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Epicureanism

Discussion in 'World History' started by Ciceronian, Oct 7, 2006.

  1. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    Recently there were several justified complaints that there is not enough discussion on philosophy in these forums, so I've decided to post an essay on Epicureanism which I wrote half a year or so ago. The original essay question was: "In what ways can the Epicurean views on the universe, the gods and men contribute to achieve happiness?" So it's a pretty general sketch of Epicureanism focussing mainly on their ideas on pleasure. Enjoy the read, I look forward to your comments and contributions.


    After the Sophists had dominated the philosophical scene in 5th century BC Athens, and Plato and Aristotle had done so in the 4th, the 3rd century BC was shaped largely by two opposing schools of philosophy: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Various other groups like the Sceptics and the Cyrenaics (who taught excessive hedonism) also emerged, but Epicurus in his garden and Zeno of Citium in the Stoa would enjoy the most influence with the groups that they founded (though both these groups were also heavily influenced by the Sceptics). Contemporarily, Stoicism was seen by outsiders to teach virtue as the way of achieving progress for the soul, while the Epicureans were supposed to teach that the way to lead a happy life was through pleasure and enjoyment. This essay shall now focus on the teachings of the Epicureans regarding a life of happiness, or how to achieve the telos, the main goal or aim of life.

    Before trying to understand Epicurean concepts of happiness, one must first examine their ideas about god and the universe. They held that there was a natural conception (prolepsis) of god as a perfectly happy and blessed being, although this had been obscured by various false beliefs, attributing desires such as lust and vengefulness to the gods. “For there are gods – the knowledge of them is self-evident. But they are not such as the many believe them to be.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus 123) So while the Epicureans believed that there were gods who were immortal, they thought that they deserved only respect and honour for their perfect contentment and tranquility, which humans should aspire to attain, rather than receiving worship in the hope of being appeased. In short, Epicurus saw the gods as ideal images of happiness. He argued that he could attribute no motives for creation to such a content and tranquil divine being, since creation itself and then governing it only involved trouble and concern. Hence, there was no creator god, and the world had merely arisen accidentally from large-scale atomic collisions. Since the Epicureans held that there were a finite number of different types of atom, and a finite number of ways of arranging them relative to each other, there must be a huge, though finite, number of different possible kinds of worlds. Since the supply of atoms is infinite, one of these many possible permutations throughout space and time must bring about a well-ordered structure such as our own world at some point. This, to the Epicureans, is proof that the world came about by accident rather than divine creation.

    The Epicureans also believed that everything in the world was either matter, consisting of atoms, or absence of matter, void. Hence the soul also was made of nothing more than atoms, and would be separated from the body upon death, and thereafter be dissolved and no longer exist. This belief was a key one to the Epicureans, since they held that death was nothing to be feared, since one would not exist or be able to feel anything bad. “Accustom yourself to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil lie in sensation, whereas death is the absence of sensation.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus 124) Time after death, as complete non-existence, must be symmetrical to the time before birth, were we also experienced no sensations or pain, as the Epicurean poet Lucretius explains: “Just as in the past we had no sensation of discomfort when the Carthaginians were converging to attack, … so too, when we will no longer exist following the severing of the soul and body, from whose conjunction we constituted, you can take it that nothing at all will be able to affect us and to stir our sensation.” (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura III) By removing the fear of death, one could attain supreme happiness and contentment: “For there is nothing fearful in living for one who genuinely grasps that there is nothing fearful in not living.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus 124) In such a way beliefs about cosmology and physics were important to the Epicureans’ understanding of ethics.



    For the Epicureans, the telos or main goal in life is the achievement of happiness. According to them, happiness can be achieved through experiencing pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure is innate to humans, just like the prolepsis of a god. Epicurus argues that the connection between pleasure and happiness is so blatantly obvious that he need not present an argument on its behalf. Torquatus, the Epicurean spokesman in Cicero’s De Finibus, explains Epicurus standpoint: “He [Epicurus] thinks these matters are sensed just like the heat of fire, the whiteness of snow and the sweetness of honey, none of which needs confirmation by elaborate arguments, it is enough to point them out.” (Cicero, De Finibus I.30) Epicurus does however point out that humans, and even animals, upon birth seek things which provide pleasure and avoid things which cause pain. Pleasure is the object which is naturally and “instinctively” sought by all humans in their pursuit of happiness. However, seeking immediate pleasures or avoiding immediate pain is not always best. One should want to avoid an immediate short-term pleasure in favour of a resulting greater future long-term pleasure, and one should equally also be ready to suffer short-term pain or hardships for the benefit of avoiding graver pain in the future. Blind hedonism cannot be the way forward, but rather careful judgment of the long-term effects of immediate pleasures or pains.

    Epicurus held that the greatest pleasure was merely the absence of pain, and the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires. These desires include but are limited to hunger, thirst and the desire for warmth and protection from the elements. All these pleasures can be satisfied easily, for bread and water suffice to quench hunger and thirst, just as warm clothing protects us from the cold. The state of having these necessary desires satisfied is what Epicurus calls static pleasures. The other type of pleasures, kinetic pleasures, arise during the quenching of these desires (such as drinking water when thirsty), or when consuming something which one does not need (for instance drinking when one is not thirsty, or drinking wine, which quenches thirst, but is not a necessity like water is). These kinetic pleasures merely produce a variance in pleasure, but do not increase it in any way. To Epicurus, one either experiences pain or pleasure, there is no middle ground. Absence of pain already constitutes complete pleasure. His opponents, the Cyrenaics, opposed this view and thought that there was a state in which one experienced neither pain nor pleasure. This meant that only a constant kinetic pleasure was worth striving for, and this tenet marked out the Cyrenaics as utter hedonists (in the modern sense of the word), whereas Epicurus could not convincingly be charged of this. “So when we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of the dissipated and those that consist in having a good time, as some out of ignorance and disagreement or refusal to understand suppose we do, but freedom from pain in the body and from disturbance in the soul.” (Epicurus, Letters to Menoeceus 131) So it is clear that the removal of pain and anxiety and the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires constitute the highest pleasure to the Epicureans.

    Besides our natural and necessary desires, we have some desires which are natural but not necessary. These would include the desire for fine food or drinks or for sexual intercourse. Some desires are neither necessary nor natural, such as striving for political power or public renown and recognition, or the accumulation of excessive wealth and splendour. Epicurus, although respecting political tradition, advised his followers to abstain from public life, for it was detrimental to happiness and could only be the cause of discomfort and stress. Coming back to the natural but unnecessary desires, Epicurus maintains that they may be harmful not because they as pleasures themselves can be harmful, but because people hold empty opinions about them, thinking that they need them, whereas in fact they do not: “Whenever intense passion is present in natural desires which do not lead to pain if they are unfulfilled, these have their origin in empty opinion; and the reason for their persistence is not their own nature but the empty opinion of the person.” (Epicurus Key Doctrines 30) Occasional indulgence in these desires is not necessarily bad, as long one remembers that they are unnecessary and one could also live well and without anxiety without them. For if one is not prepared to lose them, one will be thrown into anxiety if one does.



    Epicurus (Roman copy of near-contemporary Greek sculpture)

    The Epicureans distinguish between bodily and mental pleasure, considering the latter to be far superior to the former. Mental pleasure is gained through the absence of anxiety, especially about death and the universe. For the Epicureans supply as sole reason for studying physics that as a result of understanding the universe, one will no longer suffer dread because one will have realised that there is nothing to be feared, either in death or anything else in the universe. Mental pleasure also consists of recalling past or potential future physical pleasures. This is a reason for arguing that kinetic pleasures do serve a certain purpose, for they may me remembered later and cause mental pleasure when this is being done. Epicurus admits that kinetic pleasures are useful: “For my part I cannot conceive of anything as the good if I remove the pleasures perceived by means of taste and sex and listening to music, and the pleasant motions felt by the eyes through beautiful sights, or any other pleasures which some sensation generates in a man as a whole. Certainly it is impossible to say that mental delight is the only good.” (Epicurus On the end) Epicurus describes that on his deathbed, despite intense physical pain, he was still experiencing pleasure, since he was recalling earlier philosophical discussions he had had. The mental pleasure engendered by this recollection surmounted the physical pain he was suffering.

    While many contemporaries and later writers have criticised Epicurus, most of their allegations remain unfounded. When they denounce his emphasis on pleasure and hedonism, they willfully choose to ignore those passages which call for temperance and reiterate that the greatest pleasure is merely removal of all pain, discomfort and anxiety. Furthermore, they are also unaware of the way in which Epicurean ethics are to a large extent founded in Epicurean physics, cosmology and (anti-)theology. By showing that the soul does not exist after death, the Epicureans take away the fear of death, and by claiming that the gods are blissfully unaware of us, they mitigate the fear of divine retribution. Similarly, it is by analysing man’s make-up and existence that they derive their theories of happiness through pleasure. For the Epicurean telos consisted of mental tranquility, ataraxia, and bodily painlessness, aponia, and in combination these secured blissful happiness for humans that attained them.
     
  2. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Very good!

    Now it would be interesting to have something more on Epicurean physics as distinct from Democritean. As I understand it, Epicurus believed that atoms have a natural tendency to fall to the centre of the universe (Democritus did not). How, then, is it that the universe does not consist of a large smooth ball? Epicurus answered that, as they fall, some atoms undergo a mysterious "swerve" - they deviate from their path for no apparent reason. This sets up irregularities in the cosmos, and our variegated world is the result. Epicurus has been criticised for these two distinctive doctrines - the tendency to fall and the swerve - which have been thought to make his physics inferior to that of Democritus. The reason is that Epicurus can't explain why atoms should tend to fall or sometimes swerve. For Democritus, by contrast, their random motions all over the place suffice to explain our world.

    It would be good to have something on Epicurean theories of perception too. I believe that Epicurus thought that all physical objects are constantly throwing off a very thin skin, as it were, of their outermost atoms. These skins hurtle through the air, and when they hit our eyes, they stimulate them in such a way that we see the object. The other senses work in the same way. I don't know if this is what Epicurus really thought, or if it is just an attribution, because the theory seems to be so obviously false it's hard to know where to start criticising it! I suppose it's based on the conviction that you cannot have action at a distance, so if you are to perceive a distant object, there must be some connection of contiguity between you and it.
     
  3. sydhe

    sydhe King of Kongs

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    If you think of the quantum as a sort of atom in the Epicurean sense (i.e. a particle), his theory of perception sounds a lot better.

    I like Epicurus as a philosopher. He had a great deal of common sense, and didn't tie himself up in philosophical knots.
     
  4. Ciceronian

    Ciceronian Latin Scholar

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    You're right, there isn't much about Epicurean physics in there, but that's because the purpose of the essay is a different one. I only explained physics up to the point which was necessary for an understanding of ethics and pleasure. I will, however, be covering Epicurean (and Stoic) physics in more detail this year, so I will publish my findings on that here when the time has come.

    The idea swerve is indeed slightly eccentric, but not altogether crazy. We do nowadays know, I believe, that certain sub-atomic behaviour is random (such as the decay of radioactive material, were a certain particle will decay according to a certain probability of decaying at a given instant). The idea of objects emitting particles which strike the eye was current not only with Epicurus, but also with others (does anybody know exactly who?). Besides, even today we are not sure about the nature of light (thanks to which we are able to see). So I think that while some parts of Epicurean physics may seem like nonsense today, they were a product of their times, and nor can we today be absolutely sure of certain things even with our hi-tech scientific devices.

    Could you please explain for us what a quantum is?
     
  5. Tathlum

    Tathlum Gallowglacht

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    An indivisible unit of energy like a photon for example.
     
  6. Taliesin

    Taliesin Puttin' on the Ritz

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    Interestingly, Epicurus' name was adopted into Hebrew as the word for "heretic." And-- correct me if I'm wrong, Plotinus-- by the time of Christ, Epicureanism had penetrated the Hellenistic world sufficiently that Paul regarded it, not Platonism or Stoicism, as the chief ideological rival of Christianity.

    And as for his eidolon theory of perception, I think it was common to all the atomists.

    Epicurus' recommendations for the perfect life still sound very appealing: basically, he suggested that blissful ataraxia could best be achieved and sustained by living with friends (of both genders) in a self-sufficient community in the country, eating bread and cheese, having sex now and then, and mostly occupying the time with the creation and appreciation of art.

    Here's another titbit which is more directly of historical relevance: only a couple of Epicurus' estimated output of three hundred books survive. However, there is an archaeological site, I think it's in Herculaneum, which has been identified as the library of an aristocratic disciple of Epicurus. It's suspected that it may contain currently unknown Epicurean texts, possibly a wealth of them. But it has not been excavated yet! The Italian government, which tightly controls all archaeological endeavours within its borders, apparently allocates funding for projects based on an agenda of promoting a notion of "Italianness," which means that an emphasis is placed on discovering material culture rather than intellectual. It's rather a shame. As I understand it, the Hellenistic philosophy community is collectively waiting in suspense until Italy gets around to authorising exploration of the library. That day could be truly earth-shattering for the discipline.
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    [Taliesin] That's interesting about the Hebrew. I'm not convinced by the mention of Paul, though - I don't know of any references to Epicureanism in Paul, although perhaps you can enlighten me! (The New Testament isn't really my field.)

    The information about the Italian archaeological site is amazing - both for the tantalising possibilities of the site and the daftness of the governmental policy. Just another pernicious effect of patriotism...
     
  8. CartesianFart

    CartesianFart Deity

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    Epicurean of egoistic hedonism in today's world can't be universalized.It is practically self-defeating.

    Let's say that if the egoist maximized its enemy(or competitior)pleasure as well as its own,will only leads to actions painful to the egoist itself.

    If everyone from the very beginnings are taught to learn "moral arithmetics" of an utilitarian way to reduce the good to pleasure that allows individuals to reflect the only criteria of this doctrine,we have to not only entrust ourself but also others doing so as well.

    If such kind of technology exist to control human behavior that can suppress the activity of lying and stealing behaviors to complete zero or extreme competence,then the epicurean ways of life can be secured to being an applicable trustworthiness.
     
  9. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    But Epicurean hedonism wasn't a quasi-utilitarian moral theory. It was a eudaimonistic theory. That is, the aim was to describe what the best kind of life would be and recommend a course of action to achieve it - not to prescribe any kind of universal set of rules that everyone "ought" to follow.
     
  10. Taliesin

    Taliesin Puttin' on the Ritz

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    I've looked through my texts and haven't found any helpful reference for this, except: "St. Paul saw Epicureanism as his principal competitor," as an unelaborated note taken at a lecture of Lloyd Gerson's, March 3 2005. Wikipedia notes that Epicureans are mentioned at Acts 17:18, and also suggests that they're referred to at I Corinthians 15:32, though neither of these is particularly compelling.

    I presume Gerson was referring to canonical scholarship of some kind, but I'm not familiar with it. I certainly don't speak from the authority of personal analysis! I'm sorry I don't have more info.
     
  11. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's OK! I agree that the references given aren't very compelling. Acts is of course notoriously untrustworthy as a source for the views of the real Paul; the speeches that it depicts him as making have precious little to do with his views as we know them from his letters. Besides which, that verse only mentions that he debated with Epicureans and Stoics. The 1 Cor verse is perhaps a bit more interesting:

    If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

    I'm not sure where the reference to Epicureanism is meant to be here. The saying that he quotes sounds like it could be vaguely Epicurean, but since it's actually from Isaiah 22:13, it clearly predates Epicurus himself. As far as I know, this saying was not associated with Epicureanism at the time. One should never forget that, for all his cosmopolitan background, Paul was a Pharisee, and the Old Testament was the primary source for his way of thinking: thus it seems to me far more likely that he's simply thinking of the Isaiah verse here rather than using it to attack some unnamed group of gentile philosophers. I suppose one could say that the whole of 1 Cor 15 is opposed to Epicureanism, in that here Paul argues strenuously for the reality of the resurrection whilst Epicureans would have denied this, but then so would pretty much all philosophers of the time (in the second and third centuries, the doctrine of the resurrection was the primary target of anti-Christian intellectuals). So I don't really see any great significance here from the point of view of Epicureanism.
     
  12. CartesianFart

    CartesianFart Deity

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    I didnt say that it is doctrine traditionally known as an ethical theory to prescribe into some universal set of rules that "ought implies can."

    I was just merely saying that that doctrine of Epicurean hedonism is something impossible for in order to be universalized.:)
     
  13. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    But I didn't mention "ought implies can" - you can have an ethical system involving "ought" without believing that "ought implies can". Augustine did. I simply said that universalisability is normally taken as a necessary component of an ethical system which aims to describe what one ought to do. It's not a necessary component of an ethical system which aims to describe what the best life is. But Epicureanism, like most ancient ethical systems, is the latter, not the former.

    Besides, it's a moot point whether Epicurean hedonism can't be universalised. Perhaps it is true that not everyone can enjoy the most pleasant life possible. However, it does not follow from that that there is no possible world featuring the greatest quantity of pleasure that there can be. That is, suppose the greatest quantity of pleasure that an individual can experience is 100 units. And suppose that it is possible for an individual to achieve this, but impossible for everyone to do it, because if one person reaches 100 then that (for some reason) prevents someone else from doing so. But perhaps it woule be possible for everyone to enjoy 80 units of pleasure without impinging on other people, and perhaps this would be the best attainable situation for everyone: it would involve the greatest sum of pleasure. You would thus be unable to maximise pleasure in the sense of everyone enjoying the maximum (100). However, you could still maximise pleasure in the sense of creating the situation that involves the largest sum of pleasure overall, with everyone on 80. And in that sense it could certainly be universalised.
     
  14. CartesianFart

    CartesianFart Deity

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    Then that is the root of our misunderstanding.You happen to percieve the case of Universals being only a accomodating element under the umbrella of an ethical system.I percieve that Ethical Systems is the case of being an Universal one.

    Thats strange.:confused: If "ought" and (your word)"universalisablity" are merely only components or elements of an ethical system,then how can a system of ethic be not universal?Are you saying that a system can have a universal parts?Isn't system and universal the same that it demarcate a similar meaning of whole of parts?

    I know that.Epicurus was something of a self-help guru than the likes of Kant and other philosophers.Of course Epicurus was nice and cheerful amongst his fellow human beings,but was very contemptous to other fellow philosophers.Especially his comments against his tutor(who taught him Democritus and other presocratics) who he referred as "The Mullusc."I don't even see any writings or fragments of Epicurus crediting other philosophers such as Democritus on his metaphysics,of course he probably want his disciples not know this.

    You say that you can't achieve the amount to 100 unit because of the unfairness of others not achieving it,then it is not capable of being universalized?What make you conclude that 80 units is different than 100 units?
     
  15. Elta

    Elta 我不会把这种

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    I really really like the artical - It doesn't state my belifes verbatem but, It cvers alot of them. Thank you - I can use him as a referance for sme of my thoughts when people are confused by my belifes. ;) :king:
     

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