JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Epicurean Ethics.


1. In his Ethics, Epicurus follows, in the main, the teaching of the Cyrenaic school. He holds Self-gratification, Pleasure, to be the Supreme Good of man, and Pain to be the Supreme Evil. In proof of this doctrine he appeals to our own consciousness, which informs us that pleasure is what man is seeking, and that pain is what he avoids. He deduces the same conclusion from the fact that all living things, from the first moment of their existence, seek sensuous pleasure, and find enjoyment in it, while they strive as far as possible to escape from pain. The contrast between this teaching and Stoicism, both in method of argument and ultimate conclusion, need hardly be pointed out.

2. In the detailed exposition of this fundamental principle of his system, Epicurus distinguishes the Pleasure of Motion (he kata kinêsis hêdonê) and the Pleasure of Rest (katastêmatikê hêdonê -- between Voluptas in Motu and Stabilitas Voluptatis (Cic. De Fin., II., c. 3). In the first division are included all the pleasures which are accompanied by a stimulus of sense; in the second is signified that condition which is free from all pain or unpleasant feeling.

3. Epicurus teaches that the highest happiness cannot be obtained by the pleasure of motion. In this view he is at variance with the Cyrenaics, who, as we know, regarded the pleasure of motion as the highest good. According to the opinion of Epicurus, the highest happiness is attained in that condition which is called the "Pleasure of Rest" -- in freedom from all pain or unpleasant feeling -- in a word, in the condition of painlessness (ataraxia kai aponia). When man has attained this summit of happiness, he experiences, indeed, a variety and a succession of pleasurable feelings, but the measure of his happiness is not increased thereby.

4. We have now to inquire how this condition of painlessness may be arrived at. Epicurus, on this point, gives us the following answer: "Pain is the disagreeable feeling experienced under the pressure of some need or some desire; pain is absent either when we can satisfy the needs or desires we have, or when we have no needs or desires which call for satisfaction. We can, therefore, attain to painlessness either by satisfying all the needs and desires we have, or by restricting our needs and desires to that measure which it is in our power to satisfy."

5. "The first means here suggested is not possible to man; firstly, because he has not at his disposal the means to satisfy all his needs and desires; and, secondly and chiefly, because his needs and desires are, in themselves, unlimited and insatiable. There is, then, nothing left for those who would attain to the state of freedom from pain, except to restrict their needs and desires to that measure which it is possible to satisfy. Considered from the point of view we have now reached, Painlessness may be said to be the absence of all needs or desires which we are not in a position to satisfy."

6. From this exposition it appears that the highest good of the Epicureans is not something wholly negative (Painlessness), but that it has its positive side also; for this Painlessness is attained by satisfying the desires, that is to say, by positive pleasure. It is true this positive factor must be restricted withih certain limits; i.e., the satisfying of the desires must be effected in determined measure, otherwise the state of Painlessness cannot be reached. In the light of this conclusion, we may state the fundamental law of life, according to the Epicurean Philosophy, in the following formula: "Restrain your needs and desires within the measure in which you will be able to satisfy them."

7. This principle furnishes an explanation of the further tenets of the Epicurean Ethics, such as the following:

(a) We must distinguish between those desires which are natural and necessary those which are natural but not necessary, and those which are neither natural nor necessary. Due moderation in the satisfying of our desires demand that we should refuse satisfaction to the desires of the last class, and restrict ourselves to desires of the first and second kind only.

(b) There are cases in which pleasure arises from pain, and other cases in which pain follows from pleasure. "We must not, therefore, allow ourselves to he carried away by the excitement of present pleasure, nor permit ourselves to be blinded and misled by the desire of the moment; we must renounce pleasure when it would be followed by a greater pain, and accept pain when it would be followed by a greater pleasure." Moderation in satisfying our desires requires that we should act thus.

(c) There is a spiritual pleasure as well as a bodily pleasure, just as there is pain of mind as well as pain of body. For the purposes of human life spiritual pleasures are of far higher worth than bodily. The body experiences only the pleasure which is actually present; the soul has the gratifying remembrance of its pleasures past, and the enticing prospect of pleasure to come. Spiritual is, therefore, to be preferred to bodily pleasure. Spiritual pleasure, however, has its ultimate cause in the pleasures ofsense, for it consists in the remembrance or anticipation of the pleasures of sense. Epicurus was, therefore, warranted by his own theory in saying (Diog. Laert. X. 6) that he had no notion of any good apart from the pleasures derivable from taste, hearing, sight, and the gratification of sexual tendencies.

(d) But he is willing to admit that bodily pain is assuaged by the psychical pleasure derivable from pleasant memories and from hope, in the same way that sensuous pleasure is diminished by unpleasant memories and by fear. And thus we again find indicated the rule already laid down, that the one class of feelings must be moderated by the other, in order to secure complete absence of pain.

8. On these doctrines is based the fundamental law of Epicurean Ethics. "Calculate the pleasure and pain that are so closely linked in human life, so that you may procure from your life the greatest possible sum of pleasure, and the smallest possible amount of pain." To this end Epicarus particularly recommends frugality, the cultivation of simple habits, abstinence from costly and extravagant enjoyments, or at least a sparing participation in them, in order that health may be preserved, and the relish for enjoyment may remain unimpaired. He also specially recommends intercourse with friends; friendship, according to Epicurus, being the best means of assuring every pleasure of life.

9. The function which Epicurus assigns to virtue in man's moral life is now apparent. Virtue is not good or praiseworthy in itself, as the Stoics maintained. It is good and estimable merely because it is useful in securing the happiness of life. It is, therefore, essentially directed to pleasure as a means to an end, and it is of importance only insofar as it subserves this purpose. The virtues, according to the reckoning of Epicurus are four in number: Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice.

(a.) Prudence (phronêsis) is the chief of the virtues. It has a theoretical as well as a practical side, In the first sense, it is that knowledge of the true causes of things which delivers men from foolish fear of the gods, and of their judgments, and of death, and which thus makes possible a happy life. In the second sense, it enables us so to regulate our pleasures that one pleasure shall not hinder another, nor any pleasure be so intensified that it shall pass into the opposite pain, and it furthermore enables us to maintain our enjoyments at suitable intensity, contrives that they shall mutually enhance one another, and brings within our reach not oniy the pleasures actually present, but also past pleasures which we remember and future pleasures to which we look forward.

(b.) To Temperance it belongs to keep our enjoyments within due bounds, and to exercise self-control in the enjoyment of the several pleasures. Conrage consists in "excluding the disturbing and distressing emotions which Prudence perceives to be unwarranted, in foregoing pleasure and accepting suffering as often as prudence warns us that this will contribute to happiness, and finally in putting an end to life when it can afford no more pleasure, but has oniy pain in store for us."

(c.) As regards Justice, Epicurus holds that all right is based upon a compact or engagement existing between men not to hinder one another. Justice consists in observing the law of the general safety founded on this compact. Justice contributes to a happy life, inasmuch as the just man has no punishment to dread, can count upon the protection of the law, can acquire property, and gains the good will and confidence of his fellow-citizens; all which give earnest of a happy life.

10. The virtuous man is the true sage. He alone reaches the goal of perfect happiness, and he alone cannot miss it. Virtue is the only way to happiness, it is also the certain way. The sage is, therefore, always happy. The duration of existence does not in any way affect the measure of happiness.

11. The Epicurean doctrines present us with a system of Materialistic Hedonism, which, however, full of contradictions, flatters and favours the sensual tendencies of man. We cannot, in consequence, be surprised to find that this doctrine was in high favour under the Roman Empire, when the stern morality of the older Romans was perishing under despotic rule. It contained no principles of morality strictly so-called. If there is nothing intrinsically good or bad in our actions, no immutable objective law according to which the morality of our actions is determined; if pleasure and profit are the oniy standard according to which we are to act; if pleasure of every kind is good in itself and becomes an evil only in the injury it may possibly entail upon the individual; then is there an end of everything which could give a moral character to our acts. The Epicurean Philosophy is a theory of effeminate ethics, wholly incompatible with an earnest morality. Cicero calls special attention to the fact that the notion of honour finds no place in the Epicurean teaching. The reproach is deserved. But it is by no moans the most serious objection which can be urged against the system.

12. The doctrines of Epicurus received little development from subsequent philosophers. The most remarkable of his followers were: Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Polyaenus the Mathematician, Hermarchus of Mytilene, who succeeded Epicurus in his school, Polystratus the successor of Hermarchus, Timocrates, Leonteus, Colotes, Idomeneus, Apollodorus, the author of four hundred vo1umes, Zeno of Sidon the pupil of Apollodorus (born B.C. 150), who was the teacher of Cicero and Atticus, and whom Cicero distinguishes among the Epicureans for his logical, dignified, and ornate style, and on whose lectures were based the works of his pupil Philodemus, the two Ptolemies of Alexandria, Demetrius of Lacon, Diogenes of Tarsus, Orion, Phaedrus an earlier contemporary of Cicero, and lastly Titus Lucretius Carus (B.C. 95-52) who in his didactic poem, De Rerum Natura, gave a complete exposition of the Epicurean system with the purpose of convincing his readers of the truth, and delivering them from fear of the gods and of death.-- Cfr. Ueberweg.

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