Epicurean Moral Science and Ethics

I have just finished OCRing two chapters of a public domain book for posting to my Epicurean philosophy site, Cultivating Pleasure. I thought I would go ahead and post it here too.
This is the first time that this work has appeared in searchable/indexable text.  The text is almost 150 years old and reads somewhat stilted, but it is still a great summary of Epicurean ethics.

Epicurean Moral Science and Ethics

Zeller, E “The Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics”, London, Longmans Green, 1870.

pages 445-470

[Editor’s note: The text was faithfully transcribed with the following exceptions. Footnotes were removed as they were mostly in Greek and would have little value for the English reader. A couple of Greek terms were replaced with the transliterated English equivalents. Archaic spellings were retained.]


Natural science is intended to overcome the prejudices which stand in the way of happiness; moral science to give positive instruction as to the nature and means of attaining to happiness. The theoretical parts of the Epicurean system have already rendered familiar the idea that reality belongs only to individual things, and that all arrangements of a general character must be referred to the accidental harmony of individual forces. The same idea must now be indicated in the sphere of morals where individual feeling must be made the standard, and individual well-being the object of all human activity. Natural science, beginning with external phenomena,went back to the secret principles of these phenomena, which are alone accessible to thought. It led from an apparently accidental movement of atoms to a universe of regular motions. Not otherwise was the course followed by Epicurus in moral science. That science could not rest content with human feelings alone, nor with selfishly referring everything to the individual taken by himself alone. In more accurately defining the conception of well-being it passed beyond the domain of feeling, from the sphere of individual aims to the sphere of general aims, by a process which the Stoics declared to be the only path to happiness; it referred the individual mind to the universal nature of mind. It is for us now to portray the most prominent features of this leading thought as it found expression in the Epicurean ethics.

The only unconditional good, according to Epicurus, is pleasure; pain is an unconditional evil.’ No proof of this proposition seemed to him to be necessary; it rests on a conviction supplied by nature herself,and is the ground and basis of all our doing and not doing. If proof, however, were required, he appealed to the fact that all living beings from the first moment of their existence pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and that consequently pleasure is a natural good, and the normal condition of every being. Hence follows the proposition to which Epicurus in common with all the philosophers of pleasure appealed, that pleasure must be the object of life.

At the same time, this proportion was restricted in the Epicurean system by several considerations. In the first place, neither pleasure nor pain are simple things. There are many varieties and degrees of pleasure and pain, and the case may occur in which pleasure has to be secured by the loss of other pleasures, or even by pain, or in which pain can only be avoided by submitting to another pain, or at the cost of some pleasure.In this case Epicurus would have the various feelings of pleasure and pain carefully estimated, and in consideration of the advantages and disadvantages which they confer, would under circumstances advise the good to be treated as an evil, and the evil as a good. He would have pleasure forsworn if it would entail a greater corresponding pain, and pain submitted to if it holds out the prospect of greater pleasure. He also agrees with Plato in holding that every positive pleasure rests upon a want, i.e. upon a pain which it proposes to remove; and hence he concludes that the real aim and object of all pleasure consists in obtaining freedom from pain, and that the good is nothing else but emancipation from evil. By a Cyrenaic neither repose of soul nor freedom from pain, but a gentle motion of the soul, or, in other words, positive pleasure, was proposed as the object of life; and hence happiness was not made to depend on man’s general state of mind, but in the sum-total of his actual enjoyments. But Epicurus, advancing beyond this position, recognised both the positive and the negative side of pleasures, both pleasure as repose, and pleasure as motion. Both aspects of pleasure, however, do not stand on the same footing in his system. On the contrary, the essential and indirect

,cause of happiness is repose of mind–ataraxia. Positive pleasure is only an indirect cause of ataraxia in that it removes the pain of unsatisfied craving. This mental repose, however, depends essentially on man’s tone of mind, and that in a system so materialistic is again made to depend upon the state of his senses. It was consistent in Aristippus to consider bodily gratification the highest pleasure. Epicurus is consistent in subordinating pleasure of the body to that of the mind.

In calling pleasure the highest object in life, says Epicurus, we do not mean the pleasures of profligacy, nor, indeed, sensual enjoyments at all, but the freedom of the body from pain, and of the soul from disturbance. Neither feasts nor banquets, neither the lawful nor unlawful indulgence of the passions, nor the joys of the table, make life happy, but a sober mind discriminating between the motive for action and for inaction,and dispelling that greatest bane of our peace, prejudices. The root of such conduct, and the highest good, therefore, is intelligence. It is intelligence that leaves us free to pursue pleasure without being ever too eager or too remiss. Our indispensable wants are simple, little being needed to ensure freedom from pain; other things only afford change in enjoyment, and hence increase of enjoyment, or else they rest on a mere sentiment. The little we need may be easily attained. Nature makes ample, provision for our happiness if we would only receive her gifts thankfully, and not forget what she gives in our desire to obtain our wishes. He who lives according to nature is never poor; the wise man living on bread and water has no reason to envy Zeus; chance has little hold on him; with him intelligence is everything, and if a man is sure of intelligence he need trouble himself but little about external misfortunes. Even bodily pain did not appear to Epicurus so severe as to be able to cloud the wise man’s happiness; and although he regards as unnatural the Stoic insensibility to pain, he is still of opinion that the wise man may be happy on the rack, that he can bear with a smile pains the most violent, and in the midst of torture exclaim, How sweet! But a touch of forced sentiment may be discerned in the last expression;and traces of self-satisfied exaggeration are manifest even in the beautiful utterances of the philosopher on the pains of disease. Nevertheless, the principle which these utterances involve is one quite in the spirit of the Epicurean philosophy, and borne out by the testimony of the founder. The main thing, according to Epicurus, is not the state of the body, but the state of the mind. Bodily pleasure is of short duration, and has much of a disturbing character about it; mental enjoyments are alone pure and incorruptible. Mental sufferings, too, are proportionately more severe than those of the body, since the body only feels the pangs of the moment, whilst the soul feels the torments of the past and the future. In a life of limited duration the pleasures of the flesh never reach their end. Only intelligence, by consoling us for the limited nature of our bodily existence, can produce a life complete in itself, and not standing in need of unlimited duration.

At the same time, the Epicureans, if they are consistent with their principles, cannot deny that bodily pleasure is the earlier form, and likewise the ultimate source, of all pleasure, and neither Epicurus nor his favourite pupil Metrodorus shrunk from making this admission; Epicurus declaring that he could not form a conception of the good apart from enjoyments of the senses; Metrodorus asserting that everything good has reference to the belly. Nevertheless, the Epicureans did not feel themselves thereby necessitated to yield to the body the preference which they claimed for goods of the soul Nor, indeed, had the Stoics, notwithstanding the grossness in their theory of knowledge, ever abated their demand for a knowledge of conceptions, or ceased to subordinate the senses to reason, notwithstanding their founding moral teaching on nature. But mental pleasures and pains have lost with the Epicureans their peculiar character. Their only distinction from pleasures of the body consists in the addition of memory, or hope, or fear to the present feeling of pleasure or pain; and their greater importance is simply ascribed to their greater force or duration when compared with the feelings which momentarily impress the senses. As a counterpoise to bodily pains the remembrance of philosophic discourses is mentioned; but properly speaking mental pleasures and pains are not different from other pleasures in kind, but only in degree, being stronger and more enduring. Accordingly Epicurus allows that we have no cause for rejecting gross and carnal pleasures if they can liberate us from the fear of higher powers, of death, and of sufferings; and the only consolation he can offer in pain is of the most uncertain kind. The most violent pains either do not last long, or they put an end to our existence; and the less violent ought to be endured since they do not exclude a counterbalancing pleasure. Hence victory over the impression of the moment must be secured, not so much by a mental force stemming the tide of feeling, as by a proper adjustment of the condition and actions of the senses.

In no other way can the necessity of virtue be established in the Epicurean system. Agreeing with the strictest moral philosophers so far as to hold that virtue can be as little separated from happiness as happiness from virtue, having even the testimony of opponents as to the purity and strictness of his moral teaching, which in its results differed in no wise from that of the Stoics ; Epicurus, nevertheless, holds a position strongly differing from that of the Stoics as to the grounds on which his moral theory is based. To demand virtue for its own sake seemed to him a mere phantom of the imagination. Those only who make pleasure their aim have a real object in life. Only a conditional value belongs to virtue as a means to happiness; or, as it is otherwise expressed, Not virtue taken by itself renders a man happy, but the pleasure arising from the exercise of virtue.This pleasure the Epicurean system does not seek in the consciousness of duty fulfilled, or of the possession of virtue, but in the freedom from disturbances, fears, and dangers, which follows as a consequence necessarily produced by virtue. Wisdom and intelligence contribute to happiness by liberating us from the fear of the Gods and death, by making us independent of immoderate passions and vain desires, by teaching us to bear pain as something subordinate and passing, and by pointing the way to a more cheerful and natural life. Self-control aids in that it points out the attitude to be assumed towards pleasure and pain so as to receive the maximum of enjoyment and the minimum of suffering; valour, in that it enables us to overcome fear and pain; justice, in that it makes life possible without that fear of Gods and men, which ever haunts the transgressor; but all the individual virtues contribute to one and the same result. Virtue is never an end in itself, but only a means to an end–that end lying beyond it–a happy life. But yet it is means so certain and necessary that virtue can neither be conceived without happiness, nor happiness without virtue. Moreover, little as it might seem to be required by this theory, Epicurus insists upon it that an action to be right must be done not according to the letter, but according to the spirit of the law, not simply from regard to others, or by compulsion, but from delight in what is good.’

The same claims were advanced by Epicurus on behalf of his wise man as the Stoics had urged on behalf of theirs. Not only was a control over pain attributed to him, in nothing inferior to the Stoic insensibility of feeling, but his life was also described as most perfect and satisfactory in itself. Albeit not free from emotions, being in particular susceptible to the higher feelings of the soul, such as compassion, he yet finds his philosophic activity in no wise thereby impaired. Without despising enjoyment, he is altogether master of his desires, and knows how to restrain them by intelligence, so that they never exercise a harmful influence on life.He alone has an unwavering certainty of conviction; he alone knows how to do the right thing in the right way; he alone, as Metrodorus observes, knows how to be thankful. Nay, more, he is so far exalted above ordinary men that Epicurus promises that by carefully observing his teaching, philosophers will dwell as Gods among men, and so little controlled by destiny that they will be, under all circumstances, happy. Happiness may, indeed, depend on certain external conditions; it may even be allowed that the disposition to happiness does not exist in every nature, nor in every person; but still, when it does exist, its existence is secure, nor can time affect its reality. For wisdom–so Epicurus and the Stoics alike believed–is indestructible, and the wise man’s happiness can never be increased by time. A life bounded by time may, therefore, be quite as perfect as one not so bounded.

Thus, however different the principles, and however different the tone of the systems of the Stoics and of Epicurus, one and the same endeavour may yet be observed in both. It is the tendency which characterises all the post-Aristotelian philosophy–the wish to place man in a position of absolute independence by emancipating him from connection with the external world, and by awakening in him the consciousness of the infinite freedom of thought.


The general principles which have been laid down in the previous chapter already determine the character of particular points in the moral science of the Epicureans. Epicurus, no doubt, never developed his views on morals into a system, however much his pupils, particularly in later times, busied themselves with morality and special points in a system of morals. Moreover, his fragmentary statements and precepts on the subject of morals are very imperfectly recorded. Still, all that is known corresponds with the view which has been already stated as to his opinions. All the practical rules given by Epicurus aim at conducting man to happiness by controlling passions and desires. The wise man is easily satisfied. He sees that little is necessary for supplying the wants of nature, but to be free from pain; that the pursuit of riches knows no limit, whereas the riches required by nature may be easily acquired. He knows that the most simple nourishment affords as much enjoyment as the most luxurious, and is at the same time far more conducive to health; that real wealth is therefore acquired,not by increasing our possessions but by restraining our wants; and that he who is not satisfied with little will never be satisfied at all. The wise man is able to live upon bread and water, and at the same time thinks himself as happy as Zeus. He eschews passions which disturb peace of mind and the repose of life; considering it foolish to throw away the present in order to obtain an uncertain future, or to sacrifice life itself to the means of a life which he can never enjoy. He therefore neither gives way to passionate love, nor to forbidden acts of profligacy. Fame he does not covet; and for the opinions of men he cares only so far as to wish not to be despised,since being despised would expose him to danger. Injuries he can bear with calmness. He cares not what may happen to him after his death; nor envies any for possessions about which he does not care himself.

It has been already seen how Epicurus thought to rise above pains, how to emancipate himself from the fear of the Gods and death.’ And it has been further noticed that he longed to secure by means of his principles the same independence and happiness which the Stoics aspired to by means of theirs. But whilst the Stoics thought to attain this independence by crushing the senses, Epicurus was content to restrain and regulate the senses. Desires are not to be uprooted, but brought into proper proportion to the collective end and aim of life. Thus will the equilibrium be produced necessary for perfect repose of mind. Hence, notwithstanding his own simplicity, Epicurus is far from disapproving, under all circumstances, of a fuller enjoyment of life. The wise man will not live as a Cynic or a beggar. Care for business he will not neglect; only he will not give too much time to business, and will prefer the business of education to any and every other. Nor will he despise the attractions of art, although he can be content to dispense with them. In short, his self-sufficiency will not consist in using little, but in needing little; and it is this freedom from wants which will add flavour to his more luxurious enjoyments. Nor is his attitude towards death a different one. Not fearing death, rather seeking it when he has no other mode of escaping unendurable suffering, the Epicurean approves of the Stoic principle of suicide. Still, the cases in which he will resort to suicide will be rare, since he has learnt to be happy under all bodily pains.

Fully as the wise man can suffice for himself, Epicurus would not separate him from connection with others. Not, indeed, that he believed with the Stoics in the natural relationship of all rational beings.But he could not form an idea of human life except in connection with human society. He does not, however, assign the same value to all forms of social life. Civil society and the state have for him the least attraction. Civil society is only an external association for the purpose of protection. Justice reposes originally on nothing but a contract entered into for purposes of mutual security. Laws are only made for the sake of the wise, not to prevent their committing, but to prevent their suffering injuries. Law and justice are not, therefore, binding for their own sake, but for the general good; nor is injustice to be condemned for its own sake, but only because the culprit will never be free from fear of discovery and punishment. There is not, therefore, any such thing as universal, unchangeable justice. The claims of justice only extend to a limited number of beings and nations–those nations, in fact, which were able and willing to enter into the social compact. Hence, those particular applications of justice which constitute positive right are different in different cases, and change with circumstances.What is felt to be advantageous for mutual security, must be taken to be just; and whenever a law is seen to be inexpedient, it is no longer binding. The wise man will therefore only enter into political life in cases in which it is necessary, and in as far as it is necessary for his own safety. Civil government is a good, inasmuch as it protects from harm. He who desires it, without thereby attaining this object, acts most foolishly.

Holding these views, it was natural that the Epicureans should be averse to public life; for do not private individuals live much more calmly and safely than statesmen, and is not public life after all a hindrance to what is the real end-in-chief—wisdom and happiness? Lathe biosas [live in obscurity] is the Epicurean watchword. To them the golden mean seemed by far the most desirable lot in life. They only advise citizens to take part in public matters when special circumstances render it necessary, or when individuals have such a restless nature that they cannot be content with the quiet of private life. Otherwise deeply convinced of the impossibility of pleasing the masses they do not even wish to make the attempt. For the same reason they appear to have been in favour of a monarchical form of government. The stern and unflinching moral teaching of the Stoics had found its political expression in the unbending republican spirit, so often encountered at Rome. Naturally the soft and timid spirit of the Epicureans took shelter under a monarchical constitution. Of their political principles so much at least is known that they did not consider it degrading to pay court to princes, and under all circumstances they recommended unconditional obedience.

Family life is said to have shared the same fate as civil life in the system of Epicurus. Deprecated as it was by him, still the terms in which it was deprecated are, no doubt, exaggerated. It would, however,appear to be established that Epicurus believed it to be generally better for the wise man to fore go marriage and the rearing of children, since he would thereby save himself many disturbances. It is also quite credible that he declared the love of children towards parents to be no inborn feeling. This view is after all only a legitimate consequence of his materialism; but it did not oblige him to give up parental love altogether. Epicurus was,it would seem, anything but a stranger to family feeling himself.

The highest form of social life was considered by Epicurus to be friendship–a view which is characteristic of a system based on the theory of atoms and regarding the individual as the atom of society. Such a system naturally attributes more value to a connection with others freely entered upon and based on individual character and individual inclination, than to a connection in which man finds himself placed without any choice,as a member of a society founded on nature or history. The basis, however, on which the Epicurean friendship rests is superficial. Friendship is cultivated, regard being had mainly to its advantages, and in some degree to the natural effects of common enjoyments; but it is also treated in such a way, that its scientific imperfection has no influence on its moral importance. Only one portion of the School, and that not the most consistent, maintained that friendship was pursued in the first instance for the sake of its own use and pleasure, but that it subsequently became an unselfish love. Moreover, the assumption that among the wise there exists a tacit agreement requiring them to love one another as much as they love themselves, is clearly only a lame shift. Still, the Epicureans were of opinion that a grounding of friendship on motives of utility was not at variance with holding it in the highest esteem. In short, friendly connection with others affords a pleasant feeling of security, entailing the most enjoyable consequences; and since this connection can only exist when friends love one another as themselves,it follows that self-love and the love of a friend must be equally strong.

Even this inference sounds forced, and does not fully state the grounds on which Epicurus’ view of the value of friendship reposes. That view, in fact, was anterior to all the forced arguments urged in its support. What Epicurus requires is primarily enjoyment. The first conditions of such enjoyment, however, are inward repose of mind, and the removal of fear of disturbances. But Epicurus was far too effeminate and dependent on externals to trust his own powers for satisfying these conditions. He needed the support of others, not only to obtain their help in necessity and trouble, and to console himself for the uncertainty of the future, but still more to make sure of his principles by having the approval of others, thus obtaining an inward satisfaction which he could not otherwise have had. Thus, the approval of friends is to him the pledge of the truth of his convictions.In connection with these his mind first attains to a strength by means of which it is able to rise above the changing circumstances of life. General ideas are for him too

abstract, too unreal. Considering individual beings as alone real, and perceptions as absolutely true, still he cannot feel quite sure of his ground, unless he finds others go with him. The enjoyment which he seeks is the enjoyment of his own cultivated personality; and in all cases where others are necessary for this enjoyment, particular value is attached to the personal relations of society, and to friendship.

Hence Epicurus expresses himself on the value and necessity of friendship in a manner quite out of proportion to the grounds on which he based it. Friendship is unconditionally the highest of earthly goods.It is far more important in whose company we eat and drink, than what we eat and drink. In case of emergency the wise man will not shrink from suffering the greatest pains, even death, for his friend.

It is well known that the conduct of Epicurus and his followers was in harmony with these professions. The Epicurean friendship is hardly less celebrated than the Pythagorean. There may be an insipid sweetness and a weak habit of mutual admiration prominent in the relations of Epicurus and his friends, but of the sincerity of their feelings there can be no doubt. One single expression, that referring to the property of friends,is enough to prove what a high view Epicurus held of friendship; and there is evidence to show that he aimed at a higher improvement of his associates.

In other respects Epicurus bore the reputation of being a kind, benevolent, and genial companion. His teaching, likewise, bears the same impress. It meets the inexorable sternness of the Stoics by insisting on compassion and forgiveness, and supersedes its own egotism by the maxim that it is more blessed to give than to receive. The number of such maxims on record is, no doubt, limited; nevertheless, the whole tone of the Epicurean School is a pledge of the humane and generous character of its morals. To this trait the Epicurean School owes its greatest importance in history. By its theory of utility it undoubtedly did much harm, being to some extent the precursor of the moral decline of the classic nations, and contributing also to bring about that result. Still, by drawing man away from the outer world within himself, by teaching him to look for happiness in that beautiful type–a cultivated mind content with itself–it contributed quite as much as Stoicism to the development and the extension of a more independent and more universal morality.


One thought on “Epicurean Moral Science and Ethics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s