As an ethical hedonist, the search for pleasure defined Epicurus’ teachings. This cannot be understated, for he related all human aspirations and actions to it. Leaving minutiae by the wayside for the moment, we must concede that there are sensations which human beings find preferable to others and which they feel driven to seek. Given this, Epicurus held pleasure to be central to human existence because, as he reasoned, “every act of choice and aversion originates with it.”1 That is to say, the efficacy and desirability of all choices are evaluated by determining the amount of pleasure which results from them. Consequently, we may conclude that it comprises the most influential force and the ultimate goal to the Epicurean mindset; the “primary native good”2 of humankind, which naturally motivates human activity.
At this point, however, the matter becomes more complex. Although Epicurus regarded all forms and means of pleasure to be inherently good by reason of their harmony with human nature,3 he did not believe that all are necessarily desirable or that those which are desirable should be pursued with abandon. To the contrary, he perceived many ostensibly pleasurable activities to be counter-productive to the pursuit of lasting happiness. For instance, there are many stimuli which, taken to excess, foster negative emotions and serve only to increase the sense of deprivation when- and wherever they are absent. Furthermore, many pleasures become habitual and unfettered indulgence in them merely feeds a growing psychological need. In very general terms, he would advise the pleasure-seeker to balance potential pleasure against potential pain in order to determine the worthiness of a particular stimulus.4
In order to further delineate an idyllic lifestyle Epicurus made categorical distinctions between desirable and undesirable pleasures. Believing that the quantifiable limit of pleasure was the negation of pain, he held luxuries to be superfluous as they grant only as much freedom from want as modest sustenance and accoutrements, merely diversifying (rather than increasing) the degree of pleasure felt.5 While they can be enjoyed, often without later suffering, they also lose much of their savour through over-exposure. Moreover, in certain circumstances, pain can be preferable to pleasure, especially if temporarily submitting to discomfort results in a greater degree of satisfaction than immediately indulging a desire. While pain is generally to be regarded as evil insofar as it conflicts with human nature, it is not to be unconditionally shunned.6 It would be more accurate to say that Epicurus sought the satiation of need over the pursuit of pleasure; it was the overall wellbeing of the individual with which Epicurus was concerned, not mere gratification. The contemporary perspective of Epicurus’ philosophy as being an endorsement to eat, drink and be merry better reflects the views of his critics and detractors than the teachings themselves.
Epicurus refused to accept that a pleasant life could be lived without the exercise of virtue; furthermore, he held that exercising virtue would invariably result in pleasant living. As with all other things, however, he had very specific virtues in mind. As the goal of a life which adheres to Epicurean principles is the avoidance of fear and pain, prudence must be exercised to discern firstly between pleasure and pain and secondly between desirable and undesirable sources of pleasure, balancing pleasure and pain according to the criteria above.7 To this end, he felt it was vitally important to engage in reflective thought, as in so doing an individual would become liberated of mental strain and anxiety over such issues as the inevitability of death, as well as being better equipped to determine the roots of pleasure.8 Thoughtfulness and good judgement were, therefore, the chief instrument by which happiness could be achieved.
Epicurus appears to have held a narrow view of virtue, for the conclusion above concerns only the good of the individual. Indeed, it appears that Epicurus’ philosophy is inherently anti-social and self-centred, utilising only individual yearnings as justification. To a significant degree this is true, as holding pleasure to be paramount (however its pursuit is rationalised) inevitably leads individuals to place their interests above those of others. However, Epicurus granted such esteem to the virtue of prudence that he believed all other virtues originated from it; that a prudent individual would recognise the fact that lasting pleasure could be acquired modestly and that they would therefore choose to live “sensibly, nobly and justly”9 purely from sound judgement and self-interest. Essentially, he regarded the possession of virtue and living a pleasant life to follow naturally from one another, thereby making them indivisible.
It is not difficult to see the applicability of this ancient philosophy to the modern world. One needs to look no further than prolific substance abuse, endemic obesity and the phenomenon of consumerism in general to see that satisfying desires, irrespective of merit, can lead to suffering and disillusionment. Those who practice an Epicurean manner of living would be insulated against some of the hardships of deprivation. This is sensible, as not all pleasures are readily available at all times and those who are accustomed to modest pleasures would be all the more rapturous if they should chance upon luxuries on occasion, as indeed was Epicurus’ intention.10 As such, there is great appeal in the austerity he advocated.
If Epicurus’ philosophy has any shortcoming, it is in diminishing the spectrum of human thought to a pursuit as utilitarian as pleasure. It is bold to declare all human behaviour to be governed solely by want and need; that there are no higher aspirations. Although he makes token concessions to justice, morality and communal behaviour (each of which could conflict with a direct path to personal attainment of pleasure), so fixated is he that they are explained as mere consequences of the primary goal rather than powerful, complex frames of reference in their own right. It could be extrapolated that choosing to uphold a moral principle despite the deprivation such an action could cause would be a desirable pain stimulus to his mindset, but this would stretch his theory beyond its expressed parameters and become mere speculation. One may describe Epicurus’ theories as an astute prescription for the intellectualisation of the pursuit of pleasure, but to imagine them as an overarching doctrine by which to govern oneself is to denigrate and diminish many of humanity’s nobler qualities.
1 Epicurus: ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ in Cooper, David E. (ed.): ‘Ethics: the Classic Readings’ (Durham, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p51.
7 Ibid, p52.
10 Ibid, p51.
Sources: De Botton, Alain: 'Consolation for not having enough money' in 'The Consolations of Philosophy' (UK: Hamish Hamilton, 2000).
Epicurus: ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ and ‘Leading Doctrines’ in Cooper, David E. (ed.): ‘Ethics: The Classic Readings’ (Durham, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998).