Defining Epicurean Hedonism

Note: I am putting together original writings for my philosophy site (which has recently undergone a new focus). The following is a draft of the first of this original content.  Appreciate any comments.

Defining Epicurean Hedonism

The ancient followers of Epicurus (Epicureans) had a far different understanding of the word Epicureanism than we speakers of modern English do. The modern understanding of Epicureanism stands in near opposition to the classical meaning of the term. Just as Epicureanism has had a shift in meaning so, too, has the term hedonism. The following will attempt to distinguish between the modern conception of hedonism and the hedonism of Epicurus, which for the sake of differentiation can be called virtuous hedonism.

Dictionaries define hedonism as “pursuit of or devotion to pleasure” and generally refer to sensual pleasures. The word hedonism comes from the word hēdonē which is an English tranliteration of the Greek word for pleasure1. To most moderns, the word hedonism brings up visions of overweight intoxicated people eating and drinking to excess and indulging in bawdy pleasures. As we shall see, for Epicureans, hedonism means something far different. In order to understand this difference, we must begin by exploring what the Epicureans mean by pleasure.

Epicurus rested his entire ethical doctrine on pleasure, believing that all living beings sought it out naturally without being taught. The problem, in Epicurus’ view, is that we allow short term pleasures to interfere with our long term pleasure and peace of mind. Principal Doctrine 3 reads:

The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.2

A brief (and admittedly oversimplified) example may help to illustrate this point. When hungry, one suffers pain. Eating satisfies the pangs of hunger and leads to pleasure. However, if overly rich foods are eaten or if one eats too much, pain and discomfort return. In this example, the short term pleasure of gorging on good food gets in the way of our longer term pleasure of not feeling bloated and overly full. It is in this sense that moderation leads to the greatest pleasure, as both eating too little and eating too much creates pain.

Epicurus differentiates between two different types of pleasure. The first pleasure type is kinematic (pleasure in motion) and is created by stimulus (eating sweet food, playing with a puppy, etc…), but the pleasure ends when the stimulus stops. The other pleasure type is katastematic (pleasure at rest) and is not based on a constant stimulus but upon the non-existence of pain, fear, anxiety, etc… Katastematic pleasure is held to be the higher good as it leads to ataraxia (robust tranquility). For the Epicureans, ataraxia is believed to be the goal of philosophy and life and is, in fact, the only source of true happiness. While kinematic pleasure is held to be a good, it should only be sought if it in no way interferes with our katastematic pleasure. Referring back our example above, rich food is OK to seek out, but must be done in moderation so that it does not interfere with the tranquility of being sated. This outlook stands in direct opposition to the modern views of the terms Epicurean and hedonism.

No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.3

Katastematic pleasure is nearly a negative-pleasure as it is based less upon pleasurable stimuli and more upon the absence of pain, fear, anxiety, etc… While Epicurus and his followers sought pleasure of the body (to satiation, never to excess), it is the pleasures of the soul and mind that are of the highest good and most likely to provide long-term ataraxia. To, once again, reference the Principal Doctrines:

Bodily pleasure does not increase when the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation. The limit of mental pleasure, however, is reached when we reflect on these bodily pleasures and their related emotions, which used to cause the mind the greatest alarms.4

For Epicurus, tranquility of the mind and soul can only be achieved after removing fear of the Gods, heavenly bodies, and death, these being the chief obstacles to maintaining lasting pleasure. He further held that learning, friendship, and removing oneself from public life all lead to the greatest tranquility.

Hedonism for Epicurus involves the past, present, and future. Living each moment so that it does not later cause regret, understanding your desires and seeking out those which are both necessary and natural, and understanding that the Gods and death are nothing to us which will prevent anxiety about the future.


1) Wikipedia: hēdonē

2) Principal Doctrine 3

3) Principal Doctrine 8

4) Principal Doctrine 18


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