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.