Questioning Epicurus

A reoccurring concept in Epicurus’ philosophy was that pleasure is the Ultimate Good which can be achieved by removing pain. However, Epicurus does not advocate for gluttony; oppositely, he believes that the same amount of pleasure can be received with less. For example, in his letter to Menoeceus Epicurus states that “plain meals offer the same pleasure as luxurious fare, so long as the pain of hunger is removed” (2). This idea was again clarified by Cicero in De Finibus where he claims that Epicurus considers the “complete absence of pain… to be the limit and highest point of pleasure; beyond this point pleasure may vary in kind, but it cannot vary in intensity or degree” (2). Puzzled by this concept, I posed the following question in my discussion group:

  1. Do you agree with Epicurus that once pain is alleviated all subsequent pleasures are virtually the same? Do you think pleasure has a point at which it “plateaus”?

The group came to a consensus on this question. We thought that although on a basic level Epicurus is right -any food will bring pleasure in the form of removed hunger- his view takes the idea of pleasure as the absence of pain to an extreme.  One group member countered Epicurus by suggesting that based on social class something that brings pleasure to one person may not do so for another. Continuing with the food example, a person that is used to luxurious food may find no pleasure, or perhaps even pain, if forced to eat certain foods. Furthermore, the pleasure that a person accustomed to extravagance will receive from eating luxurious food will be equal to the pleasure another person will receive from more modest food, yet Epicurus would likely claim that the former is fulfilling an unnecessary need. Ultimately, the group agreed with Epicurus fundamentally, but believed that his definition does not allow for complexities and so, is overly-simplistic.

Next, I began considering what an Epicurean society would look like. Specifically, I was curious about if a society with people that attempt to placate themselves to reach a state that others may describe as ‘neutral’ would push itself to innovate (Cicero 2). This lead me to pose my second question:

  1. What would society look like if Epicurus’ doctrine was adopted? Would it be different than society now? Would innovation exist in such society?

To my surprise, most of the group said that they believe society would stay the same. To support their claim, they referred to Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus in which he admitted that sometimes people may suffer pain to get more pleasure in the future (2); thus, they will still strive to innovate to make life more pleasurable. On the other hand, some group members thought that a mass adoption of Epicurus’ theory will result with quasi-communism. Although the group did not come to a clear conclusion, there were strong arguments made for both sides. Ultimately, I believe that what an Epicurean society would look like strongly depends on one’s interpretation of the text and its application to modern society.

Discussion Summary – Epicurus/Cicero

The discussion began with the summary of Epicurus’ teaching as presented in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, Principal Doctrines, and Cicero’s Selections from Cicero, De Finibus, Book 1.

Epicurus’ teaching is about obtaining the ultimate good, which Cicero defines as “the End to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else”. Epicurus argued that this ultimate good is pleasure because all living things instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain (Cicero, section IX). He also argued that maximum amount of pleasure can be obtained by avoiding pain. Other vain pleasures, such as wealth, fame, and power, will actually bring pain of guilt, fear, and insecurity.

This brings us to the first discussion question that was asked: The use of the word “pleasure” brought misunderstanding to Epicurus’ teaching. Epicurus and Cicero go in length to define pleasure as not of debauchery or sensual, but as absence of pain (Epicurus, p.2; Cicero, section XI). (1) Can we think of better word than pleasure for Epicurus’ teaching?

The group suggested terms like “minimalism” and “immaterialism”, because one must pursue only what is necessary for satisfy basic needs to live the ideal life described by Epicurus. The group also noticed that this is in accord with teachings of Buddhism in a sense that worldly desires and possessions must be let go to achieve enlightenment. However, because Epicurus’ view is focused on sensation of the true pleasure rather than letting go of worldly possessions, the group felt that terms other than pleasure may bring even greater misunderstanding.

To live the life free of pain, Epicurus had to deal with the concept of death. How can we live life free of pain when pain of death is the only certain things in life? Epicurus answered that to fear death, whether because it is painful to experience or painful to contemplate, is foolish (Epicurus, p.1). Epicurus’ argument was that when we are alive, there is no death, and when we are dead we do not exist. Because death and us cannot coexist, we do not need to worry about death. Here, the group was asked the second question: (2) Do we agree with Epicurus’ argument? Even if Epicurus’ premise of non-coexistence of death and life is true, is his conclusion sound?

The group noted that this dilemma is somewhat similar with the fallen tree in the forest; if a tree in a forest fell, but no one was there to observe it, did the tree really fall? The group also noted the difference in the above comparison; the fallen tree questions whether unobserved events happened or not, and Epicurus’ argument regarding death questions whether unobservable events should be concerned or not. Someone brought up that it is not the death itself that we fear, but we fear losing of things we already have and love – namely family and friends. The question was then if fear of losing what we have is the same thing as pain that comes from contemplating death. While the group failed to come up with the answer, we agreed that pleasure of being with family and friends were in accord with Epicurus’ teaching because both Epicurus and Cicero mentioned friendship as one of the requirement for life of pleasure (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrine, #27; Cicero, Section XX).

Another issue Epicurus faced in dismissing death was validity of his assumption that there is no afterlife. Epicurus said although the myths regarding the gods are false, gods do exist, and their existence can be observed (Epicurus, p.1). These two points, that there is no afterlife and that gods do exist, seems to contradict each other; how can one believe in the gods including Hades the god of underworld, but deny the existence of afterlife? (3) The group was encouraged to discuss this dilemma and come up with possible solutions in favour for Epicurus.

The group first tried to make sense of the fact Epicurus denied the existing myths yet said that the gods are observable. One of the possible solution was that perhaps Epicurus’ idea of gods were not that of classical Greek mythology, but of unexplained natural phenomenon. For example, myths regarding Zeus, how he killed his father and fought against the Titans and sired many heroes, are false, but Zeus does exist as the god of lightning because we can observe lightnings and storms. Another way to explain the observations of the gods are that perhaps Epicurus was taking eye witnesses’ accounts of spirits and nymphs as facts. However, that led to why Epicurus would believe in sightings of nymphs and natural spirits yet dismiss the sightings of human ghosts and afterlife. Epicurus clearly states that one cannot dismiss any of their senses – to do so means all sensation one experiences cannot be justified as being true (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrines, #24).

The discussion ended with interesting comparison of Epicurus and Descartes. Descartes argued that even if all the human sensations are taken away, we are still left with our mind that can think; “I think therefore I am”. Epicurus was an empiricist, and in class it was discussed that in empirical view, only things that exist are ones we can observe with our sense. It was brought up that perhaps act of thinking may count as internal experience for empericists, therefore empricist can justify Descartes’ argument of the existence of “I” as thinking being with internal experience of thinking. Descartes argued that we can trust our sensations as long as we stay true to the God while Epicurus argued that we must trust our sensations because we cannot arbitrarily choose which sensation to trust and which sensation to dismiss (Epicurus, The Principal Doctrines, #24).

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