Option A: Why is the One Ring evil? Philosophical analysis of Good and Evil

The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R Tolkien is the most influential fantasy novel of 20th century. One of the central theme of the book is the struggle between the good versus evil; of the war between the ‘free people’ of the Middle-earth against the dark lord Sauron. While the book does describe the military battle between the armies of the good and the armies of the evil, struggle is better shown through how various characters interact with the One Ring. In the book, it is not the wise wizards, the immortal elves, nor the valiant warriors that resist the evil of the Ring. The ones who show the most resilience to the Ring are the Hobbits; simple folks from peaceful, rural society of Shire. This begs the question why is the One Ring considered evil and what is the goodness in those Hobbits that allow them to better resist the Ring?

 

Before considering the struggle between good and evil presented in Tolkien’s work with philosophical view point, let me first explain what I think philosophy is. To me, philosophy is the process of finding answers to the questions. I do not mean the questions that can be answered by researching the relevant facts or performing experiments to gather data. I mean the questions that cannot yet be answered definitively: What is good? What is bad? Are there absolute truths or only relative truths? What is a soul? What does it mean to know? What is the purpose of life? How does the world work? The questions explored in philosophy need not remained unanswerable forever; indeed, many branches of philosophy have been moved from philosophy proper to give birth to branches of science such as physics. The Doctor of Philosophy in physics uses scientific methods to support hypothesis to answer questions regarding laws governing the physical world. However, the hypothesis in the philosophy proper cannot be supported by gathering and analyzing empirical data. In philosophy, one’s conclusions must be defended using logic and sound arguments to withstand the opposing views. In my opinion, by exploring currently unanswerable questions, philosophy allows mankind to expand our mind and explore the unknown.

 

The view that the philosophy is about exploring difficult questions is shared by many philosophers throughout the history. Plato, through his depiction of Socrates in Euthyphro, explored the unanswered question of “What is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies” (Plato, Euthyphro, p.16). The Socrates/Plato wanted to explore what it is about pious act that makes them pious. This question remained unsolved at the end of the work, yet through Socrates, Plato claims that he will never be weary of pursuing such questions; the questions that are worth exploring even without being able to come up with an answer. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, emphasized the importance of prudence in his teaching. Epicurus taught that to live happiest life, one need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain through philosophy (Epicurus, Letters, p.1). One important essence of this happy life is to explore the unknown. Only those who are prudent enough to look for answers can triumph over the primal fear of unknown. Those who decide to believe in popular myths rather than philosophically approaching difficult questions continue to suffer fear of not knowing and cannot achieve the pleasurable life (Epicurus, Doctrines, p.2). In modern times, philosophers such as Mill and Kant explored the question of morality. In the introduction to Mill’s Utilitarianism, Mill acknowledged that the question he was about to explore has been discussed since the dawn of philosophy for more than two thousand years without a universally agreed answer (Mill, Utilitarianism, P.1). Even though he knows the question at hand have been failed to be answered for a long time, he nonetheless does his best to present his hypothesis and provide arguments and counter-counterarguments to support his stance.

 

While Tolkien himself explicitly stated that there are no allegories or hidden meanings behind his work (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p.xvii), it is but natural for readers to find meaning in author’s work even when there are no such hidden messages from the author. And, as someone who is studying morality in philosophy class, it is but natural for me to find application of Mill and Kant’s idea of morality to the evilness of the One Ring. In Tolkien’s work, the One Ring is evil because it contains the power of Sauron. And Sauron is evil because he served Morgoth. And Morgoth, in turn, is evil because he rebelled against the creator. But, as Socrates did in Plato’s work, let us not be satisfied with the mythical answer and rather try and assess what it is about the Ring itself that makes it evil. Through his character Gandalf, Tolkien explains that the One Ring contains the power to “rule over the others” (Tolkien, p.68), giving its possessor the ability to bend the will of the others to serve him. Applying Mill’s utilitarian approach, from the past examples of tyrants and dictators, we know that forcibly ruling over others against their will result in great pain and unhappiness. According to the Greatest Happiness Principal, something that causes more pain and unhappiness than pleasure and happiness is evil (Mill, p.2). The evilness of the One Ring can also be assessed using Kantian approach. The One Ring’s main purpose is to gives the power to turn others into mere means to achieve its owner’s goal. According to Kant, any action that treats another human being as a mere means is evil (Kant, Metaphysics, p.8). Using Epicurean teaching, we can infer why Hobbits show greater resilience to such evil. While the Hobbits do not live the ideal Epicurean life, as they love feasting on excessive amount of food, they are also simple people who does not understand nor desire great ambitions. When the Ring tempted Samwise Gamgee with the power to restore burnt and barren world back into green fields, Sam was able to reject the temptation because what he truly wished in his heart was a small garden he could tend with his hands. This is in accordance with one of Epicurus’ main teachings; be free of vain desires for grandness (Epicurus, Letters, p.3). By being accustomed to living a “good”, simple life that is free from vain desires, Hobbits were able to resist the evil of using others as means to server their own goal.

 

The paper looked at an example of philosophy that could be found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Asking questions like ‘was that villain actually evil?’ or ‘were the protagonists actually justified in their actions?’ is a good example of philosophical activities we do in everyday life outside of the philosophy class. I am doing philosophy when I am in shower or in bed, asking absurd questions like “what if we are living in matrix?”, “are there really aliens out there?”, or “what happens after we die”. Whenever I pass a moral judgement on someone’s action or try to decide whether buying that material good can bring happiness in my life, I am doing philosophy. According to my view of philosophy, whenever I explore questions whose answers cannot be found in textbook or laboratory, I am engaged in philosophical activity.

 

 

References

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.

Everyday Philosophy

There are countless things in the world that could be considered philosophical – some more obvious, like a blog for example, and some more discrete like everyday activities or movies. When I think of an everyday activity that is philosophical, walking the dog comes to mind. This example stems from knowing many people who have pets, and taking care of them requires tasks like going for a daily walk. There are different reasons as to why people have dogs, as well the things they do while taking the dog for a walk which ties into philosophy without consciously knowing. Imagine taking your dog to a public park knowing your dog is well behaved, trained, and at no risk of causing harm to others.  However, the park has signs all around stating that dogs are required to be on leashes at all times. The sign is therefore stating a law that one must follow when walking their dog. For some reason though, this law has not stopped many people therefore making those who do allow their dogs off leash to test their morals and consider why people do not abide by such rules. The act of walking a dog has purpose and reasoning behind it, and how one decides to conduct this action speaks to their moral values and objectives.

Before entering this course, philosophy was not something I had given much thought towards. Through conversation, I assumed philosophy was concerned with critical thinking and could also be considered as wisdom. I have since learned that a philosophy can provide a framework for the basis of decision making and choice rationale. It allows one to have a sense of what to do, and why to do it. For example, what should someone do when told not to eat a piece of cake? Philosophy instills values as to why one would want to eat the cake and provides us a rationale to base this decision from. My understanding of philosophy has grown since the beginning of the course. Learning that there are many philosophers with a wide range of perspectives and differentiating theories that has impacted how I view decision making in everyday life. I have learned philosophies may provide a perspective on how individuals should view success in life, and have grown a deeper understanding for those whose views differentiate from my own based on different philosophies. For example, I never would have imagined studying the topic of death in philosophy and debating different perspectives on this topic of whether it was good or bad. For me, philosophy requires individuals to think critically and form decisions based on one’s values, meaning, and purpose toward life.  While I had originally sensed that philosophies would involve some degree of critical thinking, my knowledge has continued to expand and grown to understand that one’s moral values may be strengthened and exemplified within a philosophy.

Much of what I think of philosophy ties into the work of Epicurus and Mills. The work of Epicurus was centered around establishing a life purpose and a goal in which all humans strive to live in a life of static pleasure. His philosophy provides rationale for the desires one should seek in life through understanding of one’s views and virtues. Epicurus’s perspective highlighted that all humans should seek happiness and this is achieved through established virtues, wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Epicurus argued that if one could live in static pleasure the state of life would be complete. This is similar to the perspective I had come into the course with when considering philosophy to provide life with meaning and wisdom. This is where I find my understanding of philosophy to also tie into the philosophy of Mill who started to distinguish right from wrong, giving morality to one’s life. Mill was concerned with making decisions based on creating the greatest amount of pleasure which is what Epicurus says we ought to live for.  Thus, Epicurus provided the foundation for understanding the purpose of life (seek static pleasure), and Mill’s provided the how (make decisions that result in the greatest amount of pleasure). When we make the right moral decisions, we are completing the goal of life. Both philosopher’s theories fit with my personal views in seeking happiness and provided a foundation of understanding how to rationalize and navigate daily decisions that contribute towards a common goal for all humans.

When looking at the example of walking a dog off leash at a public park, there are many aspects that can be considered  philosophical. Taking a dog for a walk not only benefits the dog, but also the owner in some way or another. The owner may choose to walk the dog because it makes the dog more tired thus making the owner have more pleasure not taking care of the dog constantly at home later on. Therefore, the owner is maximizing the pleasure of the dog, as well as themselves to not feel like their dog is a continuous hassle. In this instance, pet owners have made a decision to break the law based on their own personal philosophy. For some, this decision could be based on considering the happiness of the dog as the primary concern. It may be understood that the happiness of the pet is maximized without a leash, thus providing a philosophical rationale for this decision based on the values of the individual. Maximizing the pleasure of the dog also brings pleasure to the owner, which is the ultimate goal of life based on some philosophical views. If the owner feels as though they do not want to hold the leash and this will make them happy they are to do so to achieve the goal of life which is pleasure. While walking the dog may seem like a simple task, the moral decisions behind the action are what would be considered as philosophical as one conducts actions with purpose towards fulfilling one’s life objective and achieving the main goal of pleasure.

        Walking a dog, and choosing to restrict a pet with a leash are decisions embedded in one’s personal conscious or unconscious philosophy and view towards life.  Another decision I make everyday that could also be considered philosophical is whether or not I should go to class. Though the decision may be quite obvious to some, for me it is not. When considering the definition of philosophy, in which I say is to give purpose to life through the goal of pleasure and making moral decisions, the act of choosing to go and not to go can be philosophical. Not going to class can maximize my pleasure in that particular moment though it is not morally right to miss class. Long term, the decision not to go could cause disruption of that pleasure when material from class was missed and trying to catch up. Though some may say going to class is not mandatory, for myself maximizing my pleasure long-term and making the most moral decision would be to go, to avoid any disruption of pleasure resulting in pain. To choose to go to class or not is greatly considered on the person you are and what it is that will give you the most pleasure. Everyday activities such as walking the dog or deciding whether or not to do to class all have some philosophical aspects to them. To me, philosophy means giving life a purpose by achieving an end goal and making moral decisions towards that objective. While each individual may act uniquely based on their moral beliefs and values to act in a way that provides them with the most pleasure, this course has enlightened me to appreciate the extent of philosophical decision making that is present and embedded in everyday life.

Philosophy in the World — option A

Philosophy and Questioning the Existence of God

The world is full of activities relating to and incorporating philosophy. For this paper, I will be discussing the relationship between philosophy and religion, specifically on questioning the existence of God – defined at this time as an omniscient, omnipotent, and morally good being.

Philosophy has many branches and many uses. It involves questioning the unknown and inquiring about the fundamental principles of many subjects, theories, and thoughts. Philosophy is a form of abstract reasoning in which one formulates clearly outlined arguments with several premises in order to obtain a specific conclusion. Religion is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith.” It involves questioning the unknown and holding to a set of beliefs. Oftentimes, it involves the belief in a God. When one inquires about the existence of God, they are questioning the fundamental structure of our world and how it came to be today. This is similar to Epicurus’ relationship with the fundamental questioning of death. Epicurus used abstract reasoning to determine that one should not fear death as life, and all it incorporates, is experienced through sensation. As sensation ceases at death, one may no longer experience and thus no longer exists. “When we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we do not exist.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 1) – it is for this reason, Epicurus argues “death is nothing to us, and to know this makes a mortal life happy.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 1). This form of reasoning may also be used to question the existence of God. When one examines the Big Bang theory and how the universe may have been created, and the rules of nature that construct our world, they may argue in different ways. One may say that the Big Bang must have been caused by something, some force had to put it into action – this is a way in which one might argue for the existence of an all-powerful God. As God is the only truly omnipotent being, They must be the one that set the Big Bang in motion. It is because of this form of reasoning, that one may use to prove the existence of God, that religion is related to philosophy. Another example of this form of philosophical reasoning is that that Epicurus used to evaluate different types of human desires. Epicurus believed that “A clear recognition of desires enables one to base every choice and avoidance upon whether it secures or upsets bodily comfort and peace of mind” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 2). He reasoned that all humans have desires some of which are natural and others vain. Of those natural desires there are those that are both necessary and unnecessary. Examples for which the desire for food and shelter is necessary and the desire for wealth unnecessary. As quoted above, Epicurus said that when one is able to recognize the value of their desires they are able to obtain happiness.

In conclusion, even though many people may not recognize it, philosophy is a large aspect of life. If you have ever questioned things such as death, morals, the existence of souls, or the existence of God, you have engaged in philosophical questioning. It is through this examination of any inquiries one may have and through reasoning that one engages in philosophy.

 

How I engage in Philosophical Activity

Based on my definition of philosophy as questioning fundamentals and abstract reasoning, I engage in philosophical activity outside of class by engaging with those around me in meaningful conversation. Anytime I have a conversation regarding politics, ethics, human rights, or any other of a wide range of topics, if we are inquiring regarding their fundamental basis, or simply attempting to find reason and argue for a specific view, I am participating in philosophical activity. It can in fact be quite a significant part of my day depending on what other classes I have that day or what other people I engage with.

Discussion Summary-Epicurus and Cicero

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Do you agree with Epicurus’ concept that pleasure- and in turn happiness- lies with the absence of pain and discomfort? Or do you think there is more to happiness than that? 
    • This point relates to Epicurus’ main definition of the true purpose of life, and that is to live without discomfort
      • This is exhibited in the passage of, “The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus”: “Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present-nor of both together.” (p.1, #3)
    • His views suggest that once someone lives without any discomfort, they have reached the highest point of pleasure and happiness- and that the intensity of it varies from experience to experience
    • In our group we discussed how in today’s society, many people view happiness as a higher experience. Happiness is something greater than the simple contentedness that Epicurus suggests. It’s a feeling that supersedes the numb and content feeling that Epicurus strives for, to some in the group.
  2. Do you think it’s possible for you to ever live parallel with Epicurus’ views on death? Is there a way to disregard the idea completely? 
    • This point is one of Epicurus’ bold comments, that is instrumental to him in order to achieve pleasure and happiness
      • His comments about death can be found in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus when he comments that, “Death is no concern to us.” (p.1)
    • In the discussion, many people found Epicurus’ ideas intriguing. When Epicurus sets forth his premises for why death is not a bad thing, he brings forth an interesting perspective. Some people suggested that Epicurus’ idea that, “… when death is present, we do not exist” (p.1), -that is rejecting ideas of an afterlife- can be refuted through belief in religion. Some people also suggested that it may be impossible to live life without ever contemplating death, as the idea is constantly present, whether we engage with it or not.
  3. Do you think it could be possible to achieve a truly Epicurean society? If achieved- do you think it could be as harmonious as Epicurus suggests? 
    • At the end of his texts, Epicurus suggests that if men were to abide by his teachings, and practice them accurately, society would be harmonious- relating to the end goal of his teachings- happiness.
      • “You shall live like a god among men because one whose life is fortified by immortal blessings in no way resembles a mortal being.” (Letter to Menoeceus, p.3)
      • “Such men like among one another most agreeably, having the firmest grounds for confidence in one another, enjoying the benefits of friendship in all their fullness, and they do not mourn a friend who dies before they do, as if there was a need for pity.” (The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus, p. 4)
    • Although an Epicurean society sounds peaceful, it would be very difficult, and almost impossible to regulate. Inevitably, Epicurus wants all men to live in the exact way which is starkly against human nature. Moreover, if this society was achieved, there is no way to ensure it would be without conflict or rebellion.

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).

Discussion summary on Epicurus

Question: What do you think are Epicurus’ views on love in terms of a romantic partner and marriage, as one of the highest goods and forms of pleasure?

Explanation: Epicurus offers guidelines to live a good life, seeking the highest possible form of an intrinsic good, which is pleasure. He declares pleasure is “the beginning and end of the happy life” (p.2 letters to Menoeceus ). In order to achieve pleasure, he outlines the difference between natural desires, of which some are necessary and unnecessary, as well as vain desires, all of which being unnecessary (also on p.2). Furthermore, Epicurus suggests that the art of wisdom is among these requirements for pleasure. In terms of wisdom, he argues the highest form is through friendship (#27 of the principle doctrines of Epicurus). Additionally, Epicurus states, “we must love our friends as much as ourselves” (p.5 of Cicero). Thus, I posed the question, where does Epicurus draw the line about love? To many, marriage, a family, and the “love of your life”, is key to living blissfully. What do you think an Epicurean view of this is? Epicurus demonstrates that “We may instead avoid certain pleasures when, by doing so, we avoid greater pains. We may also choose to accept pain if, by doing so, it results in greater pleasure”(p.2 letters to Menoeceus) Many may argue that romantic relationships bring agony and pain. Others argue they are the ultimate source of happiness. Thus, I provoked the question of the reason behind Epicurus’ deliberate avoidance of reproduction, a family, or one true love.

Answer: My group discussed the concept of romantic love being part of the vain and unnecessary pleasures. This was controversial as some argued that one does not get pain from not being in love, whereas others stated many experience the ultimate pain without love and a family of their own. My group also explored the possibilities of love leading to heartbreak. Thus, perhaps Epicurus views romance to be more problematic than pleasurable. Additionally, perhaps Epicurus views friendship as the bread of love. Moreover, engaging in a sensual romantic relationship could parallel indulging in luxurious foods. Ultimately, he deliberately avoids the topic of romance as friendship seemingly acts as a bare necessity.

Question: What do you think Epicurus means by the “art of dying well” (p.2 letters to Menoeceus).

Epicurus argues that a key aspect of living a life of pleasure is to not fear death. On page 1 of letters to Menoeceus, death is described as being no concern to us humans. Epicurus explains, “all things good and bad are experience through sensation, but sensation ceases at death”(p.1 of letters to Menoeceus). Thus, if you are dead you have no sensations. He goes on to argue that if all things end at death, then we should not agonize over it. Moreover, Fearing death will give us anxiety and further us from a life of pleasure. Knowing Epicurus’ views on death itself, what do you think he means by the art of dying well. If death is nothing, how does one die well?

Answer: My group reached the final verdict that Epicurus uses “dying well” as an emotional achievement rather than physical. They argued that dying well is essentially to have lived well. Moreover, to die well involved having achieved static pleasure. We further explored what constitutes having lived well. Can you achieve static pleasure infinitely? Is dying well a mentality of satisfaction across your whole life, or is it finally reaching static pleasure. This question evoked more questions of what constitutes as dying well, and to what amount of pleasure must be reached. We concluded that this is a personal decision, and living well would be ones own experience free from pain or anxiety.

Discussion Questions for Epicurus

Question 1: How does Epicurus’ approach to hedonism differ from the common notion of hedonism?

I decided to address the question of Epicurus’ approach to hedonism with my fellow classmates as in the part Master Your Desires, Epicurus states that “Pleasure, we declare, is the beginning and end of the happy life. We are endowed by nature to recognize pleasure as the greatest good. Every choice and avoidance we make is guided by pleasure as our standard for judging the goodness of everything”, yet “not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have.” These two statements go to show how he shares the general idea of hedonism (with pleasure being the ultimate good/goal), but drifts from the belief in a sense that he believes that people must learn to appreciate the simplest and most basic things in life and should avoid unnecessary desires.

During the discussion we talked about what Epicurus deemed as basic needs and extravagant (pretty much just looking back to his writings), we also joked about a current saying, the “bros before ***s” view Epicurus has. We then brought up and agreed on the point of him being a believer of anti crass hedonism. After that we talked about why it was important to be appreciative of the simpler things and to learn about avoiding things we don’t need. The discussion eventually wandered off and we discussed about which version of hedonism appealed to us more, the result was unanimous on the more popular notion of hedonism (allowing the indulgence of extravagant things, as we all agreed that fine dinning was important to us).

Trying to segue into question 2, I then brought up the point Epicurus brought up in Live Wisely stating that “No one could be more content than one who simply reveres the gods, who is utterly unafraid of death, and who has discovered the natural goal of life” and discussed about the idea if we should actually revere the gods and dismiss the notion of death. We first addressed the later part of the question about dismissing the notion of death. We acknowledged that Epicurus saw no sense in fearing death as the cease of sensation would strip us of our consciousness as the soul could not live outside of of the body. We then talked about whether the way to derive the greatest pleasure in life was in fact to be unafraid of death, and why it may be that way. Elaborating on that, we talked about how it is through the idea of death (a time limit) that we learn to appreciate things as it won’t last forever. I then brought up the point of how some psychologists found that people who accept death gain a grater sense of appreciation pf beauty in the simplest of things (such as rain, or day to day activities) which supports both Epicurus’ version of hedonism and idea of not fearing death. And after that leaves the first part of the question which leads to the second discussion question.

Question 2: Why does Epicurus say to revere the gods if they do not affect you whatsoever?

I decided for this to be my second question as I personally did not see a sense in affiliating yourself with things that do not affect our lives whatsoever, personally if something couldn’t affect me I would question its existence. As the discussion started we all found it rather strange for someone who believes in Atomism to believe in the existence of gods as due to the lack of evidence. The only kind of proof Epicurus provided for the existence of gods was through abstract and unfalsifiable things such a dreams. We agreed that the ideas of Atomism and how Epicurus validated the existence of god seem to be contradictory in nature, and because of that we brought up the idea mentioned in class and agreed that Epicurus doesn’t really believe in the existence of gods and that he only says to believe in it to avoid punishment (so he won’t get similar treatment to Socrates). We came to this conclusion because the idea of god not being to interfere with human life should render gods essentially insignificant to human, and if they are insignificant, there is no reason to respect them, and also because Epicurus’s argument for the existence of gods seemed weak and halfhearted. We then drifted slightly off topic and discussed about the different kinds of pleasure.

Epicurus and the gods

Epicurus suggests in his letter to Menoeceus that hyper focus on the gods results in people tending towards using the gods to ‘commend their own ways and condemn  those who do not’ follow the same ways. He however also suggests that all that happens in the world can be ascribed to physical principles. This formed the basis of the discussion questions:

  1. Was Epicurus deliberately vague about his position on the gods because of the religious environment in which he lived?
  2. Did Epicurus believe focus on the gods distracted from the pursuit of a good life?

We believed that it was entirely possible that Epicurus did not entirely dismiss the existence of gods at least not explicitly because he existed within a society in which such a position was punishable by execution and hence his suggestion that the gods whilst existing were removed from interfering with the natural order of things. However we also discussed the possibility that he did genuinely believe pursuit of godliness to be a distraction from living a good life in that the individual could be consumed by a desire to reach ever higher levels of perceived piety and hence stray away from satisfying their necessary natural desires.

Ultimately we concluded that it was perhaps a bit of both with Epicurus at least never explicitly disputing worship of the gods but making it clear that he believed that hyper focus on them reduced the ability for one to live their best life.

Epicurus Discussion Summary

My discussion group primarily focused on 2 questions that then led the conversation to various avenues regarding Epicurean philosophy. The questions and summaries of what was discussed are as follows:

  1. Is Epicurus’ outlook on life, specifically maximizing one’s pleasures, considered a selfish way to live?

This conversation regarding this question quickly became a mini debate of sorts, with people taking both sides of the question. Some people stated their views that by following Epicurean philosophy one is ultimately only caring about their won well-being, and is therefore living their life in a selfish way. People then brought up the fact that in Ancient Greece, around the time when Epicurus was alive, many people dedicated their life to the betterment of the state through direct work or military service. However, the conversation then shifted to how living one’s life in an Epicurean way could actually benefit the community. As one of the tenets of his philosophy, Epicurus stated that we must face some immediate discomfort to achieve greater pleasure in the future. In this case, somebody could sacrifice some of their immediate pleasure to help others (for example, philanthropy work) since seeing others benefit and live a better life could fulfill the desires of that individual, thus leading him to greater overall pleasure and happiness.

2. Would Epicurus think that Socrates lived his life in a way that would conform to Epicurus’ version of a “proper way to live”?

By posing this question to the group I was essentially asking if they thought that Socrates (as described in Plato’s writing) followed an Epicurean philosophy of maximizing his pleasure in life. The discussion led to some interesting areas, but eventually settled on a mixed answer to the question. The group discussed that on one hand, by going around and questioning people, Socrates was fulfilling his purpose in life and therefore maximizing his pleasure and happiness, ultimately following an Epicurean philosophy. However, Epicurus did state as one of the major tenets of his philosophy that making friends is of utmost importance to live a pleasurable life, and if one cannot make friends, one should at least avoid making enemies. Socrates directly contradicted this tenet since he did make quite a lot of enemies by going around and questioning people, and he also had very few friends. In essence, the group decided that Socrates was following the Epicurean philosophy in some ways, while directly contradicting it in others.