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.

Discussion Summary on Epicurus

I drew discussion from Epicurus, Principal Doctrines. We discussed points that I felt required more thought from Epicurus such as points 4, 8, 17, and 35.

Point 4 states that “continuous physical pain does not last long” and that “extreme pain lasts only a very short time, and even less extreme pain does not last for many days at once” (Anderson, “Doctrines” 1). However, it strikes me that there are readily available counter-examples such as terminal cancers that are continuously painful until death, or diseases of the nerves that cause pain receptors to fire at uncertain intervals. Or consider the case of a torture victim. Such a person could experience extreme pain for many days at once.

I raised this objection as a sort of wishful thinking by Epicurus, but in the discussion, it was pointed out that Epicurus may have been offering this as advice to overcome that which is under your control and to accept that which is not under your control, similar to his stance on the fear of death.
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In point 8, Epicurus observes that “some pleasure are only obtainable at the cost of excessive troubles” (Anderson, “Doctrines” 1). While we all agreed that this was theoretically true, we also recognized this did not offer practical advice on how to live, which pleasures to seek or how to obtain them. In his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus hints at the virtue of Prudence as a way of knowing which pleasures to seek and which pains to avoid, but does not go into more specific detail (Anderson, “Letter” 1).

Among the group, we all shared similar concerns, so this point did not generate much controversy or discussion.
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Points 17 and 35, taken together suggest that those who live unjustly or inflict or allow harm to others will be haunted by guilt and that guilt is a form of pain that outweighs any pleasure they could achieve (Anderson 2,3).

But Epicurus cannot know what thoughts or feelings anyone else experiences; he can only guess. Certainly, there appear to be misanthropic sociopathic persons who show no signs of guilt over their amoral and selfish behaviors. Indeed they behave exactly as you would expect someone feeling no guilt to behave. How can Epicurus, with no evidence, be so confident of what they feel? Epicurus can only state that if he were in the position he, himself, would feel guilty. Or consider a sadist, someone who finds pleasure in causing pain to others. Such a person would not only not feel guilt when they cause harm to others, but in fact derive pleasure from doing it. (Perhaps Epicurus suggests that such people cannot exist, but I am not sure this is well established.)

During the discussion, we also discovered that Epicurus appears to contradict himself on the tendency of gods (if they exist) to intervene in the affairs of men. First, he teaches Menoecus that there is no reason to “fear the gods” (Anderson, “Letter” 1). Then he claims that the unjust cannot be truly happy because they will “dread the eye of heaven, and fancy that the pangs of anxiety night and day gnawing at their hearts are sent by Providence to punish them” (Cicero 16). If he is correct in his assertion that the gods do not intervene and there is no reason to fear them, then the unjust have no reason to fear the gods, since they do not intervene.

As we ran out of time, Jade (our TA) suggested that Epicurus was saying only a wise man would never choose to act unjustly and therefore only an unwise man would choose to be unjust, and therefore the unwise man would also fear the gods. I hope I have recorded her idea accurately here. In any case, I personally find this line of reasoning unsatisfying. A person could be unwise only in certain areas. That is to say, An atheist who chooses to act unjustly would have no fear of divine repercussions.

Works Cited
Anderson, E. (2006). Epicurus, Principal Doctrines. [ebook] Available at: http://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/files/2013/08/Epicurus-PrincipalDoctrines-epicurusinfo.pdf [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

Anderson, E. (2006). Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus. [ebook] Available at: http://blogs.ubc.ca/phil102/files/2013/08/Epicurus-LtrMenoeceus-epicurusinfo.pdf [Accessed 19 Jan. 2018].

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., and Harris Rackham. Cicero de Finibus. Harvard Univ. Press, 1931.

Discussion summary on : Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus

In Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus he states: (page 2)

“Among desires, some are natural and some are vain. Of those that are natural, some are necessary and some unnecessary. Of those that are necessary, some are necessary for happiness, some for health, and some for life itself. 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– the goal of a happy life”

So Epicurus says some desires are necessary and some an unnecessary. So the questions I brought to class follows:

1. How can one define what is necessary/unnecessary?

Answers: The group started off with a simple answer: Something is necessary if you will die if you don’t have it. Such as food, water, oxygen, shelter.  Then we discussed whether or not clothing was necessary. We said that clothing would not be necessary if a shelter was well built, or if you lived in a warm climate. However, clothing could be necessary or some and necessary for others. Then, is the definition of necessary and necessary unique to each person? The group decided on that necessities was unique to each person. For example, one person may need medicine that is necessary for their health. There is also some sort of base line necessities that everyone needs and the goal of having these necessities is the live happy and with pleasure. The group also said friendship makes getting necessities easier thus friendship helps pleasure and happiness.

2. Given that desires can be necessities are unique to each individual, at what point does it transition from being a unnecessary desire to a necessary one?

Answers: We tried to quantify it as how long one could go without it. So there is a tier or hierarchy of necessities. Oxygen would be the most necessary and then water, food, shelter and so on. One group member brought up the idea of how addictions form. To an addict, at first the narcotics they use are unnecessary and after some time it becomes necessary to them. We realized there could be some loop-hole to our reasoning. Is there a cut of point of when something transitions? This was never fully answered and I don’t believe its possible to.

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