Philosophy 143 Lecture Notes

The Ethics of Epicurus

Early Greek Ethics The Ancient Greek philosophers from around the time of Socrates were deeply concerned with the question of what constitutes the good life for the human being.

Socrates himself held that the good life is the virtuous life, and that virtues are forms of practical wisdom. Aristotle reports that "Socrates . . . thought the virtues were rules or rational principles (for he thought they were, all of them, forms of scientific knowledge)" (Nichomachean Ethics, Book VI, Chapter 13).

One of Socrates's disciples, Aristippus of Cyrene, held a very different doctrine, according to which the good life is one of pleasure, so that virtue is good only insofar as it leads to pleasure. Diogenes describes this hedonism as based at least on part on "the fact that from childhood on we involuntarily find it [i.e., pleasure] congenial and that when we get it we seek nothing more and that we flee nothing so much as its opposite, pain" (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 2.88).

The Cyrenaics describe pleasure as being a gentle motion, as opposed to the violent motion of pain. Between the two is a state of rest or very slight motion, which is neither pain nor pleasure. Although pleasures may arise from bad causes, not pleasure is bad as such, and all pleasures are equally good. The goal of life is to enjoy a constant succession of pleasurable states. However, Aristippus also taught that one must be the master of one's pleasures, by enjoying without being carried away (as opposed to repressing the pleasures altogether). Diogenes Laertius quotes Aristippus as requiring his followers "to govern, and not be governed by their pleasures" (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, II, 75).

Aristippus's contemporary Plato rejected the reduction of virtue to pleasure in favor of a metaphysical doctrine that makes virtue an approximation to the Good, which exists in itself and independently of the physical world. The virtuous soul is one that is fit to carry out its proper function: most importantly, that the intellectual part of the soul attains virtue through knowledge of the Good. This is the virtue of the ruling class, who have been educated rigorously to allow them to know the Good.

Aristotle held that the highest good practically attainable by human beings is happiness (eudaimonea), which results from carrying out the highest function of the human being: to act under the control of reason. So rational activity is is virtuous activity, and it brings with it happiness. (External goods are also needed for happiness, insofar as they are needed to carry out virtuous activity.) Pleasure naturally accompanies happiness, but is not an end in itself, as it was for the Cyrenaics.

Epicurean Hedonism

The ethical doctrine of Epicurus was hedonistic, like that of the Cyrenaics. In his "Letter to Menoeceus," Epicurus stated that "pleasure is the starting-point and goal of living blessedly" (128). He based this claim on two distinct considerations. In the "Letter to Menoeceus," he cites the criterion of feeling. We make choices with an eye to the good, and we judge choices to be good by the criterion of the feeling of the pleasure which accompanies them. A second argument, similar to that of the Cyrenaics, is found in Cicero:

As soon as each animal is born, it seeks pleasure and rejoices in it as the hghtest good, and rejects pain as the greatest bad thing,, driving it away from itself as effectively as it ca; and it does this while it is still not corrupted, while the judgement of nature herself is unperverted and sound. Therefore, he says that there is no need of reason or debate about why pleasure is to be purseued and pain to be avoided. He thinks that these things are perceived, as we perceive that fire is hot, that snow is white, that honey is sweet. None of these things requires confirmation by sophisticated argumentation; it is enough just to have them pointed out. (On Goals, 1.30.)
This argument is in keeping with Epicurus's empiricism, which requires that opinion be backed up by clear facts.

Like the Cyrenaics, Epicurus held that "every pleasure is a good thing, since it has a nature congenial [to us]," while every pain is a bad thing ("Letter to Menoeceus," 129). This does not mean, however, that every pleasure ought to be pursued, since in many cases the attainment of pleasure can lead to pain, which is to be shunned, and pain may be accepted because it will lead to greater pleasure in the end. Epicurus held that our choices should be based on "comparative measure and an examination of the advantages and disadvanges" of the pleasure and pain that would result from them. ("Letter to Menoeceus," 129). "It is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which serarches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls" ("Letter to Menoeceus," 132).

Two Types of Pleasure

But Epicurus parted the ways with his Cyrenaic colleagues on a subtle point with far-reaching consequences. As was stated above, the Cyrenaics had held that there is a middle ground between pleasure and pain, where the feeling of either is absent. Epicurus, on the contrary, maintained that the absence of pain in the body and of disturbance in the soul is a pleasure. Cicero gives an argument for this thesis:

Since when we are freed from pain we rejoice in this very liberation from and absence of annoyance, and since everything in which we rejoice is a pleasure (just as eerything which irritates us is a pain), then it is right ot call the absence of all pain pleasure. Just as when hunger and thirst are driven out by food and drink, the very reomoval of annoyance brings with it a resutling pleasure, so in every case too the removal of pain brings with it a consequent pleasure. (On Goals 1.37-8)

This pleasure is "static" (katastamatic), as opposed to the "kinetic" pleasures of the bar, the bed and the table. Not only is the removal of pain a pleasure, it is the highest pleasure. As Plutarch reports, "The stable condition of the flesh and the reliable expectation concerning this contains the highest and most secure joy, for those who are able to reason it out" (A Pleasant Life, 1089d). Epicurus put the matter more abstractly: "The removal of all feeling of pain is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures" (The Principal Doctrines, II.) An argument for this view is that we delight in the removal of pain even when there is no kinetic pleasure which results, "and from this one can understand just how great a pleasure it is to be free of pain" (On Goals 1.56). To all this the Cyrenaics replied, reports Clement of Alexandria, that the removal of what causes pain results in "the condition of a corpse" (Stromates, 2.21).

But it is pretty clear that the condition of a corpse is not what Epicurus had in mind, despite his frugal life-style. Cicero quotes him as stating that the good includes "the pleasures we get from sex, from listening to songs, from looking at [beautiful] shapes, from smooth motions, or any other pleasures which affect any of man's senses" (Tusculan Disputations, 3.41). Even pleasures of the mind refer to these bodily pleasures, since mental rejoicing "lies in the expectation that our nature will avoid pain while acquiring all those things I just mentioned." To make sense of this in conjunction with the thesis that the absence of pain is "the limit for the greatest pleasure," one might look to this passage from Cicero: "though later [after all pain has been eliminated] pleasure can be varied and adorned, it cannot be increased or augmented." This suggests that what the additional things adds is not more pleasure (which is impossible), but something else which contributes to our happiness. Of course, it is hard to say what this might be without calling it added pleasure!

Epicurus valued mental pleasure over physical pleasure, arguing that the mind is able to survey the pleasures of the past and anticipate those of the future, which will allow "a continuous and interconnected [set of] pleasures" (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 5.96). Nonetheless, he claimed that both physical and mental pleasure "have their origins in the body and take the body as their point of reference." One way to understand this claim is in the context of Epicurus's materialistic doctrine of the soul. Any pleasure of the soul is ultimately a bodily pleasure. A more common-sensical reading would be that the specifically mental pleasures are those of the anticipation and rememberance of bodily pleasures and of the absence of pain.

In this connection it might be useful to review Epicurus's classification of desires. The first division is between those which are natural and those which are not. Among the unnatural desires are for such symbolic items as crowns and statues, which do no actual good for anyone. They are desired on the basis of "groundless opinion." The natural desires are divided into the necessary and the unnecessary. Among the necessary desires are those for food, drink, and shelter. What is unnecessary yet natural are desires for specific kinds of these things, as for example, the desire for extravagant food, when simple food will do. Epicurus describes the unnecessary desires (which would include the unnatural ones) as those "which do not bring a feeling of pain when not fulfilled" (The Principal Doctrines, XXVI). A way of distinguishing such desires is that they are "easy to dispel when they seem hard to achieve or to produce harm." Thus an extravangant meal might cost much labor or give one a stomach ache afterward. Note that this way of classifying desires places the care of the body at center stage, which is in keeping with the doctrine that all pleasure refers ultimately to the body.

An objection to Epicurus's hedonism is that it must issue in egoism, the view that only one's own welfare (in this case, pleasure) is morally significant to one's self. Epicurus certainly did not behave selfishly: his generosity and friendship was legendary. He is cited by Cicero as saying that "of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship" (On Goals, 1.65.). The Epicurean in Cicero's text cites three ways of defending this thesis. The first is utilitarian and consistend with egoism: having friends is the best way to secure our own security. The second is advocated by those "who are more timid in the face of your abusive criticisms." For them, although friendship originally has a utilitarian basis, it becomes transformed into love for one's friends for their own sake. Just as we love various activities, inanimate objects, animals, etc. due to our familiarity with them, so we may come to love those friends with whom we associate frequently. A third possibility is that wise people recognize from the outset the value of friendship for pleasure and make an agreement among themselves "to the effect that they will not cherish their friends less than themselves" (On Goals, 1.70. Cicero's Epicurean then claims that from all these descriptions we can draw the conclusion that pleasure is the only basis for friendship.

Thus it appears that the Epicureans tried to build social values on an egoistic basis. They held that political society is based on the kind of agreement the wise person makes with his comrades in order to enhance pleasure. "Justice was not a thing in its own right, but [exists] in mutual dealings in whatever places there [is] a pact about neither harming one another nor being harmed" (The Principle Doctrines, XXXIII). It is "something useful in mutual associations." But the means in which justice is carried out can vary from place to place. A law is unjust only if it works against the usefulness in mutual associations. There is no justice among those who do not make the social contract, just as there is none among animals.

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