Arguably the most denounced and misunderstood philosophy of both Ancient and Modern history, Epicureanism has nonetheless had an astounding impact on Antiquity by helping to make a name for the practical applications of philosophy as a therapy and way of life. Whether it be the austere Stoics or modern libertines, this ancient philosophy has mistakenly been connoted with sensual hedonism; consequently, the adjective Epicurean is associated with one who has a fine taste in foods and wine nowadays. Tragically, the image of the rather ascetic Epicurus has been tarnished by outlandish and exaggerated attacks used by rival schools to slander the Epicurean doctrines. In all reality, Epicurus devised an exceptional system of thought consisting of atomic theory, the absence of divine intervention, and simple pleasures. I will be breaking up the analysis of this philosophy into four parts: origin, logic, physics–covered in the previous post–and then ethics.
Now that we know the environment of the Epicureans, we can examine their ethics, which Epicurus thought of as a way of life. “Pleasure is the highest good” is the motto of the Epicureans. The reason we all incorrectly associate Epicureanism with Hedonism is because there is more to that quote than is clearly visible. We must first define and categorize pleasure before we point fingers. Epicurus, contrary to what you might think, was completely against luxuries. He went as far as to say, “When, therefore, we say that pleasure is a chief good, we are not speaking of the debauched man, or those which lie in sensual enjoyment,” and, ”For it is not continued drinkings and revels… that make life pleasant, but sober contemplation.” Pleasure is not about bodily pleasures, it is the avoidance of pain. Epicurus goes even further and introduces different types of pleasures. The first pleasure is called active/kinetic pleasure. Active pleasures are pleasures that are actively sought after and usually result in more desires. On the other hand, we have passive/static pleasures. Static pleasures are those that derive from an absence of pain. Epicurus strongly suggests we do away with kinetic pleasures and strive only for passive ones. If you are still confused about the difference between active and passive pleasures, Epicurus makes it even easier for us by classifying three types of desires: natural and necessary, natural yet unnecessary, and unnatural and unnecessary. The first desires are those which are key to human survival, e.g. shelter and satiation of hunger and thirst. The second are desires which are natural for humans but are not needed for survival, e.g. gorging and intercourse. The third are desires that are not only inhumane but completely useless, e.g. fame/reputation and shopping. Passive desires, like eating just enough, fall under the first classification. Active desires, like attaining fame or having sex, fall under the last two. Epicurus aids us with a simple test to determine which desires are which: if a resource is unlimited, it is good, e.g. water; if a resource is limited, it is bad, e.g. soda. Epicurus’ diet was made up of bread and water, both healthy and necessary! However, something else stood in the way of the Epicureans’ pleasure: fear. Epicurus believed the biggest obstacle to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain was fear of death and of the gods. Here we come back to Epicurean physics and the dismissal of both death and divine intervention. Death was obviously a major source of distress in ancient times. Epicurus thought this fear was completely irrational for one reason: we will not experience death. As evidence, he uses two arguments. The first argument can be summarized in the following quote: “When we are, death is not come, when death is come, we are not.” Simply put, when we are alive, we have not experienced death, and once we die, we are no longer existent and can therefore not experience death. We will never encounter death! Another argument he uses relates to birth, known as the symmetry argument. Death is the state of not being alive, yes? Well, at one point, before you were conceived, you were not alive; you did not exist. Having gone through this painlessly, surely it should be no different when death arrives. Alright, we are free from the tyranny of death! But what about the Gods? If the Gods are constantly watching us ready to punish our misdeeds, we should certainly be in a constant state of fear. Do not fret, says Epicurus, for the Gods are off in their own world. Epicurus thought it wrong to live under the impression that we would be punished at any moment.
Knowing these doctrines, we can summarize Epicurus’ ethics with four simple principles known as the Tetrapharmakos, or fourfold remedy: Don’t fear God, don’t worry about death; what is good is easy to get, what is terrible is easy to endure. This whole time you have been thinking that pleasure is Epicurus’ main goal. I am sorry to report that I kind of mislead you: Epicurus’ main goal was a state known in Greek as ataraxia (αταραξια), tranquility of the mind. After ridding ourselves of our fears and limiting our desires, we can achieve this legendary state of equanimity. In this state we can endure anything and will be in a constant state of happiness. A worthy philosopher, Epicurus stayed true to this doctrine even on his deathbed. A sick man for the last years of his life, Epicurus, on his final day, exhibited a great happiness despite his immense pain. For years he suffered, but he was able to endure physical sufferings.
In conclusion, philosophy for Epicurus was a way of life. Although he had his fair share of name-calling and debasement, Epicurus lived as he preached. In my post What is a Philosopher? I said that a philosopher’s deeds must correlate with his words. My final review of Epicurus is that he is a true philosopher, as I have said. A philosopher must endure suffering, a philosopher must serve as a physician to the maladies of the public, and a philosopher must be willing to make sacrifices to further him/herself. Epicurus earns an A+. Not only did he endure physically and reputationally, but he created a philosophy that, though controversial, provided a way of life, and passed on his teachings. Though his legacy has been corrupted by history, he and his philosophy shall live on in the history of philosophy.
For further reading: The Great Courses: Practical Philosophy : The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson (2002)
The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy by David Sedley (2003)
A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome by Frederick Copelston (1993)
Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
The History of Western Thought by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)
The Deepest Human Life by Scott Samuelson (2014)