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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
Part II: Epicurean Ethical Doctrines
10. Objective of Epicurean Ethics
11. Theology
12. Death and Longevity
13. Desires
14. The State of Pleasure
15. Limits of Pleasure
16. How to Choose Pleasure
17. Virtue and Pleasure
18. Wisdom
19. Justice and Society
20. Fortitude
21. Temperance or Moderation
22. Moral Responsibility, Destiny and Chance
23. Analysis

Part II - Epicurean Ethical Doctrines

10. Objective of Epicurean Ethics

For Epicurus, the highest aim of philosophy is found in ethics, and like most ethical systems, Epicureanism has a state of felicity or happiness as its objective. The motive of philosophical investigations is described in Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus (in Diogenes Laertius, x, 122-135):

...both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. (DL, x, 122)

Here Epicurus articulates two kinds of happiness: satisfaction in one's accomplishments and the absence of fear. Both of these come from wisdom. Since Epicurean happiness rests in satisfaction about the past and tranquility about the future, it is not dependent on the constant presence of sensual luxuries. Thus he avoids the problem of the Hegesian hedonists, who found man struggling in vain to preserve the bodily pleasures of youth.

Epicurean ethics will provide the prudential knowledge enabling a man to attain pleasures upon which he may later look back with satisfaction. This satisfaction is itself conceived in terms of sensual pleasure, for: "I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, sexual pleasures, the pleasures of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form." (On the Ethical End, quoted in DL, x, 6) True to his epistemology, Epicurus admits no other good beyond those of the senses.

At the same time, Epicurean investigations into physics provide the means of freeing man from his deepest fears about the future. Epicurus maintains that the absence of such fear is indispensable to a happy life.

11. Theology

The remainder of Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus is an epitome of his ethics. We will follow the order of this letter, interjecting the relevant Sovran Maxims (in DL, x, 139-154) as needed for amplification. The epitome begins with a declaration about theology:

First believe that God is a living being (zoion) immortal and blessed (makarion), according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, thou shalt not affirm of him aught that is foreign to his immortality or that agrees not with his blessedness, but shalt believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. (DL, x, 123)

Epicurus begins with the common Greek understanding of theos, which is a living being with the essential characteristics of immortality and blessedness. Clinging to this primary definition, he then discards any popular myth or religious belief that contradicts the perfect felicity and indestructibility of a god.

For verily there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe... For the utterances of the multitude are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like unto themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind. (DL, x, 123-124)

Here we find a rejection of the popular notion that the gods directly impart rewards and punishments to the good and the wicked. An explanation of this denial is indicated in the first Sovran Maxim:

A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being: hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality (charisi), for every such movement implies weakness.

Epicurus agrees with the Stoics that anger is always a defect. He concludes from this that the gods will not punish men, since they are incapable of anger, and their bliss cannot be threatened by the acts of wicked men. He does not consider any other possible motive for punishing the wicked. We must recall that Epicurus conceives perfect happiness to consist in self-satisfied reflection, free from external disturbance. For a god to concern himself with the misdeeds of men is incompatible with happiness so conceived.

Epicurus further denies that the gods may reward the good, since even benevolent partiality (charis) is a sign of weakness. Here charis is understood to mean "favor" or "grace." Epicurus' negative view of this attribute is not explained, though it could be that he views this as an unjust favoritism motivated by weak sentiment. Yet elsewhere, Epicurus commends bestowing rewards upon one's friends. It could be that, since Epicurus reduces friendship to utilitarianism, he sees no reason for a god to show favor to any man, for no man's friendship can improve divine happiness.

By rejecting any notion of divine providence, Epicurus intended to free his fellow Greeks from religious anxieties. It would not be necessary to perform any ritual or sacrifice to win the gods' favor or avoid their wrath. In pagan societies, such concerns could become obsessions, with every event interpreted in terms of divine favor or disfavor. Anxiety was amplified by the fact that the Greek gods were portrayed as subject to fits of temper and arbitrary whim. To free men from such superstition, it was expedient to find explanations of natural phenomena that did not involve the inscrutable caprice of the gods.


12. Death and Longevity

Epicurus thought that men could be happier if, instead of yearning for immortality, they merely accepted death with equanimity. To remove the terror of death, he argued that "death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of all sentience." (DL, x, 124) A similar argument, made by the Stoics, is found in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations. Yet Cicero also followed Plato in finding the immortality of the soul to be a more fitting and preferable destiny. Even if one accepts Epicurus' argument that death is not to be feared, it does not follow that one should not hope for immortality.

In any event, Epicurus' argument that death is no bane depends on his presupposition that good and evil are purely subjective. What makes something good or evil, in his view, is whether it brings us happiness or misery. Those who lack sentience are neither happy nor miserable, so death can be neither good nor evil to us. It is foolish to fear even the prospect of death, since "when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not." (DL, x, 125)

Yet the evil of death need not consist in its subjective experience, but rather in the objective loss of our being. For if it is a bane to lose one's arm or one's sight, how can it be a matter of indifference to lose all of our faculties? There is no doubt that arguments such as that posited by Epicurus have helped many to avoid the fear of death, but the total loss implied by death remains no less real. If we include in our concepts of good and evil that which is objectively to our benefit or detriment, the evil of death is hardly diminished.

Epicurean indifference regarding death does not imply sanctioning suicide, for "the wise man does not deprecate life." Just as we do not seek the greatest quantity of food, but the most pleasant, so should we prefer the most pleasant life over longevity. (DL, x, 126) Epicurean serenity requires that we accept life when it comes and death when it comes, and make our days as pleasant as possible. Since the future is unknown, we should neither count upon it as something certain nor despair of it.


13. Desires

According to Epicurus, some desires are natural, while others are in vain (kenai). This does not contradict the Peripatetic belief that nature creates nothing in vain, for the vain desires are not products of nature, but of error. Such desires cause people to seek what is harmful, or of no benefit to them, or non-existent (as in myth).

Among natural desires, some are necessary and others are not. Necessary desires may be needed for our happiness, or to rid the body of some ailment, or even to live. If we focus on what is necessary, we should direct all our preferences and aversions toward our mental tranquility and bodily health, for "this is the sum and end of a blessed life." (DL, x, 127-128) Cynics and Stoics considered bodily health a matter of indifference. The Epicureans, placing emphasis on mental serenity, allowed that health was sometimes good and sometimes a matter of indifference. (DL, x, 120)

In the twenty-sixth Sovran Maxim, we find a practical rule whereby we may distinguish necessary and unnecessary desires:

All such desires as lead to no pain when they remain ungratified are unnecessary, and the longing is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to procure or when the desires seem likely to produce harm.

By Epicurus' rule, we should not seek ever greater amounts of luxurious pleasures, but only to avoid pain. We should content ourselves with the absence of pain, which is itself a perfect pleasure, rather than pursue luxuries that are difficult to obtain or even harmful. Such luxuries are often the object of vain desires, which are always unnecessary.

Even natural desires can be unnecessary, yet nonetheless pursued on account of vain opinions held about them. In the thirtieth maxim, we read:

Those natural desires which entail no pain when not gratified, though their objects are vehemently pursued, are also due to vain opinion (kenen doxan); and when they are not got rid of, it is not because of their own nature, but because of the man's vain opinion.

These desires are not intrinsically vain or empty (kenai); rather, what is vain is the opinion that their objects ought to be pursued vehemently. This is to treat an unnecessary desire as necessary, an error that is to be imputed to human opinion, not to the desire itself.


14. The State of Pleasure

Necessary natural desires direct us toward pleasure of mind and body. If we act in accordance with such desires, we find that "...the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear...." Attaining this state ends "the tempest of the soul." At that point, there is no need to seek anything further, for nothing is lacking, since we only feel the need for pleasure when we are pained by its absence. (DL, x, 128)

The third Sovran Maxim says: "The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind..." Maximizing pleasure is not a question of increasing its intensity, but of preventing its interruption. If we are free from pain and anxiety, we do not lack anything on account of the absence of some luxurious pleasure. The absence of something is a detriment to our happiness only if we are pained by that absence. The wise Epicurean, we shall see, contents himself with those pleasures that are naturally necessary, so he is not troubled by the absence of luxury.

Pleasure is "the alpha and omega of a blessed life... the starting point of every preference and aversion..." It is the starting point because it prompts all natural desires, and also an end point, for "we come back to pleasure because we make feeling the rule by which we judge every good thing." (DL, x, 129)

Pleasure is our first and kindred (syngenikon, "of the same birth") good. That is to say, pleasure is what is good for human nature (indeed for all living things), since pleasure and human nature share a common origin. As proof that pleasure is the good, Epicurus observes that all living things, when born, are content with pleasure and avoid pain, even before obtaining the use of reason, so these desires are evidently prompted by nature.

Note that Epicurus here effectively equates human nature with the biological or animal nature, which exists before we can reason. Since human infants, no less than newborn animals, are satisfied with pleasure and avoid pain, these inclinations must constitute our most primal nature. Yet Epicurus does not consider that the presence of reason in humans should indicate a higher nature in us, with its own higher ethical imperatives. Instead, he seems to regard any additional ethics not grounded in the desire for pleasure as mere artifice. Consequently, the rational faculty serves no natural purpose other than to facilitate the desire for pleasure already known to infants and animals. We a similar subordination of reason to animal nature in modern attempts to give an evolutionary account of ethics and rationality. In this view, the rational mind is but a tool to facilitate the survival, health, and bodily pleasure of the organism. It is a servant of the flesh rather than its master.

Epicurus makes pleasure the only good, and holds that even mental pleasure occurs only in the form of bodily pleasures: those of taste, eroticism, sound, and beauty of form. Nonetheless, he considers the pleasures and pains of the mind to be greater than those of the body, since the mind can contemplate pleasures or pains of the past and future, while bodily pleasure and pain is confined to the present. By making this distinction, he will be able to depart from the Cyrenaic emphasis on present-oriented sensual enjoyment. Instead, pleasure is to be found in the mind's satisfaction in the past and freedom from worry about the future.


15. Limits of Pleasure

In order to be happy, men must only pursue those natural pleasures which are readily obtained, and free themselves of vain desire for unnecessary luxury. In this way, man can be free from worry. To avoid pursuing vain desires, one must have understanding about the limits of pleasure.

Pleasure in the flesh admits no increase when once the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation. The limit of pleasure in the mind, however, is reached when we reflect on the things themselves and their congeners (homogenon: "kindred; of the same origin") which cause the mind the greatest alarms. (Sovran Maxims, XVIII)

Once we no longer suffer the pains of want, we have no need to seek any further bodily pleasures beyond those we possess. For mental pleasure, we need only to understand the things that cause fear in order to be freed from such fear. When these two conditions are met, our pleasure is complete.

By judging the limits of pleasure according to reason, we can recognize that a finite amount of time suffices to maximize our pleasure.

[XIX] Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason (logismoi).

[XX] The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure, and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless, it does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstance, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life. (Sovran Maxims)

Here reason serves its function of directing us away from vain and unnecessary desires. Since the rational mind is able to perceive that our lifespan is finite, and that death is nothing to us, we need not desire pleasure in perpetuity. As long as our life is filled with pleasure, our happiness is perfect, since our life is a self-contained reality, and the time after death is nothing to us.

This analysis supposes that an animal or person unaided by reason would seek pleasure without limit. This appears to be a tacit admission that there is, after all, something natural in the desire for immortality. No animal or infant desires its pleasure to end rather than continue; indeed, insofar as it can, it will do everything possible to avoid death. Contrary to his normal approach, Epicurus here seems to favor reason as more "natural" than raw biological or animal impulse. This apparent inconsistency is resolved by making absence of fear the highest imperative. It would seem to follow, then, that only humans are capable of perfect bliss, for brute beasts and unreasoning humans will always yearn for more pleasure and fear death.

It is interesting that Epicurus implicitly associates the desire for eternal life with the desire for unending pleasure. He evidently associated traditional religious belief with the ignorant populace, and likely considered that the vulgar classes were concerned only with carnal pleasures. Those who found delight only in carnal pleasure would want it to continue forever. The Epicurean wise man, by contrast, found pleasure principally in the mind's serenity, obtained by philosophy. He alone could enjoy divine bliss, without possessing or desiring immortality.

Epicurus denies that pleasure is cumulative:

If all pleasure had been capable of accumulation,—if this had gone on not only by recurrence in time, but all over the frame or, at any rate, over the principal parts of man's nature, there would never have been any difference between one pleasure and another, as in fact there is. (Sovran Maxims, IX)

The reasoning here is unclear, but it seems that the difference in quality between pleasures is proof that they are not additive. Alternatively, the non-identity of distinct pleasure experiences is proof that pleasure is not cumulative.

Denying that pleasure accumulates over time is necessary to sustain Epicurus' view that an eternity of pleasure is no better than a finite lifetime of pleasure. In short, we can experience no pleasure beyond that of the present. Our memory of past pleasure and expectation of future pleasure are experienced only as present pleasure, which alone provides enjoyment. This idea that pleasure does not accumulate over time would seem to lead back to the present-oriented hedonism of Aristippus. Epicurus escapes this consequence by making mental rather than bodily pleasure supreme, so that mastery of past and future makes possible present serenity.

The second part of the thesis, namely that pleasure does not accumulate across a man's body or parts of his nature, supports the claim that one kind of pleasure is as good as another. In the Epicurean version of this claim, experiencing one kind of pleasure—say, listening to music—is not enhanced by adding another kind, such as beholding beauty, at the same time. We were already in a state of pleasure to begin with, so nothing is gained by adding another pleasure, and by the same token, we are not lacking anything in our enjoyment by experiencing only one rather than several pleasures at a time. In this view, the locus of pleasure is strictly in our present mental state. It does not matter how many sensory inputs contribute to this mental state. Recall that Epicurus considers our pleasure to be perfect if we are free from all pain or anxiety.

The foregoing theses are necessary for Epicurus to distance himself from the profligate hedonism of the Cyrenaics. In his view, such luxurious indulgence does nothing to improve upon our pleasure.

If the objects which are productive of pleasures to profligate persons really freed them from fears of the mind - the fears, I mean, inspired by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures to overflowing on all sides and would be exempt from all pain, whether of body or mind, that is , from all evil. (Sovran Maxims, X)

Epicurus' objection to Cyrenaic hedonism is not grounded in any ethical imperative for temperance, but rather he holds that extravagant pleasures do not free man from his deepest fears. As long as man is troubled with the fear of death, celestial portents, and the like, he cannot be considered to be in a state of pleasure. Hedonists ought to limit their desires, not because temperance is a virtue, but because unlimited desire does not add to our pleasure; on the contrary, it makes us waste labor and risk harm for pleasures we do not need.

Instead, we should turn to the study of physics to banish fears about death and heavenly phenomena, and to teach us the limits of pains and desires. These are the only reasons for which we need to study the natural sciences. (Sovran Maxims, XI) Without knowledge of the nature of the universe, man would live in dread of myths, and could enjoy no unmixed pleasure. (XII) Having security against our fellow men would give us no advantage, if we were fearful of every phenomenon above our heads or under the earth. (XIII)

Once we have banished vain fears and anxieties, we may easily obtain pleasure by desiring only what is naturally necessary. "Nature's wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure, but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance." (XV) The Cyrenaic hedonist is doomed to chase an impossible goal, while the Epicurean is content with natural, easily obtained pleasures.

Material prosperity, for the Epicurean, begins with security against our fellow men and a guaranteed means of sustenance. It is perfected by "the security of a private life withdrawn from the multitude." (XIV) The Epicurean ideal is egoistic, for perfect serenity requires that we are effectively self-sufficient, and so have nothing to fear from our fellow man.

This antisocial ideal is necessary so the Epicurean is not troubled by the accidents of fortune brought about in human affairs. More generally: "Fortune but seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout the course of his life." (XVI)

Here we have a remarkable parallel with the Stoic ideal. No less than the Stoics, Epicurus finds perfect serenity in being left alone, so he is dependent on no accident of fortune or of human society in order to obtain happiness. Since the primary pleasure he seeks is that obtainable by reason, he possesses the means of his own happiness, which no one can take from him. This self-contained, rationalistically obtained serenity differs from the Stoic ideal only in that Epicurus gives it the name of pleasure rather than virtue.


16. How to Choose Pleasure

Although pleasure is the only good, not all pleasure is choiceworthy and not all pain is to be shunned. We determine choiceworthiness by measuring conveniences against inconveniences. Such analysis can cause us to treat the good (i.e., pleasure) as an evil, while the evil (i.e., pain) is treated as a good. No pleasure is naturally evil, but it is possible that A begets B and C, where the annoyance of B outweighs the pleasure C. (SM, VIII) Thus we might reasonably shun pleasure C, not because pleasure is evil, but because we wish to avoid the concomitant annoyance B. For example, we may shun the pleasure of drunkenness because of its associated discomforts and health risks. In this way, Epicurus accommodates some common sense ethics about temperance without compromising his principle that all pleasure is good.

It is good not to be dependent on externals (e.g., wealth, comforts, etc.), not because we should always use little of them, but so that we are content with little if we do not have much. We ought to be persuaded "that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win." Those who are dependent on luxurious pleasures do not appreciate them as much, since they are regarded as entitlements. If we content ourselves with little, then we can be happy in a greater variety of circumstances, especially since the truly natural pleasures (e.g., basic food, drink and shelter) are easily available. Luxurious pleasures, by contrast are "vain," not natural.

Here Epicurus markedly sets himself apart from the luxurious hedonism of Aristippus. He is able to accomplish this by his distinction between "natural" and "vain" desires. The key to happiness is to be content with the fulfillment of natural desires, which is easy to attain. The indulgent hedonist, by contrast, will despair if he should ever lack wealth and its attendant luxuries, available only to a few.

This notion of being content with little is a pure Socratic tradition, exemplified by the Cynics. Indeed, we find a remarkable parallel with Cynic teaching in Epicurus' following statement: "Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips." (DL, x, 130-131) The Cynics similarly boasted that they could be as content with a pottage of lentils as with any luxurious delicacy. Yet Epicurus adds the further reason that absence of pain is our greatest desire, so that by comparison, there is no difference among pleasures.

These reflections lead Epicurus to assert his novel definition of pleasure: "By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul." (DL, x, 131) He elaborates:

It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. (DL, x, 132)

Tranquility of the soul is to be found not in sensual luxury, but in sober reasoning about ethics, in order to banish superstitious fears and anxieties. We discern what to choose and to avoid by practical wisdom or prudence (phronesis).

The end or telos we should pursue is to be found in what is known to exist by the evidence of the senses, which alone can form the basis of certainty. (SM, XXII) It is not enough to know what end is prescribed by nature, but we must also refer each of our actions to that end. (SM, XXV) In other words, we must practice what we preach.

The pursuit of pleasure must be contained by an understanding of the limits of life described earlier. With this understanding, one can easily obtain enough to remove the pain of want and make life complete and perfect. We do not need things which are only to be won by labor and conflict. (SM, XXI) Epicurus valued serenity over ambition, as demonstrated by his own refusal to accept public office.


17. Virtue and Pleasure

Virtue is indispensable to pleasure, as a means to an end. Foremost among virtues is prudence:

Of all this the first principle (arche) and the greatest good is prudence. Wherefore prudence is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot lead a life of pleasure, which is not also a life of prudence (phronimos), honour (kalos), and justice (dikaios); nor lead a life of prudence, honour, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. (DL, x, 132)

Prudence is prior even to philosophy in importance to the quest for a happy life. Prudence teaches us that the classical virtues are indispensable to the life of pleasure, that is, a life free from pain or anxiety. The converse statement, that the life of prudence, honor and justice is always a life of pleasure, is less convincing, since it would seem that there can be bodily pain even for the virtuous. Yet the Epicurean, no less than the Stoic, values tranquility of mind above all else. It is only with this peculiar definition of pleasure, emphasizing the serenity of the soul, that Epicurus can say: "For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them." (DL, x, 132)

We choose virtues on account of pleasure, not for their own sake, just as we choose medicine for sake of health. Diogenes the Epicurean says education (agoge) is recreation (diagoge). Virtue alone is indispensable to pleasure.

All three virtues—phronimos, kalos, and dikaios—are needed for a pleasant life. (Sovran Maxims, V) Phronimos, as mentioned, is prudence, which for the Epicurean is essential to happiness, since it teaches what is in our interest. Kalos is a moral beauty or honor; without it, we cannot truly enjoy life. Dikaios is righteousness, or in a narrower sense, such as Epicurus uses, justice, namely giving each man his due. As will be explained at length, justice is essential to pleasure, since it keeps us secure against our fellow men.

Epicurus appears to have subordinated traditional virtues to the individual pursuit of pleasure. This is not problematic for prudence, a practical virtue oriented toward the pursuit of expediency. Justice, however, is a social virtue, not easily reconciled with the purely selfish utilitarianism of Epicurus. We will explore his account of justice in detail later.

This leaves kalos, which the Stoics used as a general term for the four kinds of absolute moral beauty or goodness: what is just, courageous, orderly, or wise. Yet Epicurus intends this term only in the colloquial sense of acting honorably; recall that he always prefers informal, everyday definitions. He takes traditional notions of virtue for granted, but only changes their objective. Instead of regarding virtue or honor as its own reward, as the Stoics hold, Epicurus finds that honorable behavior is rewarded by the pleasure it provides. It is not clear from our extant fragments of Epicurus what is the pleasure of kalos. It might mean mental satisfaction with one's own honor or honesty, or freedom from fear of the enmity or punishment that often results from dishonorable behavior.

The Epicurean account of virtue bears superficial resemblance to the Stoic position, insofar as both schools claim that supreme satisfaction or happiness is to be found through honorable behavior. Yet Epicurus, by making pleasure the supreme moral good, indeed the only moral good, renders virtue a mere instrument of obtaining pleasure. Virtue is not good for its own sake, but only on account of the pleasure it brings. Such a position renders incoherent any notion of absolute virtue, since pleasure is subjective. We cannot say that something is right simply and absolutely, but rather what we call "righteous" or "honorable" is merely whatever will bring us mental pleasure at the moment.

Epicurus' attempt to reduce virtue to expediency, and a selfish expediency at that, effectively transforms traditional virtues into something foreign to how they are ordinarily understood. This can be seen by examining each of the four Platonic-Stoic categories of virtue, as they would be understood by an Epicurean.


18. Wisdom

For Epicurus, the highest virtue is phronesis or practical wisdom, also known as prudence. He has also shown an admiration for sophia, which is theoretical wisdom or knowledge, yet the study of wisdom, philosophy, is valued only insofar as it helps free us from fears. The Stoics, by contrast, valued wisdom for wisdom's sake, and Cicero remarked that a man, when all his material needs are satisfied, often delights in learning something about the heavens or nature.

The Stoics (and Cicero) held that the greatest kind of wisdom is that which gives us knowledge of our moral duty. They considered the highest moral duties to be absolute. Epicurus, as far as we can tell (judging from his discussion of justice), does not recognize any absolute duties. Rather, all duties derive from expediency, so for him all moral wisdom would be practical, or phronesis. The only sophia he values is the natural philosophy needed to free man from fears and help people recognize that pleasure is the only good.

Although Epicurus values serenity as an ideal, his wise man is not apathetic (free from emotion) like the Stoic. If anything, he is "more susceptible of emotion than other men: that will be no hindrance to his wisdom." (DL, x, 117) Instead of shunning emotion, the Epicurean wise man uses his feelings to help discern what he ought to pursue. After all, the pleasure he seeks is primarily emotional.


19. Justice and Society

We do not need to guess at Epicurus' views on justice, for the Sovran Maxims discuss this topic at length. Here we find how the philosopher proposed to reconcile a manifestly social virtue with selfish utilitarianism.

Recall that we should always pursue only necessary natural goods. One such natural good is that of gaining security from other men. (SM, VI) The Epicurean wise man is concerned only with what is necessary for serenity, not the vain pursuits of the ambitious. Thus Epicurus denies that fame is a natural good, for it does not make men secure against each other. (VII) On the contrary, fame is more likely to attract rivals.

Each man should be satisfied to give others their due, so that he may be secure against his fellows and have no fear of enemies. Thus Epicurus can say that the just man enjoys peace of mind, while the unjust is full of disquiet. (XVII) We should act justly solely for the sake of obtaining this serenity.

The best way to enhance our security, thereby ensuring our happiness, is to acquire friends. Since none of the things we have to fear are eternal or even long-lasting, friendship is the best guarantee of security. (XXVII-XXVIII) We must recall that, in Greco-Roman society, friends were not merely sentimental acquaintances, but allies who enabled a man to obtain and retain status. Friends helped each other gain wealth and high office, and defended each other in lawsuits. In this context, it was not altogether unreasonable for Epicurus to perceive friendship primarily as a guarantor of security against one's fellow man.

Although friendship is prompted by a mutual need for security, it is maintained "by a partnership in the enjoyment of life's pleasures." Since friendships gives us both security and pleasure, we will not abandon a friend in need, and we might even, on occasion, die for a friend. (DL, x, 120) We do not know how Epicureans harmonized this selflessness with their otherwise selfish ethical system. The philosopher himself took special care to provide for the children of Metrodorus in his will, and in his final letter to Idomeneus, he wrote:

My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them; but over against them all I set gladness of mind at the remembrance of past conversations. (DL, x, 22)

Evidently, the pleasures of friendship could outweigh even the greatest bodily pains, which may account for why an Epicurean should be loath to betray a friend. Since death is nothing to us, there might even be circumstances where an Epicurean is willing to die for a friend. Still, it would seem that, if our own pleasure is the primary motive of friendship, we ought to try to make the relationship asymmetrical in our favor, taking advantage of the friend as much as possible, and giving as little in return without losing the friend. Alternatively, we might use a friend for our advantage, and then discard him when it is time to repay his favor. Such abusive relationships are common enough in real life. To understand why we should avoid such behavior, and instead be liberal with our friends (giving them gifts according to merit), we must understand why the Epicurean should generally favor justice over injustice.

Already in Epicurus' day, philosophers distinguished between natural and conventional justice. The former referred to what would be just or unjust even if there were no laws made by men, for the light of our rational nature sufficed to help us know certain principles of justice even without the benefit of formally established law or custom. Examples of natural justice might include the injunctions against murder, violence or theft, a principle of reciprocity, the need for punishment and restitution, and so forth, though philosophers may disagree on specific contents. Natural justice is part of what would later be called "natural law," i.e., moral principles discernible by human reason, and therefore binding on all men, notwithstanding their ignorance of human laws. Conventional justice, by contrast, was that which was not necessarily intrinsically just, but became so for some people by virtue of mutual agreement or compact expressed as law or custom. Human laws were to be obeyed not because their content was necessarily that of natural justice, but because natural morality makes us duty-bound to honor the laws established by duly constituted authority. A central problem of ethics is to distinguish which principles pertain to natural or conventional justice.

Epicurus understood natural justice differently from most other philosophers. It was not a set of absolute moral principles, but simply a byword or symbol of expediency. Since the only natural moral principle is that every man should pursue his own utility, natural justice is simply whatever arrangements men make to prevent themselves from harming or being harmed by each other. (SM, XXXI)

In this view, even natural justice is socially constructed or conventional. This is made clear in subsequent maxims. Epicurus remarks that animals incapable of making covenants have neither justice or injustice. The same is true of tribes that could not or would not form mutual covenants. (XXXII) While animals are certainly incapable of justice on account of their lack of rationality, hence moral responsibility, Epicurus finds the font of justice to be in human covenants, not rationality as such.

Epicurus denies that human reasoning can discern any justice, apart from that which is agreed to by human covenants. There was never an absolute justice, but only reciprocal agreements against harm in various localities. (XXXIII) It might be thought that Epicurus at least acknowledges an underlying principle of reciprocity as basic to justice. Yet he holds that injustice is not evil of itself, but only in its consequences: i.e., the terror that we will be caught and punished. (XXXIV) Those who violate the social compact, even if they get away with it ten thousand times, will never be confident that they will remain undiscovered. (XXXV) This anxiety is why we should not commit crime.

It is not difficult to see how this view of justice is destructive of all social morality. If the only reason we do not commit crimes, even those as heinous as murder, is because we fear punishment, then society is on shaky ground. There is no way even the most totalitarian government could enforce laws if the entire populace committed crimes whenever they thought they could get away with it. An Epicurean might judge that the pleasure of the crime is well worth the negligible chance of getting caught, especially if the crime helps him to obtain natural goods and security. Indeed, the entire history of man is filled with precisely such calculations of utility. The risk of getting caught may be no worse than the risks attendant upon other human endeavors for obtaining natural goods.

Even if all Epicureans share the belief that it is better to avoid committing crimes altogether, their virtue is barren and empty. A man who abstains from murder, rape, theft, and other crimes solely from fear of punishment is a scoundrel without conscience or fellow-feeling. His supposed virtue is grounded in nothing more than cowardice, an especially base cowardice if even a one in ten thousand chance of getting caught is enough to frighten him into inaction.

While Epicurus' contention that we should obey the social compact solely from fear of punishment is unconvincing, perhaps we might find something in the content of social compacts that deserves our adherence. Epicurus holds that, generically, justice is the same for all: something found expedient in mutual intercourse. Its application varies by circumstance. (XXXVI) If not fear of punishment, perhaps the positive desire to obtain the benefits of the social compact will induce us to obey it.

Justice is completely subordinate to the expediencies of the day. "...[W]hatever in the needs of mutual intercourse is attested to be expedient, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all..." (XXXVII) Laws may vary by locality or time, since they are not absolute duties, but are dependent on particular expediencies. It might even be the case, though Epicurus does not say so explicitly, that equality under the law (aequitas) is not essential to justice, so long as some expediency is thereby obtained. If the law, once made, proves unsuitable for the expediencies of mutual intercourse, it is no longer just. A law may have been just only for some time, but not later. Epicurus will not reify justice as some abstract absolute, saying we "do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but simply look at the facts..." He thus has a purely circumstantial notion of justice.

The definition of justice is simply that which meets the expediency of current circumstances. If conventional laws are found not to correspond with the notion of justice even when there is no change in circumstances, then they were not really just. Otherwise, if there was a relevant change in circumstances, then they were really just, but ceased to be just when they ceased to be expedient. (XXXVIII)

This purely circumstantial notion of justice appears to be contradicted or modified by an Epicurean teaching, quoted without attribution by Diogenes Laertius: "Injurious acts among men arise from hatred, envy or contempt; and these the wise man overcomes by reason." (DL, x, 117) It would seem, then, that inflicting harm is always contrary to wisdom, regardless of circumstance, since the only motive is irrational. Here, inflicting harm must mean only acts of violence where we gain nothing save the satisfaction of seeing harm inflicted.

We may speculate as to how Epicurus would have made hatred, envy and contempt incompatible with utilitarian wisdom. Hatred causes mental pain without bringing any natural good. It may reflect fear of one's neighbor, yet the wise man should take precautions so such fears are unnecessary. Similarly, the wise man has no need of envy if he has provided for his own needs. If another man has more, this should not trouble him, since he knows how to set natural limits on his desires.

It is less clear why the Epicurean should not have contempt, disdain or scorn (kataphronesin) for others, since Epicurean ethics focuses on the pursuit of one's own selfish interests, regarding others only insofar as they are useful. Clearly, we should not disdain those who are useful to us, but what of those who are useless or hostile? We may gather from other Epicurean fragments that all members of our polity are useful to us, while we should keep our distance from foes, so they are as nothing to us. In this way, we have no need of active disdain for anyone.

A purely utilitarian treatment of hatred, envy and contempt would reduce the Epicurean injunction against harming others to a mere calculation of selfish expediency. It is not that harming others is objectively wrong, but rather the wise man is able to make provisions so that he has no need for the dispositions that lead one to harm others.

A potential flaw in this reasoning is that wise men may not always succeed in obtaining adequate means of support and security through non-violent methods. In such unfavorable circumstances, hatred, envy and contempt may become consonant with utilitarian rationality.

Since our primary concern is serenity, we should join with as many people as possible into one family (i.e., a polity) for protection from external foes. Those we cannot join, should not be treated as aliens. Where even this is impossible, we should avoid all intercourse (i.e., war), and keep them at a distance. (XXXIX) This pacifism is motivated by a desire for our own security, rather than a regard for our neighbor as such. This utilitarian concern has good moral side effects, since we will find it beneficial to be on good terms with everyone else in the polity, as they are all useful to us. Thus Epicurus recommends acts of gratitude toward friends, and that we should even take pity on our slaves, being loath to punish them. (DL, x, 118)

Those who are able to provide the best security against one's neighbors will also be able to pass the most agreeable life in each other's society. (SM, XL) This "better fences makes better neighbors" doctrine suggests that we can enjoy greater intimacy with others when we have no reason to fear violence from each other. This intimacy is such that, "if one of them died before his time, the survivors did not lament his death as if it called for commiseration." (Loc. cit.) Security yields prosperity and solidarity, and because of this solidarity, we do not lament the death of an individual, as the polity and its bliss endure.

It may seem strange that (1) Epicureanism should yield any sort of social solidarity and (2) that this solidarity should cause us not to lament the death of an individual. Regarding the first point, Diogenes Laertius presents copious evidence that Epicurus took his selfish utilitarianism seriously and that he forged a tightknit society among his disciples and friends. He considered the pleasure of such society to be itself a great good. Recognizing that we are dependent on each other for pleasure can bring a sense of solidarity without forcing us to value the pleasure of others (or "the good of the collective") above our own. Since we still value our own pleasure above others, we do not regard other individuals as having an absolute worth, but rather they are valuable to us only insofar as they give us pleasure. One person may fulfill this role as well as another, so when one of our friends dies, this is no cause for grief, since our pleasure is no less complete thanks to those who remain.

It is at least doubtful if Epicurus really held such a heartless view of friendship as his utilitarian calculus would seem to imply. From his testament, it is clear that he cared enough to provide for the sons of his deceased friends, and to manumit his slaves, though he had no utility to gain from these acts. Likely, he experienced friendship much in the same way we all do, except he reasoned that the pleasure of friendship must be its motivation, not just its effect. Similarly, he practiced other ordinary social virtues, and judged that the pleasure or serenity of the virtuous life must be its sole motivation.

We have seen that Epicurean attempts to reduce social virtues to selfish utility are awkward at best in places. The same is also true of his treatments of fortitude and temperance, which receive scant attention, probably reflecting their diminished importance in an Epicurean scheme of ethics.


20. Fortitude

According to Diogenes Laertius, the Epicureans held "that courage is not a natural gift but comes from calculation of expediency." (DL, x, 120) This is a remarkable claim, since courage has long been seen as something instinctive or precognitive. This notion is seen in the Greek and Latin terms for courage. In Greek, it is called andreia or "manliness"; while in Latin it is virtus ("manliness") or animus, "spirit". Courage seems to be an animal quality, so that we even speak of horses or dogs as being "spirited" or "brave." This animal aspect to courage led some thinkers, notably Confucius, to regard it as morally neutral. Yet Epicurus somehow makes this ability to overcome fear a product of rational calculation.

Epicurean courage is exemplified by the wise man on the rack, who remains happy even though he gives vent to cries and groans. (DL, x, 118) Courage consists not in that resistance to pain or danger that depends on physical constitution, but in freedom from fear. For the Epicurean, fear is abolished by contemplation of the limits of bodily pain, from reflection on past pleasures, and from consideration that death is nothing to us. This type of fearlessness is purely the result of utilitarian calculation.

Yet the Epicurean is supposed to generally avoid pain and pursue pleasure whenever possible. He may shun pleasure if it is associated with some inconvenience, or he may even choose to endure pain for the sake of some necessary pleasure. In the latter case, he may demonstrate an apparent fortitude, but this is just a result of a utilitarian calculation to maximize pleasure in the long run. In general, however, the Epicurean avoids pain and other difficulties when these have no benefit for him.

We have seen that the Epicurean prefers to be let alone and not troubled by others. Thus he keeps foreign enemies at a distance, and even within the polity he seeks to be removed from public life, to live in self-sufficient peace. He will not involve himself in politics, nor seek public office. (DL, x, 119) He does not seek fame or pursue any activity likely to attract enemies. Though death is nothing to him, he clings to the pleasures of this life, and will not commit suicide even if he goes blind. (Loc. cit.) It is difficult to reconcile such a retiring attitude with what is ordinarily called boldness or courage.

Still, Epicurus allows that a wise men may occasionally choose to die for a friend. We are not told in extant fragments what circumstance would make this reasonable in a selfish utilitarian calculus. Perhaps if the alternative would be to act unjustly, which is incompatible with pleasure, we might do so. In such a case, our concern is to avoid spending the remainder of our life troubled with the fear of punishment for our crime. Again, this is hardly the stuff of what is ordinarily called courage.

Even granting that the Epicurean may occasionally behave in a manner outwardly resembling courage, it is no less true that he will frequently flee pain, danger and difficulty in order to preserve his own pleasure. Though he may act thus without being guilty of injustice or dishonesty, he is doing nothing more than the bare minimum of what his social obligations require. He does not stick his neck out for others except for the sake of some hedonistic payoff. He does not exhibit the morally positive version of courage, whereby we expose ourselves to risk or harm for the benefit of friends, family or countrymen.

Once again, it seems Epicurus has retained only a superficial, imperfect form of virtue, and even that is awkwardly rationalized in terms of selfish utility. Our credulity will be further strained by his treatment of temperance, leading us to wonder if the Epicurean actually behaves virtuously because he intuits that it is right, not because of any calculation of utility.


21. Temperance or Moderation

Although pleasure is always good and pain is always evil, Epicurus allows that we should moderate our desires, so that we seek only necessary natural goods, instead of vain indulgences. This apparent temperance is motivated by the consideration that vain pleasures add nothing to our contentment, and in fact unlimited desire dooms us to perpetual frustration and dissatisfaction.

We have already noted that Epicurus followed Socrates and the Cynics in insisting that we should be content with simple, healthy food. Regarding drink, he allows drunkenness, but not to the point that we talk nonsense (leresein). (DL, x, 119) Wisdom, after all, is indispensable to Epicurean happiness. A further consideration is the harm that may result from our idle talk.

Epicurus taught that one should submit to legal restrictions regarding the pleasures of women. This is not proof that he truly respected the laws against adultery and the like, for we have seen that Epicureans keep the law only from fear of punishment. Still, Epicurus appears to have genuinely favored moderation in sexual pleasure. "No one was ever the better for sexual indulgence, and it is well if he be not the worse." (DL, x, 118) Since "better" and "worse" are defined in terms of pleasure and pain, this means that sexual indulgence usually causes us some associated pain or harm that outweighs the pleasure.

Although his detractors accused him of debauchery, Epicurus appears to have seen little need for sexual gratification in order to live a life of serene pleasure. The Epicurean school held that the wise man should not fall in love, nor should he marry and raise a family (unless demanded by circumstances). (DL, x, 118-119) Coupled with the advice to observe conventional norms, this leaves little opportunity for sexual gratification.

The self-restraint described above may seem contrary to our common conception of hedonism, but recall that Epicurus thought little of bodily pleasure in comparison with mental pleasure. The profligacy of the libertine does nothing to free him from the big fears about death, the gods, and celestial phenomena. Once we are completely freed from fear and anxiety, no additional bodily pleasure can increase our happiness. The hedonism of Epicurus is much more cerebral than that of modern postwar culture, obsessed as it is with the vulgar pleasures of sex, drink and narcotics.

While there is little doubt that the tenets of Epicurus endorse genuine temperance or moderation in bodily pleasure, the rationalization of this temperance is highly questionable. If pleasure is the only good, there seems little reason to shun it unless there is extreme danger or harm associated with it, or great labor or difficulty involved in its acquisition. Accepting the Epicurean thesis that our pleasure lacks nothing when we are free from fear, it nonetheless seems that we might still magnify our enjoyment by bodily pleasures. Even though such pleasures are strictly unnecessary, their gratification causes no harm, and may enhance our delight.

Epicurean frugality regarding food, drink and sex seems to be motivated by the Greek philosophical aesthetic of being free from dependence on externals for our happiness, delighting instead in the contemplation of wisdom. It hardly seems to be a natural consequence of the doctrine of pleasure as the only good. The Epicurean, no less than the Stoic or the Cynic, wishes to have the means of happiness completely within his mental power. Thus he pursues only those bodily goods that are easily obtained, and seeks his primary pleasure in the wisdom that frees him from fear. The rationalization of this ethic in terms of hedonism seems awkward, but we must recall that Epicurus has an unconventional definition of pleasure, notwithstanding his claim that words should have their ordinary meaning. Still, his belief in pleasure as the good is genuine, for he regards the mental satisfaction of the virtuous life to be nothing other than pleasure.

On this note, it is clear that Epicurus, who was content to eat bread and cheese, drank mostly water, and never married, had much more in common with the Cynics than with Aristippus or modern hedonists, at least in practice. The pleasure he sought was not common to those of animals, nor even of lesser men. Only men of certain constitution and circumstances were capable of the wisdom necessary to a truly happy life. (cf DL, x, 117)


22. Moral Responsibility, Destiny and Chance

At the end of his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus gives a summary description of the man who follows his teachings, to show that such a man is indeed virtuous. The Epicurean man has a holy opinion of the gods, and is free from the fear of death. "He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight." (DL, x, 133)

The wise man laughs at destiny, "affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach." (Loc. cit.) Here Epicurus agrees with the Stoic emphasis on free will. "It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we escape if we honour the gods, while the necessity of the naturalist is deaf to all entreaties." (DL, x, 134) Epicurus rejects deterministic materialism, rightly recognizing that this would destroy all moral responsibility. Those thinkers, ancient and modern, who would reduce all human action to physical necessity are guilty of inventing a new superstition more fearsome than the traditional Fates.

This rejection of strong determinism is grounded more in ethics than in physics. Accordingly, Epicurus says elsewhere that, even if it were possible to foretell the future, we must regard what happens by such divination as nothing to us. (DL, x, 135) The important thing is not to let prophecy affect our sense of moral responsibility for our actions. Such responsibility is essential if our happiness is to be in our own power.

Epicurus rejects the idea that chance (tuchne) is a god, since there is no disorder in the acts of a god. Nor is chance a cause (aitian), for "no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting-point of great good and great evil." In other words, our bliss is not dependent on chance, though chance provides the raw materials from which we might wreak good or evil. "...[T]he misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance." Once again, happiness is within the power of our own free will, so it is not dependent on chance any more than on destiny.

These precepts should be exercised alone and with those who share them: "... then never, either in waking or in dream, wilt thou be disturbed, but wilt live as a god among men. For men loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings." Epicurus recognizes the divine aspirations of man, but he would have these aspirations fulfilled not by eternal life, but by partaking of divine bliss in this life. Like a god, he is free from all disturbance, and is the self-sufficient cause of his own happiness.


23. Analysis

Epicureanism might be considered, at least in part, a reaction against the perverse consequences of the Cynic belief that virtue is good for its own sake, as exemplified in Diogenes' life of squalor. If virtue is good for its own sake, then it does not matter whether a virtuous act causes pleasure or pain, riches or poverty. The Cynic's notion of happiness—mere self-satisfaction in virtuous acts—seemed to have no connection with any common sense notion of happiness. Epicurus saw a need to reassert the connection between pleasure and happiness, yet he went further, for, on introspection, he found that he could not conceive of any happiness other than sensual pleasure. Even the self-satisfaction of the virtuous, he reasoned, was a kind of pleasure. The sages forsook bodily pleasures only to attain this greater pleasure.

The pleasure of the virtuous was not some luxurious sensation, like the enjoyment of food, drink or sex, but a dispassionate tranquility. This restful state, free from fear or anxiety, is the highest "pleasure," as Epicurus defined the term. Once completely freed from fear and distress, our happiness is complete. Any pleasures beyond that differed only in kind, not in intensity or degree. Those who measure pleasure in physiological terms would tend to disagree, but this only shows that Epicurus had a markedly different conception of pleasure than a common hedonist. His ideal is not some sensual ecstasy, but a dispassionate state free from any mental disturbance.

Aesthetically, Epicurus had more in common with the Cynics and Stoics than the Cyrenaics, though he identified pleasure with the good. Despite his detractors' accusations of hedonism and effeminacy, Epicurus in fact lived a sober, serious life, being content with modest enjoyments and even-tempered in the face of external fortunes. Even his famed indifference to death must be viewed in the context of this aesthetic, for such an attitude was not unique to Epicurus. Diogenes the Cynic also claimed that death was no evil, since in its presence we are not aware of it. The same was true of those Stoics who held that death dissolved the soul. Even Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations, allows that, if the soul were mortal (which he denies), death would be no bane, since there would be no soul to be aware of its annihilation. Indeed, in an Epicurean or Stoic aesthetic, death might even be viewed positively, since it is a state free from passion, fear or disturbance.

Epicurus' desire for a life free from fear was closely linked to his antipathy toward traditional Greek religion. He praised natural philosophy as freeing mankind from the fears of religion. By this he did not mean primarily the punishments of Tartarus or Hades, but rather the arbitrary whims of the gods affecting the worldly fortunes of men. Greek religion had a markedly pessimistic outlook, where man was but a pawn in divine conflicts. One could never be sure if the gods wished good or ill for him, hence the obsessive concern with divination. Sacrifices and other ritual practices were performed in the hope of appeasing the gods. This fatalism and fear is what Epicurus wished to remove from life.

In modern usage, the term "superstition" is too often used as a general pejorative for religion or any belief in the supernatural, but the proper meaning of the term is "excessive fear," which was a prominent feature of Greek and Roman religion. While modern atheists have tried to apply Epicurus' criticism of religion to Christianity, they neglect important distinctions from Greek religion, and fail to consider that Epicurus was motivated by the particular cultural circumstances of his time. Christianity, unlike Greek religion, posits a profound divine love and mercy toward the human race, unmixed with Olympian foibles. The God of Christianity does not need to be appeased through sacrifices, for God Himself has freely given superabundant satisfaction once and for all on the Cross. Except in a few deviant strains, such as the more extreme forms of Calvinism, there is no cause for fear of unprovoked divine wrath or tyrannical caprice. There are punishments in Hell, but these are applied with justice to the reprobate, not by arbitrary whim and not before offering every man an opportunity for mercy.

By opposing Greek religion, Epicurus sought to remove fear, not hope, from human life. This is in sharp distinction from some modern atheists, who perversely view religious hope as a sort of malady, as if there were anything shameful in heavenly aspirations. Epicurus himself accepted such aspirations, and sought to live as a god while on earth. He might be considered to have been performing a public service by freeing his countrymen from the arbitrary tyranny of the Olympian gods. Modern atheists, by contrast, wish to "free" men from a completely loving, merciful God who offers the hope of eternal bliss in heaven. It is far from obvious that man needs to be "cured" of this hope, which is why the bitter medicine of positive atheism is rarely accepted by the masses.

Although Epicurus has some superficial similarity with modern naturalistic epistemology, he does not tend toward an atheistic conclusion. On the contrary, he thinks it is manifest that there are gods, though they are not as the common folk perceive them. Although there are gods, they have no existential connection with the rational order he discerns in ethics and physics. At most, they are an ideal to which we should aspire. The Epicurean wise man will set up votive images, (DL, x, 120) notwithstanding his rejection of superstition. This is because the wise man honors what is worthy of praise. Still, the gods will not help man discern what is good for him. They have secured their own pleasure, and have no need to trouble themselves with others. We too may aspire to such a state, at least in our finite lifetimes.

In order to make pleasure the only good, Epicurus must sometimes use strained reasoning to preserve the traditional virtues of justice, liberality, fortitude and temperance. This suggests that his adherence to these virtues was grounded more in an intuitive sensibility than in utilitarian calculation. His doctrine might be saved if we allow that our love of virtue is itself a higher pleasure. Yet this is to give an overly broad definition of pleasure. If pleasure is simply any object that we will, prefer or desire, then it follows trivially that all moral actions, being voluntary, are motivated by "pleasure" so called. This broad notion of "pleasure" obscures important distinctions, such as that between rational will and sensual appetite. (Modern utilitarians perform a similar verbal subterfuge.) Yet Epicurus has said that the only pleasure is that of sensation.

For all his insistence on using the ordinary definitions of terms, Epicurus used a rather unconventional definition for his most critical term: hedone. In his hands, hedone can mean either a state of motion or a state of rest. It can be a presence (of delight) or an absence (of fear). This ambiguity as to whether hedone is a positive entity or a privation allows Epicurus greater flexibility in accommodating traditional virtues to his system. Without it, there would be little basis for putting limits on desires for pleasures.

The greatest weakness of Epicurus' system appears to be its selfishness, which is destructive of the noblest social virtues, especially self-sacrificing courage. The Epicurean wise man simply wants to be left alone and not be bothered by anyone. His friends are valued only for the pleasure they bring him, and are replaceable, while his countrymen are valued mainly for the security they bring him. It is hard to see why the Epicurean wise man, any more than the Epicurean god, should trouble himself with the cries of the poor and downtrodden, once he has secured his own bliss.

Despite this weakness, Epicurus does an admirable job of showing how many of our conventional notions about justice and other virtues are in harmony with expediency, rightly considered. This might show that, in fact, virtue needs no justification beyond expediency, at least in many instances, if not all.

It would seem that Epicurus has gone too far, to a diametric extreme opposite of the Cynics and the Stoics. Instead of insisting that virtue is the only good, we now have the equally unwieldy thesis that there is only the good of expediency, to which all virtue can be reduced. If we are to preserve something of the universally recognized human virtues, we will need to find some happy superposition of these two extremes. The Stoics and Epicureans generally agree on what virtuous behavior looks like, as do men in nearly all developed cultures, yet they disagree on how we are to give a rational account of moral behavior.

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