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:
- 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:
- 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.