gratitude, piety and patriotism. On account of these things, a wise man can be happy even if he has few pleasures of his own. The Annicerians seemed to have understood a notion of happiness that was not strictly selfish. They acknowledged that friendship has the benefit of good feeling even through hardships. This is a remarkable exception to the principle of pleasure as the good.

Still, Annicerian hedonism remains conceived in fundamentally selfish terms. Friends are not to be kept when they are no longer useful or advantageous. The happiness of a friend is not intrinsically desirable, since we ourselves do not experience it.

The Annicerians were more pessimistic than the Hegesians when it came to correcting people through education. They held that people were born with bad dispositions, which needed to be corrected by forming good habits, not by instruction alone. In this emphasis on moral behavior as habit, they were similar to the Peripatetics.


3.3 Theodorus

The disciple of Anniceris named Theodorus is particularly noteworthy, since he "utterly rejected all belief in gods," and in this respect influenced the thinking of Epicurus. We do not know if Theodorus was an atheist in the modern sense, or if, like Epicurus, he rejected only the anthropomorphic Greek gods in favor of a more abstract, distant divinity. It is unfortunate that none of his works are extant, since he appears to have held some unique views, distinct from both Cyrenaicism and Epicureanism.

Theodorus regarded joy and grief, rather than pleasure and pain, to be the supreme good and evil. Good was brought about by wisdom, evil by folly. Wisdom and justice were goods, their opposites evils. Pleasure and pain were intermediate between good and evil.

It would be interesting to know how Theodorus fleshed out this system; we can only speculate from fragmentary knowledge. It is not clear if he understood wisdom and justice in utilitarian or non-utilitarian terms. Judging from the fact that he was once a disciple of Anniceris, he may have been willing to allow exceptions to the principle of pleasure as the good. Still, judging from his attitude on friendship (discussed below), it is likely he was fundamentally a utilitarian. The only difference would be that he regarded joy (chara) rather than pleasure as the supreme good. Wisdom, then, would consist primarily in knowing what will bring joy and avoid grief (lupe). Pleasure would not be an ultimate end, but a means of achieving the goal of joy. In this we can see a foretaste of the Epicurean objective of achieving a stable, blissful state, free from fear or other disturbance. Theodorus takes more of a long-term view than other Cyrenaics, though he still has a selfish notion of utility.

It is unclear how Theodorus would have harmonized his utilitarian morality with the idea that justice is a good, higher than that of pleasure. Possibly, he saw justice as harmonizing relations between men so that each could derive joy. The punishment of criminals may inflict pain, but doing so attains the higher good of allowing men to be secure in their persons and possessions, freeing them from fear or grief. Still, there is a basic tension between the social virtue of justice and the strictly selfish utilitarianism that appears to have been espoused by Theodorus.

Friendship was rejected by Theodorus on selfish utilitarian grounds. Among the unwise, he claimed, there was no real friendship, since they dissolved such bonds as soon as the friend was no longer useful. The wise, for their part, have no need of friendship in the first place, since they are self-sufficient. Seeing no value in friendship apart from utility, he evidently agreed with the Hegesians against his own teacher, Anniceris.

As was common among the Cynics and Cyrenaics, Theodorus thought that most social values were only so many prejudices, and that the wise man may indulge his natural appetites without regard for conventional taboos. Accordingly, he held that theft, adultery and sacrilege were not naturally wrong, and were allowable on occasion. He defended adultery by arguing that the use of feminine beauty is enjoyment, and that adultery is consonant with this use. Naturally, he countenanced sacrilege, since he regarded belief in the gods as mere superstition. Apparently, he also held that property claims were purely conventional, not natural, so that these too may be ignored in some circumstances. All morality was to be subordinate to utility.

Theodorus evidently regarded national loyalty as just one more prejudice, claiming instead that the world was his country. This seems like an early anticipation of the cosmopolitan sentiment that abounded among the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Like the philosophes, Theodorus pretended to reduce morality to what is natural, and since men of all nationalities have a common human nature, there is no basis for preferring men of one's own nation over those of another. Recall that Theodorus denied that the wise have any need of friendship, so this would have been a further reason for him to disclaim any preferential attachments to a group of men. The philosophes, by contrast, valued friendship and fraternity, and though they frequently regarded racial or regional patriotism as so much prejudice, they nonetheless extolled civic virtue and loyalty to a republic. Thus the cosmopolitanism of Theodorus was likely distinct from the social morality of the Enlightenment.


4. Epicurus and His School

Epicurus, son of Neocles, was born in 341 BC among the Athenian settlers at Samos in Ionia. He came to Athens at the age of eighteen for military service, but his stay was brief, as the settlers of Samos were all expelled to Colophon by Perdiccas upon the death of Alexander. He joined his father in Colophon, and taught philosophy there. In his thirty-second year, he founded a school in Mytilene on Lesbos and in Lampsacus on the Hellespont. He finally returned to Athens five years later (306 BC). There he established his own school, known as the Garden, after its physical location, situated between the Stoa and the Academy. He died in his seventy-second year, 270 BC.

The contemporaries of Epicurus while in Athens included Zeno of Citium (333-261 BC), who founded the Stoic school, based on his elaboration of Cynic thought. Theophrastus, the disciple of Aristotle, headed the Peripatetic school from the Philosopher's death in 322 BC until his own death in 288 BC. Meanwhile, Plato's Academy was headed by Polemon, a follower of Xenocrates, from 314 BC to 269 BC.

We note that the Epicurean school was founded almost simultaneously with the Stoic. Just as Zeno supplemented Cynic thought with a developed cosmology, so did Epicurus amplify Cyrenaic ethics with physics. Epicurus synthesized the atomist physics of Democritus and the hedonist ethics of Aristippus into an original system of philosophy, which would prove to be among the most influential of the classical world.

Epicurus' primary concern as a philosopher was to deal with the fears man held about death, the gods, storms, calamities, and other accidents of fortune. He thought that an understanding of the cosmos through natural philosophy would enable the wise man to live without fear. It is this freedom from fear or anxiety that Epicurus held up to be the most desirable state for man, even more so than indulgence in carnal pleasures. Although his natural philosophy has some superficial resemblance to modern physical science, we must keep in mind that Epicurean inquiries in physics have this psychological or ethical aim.

Since the purpose of physics is to free man from fears about unknown forces, Epicurus adopted a position of dogmatism—i.e., that we can know the truth about nature—in contrast with the skepticism then current among many Greek philosophers. By the same token, however, he did not always commit to a definite view about the physical cause of a phenomenon. He was content to show several plausible mechanisms, without choosing among them, since his only concern was to assure himself and others that celestial and atmospheric phenomena were governed by corporeal natures rather than divine caprice.

Epicurus' conceived of gods as absolutely free from any fear or disturbance whatsoever, so he rejected popular mythology as impious superstition. The true god or gods lived in a perfectly blessed state, so they would not trouble themselves with the motions of celestial bodies, nor would they take sides in human affairs. It might be suspected that Epicurus' theology, which left the gods with nothing to do, might in fact be clandestine atheism. Yet his theological doctrine was probably sincere, as it holds pride of place in his Sovran Maxims, and he was not afraid to deny the traditional gods of Greece openly. Divine blessedness serves as a model for the bliss that humans pursue and attain only imperfectly. If the gods are given nothing to do, we must remember that the Greeks, and Epicurus especially, had a negative view of labor.

In order for man to attain the wisdom that leads to the highest pleasure—the absence of fear or pain—we must have a reliable epistemology. Epicurus held that the senses are always a reliable source of knowledge, and that all our opinions must conform to the facts presented by our senses. At the same time, he disdained attempts to speculate beyond what could be uniquely determined by the facts. In this attitude, he seems to anticipate modern scientific empiricism. Still, we should keep in mind that his epistemology is motivated by ethical concerns. Accordingly, he tends to be subjectivist, insofar as he regards sensory experience itself as the primary object of knowledge. Since even philosophical wisdom is ordered toward maximizing the pleasantness of our subjective experience, it follows that physics teaches us no good beyond the pursuit of pleasure, as Epicurus conceived it.

Epicurus accepted Aristippus' doctrine that pleasure is the only good, yet pleasure was no longer defined in the Cyrenaic sense of a "smooth motion" or positive sensual experience, such as we ordinarily call pleasure. Rather, pleasure consisted primarily in the absence of fear or pain. When these banes were absent, by comparison one sensual pleasure was no better than another. Other Cyrenaics had also held that one pleasure is as good as another, and the Hegesians believed that the most desirable thing is to be free from fear or pain. Epicurus developed this thought further, and conceived the highest state of pleasure not as "smooth motion," but as rest and tranquility. Aesthetically, his blissful state resembles that of the Stoics more than that of the hedonist Aristippus. The Epicurean wise man is perfectly unperturbed by the accidents of fortune, and will not squander his energies pursuing vain luxuries, for he values wisdom above all else.

Epicurus retained some of the classical virtues, but gave them a utilitarian interpretation. Wisdom, we have noted, has the purpose of freeing us from the fears of myths and superstitions. Its more practical aspect, prudence, has the overt purpose of helping us choose a course of action that will avoid pain. We may even reject certain pleasures because of annoyances that attach to them. Justice is to be observed out of expediency, yet there is no absolute or universal justice. Rather, justice is merely a set of reciprocal covenants agreed to by men at various times and places. Unlike the Cyrenaics, Epicurus allowed for a type of fortitude, holding that a man might even die for his friends. Since he valued mental tranquility over bodily pleasure, he considered it possible for a wise man to be happy even on the rack. Similarly, we may find a sort of temperance in Epicureanism, insofar as it admits that some pleasures are best enjoyed in moderation, lest they should bring us later pain or anguish.

Much as Cicero provides us the most nuanced and developed presentation of Stoic ethics, so does Epicurus put the "best foot forward" on behalf of ethics with individual pleasure as the good. Epicurus was not a gross libertine, nor did he reject friendship. His system allowed for heroic deeds of self-sacrifice for friend and country, and he spurned the dissolute life commonly associated with hedonism. On top of this, Epicurus employed philosophical arguments whose subtlety compares favorably even to modern advocacy of hedonism. If we are to inquire into the relationship between subjective pleasure and the ethical good, Epicurus will take us to further depths on the subject.

Our written sources for the thought of Epicurus are fragmentary. Diogenes Laertius describes some Epicurean doctrines at length, even quoting in their entirety some epistles of Epicurus, which provide epitomes of his teaching on nature and ethics. Diogenes also records the forty Sovran Maxims, which were a kind of catechism for the Epicurean school. The Roman poet Lucretius (1st cent. BC) is another source of Epicurean thought, as his epic poem De Rerum Natura expounds the cosmology and physics of Epicurus, sometimes giving more elaborate arguments than we find in the brief epitomes presented by Diogenes Laertius.


5. Epistemology

Epicurean philosophy was divided into three domains, according to Diogenes Laertius: canonic, physics, and ethics. Canonic (kanonikon), as its name suggests, deals with the standard and rules (kriterion kai arches) of philosophy, or what we would now call epistemology. Indeed, the only principles Diogenes gives in his discussion of canonic are epistemological, so canonic is not a type of metaphysics or study of first principles.

The Epicureans rejected dialectic, and insisted on using ordinary terms for things rather than the technical concepts posited by other philosophers. Epicurus, in his letter to Herodotus, says that the definitions of terms should be clearly seen, and require no demonstration. This is so we have a reference point from which to begin our inquiry.

The second principle of Epicurean canonic is to adhere to our sensations and feelings, as they are impressed in the mind. These are the standards by which we determine what needs confirmation and what is obscure (adelon) or inaccessible to sense. In his Canon, Epicurus explains his confidence in sensations and perceptions as follows.

Sensation, of itself, is without reason or memory. It is not self-caused, nor does it add to or subtract from its external cause, so it does not introduce error. Nor can one sensation refute another sensation; both are equally valid realities. Nor can one of the senses convict another of error, since each sense has a different object. Reason cannot refute the senses, since it is entirely dependent on them.

Sensations and feelings (e.g., sight, hearing, pleasure, pain) are the brute facts from which all other knowledge must be derived or at least made consistent. This is why, throughout his physics, Epicurus (and likewise Lucretius) will judge theses by whether they are in accord, or at least not in contradiction, with sensation. Whatever else may be said about sensations, they are certainly real. This is true even of the sensations of madmen and dreamers, for the things they perceive produce real effects in their minds.

Among the brute facts in our mind are what the Epicureans call preconceptions (prolepsin), which are apprehensions of right opinions or ideas. These are what we might call concepts and intuitions. For example, before we call something a horse, we must have a preconception of the shape of a horse, and the name 'horse' refers precisely to this preconception. Note that preconceptions are conceived in terms of sensations. By starting with sensation as unassailable brute fact, we can guarantee that all our terms correspond to realities if we use them in the simple, ordinary sense of referring to preconceptions.

A Peripatetic or Academic, and indeed many modern philosophers, might consider this epistemology na´ve, as it judges things according to appearances. In this view, we cannot be content with intuitive definitions of things, for extramental reality might be fundamentally different from how we perceive it. The Epicurean, by contrast, makes subjective perception the fundament of reality. He might retort that we have no means of falsifying our senses, since all our reasoning depends on them.

The data of sensation is the evidence by which we judge opinions or assumptions to be true or false. That which is confirmed or not contradicted by sensory evidence is true, and that which is contradicted or not confirmed by sensory evidence is false. Note that the Epicurean notions of true and false opinions admit some variation of certainty. That which is neither contradicted nor confirmed by sensory evidence may be held as tentatively true or false, and the account of Epicurean epistemology that Diogenes provides us gives us no basis for preferring truth or falsity as the default assumption.

The Epicureans did not hold the na´ve view that things really are as they appear to our senses. Rather, the data of sense are accurate qua sensations, though they give incomplete or imperfect accounts of the objects they represent. To give an example used by Lucretius (iv, 337-413), a square tower viewed from a distance might seem round. This is not because of any fault in our eyes, for our sight accurately conveys where there is light and shadow. Only our inference that the tower is round is erroneous; the error is in our reason, not in sensation, which makes no judgments about the nature of reality. The way to correct error is to approach the tower, that is, to examine things more closely through sensation.

Aside from sensation, the feelings (pathe) of pleasure and pain are fundamental facts for every animate being. Pleasure is that which is favorable to the animate being, and pain is that which is hostile. Accordingly, one chooses what is pleasant and avoids what is painful. Just as Epicurus grounds all judgment about what is real in the data of sensations, so does he ground judgment about what one ought to choose or avoid in subjective feelings, taken as brute facts.


6. Physics

For Epicurus, inquiry into physics serves the ethical or psychological purpose of freeing man from fears caused by myth. At the same time, his ethics is shaped by his physics, since he will not admit any reality beyond that which is grounded in sensation and feeling. It is necessary, then, to briefly examine Epicurean physics. Without pretending to give an exhaustive or critical analysis of this cosmology, we present it as so many presuppositions to Epicurean ethics.

Our two primary sources on Epicurean physics are: (1) a letter from Epicurus to Herodotus, copied in its entirety by Diogenes Laertius, and (2) the epic poem De Rerum Natura, by the Roman poet Lucretius (1st cent. BC). We will follow the order of Epicurus' letter, which was intended to give an epitome of his physics, while turning to Lucretius on occasion to provide additional reasoning behind certain theses.

The first thesis of Epicurean physics is that nothing comes into being out of what is non-existent. A similar thesis was held by the Peripatetics. It is a rational consequence of the supposition that a non-entity cannot have any power of generation.[1] Epicurus inferred from this thesis that the sum of all things must be constant, since there can be no creation out of nothing.

Epicurus distinguishes himself from the Peripatetics and Academics by holding, with the atomists, that all being consists of bodies and space. This is consistent with his epistemology, for only corporeal beings are proven to exist by the senses. Space, though it is not detectable by sense, no less certainly exists because it is logically necessary for bodies to have a place to occupy.

The fundamental elements of bodies must be indivisible and unchangeable, according to Epicurus, following Democritus. If this were not the case, and the elements themselves were susceptible to destruction, then everything would be destroyed at some point. Yet Epicurus supposed earlier that the sum of all things must be constant, since there can be no creation out of nothing. Thus the world existed from eternity, and so if the elements could be destroyed, this would have occurred long ago.

Lucretius elaborates that the elements are like primordial germs or seeds from which all other things grow. Unlike other types of atomism, Epicurean physics seems to have been modeled on biology, with atoms acting as seeds from which entire worlds and living beings could grow.

Epicurus held that the sum of all things is infinite, for "everything" has no limit, while finiteness implies limit. This appears to be a logical error, confusing two senses of "everything": all that might conceivably exist, and all that actually does exist. It is possible for the latter to be finite, though the former is necessarily infinite. Lucretius offers credible arguments that space, at least, is infinite, since there is nothing to prevent atoms from traveling ever further away. Further, if someone stood at the edge of space and threw his spear, where would it land? (i, 951-1051)

Although his argument that there are infinitely many things is dubious, Epicurus does present credible arguments against two possibilities. It is impossible that there is an infinite void and finitely many bodies, or a finite void with infinitely many bodies. The latter possibility is eliminated by the supposition that bodies have finite size, which follows from the fact of atomic indivisibility. If atoms were infinitely divisible, then all elements are destructible and the universe would be impermanent. On the supposition of an infinite void (which was credibly defended by Lucretius), then it is impossible that there are only finitely many bodies, for then the atoms at some point would spread so thin that nothing could be formed, and again the universe would be impermanent. Recall that the eternity of the universe is required by the supposition that there is no creation out of nothing. If we accept this supposition and that of an infinite void, then the infinity of bodies would follow.

The infinite number of atoms has important implications for Epicurus, since this means that all kinds of composite bodies may be created infinitely many times. He supposes that atoms come in a large but finite variety of shapes, so there are infinitely many of each type of atom. The atoms are in continual motion for all eternity, moving through the void until they rebound from other atoms or are entangled in a cluster.

This being the case, it practically follows that there are infinitely many worlds like our own (and others unlike it), where each "world" consists of an earth, sun, moon, and stars. Likewise, all the various kinds of living beings, including men, come into being on these other worlds, since they too have all the requisite varieties of atoms. Each of these worlds, including our own, will someday be destroyed, but the atoms will always endure and form new worlds.

Images of objects are films that fly quickly through the void. They are literally part of the original object, continually streaming off of the object's surface, while the object's particles are constantly replenished. This awkward account of images is necessary to uphold both (1) that only bodies and the void exist, and (2) that sensation can provide a reliable connection with reality.

The images impact with our sense organs, and thus we receive an impression of the original object's shape. Yet the image itself may be damaged or somewhat dissipated during its transit, so that its form upon reaching our sense organ is not the same as that of the original object. This does not convict our sense-faculty of error, for it accurately conveys the form of the image that is presented to it. Error occurs only when we inject our opinion about external reality based on the image.

For example, the images that we derive from paintings or from dreams are not of themselves false, for they resemble real things which we have actually contacted. Error arises only when we add to our raw perception some judgment about external reality. That judgment is susceptible to confirmation or contradiction by further sensations.

Vision depends on the transmission of images retaining the shape of their object, while hearing relies on the emission of a current, displacing particles in air or some other medium. Smell depends upon the conveyance of particles from the original object. Thus all these senses, no less than taste and touch, operate by direct contact of bodies.


7. On the Soul

Atoms have no qualities other than shape, weight and size. All other qualities of bodies are secondary or derivative. This includes even the attributes of life and rationality. Lucretius defends this materialism by refuting the fallacy of composition, showing that an attribute of a composite being need not be possessed by its components. The argument gains credibility from the Epicurean conception of atoms as germs or seeds for more developed forms, in contrast with other types of biological materialism.

The soul is composed of fine particles distributed throughout the body. According to Lucretius, it is combined with mind as a single nature, though the seat of mind is in the breast, for here is where we feel fears and joys. Apart from the invocation of fine particles, the Epicurean notion of the soul is not much different from Aristotle's, as the rational and sensitive faculties are fused in a single nature, with reason in command. Epicurus sees mind as that part of the soul made of the finest particles, most swiftly and directly acting upon the body. Loss of mind causes death in humans.

Lucretius argues that the action of the soul upon the body proves that soul is corporeal, since a thing can only act upon a body by corporeal contact. Likewise, the body can affect the soul, as when someone faints from blood loss.

Epicurus teaches that the soul does not of itself have the power of sensation, but only when it is contained by the body's frame. The power of sensation (and other aspects of sentience) properly belongs to body and soul in combination.

Parts of the body may be lost, along with associated parts of soul, yet the soul may still survive with sentience. If all the critical atoms of soul depart, however, then there will be no sentience in the body. If the body is disintegrated, then the soul will have no frame in which to operate, and lacking the motions it had while in the body, it will no longer have sentience.

Against the notion that the soul is incorporeal, Epicurus argues that the only conceivable self-existent (i.e., substance rather than accident) without body is empty space, yet empty space cannot act upon bodies. Thus an incorporeal soul would not be able to act upon the body. Epicurus' argument works only if we share his axiom that nothing can exist except bodies and the void, which is precisely what advocates of incorporeal substances deny. His belief that the very notion of substance entails corporeality, either filled or vacant, derives from his conviction that all knowledge comes from sensation and intuitive apprehension. Incorporeal substances are intelligible to us only as abstractions, not directly apprehended sensitive intuitions. Thus Epicurus disregards them as mere words without reality.

Naturally, the Epicurean soul is not immortal, so Epicurus would have to devote some of his ethical teaching to the argument that the certainty of death is not a cause for fear. On the contrary, he holds, we are freed from the anxieties brought about by concern for the afterlife.


8. On the Heavens

Epicurus believed that natural philosophy could free mankind from superstition. Once one understood how things actually worked, there would be no cause for fear. A great source of anxiety among religious Greeks was the interpretation of celestial motions as divine portents. Epicurus sought to dissuade such belief by pointing out the incompatibility of the heavenly bodies with the notion of divinity.

According to Epicurus, it is impossible that the gods should be concerned with the movements of the stars and other celestial bodies. "For troubles and anxieties and feelings of anger and partiality do not accord with bliss, but always imply weakness and fear and dependence on one's neighbors." Since the gods live in perfect bliss, they cannot trouble themselves with the motions of the stars, much less do they feel the need to show anger or partiality to men through heavenly portents.

Tranquility of mind is achieved not by studying the specifics about eclipses, solstices, risings and settings, for there are many who understand these, yet remain troubled, because they do not understand the fundamental nature of the stars. It is necessary, rather, only to understand the fundamental principles of the heavens, in order to secure peace of mind.

Since Epicurus' concern is only to assure man's happiness, it does not matter to him if he cannot uniquely identify the cause of a celestial phenomenon. If several possible naturalistic explanations can be adduced, this is good enough for the purpose of achieving tranquility.

Note that Epicurus adopted the implicit premise that a naturalistic explanation is always preferable to a theological explanation, as far as man's tranquility is concerned. This is because the religion of his time portrayed the gods as arbitrary and capricious, which led to anxiety and fear. A naturalistic explanation, by comparison, would be reassuring.

Epicurus' naturalism is distinct from modern scientific naturalism, since his belief is not grounded in an a priori denial of the possibility of divine action. Rather, it is motivated by the desire to eliminate religious fears about avoiding divine anger and winning divine favor.[2]

In a letter to Pythocles, Epicurus summarizes his teaching on celestial phenomena. He opens by noting that his objective is only "peace of mind and firm conviction." Unlike his physical doctrines, which he believes to be uniquely established by the facts of sensation, there are various possible explanations of celestial phenomena that are consistent with our senses. We should not pick and choose among these possibilities, lest we fall into myth.

Epicurus defines a world (kosmos) as a bounded portion of heaven (ouranon), containing the earth, stars and all other bodies visible to us.[3] It is cut off from the rest of the infinite by some boundary. Its exterior may revolve or be at rest, and it might have any shape. Epicurus is content to articulate possibilities not contradicted by observation, since no one can discern the boundary of our cosmos.

There are infinitely many such worlds, and a world may arise within an existing world or in the spaces between worlds (metakosmin), which are not absolutely empty. This happens when enough seeds (spermaton) stream in and undergo augmentation (prosthesis), articulation (diarthroseis) and change of place. After receiving some waterings (epardeuseis), they are perfected and stable (diamones). Epicurus models the formation of the cosmos in terms of biological growth. He explicitly rejects the view of ancient atomists (e.g., Leucippus and Democritus) that it suffices for atoms to aggregate and collide with each other. It is "in conflict with the facts" that growth and maturation should arise by such a mechanism. Thus Epicurus' position is different from that of modern materialism, which pretends to reduce all of nature to the mechanics of fundamental particles.

Epicurus opposes atomist necessitarianism for both physical and moral reasons. First, it is contrary to what we observe in nature. Second, the physicists' notion of necessity constitutes a Fate no less fearsome than the superstitions of pagan religion. Instead of being subject to the whims of capricious gods, we are now at the mercy of happenstance collisions of atoms, which proceed with inexorable inevitability. The bleakness of this worldview is amply attested by the materialism of the nineteenth century, which was then imbued with strong determinism and a purely mechanical notion of matter. It is no wonder that this version of atheism never gained much popularity, and even its adherents are forced to look away from its darker moral implications. Epicurus, by contrast, wishes to give an account of nature that is consonant with a sound moral life and frees us from needless fears.

Within our world, the celestial bodies formed and grew from accretions and whirling motions of fine natures, either of wind or fire, as sense suggests. The sun and stars are roughly the size they appear to be, for this is also the case when we view a fire from a distance. Epicurus claims to have defended this last thesis at length in his treatise On Nature, now lost. Lucretius reiterates the argument that fires do not appreciably change in size even when viewed from afar, and then defends the thesis that such a small sun is capable of lighting and heating the world. The moon, too, is about the size she appears, since we perceive her features clearly, while extremely distant objects are made fuzzy by the intervening air. (v, 564-613)

Although the Epicureans were clearly wrong in their confident assessment of the size of sun and moon (presented as a true opinion, not a conjectural possibility), we can see the basis of this doctrine in their epistemological and ethical concerns. We must generally presume that things are as they appear to be, favoring the direct data of our senses over more abstract ratiocination. The reason for this preference is that the senses are immediately accessible to us, so their reliability allows us to live in serenity.

The remainder of Epicurus' letter is a catalogue of conjectural explanations for various celestial and meteorological phenomena. Falling stars, for example, might be caused by mutual friction, or an expulsion of fire and air, or various other possibilities. The point is not to assert that one of the possibilities described is really the cause of falling stars, but only to show that it is unnecessary to appeal to myth, since naturalistic explanation is possible. "Exclusion of myth is the sole condition necessary; and it will be excluded, if one properly attends to the facts and hence draws inferences to interpret what is obscure."

Epicurus denies that animal behavior can foretell the weather, since their behavior offers no necessary cause for a storm, and it is hardly credible that the gods should observe animals and then create storms, depending on how the beasts behave. Here Epicurus seems to consider only the possibility that animals actually cause the storm by their behavior. He does not consider that they may have foreknowledge of the storm, or are able to detect subtle changes in pressure, wind or temperature that may predict a storm to some degree of reliability. Instead, he regards it as one more instance of the superstitious pagan practice of reading omens.

As with the discussion of the size of the sun, we find that Epicurus errs when he ventures a definite opinion ostensibly based on sensory facts alone. His confidence in the reliability of the senses seems misplaced, especially in light of later scientific developments. It is only with difficulty that man was won over to the belief that the earth does move, though we cannot sense its motion, and we have found that the sun is fantastically more distant and gigantic than even the more daring ancients conjectured. The right balance between trust in the senses and abstract reasoning is not immediately evident, even to modern scientists.

Epicurus' objective, recall, is always to free man from myth. This is his sole criterion for excluding an explanation of a phenomenon. The reason for denying myths—i.e., religious explanations—is twofold. First, they are incompatible with divine bliss. Thus he accuses astronomers of "saddling the divinity with burdensome tasks." Second, they create fear and anxiety in the populace, for we are forced to worry about placating the gods over every trivial affair on earth or in the air.[4] Naturalistic explanations are supposed to free us from such fears, enabling us to partake imperfectly of the untroubled serenity that the gods enjoy.


9. Ethical Function of Physics

It is not clear that natural philosophy is capable of accomplishing what Epicurus demands of it. Even if we know, for example, that comets and asteroids are guided only by an impersonal law of gravitation, this will not suffice to remove our fear of collisions with these bodies. We are still subject to an unknowable fate, since we do not know the original locations and trajectories of all the bodies in the universe. Things that are governed by knowable universal laws can remain wildly unpredictable in individual instances, due to the immensity and complexity of the cosmos. Merely knowing why something happens does not give us complete predictive power, much less does it let us control outcomes. It is difficult to see how being governed by an impersonal fate is necessarily less fearsome than being ruled by arbitrary personal gods. Both might be equally indifferent to our welfare, but the latter at least may admit of some persuasion. With the impersonal rule of nature, there is no court of appeal.

Epicurus' confidence that physics can remove all fears bears some similarity to the ancient magical belief that the mere fact of understanding something gives us power over it. For example, Jewish exorcists believed that learning the name of a demon would give them the upper hand and enable them to expel it. Epicurus seems to have held a similarly magical belief in the power that knowledge could bring over nature. He promised his students that they would have power over the stars if they could understand them. We find similar hubris expressed sometimes even by modern scientists, who neglect to consider the distinction between understanding a phenomenon and having the physical power to alter it.

It is small wonder, then, that few outside the intelligentsia took comfort in Epicureanism. For those who know very little natural philosophy or science, there is no temptation to think that one's knowledge can give power over nature. Nature remains every bit as much a mystery as if it were governed by the whims of the Greek gods. There is no advantage, then, in simply believing in a naturalistic cosmos, unless one has sufficient knowledge that can provide power over it.

Most of the physical knowledge that Epicurus proffered was speculative and equivocal. When more than one type of physical cause was conceivable, he did not commit to any one possibility. For him, it sufficed to consider that the cause was intelligible, regardless of which one it may be. This understanding, of itself, was able to provide the tranquility of mind that he sought. It is difficult to see, however, how this sort of tentative, ambiguous knowledge could possibly provide power over nature. Perhaps the Greek gods were so fearsome that any cosmos not governed by their will was preferable.

Epicurus frequently argued against divine providence by an appeal to consequences, namely the avoidance of fear. This appeal seems to have been the primary basis for his rule that only mythical—i.e., religious—explanations were to be excluded from consideration. Such reliance on an appeal to consequences, more commonly associated with providential theism, should not surprise us. Even modern deniers of divine providence frequently give evidence of ethical motivation, if not to free man from superstitious fear, then to achieve the liberal ethical imperative of freedom from moral coercion.[5] Although modern thinkers like to pretend to be guided by purely rational considerations,[6] the Epicureans were candid enough to state their ethical motivation openly. In their day, after all, ethics was still the highest aim of philosophy.


Continue to Part II


[1] Medieval philosophers harmonized this Aristotelian metaphysical thesis with the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, noting that creation occurs not by the power of nothingness, but by divine power.

[2] Modern Western atheism, by contrast, is ethically motivated by the liberal desire for freedom from extrinsic moral authority, which renders intolerable even the government of a purely benevolent, wise and just Deity.

[3] Note that Epicurus' use of ouranon shows that this term did not simply mean "sky" in Greek, but also encompassed the starry heavens.

[4] Even followers of the Abrahamic religions are susceptible to superstitious fears, insofar as they suppose that divine favor in temporal affairs depends on the formulaic recitation of prayers or rites.

[5] This ethical motivation of naturalist epistemology is often betrayed by statements such as, "Just because X is true, that doesn't mean I have to believe Y," or, "The burden of proof is on you to make me believe Y." Such statements reveal anxiety about being subjected to the moral coercion entailed by belief in a God who cares about human affairs.

[6] The pretense of dispassionate rationality is particularly common among scientists, where the Victorian-era ethos of "objectivity" still prevails. This ideal of being dispassionate matches the Epicurean-Stoic aesthetic, yet suffers from the same overly simplistic dichotomy between reason as good and emotion as bad.

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