The Pleasant Life
Epicureanism was one of the philosophies that arose during the decline of ancient Greece as a source of relief from the increasing social disorganization. Of these "salvation philosophies," which flourished until the Greco-Roman culture was superseded by the Christian, Epicureanism was distinguished for the constancy of its doctrine. Epicurus teaches us that happiness involves serenity and is achieved through the simple pleasures that preserve bodily health and peace of mind. To realize their ideal, the members of the Epicurean community refrained, insofar as possible, from participation in the affairs of the troubled world, spending their time in philosophical conversation.
Epicurus, Inheriting Athenian citizenship from his parents, was born and educated on the island of Samos, in the Aegean Sea, where he spent the first two decades of his life. When, following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., the Athenians were driven out of Samos, Epicurus went to Asia Minor. After teaching there for several years, he moved to Athens (306 B.C.E.) and until his death taught in his famous garden. The Garden of Epicurus served as a sanctuary from the turmoil of the outer world for a select group of men who applied in their daily lives the precepts of their mentor. Epicurus’ Garden ranked as one of the great schools of antiquity, along with Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Zeno’s Stoa.
It is a prank of history that the word epicure is frequently used to denote a gourmet of a fastidious voluptuary. Epicurus’ enemies in fact accused him of sensualism, but his philosophical teachings and the frugality and simplicity of his life effectively refuted their charge. It was the nobility of his character that accounted for his great popularity. Indeed, the biographer of ancient philosophers, Diogenes Laertius (third century C.E.), eulogized him in the following manner:
Epicurus has witnesses enough and to spare of his unsurpassed kindness to all men. There is his country which honored him with bronze statues, his friends so numerous they could not even be reckoned by entire cities, and his disciples who all remained bound for ever by the charm of his teaching, except Metrodorus . . . overweighted perhaps by Epicurus’s excessive goodness. There is also the permanent continuance of the school after almost all the others had come to an end, and that through it had a countless succession of heads from among the disciples. There is again his grateful devotion to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, and his gentleness towards his servants . . . in short there is his benevolence to all.
Although Epicurus was a very prolific writer, only a few letters and fragments of his writings are extant. They give little more than a summary of his theories of physics and astronomy, his theory of knowledge, and his ethics. However, a fuller view of his doctrines is provided by the works of his disciples, of whom the most distinguished is the Roman Lucretius Carus (94-55? B.C.E.). Lucretius’ book De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) is both fine poetry and an excellent statement of Epicureanism. In it, he says of Epicurus,
When human life to view lay foully prostrate upon earth crushed down under the weight of religion . . . a man of Greece ventured first to lift up his mortal eyes to her face and first to withstand her to her face. Him neither story of gods nor thunderbolts nor heaven with threatening roar could quell: they only chafed the more the eager courage of his soul, filling with desire to be the first to burst the fast bars of nature’s portals.
The ethical theory of Epicurus stems from the Cyrenaic doctrine formulated by Aristippus (435-356 B.C.E.) who, even though he was a student of Socrates, advocates the hedonistic principle that pleasure is the supreme good. Epicurus and the Cyrenaics have widely different conceptions of the pleasant life, the former stressing peace of mind and the latter sensual pleasures, but they concur with respect to general principles. Both maintain that human nature is so constituted that people always seek what they believe will give them pleasure and avoid what they believe will give them pain and that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain is the only intrinsic evil. Again, both are agreed that "no pleasure is a bad thing in itself." Yet they enjoin us to choose our pleasures judiciously, for "the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures." Aristippus and Epicurus teach that the person who wishes to be happy must cultivate an ability to choose the right pleasures; and , they assert, only those actions that further individuals’ enjoyment can have moral significance for them. Beyond this point, however, Epicureanism and Cyrenaicism diverge.
In opposition to Aristippus, Epicurus maintains that the duration of pleasures is more important than their intensity in achieving happiness. Consequently, he argues that the mental pleasures are in general superior to the physical pleasures, because they are longer-lasting, albeit less intense. Although he finds the physical pleasures unobjectionable in themselves, he contends that the pursuit of them for their own sake leads not to happiness but to its opposite. Experience shows us that the desire for a life filled with intense pleasures will be frustrated, because there are not enough of them in the ordinary course of events. What is more, the pleasures derived from such objectives as fame, wealth, and the like are usually outweighed by the pains necessary to procure them, and the pains consequent upon such activities as feasting, drinking, and merrymaking either cancel the pleasures or leave a balance of pain. From these considerations, Epicurus can only conclude that Aristippus’ standard of judging what is good - that is, "the most intense, sensual pleasure of the moment" - is entirely self-defeating.
The chief difference between Cyrenaicism and Epicureanism lies in their divergent conception of the nature of true pleasure. Fundamental to their disagreement is the distinction between active or positive pleasure, which comes from the gratification of specific wants and desires, and passive or negative pleasure, which is the absence of pain. Aristippus sets as the goal of life a constant round of active pleasures, whereas Epicurus maintains that the active pleasures are important only insofar as they terminate the pain of unfulfilled desires. For Epicurus, the passive pleasures are more fundamental than the active, because it is through them that happiness is gained. A human being’s ultimate goal is not a constant succession of intense sensual pleasures, but is rather the state of serenity, ataraxia, characterized by "freedom from trouble in the mind and pain in the body."
Epicurus assures us that the calm and repose of the good life are within the reach of all. It is necessary that we keep our desires at a minimum, however, and distinguish the natural and necessary desires from those that are artificial - for example, longings for wealth, excitement, fame, and power. The latter are not merely unnecessary to health and tranquility but are in fact destructive of them. By contrast, the satisfaction of the natural desires (the desires that must be fulfilled to preserve bodily health and mental peace) and the freedom from pain that accompanies such satisfaction lead to happiness.
Epicurus tells us that our good can be realized through philosophy, the quest for knowledge. It must be understood, however, that the function of philosophy is preeminently practical:
Vain is the world of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For justis there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so here is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.
By nature men seek pleasure, but by knowledge they are guided to the choice of the true pleasures. Without deliberation, we cannot hope either to forestall needless and artificial desires or to secure the pleasures required for happiness. In addition, without knowledge of the nature of things, we cannot rid ourselves of the fears and superstitions that destroy tranquility.
Epicurus undertakes to demonstrate the groundlessness of the two overwhelming fears that troubled his contemporaries: the fear of death and the fear of divine retribution. The philosophy of nature that he finds best suited to the task of destroying these terrifying chimeras is the "atomism" of Democritus (Fifth Century B.C.E.) in which the universe is explained wholly in terms of "atoms in motion in the void." Arguing that Democritus’ mechanistic account of the universe is adequate to explain all that occurs, Epicurus holds that it is superfluous to postulate the interference of the gods in human affairs. Epicurus does not deny that there are gods. However, he argues that it does not follow logically from the experience of gods, nor does experience testify, that "the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings of the good by the gift of the gods." He also says on the subject: "if god listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another." A further argument against divine causation of human good or evil is presented in a paradox attributed to Epicurus by Lactantius, in which the logical difficulties of the conception of an all-powerful and all-good deity are treated. Moreover, the Democritean theory of the soul supports his arguments against the fear of death: The soul is no more than a collection of small atoms within the body and death is only the dispersal of the soul-atoms. In any case, we need not fear death, "since as long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist."
Despite the general suitability of Democritean atomism as an account of nature, its theory of motion is said by Epicurus to be incomplete in a way that has serious consequences for ethics. In dealing with the motion of atoms, he observes that if their original motion is only a uniform downward fall, it is impossible to account for the collisions of atoms necessary to form complex bodies. Hence he assumes that atoms deviate spontaneously, or "swerve," in their course. But this kind of motion, being irregular and unpredictable, introduces an element of freedom or indeterminacy into the universe that is excluded by the absolute determinism of Democritus. The advantage of the Epicurean interpretation for ethics becomes evident when it is realized that men fear, more than the hand of the gods, the control of an inexorable fate or necessity of the kind implied by Democritus' deterministic atomism. However, because his theory of motion leaves a margin or indeterminacy, Epicurus believes it admits of the possibility that men can to some extent influence and control the course of their lives. He therefore exhorts us to realize that although "necessity is an evil ... there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity."
Through the true philosophy, Epicurus tells us, we can see that the fear of death, of the interference of the gods, and of the hard grip of necessity are without foundation in reality. Philosophy serves us well - it is not only an indispensable tool for the good life but also the most pleasant of activities: "in all other occupations the fruit comes painfully after completion, but in philosophy pleasure goes hand in hand with knowledge ..." Wherefore, Epicurus admonishes: "let no one when young delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old, grow weary of his study. For no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul."