Commentary on Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus”

Some time back I posted Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus. You should read that post if you would like to familiarize yourself with it in its entirety. Here, I’ve broken the letter up into segments (the headings are mine) and added commentary to each section. This translation of the letter is by Peter Saint-Andre (2011) and is licensed Creative Commons CCO (public domain).

If you are unfamiliar with Epicurus, or just want some more information, you can start with his Wikipedia page.

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Following you will find Epicurus’ letter in its entirety. It has been broken into topical sections with commentary following each one.

Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus (with commentary)

Who Should Study Philosophy

Epicurus writes

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. Young or old, it is necessary to love and practice wisdom, so that in old age you can be youthful by taking joy in the good things you remember, and likewise in youth you can be mature by not fearing what will come. Reflect on what brings happiness, because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.
Do and practice, then, the things I have always recommended to you, holding them to be the stairway to a beautiful life

Commentary

Here Epicurus answers the question, “when is the time to study wisdom?” The resounding answer is, now. It also must be noted that Epicurus does not prod us to study wisdom, he urges us to love and practice it. To love wisdom is to give it a high value. Learning—particularly of the sort that helps us live a better life—is to be sought after. However, he doesn’t let us stop there. No, he wants us to not only love wisdom, but to practice wisdom. That is, Epicurus wants us to live wisely. We live wisely by studying and then applying what we learn to the events that make up our day.

While it is not specifically touched upon in this letter, Epicurus writes elsewhere that friends are the largest reward of practicing wisdom.

Of all the things that wisdom provides for the complete happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is friendship.
Principal Doctrine 27

For Epicurus, friends are important in that they bring us steady happiness, but they also offer security against the vagaries of life. Good friends are like an insurance policy against adversity.

Epicurus informs us that the love and practice of wisdom will provide happiness. If we can determine what will truly bring us happiness we will have everything. Later in this work we will discuss vain desires; for now let it be said that if we lack the knowledge of what will bring us happiness, we will spend a lifetime chasing vain desires in a failing attempt to achieve it.

The Epicurean Garden was the only school in Athens that, not only admitted women, but that gave them equal standing with the men. While in this letter, Epicurus only mentions the young, the old, and by inference the in-between; we also know that both sexes and all professions (at least those not precipitated by vain desires) are included.

This section ends with Epicurus urging us to “do and practice” his teachings, the rest of the letter reviews those teachings.

Don’t fear god

Epicurus Writes

First, believe that god is a blissful, immortal being, as is commonly held. Do not ascribe to god anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about god everything that can support immortality and blissfulness. For gods there are: our knowledge of them is clear. Yet they are not such as most people believe; indeed most people are not even consistent in what they believe. It is not impious to deny the gods that most people believe in, but to ascribe to the gods what most people believe. The things that most people say about the gods are based on false assumptions, not a firm grasp of the facts, because they say that the greatest goods and the greatest harms come from the gods. For since they are at home with what is best about themselves, they accept that which is similar and consider alien that which is different.

Commentary

While modern atheists claim Epicurus as one of their own, it is clear from this passage that he was not an atheist. Epicurus does not reject the notion that there is a god—or even gods. Instead, he rejects the common conceptions of what god is. Epicurus viewed god as the grand creator, an eternal and blissful being who did not take part in the lives of men let alone any individual. Epicurus held up the pagan gods, not as saviors or punishers, but as models that could be held up as examples of virtuous behavior.

Epicurus was a materialist, only matter and the void exist. As such, even the gods are material. Epicurus’ view of religion is that the gods exist but they take no part in human affairs, perhaps we can label it as deistic polytheism.

This section of the letter brings to mind a quote attributed to Epicurus by a 3rd century Christian author, known as the Epicurean Paradox. It reads:

God, [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?

Whether this quote originated from Epicurus is unknown. However, if it is based on something that he wrote or said, we should view it as a condemnation of the popular view of god, not as a denial of the existence of god or gods.

Death is nothing to us

Epicurus writes

Second, train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation. A correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable — not because it gives you an unbounded span of time, but because it removes the desire for immortality. There is nothing terrifying in life to someone who truly understands that there is nothing terrifying in the absence of life.
Only a fool says that he fears death because it causes pain ahead of time, not because it will cause pain when it comes. For something that causes no trouble when present causes only a groundless pain when merely expected. So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist. It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist).
Most people shrink from death as the greatest of evils, or else extol it as a release from the evils of life. Yet the wise man does not dishonor life (since he is not set against it) and he is not afraid to stop living (since he does not consider that to be a bad thing). Just as he does not choose the greatest amount of food but the most pleasing food, so he savors not the longest time but the span of time that brings the greatest joy. It is simpleminded to advise a young person to live well and an old person to die well, not only because life is so welcome but also because it is through the very same practices that one both lives well and dies well. It is even worse to say that it is good to never have been born, or: Having been born, to pass through the gates of Hades as soon as possible.
If he believes what he says, why doesn’t he depart from life? It is easily done, if he has truly decided. But if he is joking, it is a worthless remark to those who don’t accept it. Remember that what will be is not completely within our control nor completely outside our control, so that we will not completely expect it to happen nor be completely disappointed if it does not happen.

Commentary

Easing the fear of death is one of the primary objectives of Epicurean teaching. It is impossible to live a life of happiness if you are in constant despair about the afterlife. The second paragraph of this section contains one of Epicurus’ best known maxims. To paraphrase, “Death is nothing to us. Where death is, we are not. Where we are, death is not.”

It should be noted that this section begins, “Train yourself…” Once again highlighting the fact that Epicurus taught a practical philosophy, one that was meant to be both studied and lived. It is a familiar refrain for Epicurus to guide us toward action. Epicurus is often prescriptive in his exhortations, he is quoted by a 3rd century Neo-Platonist as having compared a philosopher to a doctor:

A philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.

In paragraph three, Epicurus informs us that the art of living well and the art of dying well are one and the same. For once one learns how to live without undue fears, dying is easy. Here Epicurus uses a food analogy, breaking down his teachings to make them more easily understood.

This section ends with another common Epicurean theme, namely, that most things (and the very future itself) are neither wholly within our control nor wholly outside our control. Keeping this in mind eases the disappointment of things not turning out as planned, while still providing the incentive to make positive impact on the world.

Pleasure is the absence of pain

Epicurus writes

Third, keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless; that among the natural desires some are natural and necessary whereas others are merely natural; and that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness, some for physical health, and some for life itself. The steady contemplation of these facts enables you to understand everything that you accept or reject in terms of the health of the body and the serenity of the soul — since that is the goal of a completely happy life. Our every action is done so that we will not be in pain or fear. As soon as we achieve this, the soul is released from every storm, since an animal has no other need and must seek nothing else to complete the goodness of body and soul. Thus we need pleasure only when we are in pain caused by its absence; but when we are not in pain then we have no need of pleasure.
This is why we say that pleasure is the beginning and the end of a completely happy life. For we recognize it as the primary and innate good, we honor it in everything we accept or reject, and we achieve it if we judge every good thing by the standard of how that thing affects us. And because this is the primary and inborn good, we do not choose every pleasure. Instead, we pass up many pleasures when we will gain more of what we need from doing so. And we consider many pains to be better than pleasures, if we experience a greater pleasure for a long time from having endured those pains. So every pleasure is a good thing because its nature is favorable to us, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen — just as every pain is a bad thing, yet not every pain is always to be shunned. It is proper to make all these decisions through measuring things side by side and looking at both the advantages and disadvantages, for sometimes we treat a good thing as bad and a bad thing as good.

Commentary

This is an important passage and its significance cannot be overstated. Herein Epicurus explains the types of desires. Epicurus explains that these desires can be divided into three categories: 1) natural and necessary, 2) natural but not necessary, and groundless or vain.

Natural and necessary desires are anything that we need to sustain life, happiness, health and/or friendships. These are the most basic of desires; food, shelter, companionship, etc… These desires should be met as soon as they arise as their lack will cause pain. These desires are easily filled and even wild animals are capable of their fulfillment.

Natural but not necessary desires are those which stem from nature but are not necessary for the cessation of pain. Sometimes these desires require thought to see that they may be unnecessary. Examples would be the desire for rich or extravagant food when hungry when a sandwich will sate the pain of hunger just as well. We have the natural and necessary desire of shelter from the elements but the desire becomes unnatural when we add the desire for marble countertops or brass fixtures or even a larger house than necessary for our needs. These desires rely upon judgement to decide if they should be fulfilled. The main criteria of judgement is to ask what effect fulfilling or not fulfilling this desire will have on our natural and necessary desires. For instance, wanting to satisfy midday hunger is a natural and necessary desire; you should, therefore, eat lunch. But should you eat lunch out with your co-workers every day? Wanting lunch is natural, eating out is not necessary.

Desires provide pleasure to the extent that they provide relief from pain. A warm but ragged coat provides as much pleasure (absence of pain from cold) as a fine coat. Once the pain leading to the desire is sated, there is no increase in pleasure; once full you cannot increase the pleasure of contentment by eating more food. The opposite is usually the case with over indulgence in meeting a desire leading to discomfort and pain.

Natural wealth is both limited and easy to acquire, but the riches incited by groundless opinion have no end.
Principal Doctrine 15

Here Epicurus calls the third type of desires groundless, elsewhere they are translated as vain. Vain desires are neither natural nor necessary. They are the superfluous desires such as power, prestige, money or fame. Chasing these desires, and even obtaining them, cause pain in the body and mind. If you have power you must remain in constant fear that it will be lost. A simple and happy life of quietude cannot be obtained while fretting over where you will get more and more money or prestige or any other vain desire. Satisfying these desires is as bad as, or even worse, as trying and failing. It is far better to not desire them at all. Sometimes vain desires cause short term pleasure, the question then becomes at what expense to our future pleasures?

Self-Reliance

Epicurus Writes

Fourth, we hold that self-reliance is a great good — not so that we will always have only a few things but so that if we do not have much we will rejoice in the few things we have, firmly persuaded that those who need luxury the least enjoy it the most, and that everything natural is easily obtained whereas everything groundless is hard to get. So simple flavors bring just as much pleasure as a fancy diet if all pain from true need has been removed, and bread and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need partakes of them. Training yourself to live simply and without luxury brings you complete health, gives you endless energy to face the necessities of life, better prepares you for the occasional luxury, and makes you fearless no matter your fortune in life.

Commentary

Self-reliance comes up repeatedly in the teachings of Epicurus, usually translated as self-sufficiency. Closely tied to self-reliance is voluntary simplicity with the two being inextricable. To paraphrase the opening of this section, Epicurus writes that we should not seek self-sufficiency to be content with a little, but so that when we have a lot we can truly appreciate it. For when you depend on extravagance, it brings but little joy; but one who can be happy with a little will gain immense pleasure when extravagance offers itself. Again, Epicurus brings up “training yourself”, this time in reference to living simply. Training to Epicurus means study and practice, repeated until it becomes your nature.

For the practicing Epicurean, self-reliance is based in prudence and mental balance and is more psychological than physical. Remember that Epicurus put great emphasis on friendship, the self-reliance that he espouses does not mean that we should be rugged individuals struggling against nature. Instead we strive for balance, secure in our friendships and living within the constraints prescribed by nature. For the Epicurean self-sufficiency is about being content with what we have, and not in wishing for what we don’t have. Summing up Epicurus’ view on self-sufficiency, the Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist—Seneca—quotes him in a letter:

If you wish to make [a person] rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.

For Epicurus, self-reliance is about self-rule, or autarchy; by which he means self-sufficiency, self-control, independence, and self-sovereignty. In Vatican Saying 77 Epicurus is clear on the benefits of self-sufficiency:

The greatest fruit of self-reliance is freedom.

Without self-reliance, without an equal and mutual contract with friends, we become slaves to the vagaries of our existence, freedom itself becomes unobtainable.

Pleasure

Epicurus writes

So when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of decadent people or the enjoyment of sleep, as is believed by those who are ignorant or who don’t understand us or who are ill-disposed to us, but to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance. For a pleasant life is produced not by drinking and endless parties and enjoying boys and women and consuming fish and other delicacies of an extravagant table, but by sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul.

Commentary

Pleasure, Epicurus defines it, is to be free of bodily pain and mental disturbance. When Epicurus originally declared that pleasure is the goal of life, the repudiation was quick and sure. First the Stoics and neo-Platonists decried and maligned the teachings of Epicurus, soon enough it was the early Christians piling on. When the Stoics were absorbed by the Christians, the last few remaining books by and about Epicurus were all but destroyed. It would be 1000 years before Epicureanism was rediscovered. All of this is to say that the world was not ready to wrap its collective mind around the concept of virtuous hedonism such as that espoused by Epicurus.

Had those persecutors only stopped and read, as you have, this passage from Epicurus’ own hand, they could have seen that Epicurus did not propose hedonistic debauchery as the path to a pleasant life. Epicurus calls out the debased pleasures–drinking, endless parties, sex, rich food, and an extravagant table—as not only being impediments to pleasure, but outright obstacles.

To understand Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, one must first understand that he differentiated between pleasurable states and pleasurable motions. Pleasurable motions are fleeting and caused by outside stimuli. These pleasures include such things as eating decedent food, playing with a puppy, sex, extreme sports, drug induced euphoria, etc… While often intense, these pleasures are fleeting and end as soon as the stimulus ends. When you finish the rich food, not only does the pleasure end, but there is often discomfort of the body and sometimes turmoil of the mind, not dissimilar to the effects of other pleasurable motions. Pleasurable states are pleasures of contentment, they are the absence of pain and discomfort of the mind and body. To be free from worry or not to be cold or hungry. Pleasurable states are the preferred source of pleasure. While not every pleasurable motion causes pain, so many do that they must all be held suspect.

Practical wisdom

Epicurus Writes

Practical wisdom is the foundation of all these things and is the greatest good. Thus practical wisdom is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence, teaching us that it is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously. For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Commentary

Most translations of this passage use “virtue” in place of “excellence.” Here Epicurus is telling us that wisdom in practice is more valuable than the love of knowledge, and is in fact the source of every virtue. One cannot live happily without also living virtuously, likewise one cannot live virtuously without also living happily. Here Epicurus is informing us that we should live virtuously, not for some future reward, nor as an end in itself; but we must live virtuously as a precondition of the happy life. Wisdom is not something to learn, Epicurus tells us, it is something that must be done. Back in the first section of this letter, Epicurus extolled us “do and practice” these things, this bears repeating here:

Do and practice, then, the things I have always recommended to you, holding them to be the stairway to a beautiful life.

The happy one

Epicurus writes

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? For he holds that we are responsible for what we achieve, even though some things happen by necessity, some by chance, and some by our own power, because although necessity is not accountable he sees that chance is unstable whereas the things that are within our power have no other master, so that naturally praise and blame are inseparably connected to them. Indeed he sees that it would be better even to cleave to the myths about the gods (since that leaves some hope of prevailing upon them through worship) than to be subject to the destiny of the scientists (since that way lies an inexorable necessity). And such a man holds that Fate is not a god (as most people believe) because a god does nothing disorderly, and he holds that Fate is not an uncertain cause because nothing good or bad with respect to a completely happy life is given to men by chance, although it does provide the beginnings of both great goods and great evils. And he considers it better to be rationally unfortunate than irrationally fortunate, since it is better for a beautiful choice to have the wrong results than for an ugly choice to have the right results just by chance.

Commentary

This section begins with Epicurus describing one who is truly happy. The first sentence is an abbreviated version of the Four Part Cure. The Four Part Cure (or Remedy), also called the Tetrapharmakos, is a key component of Epicurean thought, it goes:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get,
What is terrible is easy to endure.

The Four Part Cure is a summation of the first four of the Principal Doctrines. This, easily enough to memorize, couplet is not meant to be simply repeated in times of perplexity, it is meant to be ingrained through self-training and practice until it becomes our nature. The Four Part Cure is like a vaccine inoculating us against disease, in this case it helps prevent diseases of the mind. Worry about God, about death, about meeting our needs, or about enduring pain are as harmful to the mind as a cancer is to the body.

Epicurus then articulates that some things happen through necessity, some through chance and some through our own agency. It is those things within our agency that are of import and those who focus on necessity and chance cannot obtain the happy life. Epicurus does concede that it is better to believe in the myths of the gods (chance) than it is to believe in predestiny (necessity).

Go, and practice these things

Epicurus writes

So practice these and similar things day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed whether waking or sleeping, and you will live as a god among men: for a man who lives in the midst of immortal goods is unlike a merely mortal being.

Commentary

Epicurus wraps up the letter with an exhortation to practice these things. He doesn’t say read and remember, or study, but he says do them—every day and every night, alone or with a like-minded one. He promises that if we practice and do these things that we can live a life of bliss, not dissimilar to the gods, for anyone who lives a life of pleasure and joy is not like a mere mortal.

What Epicurus is telling us to do consists of internalizing the Four Part Cure, ending our vain desires while decreasing those desires that are natural but not necessary, giving preference to pleasurable states, and living a life of quiet simplicity amongst friends.

Epilogue

Since hardly anything else survived from the writings of Epicurus, we must have gratitude that this letter is among the surviving remnants. This letter is a treasure trove for exploring Epicurus’ ethics, this present work has barely scratched the surface of all that it contains.

All three of the key Epicurean ethical teachings are present in this work, two directly and one indirectly. The key ethical teachings are: The Four Part Cure, the classification and control of desires, and the preferred type of pleasure.

Epicurus’ ethical thought is also encapsulated in the Principal Doctrines (sometimes translated as Sovran Maxims) and the Vatican Sayings. Both of these works can be found in my book, “Back to the Garden: Epicurus and the Happy Life” which is available from MidMo.US.

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Epicurus: On Desires

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After the Tetra Pharmakos (Four Part Cure), the control of desire is one of Epicurus’ main teachings.

Before desires can be controlled they must be recognized and classified. Epicurus wrote of three types of desires. First are those desires which are natural and necessary, food, shelter, companionship, the avoidance of pain, etc… Desires of this type are limited and easily fulfilled.   It is not only safe to fulfill these desires, but it is a necessity to avoid pain and discomfort.

Second are those desires that are natural but not necessary; rich food when a simple meal will do, a new car when the old one is still serviceable. These desires are not to be pursued because they often get in the way of our natural and necessary desires; however, should they present themselves, there is no harm in partaking them in moderation. For example, we all need shelter from the elements, but if you purchase a larger or fancier house then required, you increase the likelihood that you will suffer at least some distress about making payments, repairs, and/or upkeep.

Lastly are those desires that are neither natural or necessary, Epicurus called these vain and empty desires and they include such things as wealth, power, fame, etc… These desires are completely manufactured and can never be adequately sated while offering no positive correlation with a happy life. Most of these desires can be traced to the vain ideal of wanting the approval of others.

Epicurus urged his followers to , as much as they are able, live unnoticed…to live a quiet life away from public scrutiny. For those who thrive on power and fame must of necessity toil to keep it and worry that it will be diminished, making the happy life unobtainable.

Being aware of the type of each desire is the first step in controlling them.

For Epicurus, the happy life demands limiting your desires to those that are both natural and necessary, moderating and never overindulging those desires that are natural but unnecessary, and avoiding those desires that are neither natural or necessary.

“If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.”
–Epicurus

Epicurus: Letter to Menoeceus

Letter to Menoeceus

by Epicurus

translated by Peter Saint-Andre (2011)
Creative Commons CCO (public domain)

[Editor’s introductory note: Rarely has a teacher summed up his/her ethical doctrine in such a concise manner as that contained in this letter, saved for posterity by the Latin biographer Diogenes Laertius. Even if this letter is known to the reader, this newish translation may be new.]

Greetings from Epicurus to Menoikos.

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. Young or old, it is necessary to love and practice wisdom, so that in old age you can be youthful by taking joy in the good things you remember, and likewise in youth you can be mature by not fearing what will come. Reflect on what brings happiness, because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.

Do and practice, then, the things I have always recommended to you, holding them to be the stairway to a beautiful life

First, believe that god is a blissful, immortal being, as is commonly held. Do not ascribe to god anything that is inconsistent with immortality and blissfulness; instead, believe about god everything that can support immortality and blissfulness. For gods there are: our knowledge of them is clear. Yet they are not such as most people believe; indeed most people are not even consistent in what they believe. It is not impious to deny the gods that most people believe in, but to ascribe to the gods what most people believe. The things that most people say about the gods are based on false assumptions, not a firm grasp of the facts, because they say that the greatest goods and the greatest harms come from the gods. For since they are at home with what is best about themselves, they accept that which is similar and consider alien that which is different.

Second, train yourself to hold that death is nothing to us, because good and evil consist in sensation, and death is the removal of sensation. A correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable — not because it gives you an unbounded span of time, but because it removes the desire for immortality. There is nothing terrifying in life to someone who truly understands that there is nothing terrifying in the absence of life.

Only a fool says that he fears death because it causes pain ahead of time, not because it will cause pain when it comes. For something that causes no trouble when present causes only a groundless pain when merely expected. So death, the most terrifying of evils, is nothing to us, because as long as we exist death is not present, whereas when death is present we do not exist. It is nothing to those who live (since to them it does not exist) and it is nothing to those who have died (since they no longer exist).

Most people shrink from death as the greatest of evils, or else extol it as a release from the evils of life. Yet the wise man does not dishonor life (since he is not set against it) and he is not afraid to stop living (since he does not consider that to be a bad thing). Just as he does not choose the greatest amount of food but the most pleasing food, so he savors not the longest time but the span of time that brings the greatest joy. It is simpleminded to advise a young person to live well and an old person to die well, not only because life is so welcome but also because it is through the very same practices that one both lives well and dies well. It is even worse to say that it is good to never have been born, or:

Having been born, to pass through the gates of Hades as soon as possible.

If he believes what he says, why doesn’t he depart from life? It is easily done, if he has truly decided. But if he is joking, it is a worthless remark to those who don’t accept it. Remember that what will be is not completely within our control nor completely outside our control, so that we will not completely expect it to happen nor be completely disappointed if it does not happen.

Third, keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless; that among the natural desires some are natural and necessary whereas others are merely natural; and that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness, some for physical health, and some for life itself. The steady contemplation of these facts enables you to understand everything that you accept or reject in terms of the health of the body and the serenity of the soul — since that is the goal of a completely happy life. Our every action is done so that we will not be in pain or fear. As soon as we achieve this, the soul is released from every storm, since an animal has no other need and must seek nothing else to complete the goodness of body and soul. Thus we need pleasure only when we are in pain caused by its absence; but when we are not in pain then we have no need of pleasure.

This is why we say that pleasure is the beginning and the end of a completely happy life. For we recognize it as the primary and innate good, we honor it in everything we accept or reject, and we achieve it if we judge every good thing by the standard of how that thing affects us. And because this is the primary and inborn good, we do not choose every pleasure. Instead, we pass up many pleasures when we will gain more of what we need from doing so. And we consider many pains to be better than pleasures, if we experience a greater pleasure for a long time from having endured those pains. So every pleasure is a good thing because its nature is favorable to us, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen — just as every pain is a bad thing, yet not every pain is always to be shunned. It is proper to make all these decisions through measuring things side by side and looking at both the advantages and disadvantages, for sometimes we treat a good thing as bad and a bad thing as good.

Fourth, we hold that self-reliance is a great good — not so that we will always have only a few things but so that if we do not have much we will rejoice in the few things we have, firmly persuaded that those who need luxury the least enjoy it the most, and that everything natural is easily obtained whereas everything groundless is hard to get. So simple flavors bring just as much pleasure as a fancy diet if all pain from true need has been removed, and bread and water give the highest pleasure when someone in need partakes of them. Training yourself to live simply and without luxury brings you complete health, gives you endless energy to face the necessities of life, better prepares you for the occasional luxury, and makes you fearless no matter your fortune in life.

So when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of decadent people or the enjoyment of sleep, as is believed by those who are ignorant or who don’t understand us or who are ill-disposed to us, but to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance. For a pleasant life is produced not by drinking and endless parties and enjoying boys and women and consuming fish and other delicacies of an extravagant table, but by sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul.

Practical wisdom is the foundation of all these things and is the greatest good. Thus practical wisdom is more valuable than philosophy and is the source of every other excellence, teaching us that it is not possible to live joyously without also living wisely and beautifully and rightly, nor to live wisely and beautifully and rightly without living joyously. For the excellences grow up together with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life is inseparable from them.

In short, whom do you consider better than someone who holds pious opinions about the gods, who is always fearless in the face of death, who has reasoned out the natural goal of life, and who has understood that the limit of good things is easy to fulfill and easy to achieve, whereas the limit of bad things is either short-lived or causes little pain? Someone who laughs at destiny, which is asserted by some to be the master of all things? For he holds that we are responsible for what we achieve, even though some things happen by necessity, some by chance, and some by our own power, because although necessity is not accountable he sees that chance is unstable whereas the things that are within our power have no other master, so that naturally praise and blame are inseparably connected to them.  Indeed he sees that it would be better even to cleave to the myths about the gods (since that leaves some hope of prevailing upon them through worship) than to be subject to the destiny of the scientists (since that way lies an inexorable necessity). And such a man holds that Fate is not a god (as most people believe) because a god does nothing disorderly, and he holds that Fate is not an uncertain cause because nothing good or bad with respect to a completely happy life is given to men by chance, although it does provide the beginnings of both great goods and great evils. And he considers it better to be rationally unfortunate than irrationally fortunate, since it is better for a beautiful choice to have the wrong results than for an ugly choice to have the right results just by chance.

So practice these and similar things day and night, by yourself and with a like-minded friend, and you will never be disturbed whether waking or sleeping, and you will live as a god among men: for a man who lives in the midst of immortal goods is unlike a merely mortal being.

Epicurus: Philosophy for the Millions

This essay first appeared in THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL: Volume 42 Number 4, JANUARY 1947, pages 195-201. I do not believe the copyright was renewed, thus putting it in the public domain.

It is written by Norman W. DeWitt, who later expounded on–and expanded upon–these ideas in a, still insightful and important, 1954 book, Epicurus and His Philosophy.

Epicurus: Philosophy for the Millions
Norman W. DeWitt

Norman W. DeWitt is Professor Emeritus of Latin in Victoria College, University of Toronto. For a number of years his researches have been devoted to Epicurus. The need for a re-interpretation of the work and influence of this truly unknown philosopher can hardly be overestimated, for he belongs to that other classical tradition which was overshadowed by Platonism and Stoicism. Unobserved by humanists, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a renaissance of science which took men back to Hippocrates and Democritus—and upon this renaissance the modern world was built.


THE FASCINATION of ancient Greek civilization is increased when we recognize it as presenting the spectacle of an intelligent race in the process of emerging from the Stone Age. The Stone Age man was no less intelli­gent than his posterity and whether by the spoken word or the dexterous hand he was ca­pable of producing art, but the logic of his thought was confined within the limits marked by myth and magic, oracle and miracle. To open a breach in this mesh of habits and to assert for the first time the birthright of man as a rational being is what is here meant by emerg­ing from the Stone Age. On the material level the change is inaugurated by the metallurgist; on the intellectual level it is begun by the man who for the first time launches an hypothesis to explain the physical world and its wordings. Science marches on from hypothesis to hy­pothesis.

The first fumbling attempts to reason from manifest effects to hidden causes and to present a picture of the inner nature of things were made on the margin of the Greek world; it is around the rim of a vessel that the blinking beads of ferment are first seen to rise. On that restless Greek frontier was born a succession of pioneers of thought. Of their reasoned guesses the majority now seem absurd, but within two centuries their tentative efforts had arrived at an atomic theory of the constitution of matter. This was far from being absurd; it was the borderland of chemistry.

The greatest name in this succession of first researchers was that of Democritus, who became known as the laughing philosopher. In his ethical teaching great store was set by cheerfulness.

Democritus was still living when the new scientific movement suffered a violent re’ verse. It was in Athens, a center of conservatism, that the opposition arose and it was brilliantly headed. The leader was no other than Socrates, who despaired of the possibility of scientific knowledge. Even Aristotle, who pioneered in some branches of science, rejected the atomic theory. Between these two great names came that of Plato, who believed the ultimate realities to be not atoms but triangles, cubes, spheres and the like. By a kind of analogy he extended this doctrine to the realm of abstract thought. If, for example, perfect spheres exist, why should not perfect justice exist also? Convinced that such perfect justice did exist, he sought in his own way to find it. The ten books of his Republic record only part of his searchings of the mind. At the core of all this thinking lies the doctrine that the eternal, unchangeable things are forms, shapes, models, patterns, or, what means the same thing in Greek, “ideas.” All visible things are but changing copies of unchanging forms.

The Epicurean Revival

After the great triumvirate of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had passed away the scientific tradition was revived with timely amendments by Epicurus. In his time it was the prevalent teaching that the qualities of compound bodies must be explained by the qualities of the ingredients. If the compound body was cold, then it must contain the cold element air, if moist, water, if dry, earth, and if hot, fire. Even Aristotle sanctioned this be­lief in the four elements. Epicurus, on the contrary, maintained that colorless atoms could produce a compound of any color ac­cording to the circumstances of their com­bination. This was the first definite recog­nition of what we now know as chemical change.

The Stoic Reaction

Epicurus was still a young man when Athenian conservatism bred a second reaction to the new science. This was headed by Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. His followers wel­comed a regression more extreme than that of Aristotle in respect to the prime elements. For the source of their physical theories they went back to Heracleitus, who believed that the sole element was fire. This was not a re­turn to the Stone Age but it was a longish way in that direction.

This Heracleitus had been a doleful and eccentric individual and became known, in contrast to the cheerful Democritus, as the weeping philosopher. His gloom was per­petuated in Stoicism, a cheerless creed, of which the founder is described as “the sour and scowling Zeno.” Epicurus, on the con­trary, urged his disciples “to wear a smile while they practised their philosophy.”

Running parallel to these contrasting at­titudes toward life and physical theories was an equally unbroken social divergence. Platonism as a creed was always aristocratic and in favor in royal courts. “I prefer to agree with Plato and be wrong than to agree with those Epicureans and be right,” wrote Cicero, and this snobbish attitude was not peculiar to him. Close to Platonism in point of social ranking stood Stoicism, which steadily extolled virtue, logic and divine providence. This specious front was no less acceptable to hypocrites than to saints. Aptly the poet Horace, describing a pair of high-born hypo­crites, mentions “Stoic tracts strewn among the silken cushions.” Epicureanism, on the contrary, offered no bait to the silk-cushion trade. It eschewed all social distinction. The advice of the founder was to have only so much regard for public opinion as to avoid unfriendly criticism for either sordidness or luxury. This was no fit creed for the socially or politically ambitious.

The Schoolteacher’s Son

Who, then, was this cheerful and friendly Epicurus, this apostle of the unambitious life? He was the son of an Athenian schoolteacher resident on the island of Samos. These items carry no sting today but in Athens it was different. That cradle of democracy was demo­cratic only within limits. Its citizens looked down upon both islanders and school­teachers: upon islanders as small fry, who needed protection from the stronger; upon schoolteachers because, like their own se­cluded women, they spent their time with children. A satirist not only twitted Epicurus with being an islander but also coined a comic name for him, Grammadidaskalides, as if we should have a name “School teacherson.” Of a certain rival Epicurus himself had the following to record: “This upset him so com­pletely that he fell to abusing me and called me a schoolteacher.”

Evidence of the little tempest that swirled for a time about this word is furnished by the fact that from the school of Epicurus it was banned. Not only the head himself but all his assistants were styled “guides” or “leaders.”

It is hardly to be expected that a man so discounted by the upper classes in antiquity, to whom ancient writers for the greater part addressed themselves, should enjoy an un­spotted record with posterity, and to so ex­press it is a euphemism. Much of what may be read concerning Epicurus even in the most recent handbooks consists of traditional misrepresentation, disparagement or plain falsehood. His life, for example, has been called uneventful. This is certainly untrue of his youth. His boyhood fell in the years when every Greek hamlet must have been ringing with the startling reports of Alex­ander’s victories. The time for performing his required military service coincided with the news of Alexander’s tragic end. As a cadet or ephebe he must have witnessed, as it were, the last futile war against Macedon, the reception in Athens of a Macedonian garri­son and the suicide of Demosthenes. Even the forced retirement of Aristotle during the same crisis and his death at Chalcis must have been meaningful enough to one already interested in philosophy.

During this same two-year interval the paternal home in Samos had been broken up and the family expelled from the island. All the Athenian settlers were evicted by the Macedonian general Perdiccas. Some twelve years later Epicurus himself was destined to be forcibly driven from Mytilene. Even after his final settlement in Athens the city endured a painful siege and the beans doled out to the members of the school had to be counted. Such are a few highlights of a life that biographers call “uneventful.”

The Pragmatic Urgency

His stormy cadetship terminated, Epicurus rejoined his father and family in Asia, where a safe refuge had been found in the ancient city of Colophon. There in the course of the ensuing decade a great illumination came to him and the result was a new philosophy in­evitably conditioned by the external events and the intellectual currents of the time. In so far as this new philosophy revived the scientific tradition it was Ionian; in so far as it exalted ethics above physics it was vir­tually Socratic. Yet this similarity is apt to be obscured by more conspicuous differences. The new doctrine divorced ethics from politics, which was heterodoxy in Athens. It allied itself instead with the Ionian tradition of medicine, which was philanthropic and independent of political preferences. Just as all human beings, men, women and children, slave and free, stand in need of health, so all mankind, according to Epicurus, stands in need of guidance toward the happy life. This view of things tinged his philosophy with the color of a gospel and bestowed upon it a pragmatic urgency, which is lacking in Socratic thought. With the leisurely meanderings of dialectic he had no patience. Truth, he believed, must possess immediate relevance to living.

The New Ecumenical Outlook

The nature of the new outlook was placed in a bright light by a comparison that suggested itself to Epicurus. In Athens men practised a weird Corybantic rite of mental healing in which the patient sat solitary upon a throne while the ministrants went dancing around him in riotous music and song. The first reaction to this treatment, should the cure succeed, was bewilderment, the second drowsiness, and the third an ecstatic awakening to joy and health. In this rite Epicurus saw a reversed image of his own program of healing. Instead of a single favored individual surrounded by a ministering multitude he envisaged the vast multitude of humanity in need of healing while a lone personified Philanthropia offered her ministrations: “Love goes dancing round and round the inhabited earth, crying to all men to awake to the blessedness of the happy life.” About the identity of this Love there can be no doubt; it is the Hippocratic love of mankind, which to true members of that craft was inseparable from the love of healing.

In this teaching Epicurus displayed his originality. His new design for living was applicable everywhere, irrespective of country or government. He had emancipated himself from the obsessions of his race, political separatism and the exclusive faith in political action. The whole world was a single parish.

It is mere justice that other original features of the new philosophy should receive recognition. Cicero, a crafty trial lawyer, in his last years employed the tricks of the courts to discredit Epicureanism with his contemporaries and with posterity. Among other false charges he upbraided Epicurus for neglecting methodical partitions of subject matter, classifications and definitions. Yet the pragmatic partition of knowledge that was standard in Cicero’s own day and throughout the greater part of ancient time was the invention of the despised Epicurus. His division was three-headed: The Canon, Physics and Ethics. The Stoics, always great borrowers, changed this partition into Physics, Ethics and Logic. Their Logic was taken from Aristotle, nor did it matter that this was substituted for the Canon. Both the Canon and Logic had for their function the test of truth.

The Canon

The orderliness of Epicurean thought, which Cicero denied, is also exemplified by the Canon. According to this we possess three contacts with the external world: Sensations, Feelings and Anticipations. In our handbooks two of these three are completely misrepresented. It is usual to declare that Epicurus believed “in the infallibility of sensation.” Not even the ancients ventured to go so far as this in misrepresentation. What Epicurus really did believe was that only immediate sensations are true. For example, if the observer sees an ox at a distance of ten feet, he can be sure it is an ox, but if he sees an animal at the distance of a mile, he may be uncertain whether it is an ox or a horse. Moreover, it does not follow that because a sensation is true it is also trustworthy. An oar in the water appears to be bent; the sensation is true but it is false to the facts. Naturally all sensations must be checked by one another and by those of other observers.

The Feelings alone have been rightly reported. By these were meant pleasure and pain. These are instruments of Nature in teaching both brute beasts and human beings the facts of life: honey is sweet, fire hurts.

The third term, Anticipation (Prolepsis), has suffered worst from misinterpretation. Unlike the Sensations and Feelings, the reference of which is chiefly to physical contacts, the Anticipations have to do with social relations and with abstract ideas, such as that of justice. Epicurus rightly observed that both animals and human beings from the moment of birth not only reach out for food and avoid pain but also exhibit soon a predisposition to fall into patterns of behavior agreeable to their respective kinds. In the case of human beings he speaks of this predisposition as an idea faintly sketched on the mind at birth. Since it there exists in advance of experience of life and of conscious reflection it is styled by him an Anticipation or Prolepsis.

Moreover, since a certain pattern of behavior is proper to each race of living things, it follows that in the case of the human race, for example, a definition of justice, to be true, must square itself with the innate idea of justice. It is in this sense that the Anticipations serve as tests of truth and find a place in the Canon. Truth must square with Nature.

The error of the handbooks on this point is fundamental. They have confused general concepts, such as that of a horse, with abstract ideas, such as those of justice, piety or friendship.

These three, then, Sensations, Feelings and Anticipations, constituted the Epicurean tripod of truth. Through the first we come to know the physical world; through the second we learn the pleasures and pains of living; by the third we are guided aright to the recognition of abstract truth.

The New Physics

The orderliness of Epicurean thought is admirably exemplified also in the Physics. In a textbook entitled the Twelve Abridgements Epicurus furnished his disciples with the only coherent and complete summary of the general principles of physics ever promulgated in the ancient world. A few specimens will suffice for illustration: 1. Matter is indestructible. 2. Matter is uncreatable. 3. The universe consists of atoms and space. 4. The universe is infinite. 5. Bodies are either simple or compound.

The rest of the principles deal with the qualities of atoms, their hardly imaginable speed in space, their vibrations in compounds, their capacity to form compounds possessing qualities not possessed by themselves, such as color or plasticity, and their proneness to form filmy images of things, called idols, which explain the sensation of vision.

Especially important was the doctrine that in the motions of the atoms there existed a sufficient degree of free play to permit the exercise of free will in animals and man. This is known as “the doctrine of the swerve.”

The New Freedom

Epicurus was the first Greek philosopher to expressly sponsor a doctrine of free will. His predecessors had recognised three forces as incompatible with the freedom of the individual. First, certain physicists, Democritus among them, had posited the supremacy of the inviolable laws of Nature. This was known as Necessity. Second, the Greeks in general had thought of man as helpless before the will of the gods. This was called either Fate or Necessity. Third, the Greeks generally conceded to Fortune the ability to make or mar the happiness of men.

Like the modern pragmatist, Epicurus stressed the power of man to control his experience. The Necessity of the physicists he eliminated by his doctrine of a certain freedom of play in the atoms. The Necessity of Fate he expunged by denying any form of divine interference in the affairs of men. Fortune he taught his disciples to defy on the ground that the caprices of chance could be all but completely forestalled by rational planning. These teachings nullified the importance of Greek poets as moral teachers. Homer and the tragic drama went overboard. Epicurus styled their moral teachings a hodgepodge.

This new freedom signified the privilege of being continuously happy. This too was new, because Plato and most other teachers had assumed the existence of peaks of pleasure alternating with intervals void of pleasure. Continuous pleasure Epicurus made conceivable and feasible by defining pleasure as a healthy mind in a healthy body, mens sana in corpore sano. The limit of it was freedom from pain of body and distress of mind. Pleasure, he said, was normal, just as health is normal; pain was abnormal, just as sickness is abnormal. By living the right kind of life and by limiting the desires he declared that continuity of happiness could be achieved. The control of experience was to him a categorical imperative.

Pleasure Not the Greatest Good

In spite of this teaching it was not the doctrine of Epicurus that pleasure was the greatest good. To his thinking the greatest good was life itself. This was a logical deduction from the denial of immortality. Without the afterlife this present life becomes the concentration of all values. Pleasure, or hap­piness, has its place as the end, goal or fulfilment of living.

It was the Stoics and Cicero who concocted and publicized the false report that Epicurus counted pleasure as the greatest good. This is mistakenly asserted in all our handbooks.

The New Psychology

Just as the belief in immortality leads to the exaltation of the soul and the depreciation of the body, so the belief in mortality presumes a certain parity of importance between soul and body. To Epicurus the soul is of similar structure to the body, differing only in the fineness and mobility of the component atoms. Body and soul work as a team. The soul bestows sensitivity upon the body and the body in turn bestows it upon the soul. This results in “cosensitivity,” as Epicurus calls it. Sensation itself, he claimed, is irrational. Thus the tongue by physical contact receives the stimulus of sweetness, but it is the intelligence, part of the soul, that recognizes this stimulus and issues the pronouncement, “This is honey.” This interdependence of soul and body extends to all activities. Responses to stimuli are total, not separate; they are “psychosomatic,” to use a term of modern psychiatry. Epicurus scorned all philosophy that failed to regard psychiatry as its function.

Persecution by the Platonists

At the age of thirty Epicurus migrated from Colophon to Mytilene and began to promulgate these heterodoxies as a public teacher. In that city the Platonists were dominant. Within the space of a few months he seems to have had them about his ears. Within a year their enmity had aroused the authorities and so incited the populace that he was forced to take ship in the winter season and in danger of shipwreck or capture by pirates. Never afterward did he venture like other philosophers to teach in public places.

In Lampsacus on the Hellespont .he found a refuge, gained the favor of the authorities, assembled a strong school and obtained financial support. After four years he felt strong enough to carry the war into Africa, as is said in Roman history, and removed to Athens, locating himself on the same street as Plato’s Academy and not far from it.

The New Procedures

Persecution had not changed his doctrines but it did revolutionize his procedures. Public appearances were avoided; instruction was confined to his own house and the garden he had purchased. Outside of the school he instituted a method of disseminating his new doctrine by personal contacts. Each convert was urged to win over the members of his own household, his friends and neighbors, “never slackening in spreading by every means the doctrines of the true philosophy.” Prospective converts were plied with books and tracts. Epicurus himself, like John Wesley, became a busy compiler of textbooks, and specific instructions were written for the proper use of them. He made outlines of doctrine for those who were unable to live in residence. The allegiance of disciples living in other cities was retained by epistles painstakingly composed. Thus the new school was transformed into a self-propagating sect.

Within two centuries this self-extending gospel of the tranquil life had spread to most parts of the Graeco-Roman world. “It took Italy by storm,” as Cicero reluctantly records. At the same time the forces of opposition were growing in like proportion. The campaigns of the Stoics became so notorious that modern scholars have all but overlooked the original battle with the Platonists, whose acrid criticisms were refurbished by Plutarch under the early Empire. By that time the Christian writers had joined the chorus of the opposition and at last, in the stormy fourth century, the friendly sect seems to have been finally silenced. For some centuries afterward all that survived was a trickle of untruth. Men still knew something of epicurism but nothing of Epicureanism.

Yet when the study of natural science was at last reborn, it was the once rejected atomic theory that furnished a starting point for modern chemistry, and when modern thinkers began to see evolutionary processes in human institutions, it was observed that long ago Epicurus that blazed that path of enquiry. Erring with Plato had its pleasure and its profit but also its price, the postponement of scientific progress. Platonic thought had some close affinities with the Stone Age.

Near Final Draft, Back to the Garden

I’ve written and compiled a short book on Epicureanism, “Back to the Garden of Epicurus.” You can download it for free at MidMo.US in either epub (most e-readers) or mobi (kindle) formats.

Here is the preface:

Epicureanism, much maligned and often criticized from its founding to the present for its “godless hedonism”, perhaps the most misunderstood of ethical doctrines. Synonymous with fancy wine, food, and the high life; the popular definition of Epicureanism could not be further from its roots. This book is about classical Epicureanism which is based upon the doctrines passed down by Epicurus. Epicurus taught a doctrine with an emphasis upon ending any fear of god and leading a private and simple life amongst friends. This brought his doctrine into conflict with the rulers of his day, the competing doctrine of Stoicism, and latter Christians. The practitioners of Epicureanism were scorned, their doctrines were mocked, and their writings were destroyed. This assault nearly ended Epicureanism.

Were it not for the biographer Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century) and the poet philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (1st Century BC) the teachings of Epicurus would have been completely forgotten. As it is, Lucretius’ summation of Epicurean principles was lost for centuries and was only discovered in the 15th Century. Some credit this (re)discovery as the cause of the Renaissance.* This (re)discovery certainly played a large role in the Age of Reason,** from which modern democracy sprung. With this historical perspective in mind, we cannot feel anything but fortunate for the teachings and continued existence of the ideas of Epicurus.

There is currently a resurgence of interest in Epicureanism. It may be that the pendulum of historical thought has made this resurgence possible or it may be that this era is particularly fertile for the growth of Epicurean ideas. Only the passage of time will tell. This work before you is part of that resurgence.

Epicurus (341-270 BC) divided philosophy into three sections: 1) Canonic, includes what we would call logic and theory of knowledge, 2) Physics, like the present day conception addresses the nature of the universe, and 3) Ethics, practical knowledge for how we should live. This book addresses all three areas of knowledge but with emphasis on ethics.

Section 1 is a brief introduction to Epicurus and his teachings. Chapter 1 explains the difference between Epicurean Hedonism and the hedonism of the present based in greed and gluttony. In chapter 2 we take a look at Epicurean doctrine in outline format, the reader may wish to consult this chapter as they read further in the book. Chapter 3 wraps up the first section with a very brief biography of Epicurus and a short sketch of his teachings.

Section 2, the heart and meat of the book, contains primary sources for learning of Epicureanism. Chapter 4 contains two letters written by Epicurus giving the outline of his philosophy, the first on physics and the second on ethics.. Chapter 5 contains Principal Doctrines, 40 maxims collected by Diogenes Laertius. A collection of another 81 maxims found at the Vatican and referred to as Vatican Sayings make up Chapter 6. Finishing up this section is chapter 7 containing fragments of Epicurus’ thought drawn from various sources.

The final section contains only Chapter 8, Getting Back to the Garden. This is an attempt to draw together the ethical teachings of Epicurus and gives suggestions on making his teachings practical for our time. The book concludes with a timeline, a glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading.

It is this author’s sincere wish that you, the reader, will find in this work a small something that will encourage further inquiry into the teachings of Epicurus, this most fascinating of teachers.

*See “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt.

**See Thomas Jefferson’s letter to William Short.

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.]

THE MORAL SCIENCE OF THE EPICUREANS. GENERAL PRINCIPLES.

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 EPICUREAN ETHICS CONTINUED: SPECIAL POINTS.

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.

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