Are You Epicurean Or Hieronymian?

  • According to Doctrine 3, Epicurus held that the limit of quantity of pleasure is the absence of pain. This is a function of the truism / premise that there are only two feelings - pleasure and pain - which means that in quantity, the measurement that describes the "absence" of the one is the same measurement as the "presence" of the other. But this observation is limited to quantity - it has nothing to do with the quality or the detail of the type of pleasure (or pain) that is being experienced at a particular moment.

    Nevertheless, there is at loose in philosophical communities today the idea that Epicurus taught that pleasure is exactly equal - is defined as - "absence of pain," and so many are motivated to try to reconcile the inconsistencies in the texts by holding that Epicurus meant "tranquility" and that "tranquility itself" is the goal of life. What they would really say, if they followed their conclusion to the end, is that "tranquility is the highest pleasure" -- but you rarely see that formulation, as it is so obviously and counter intuitively incorrect.

    The record of how all this discussion got started is out there if people would look. Much of the story begins with Plato and Philebus, but Epicurus was not the only one to grapple with the issue. One philosopher -Heronymous of Rhodes - explicitly adopted the modern "absence of pain" position - and everyone at the time knew the difference. Heronymous of Rhodes is forgotten today, but Epicurus is tagged with his incorrect viewpoint. Beware!

    Cicero - Academic Questions:

    Cicero - On Ends:

    I will give Hieronymous credit for one thing: he is consistent in seeing that holding up "absence of pain" as the goal means to depreciate "pleasure" as the goal of life. Whether they admit it or not, this is the natural road which proponents of "absence of pain" will follow - they end up being opponents of "pleasure" as ordinarily understood.

    Next - again from Cicero, On Ends:

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    Cicero the lying litigator at work again! Cicero KNOWS that Epicurus did not make the mistake of calling "absence of pain" the goal of life, as Hieronymus did, but because some are so obtuse as to think "absence of pain" makes sense (Hieronymous was such a one!) Cicero is able to use the argument to great effect - or so he thinks! But once we see that the goal is PLEASURE, rather than absence of pain, Cicero's argument falls to the ground:

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  • I think those behind every popular academic philosophical book need to see this. My father's philosophy class, briefly mentions Epicurus and what he has learned aside from asking me, is that common misconception of pleasure = no pain, and that katastematic pleasures are better than kinetic. Yet nowhere in any of these circles, do I see an acknowledgement of the juxtaposition of this modern interpretation. How can pleasure = absence of pain when you are adamant about kinetic v katastematic pleasures with the latter being more important despite it relying on kinetic pleasures to begin with, ie what they believe causes pain?

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Exactly Charles. This information is out there, but I think very few people have taken the time to digest it and think about its implications. And the last couple of decades the problem is accelerating -- all people are reading nowadays is popular wikipedia-like summaries, and the most recent commentaries, and the misinformation is accelerating like a snowball on a hill.

  • Poster GW: "But is it not a Principal Doctrine that, "Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present – nor of both together."?

    Poster A:

    "...the complete removal of pain has correctly been termed a pleasure.

    Even Cicero forwarded Torquatus' writing:

    The happiness we pursue does not consist solely of the delightful feelings of physical pleasures.

    On the contrary, according to Epicurus, the greatest pleasure is that which is experienced as a result of the complete removal of all pain.

    When we are released from pain, the mere sensation of complete emancipation, and relief from distress, is itself a source of great gratification.

    But everything that causes gratification is a pleasure, just as everything that causes distress is a pain.

    Therefore, the complete removal of pain has correctly been termed a pleasure.

    For example, when hunger and thirst are banished by food and drink, the mere fact of getting rid of those distresses brings pleasure as a result.

    So as a rule, the removal of pain causes pleasure to take its place.

  • Poster GW:

    Yes indeed that is a principal doctrine, and that has a meaning within the full context of Epicurean philosophy which does not contradict the bottom line that PLEASURE is the goal. That is what this thread is about, Garrett, that it is not possible to take things out of context and still understand the full picture.

    And nothing that Poster A just wrote contradicts the point either, Poster G. As A writes, Epicurus endorsed both pleasures that some term as "at rest" and some term as "active" -- but both types are PLEASURE. the key observation is that there are only two feelings - pleasure and pain - and that therefore as a matter of quantity, the "absence of one" is the same as "the presence of the other." This has everything to do with quantity and nothing to do about what type of feeling is actually happening at the time.

    Poster G, (and anyone else reading along) - just read Cicero's words closely and you'll see the issue. Cicero was a master of the details of all of these philosophers, and he knew very well that Epicurus' view of the goal of life was pleasure, and that Heironymous' view of the goal was "absence of pain" and that these are two totally different things and are not reconcilable. That means that PD3 does NOT mean that "absence of pain" is the ultimate goal, or even "the ultimate pleasure." The key words are "maximum limit" or as others translate "the limit of quantity." This is not a discussion of the goal of life explicitly, but a discussion of a specific objection to pleasure that had been raised previously by Plato / other philosophers. The objection was that "pleasure has no limit" (we always want more) and Plato thought that was an effective argument because the logicians had decided that nothing could be an ultimate goal if it can always be made better (meaning that it has no limit). This is set forth in Philebus and elsewhere.

    Epicurus pointed out the error in this reasoning by showing that pleasure DOES have a limit - and that limit is reached when our total experience is filled with pleasures of any time such that there is no more room for the experience of any pain -- all pain has been "crowded out."

    And thus in another context Cicero described the Epicureans as holding that "nothing was preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures." In Defense of Publius Sestius 10.23

  • Poster A:

    Even Cicero continues:

    Fourth, we do not agree with those who allege that when pleasure is withdrawn, anxiety follows at once.

    That result is true only in those situations where the pleasure happens to be replaced directly by a pain.

    The truth is, in general, we are glad whenever we lose a pain, even though no active sensation of pleasure comes immediately in its place.

    This fact serves to show us how life itself, WHEN LIVED IN THE ABSENCE OF PAIN, IS itself so GREAT a PLEASURE.

  • We will eventually straighten out the posting here, but in the meantime, here is the point: it is absolutely true that all these references to "absence of pain" do exist. The issue is "What do they mean?" and "What do they tell us about the goal of life?" For each reference to "absence of pain" we can find MORE references to "Pleasure," and so it is necessary to determine the relationship between the two. Cicero and Hieronymous and the Greeks knew that the two are absolutely not the same thing. Epicurus had a reason for saying what he said, and it is up to us to figure out what the Epicureans meant from the fragmentary texts that are still available.

    Quoting over and over the same passages does nothing to explain to an honest inquirer how to reconcile these things, and the bitter truth for the Hiernonymous crowd is that "absence of anything" tells us NOTHING about "what is present" unless we define the terms of the discussion first. Epicurus had already done that - many times it appears - by making the point that there are only two feelings - pleasure and pain. When there are only two of anything, the "absence of one" means that the space formerly occupied (if any) by that thing is now occupied by its opposite.

    If you re like Hieronymous and think that "absence of pain" tells you anything specific and practical about how to spend your life, then more power to you, but have the grace to identify yourself as Hieronymian, and allow the Epicureans to pursue the pleasure which Epicurus, and more importantly Nature, calls us to pursue.

    Once we have that ground rules of the debate established, we can then discuss with intelligence what the "absence of pain" references do mean, by referring to Plato and the other anti-pleasure philosophers who suggested that "gods" or "virtue" or "ideal forms" give us the standard by which to live our lives.

  • According to Wikipedia, Hieronymous of Rhodes lived from c. 290 – c. 230 BC, while Epicurus lived from 341–270 BC. That means that Hieronymous lived after Epicurus, and had Epicurus' works to reference, but Epicurus was no longer around to respond to Hieronymous. If indeed Epicurus had taken the position that "absence of pain" is a correct and full statement of the goal of life, why would Hieronymous have had to deviate from Epicurus, and why would Cicero have had to set them up as opposites? the tragedy is that we don't have the works of contemporaneous Epicurus who would certainly have written to clear up this conflict. All we can go on now is that Cicero and those who knew at the time, knew that Hieronymous advocated "absence of pain" and deprecated pleasure, and that that was *not* what Epicurus had taught.

  • More of my ill will toward Cicero: Cicero was nothing if not intelligent, and he had the means at his disposal to get to the bottom of the issue, and, if necessary, consult the two opposing sides for their own explanation of the apparent conflict between Heironymous and Epicurus. Yet rather than present a sympathetic explanation from an Epicurean (or from a Heironymian) as to why their positions were in conflict, he simply stated the alleged inconsistency and left it unanswered, planting in the mind of his readers that Epicurus was a sloppy thinker and did not even know how to make a coherent argument about pleasure.

    Once again the DeWitt statement about Cicero rings in my ears:

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    The bottom line is that Cicero took out of context the building-block discussion of "limit of pleasure" - which has a perfectly legitimate place in the *foundation* of the logical structure that Epicurus was erecting - and placed that building-block at the *apex* of the structure instead of in its proper place as a supporting explanation of why Pleasure is the ultimate goal. That's why it ("absence of pain") standing at the apex of the philosophy looks silly or ridiculous or even offensive to neutral normal people, but still is absolutely correct as written when viewed in its proper subordinate context.

  • Poster GFL: "If you maintain that there is pleasure beyond the absence of pain, then you are not an Epicurean, but a Cyrenaic."


    In the Epicurean system where all feelings are either pleasure or pain, there would be no possibility of adding another type of feeling once pleasures expand to occupy all feeling. However I am not aware of a Cyreniac statement which would assert such a thing, are you? The word "beyond" in that statement would need explanation, because if we are talking quantity in the way Epicurus stated it, there is no quantity of pleasure other than "absence of pain." Unless we are more clear about what we are talking about the entire conversation becomes a word game --- which is exactly what it was in its original Platonic context.

    What does "quantity of pleasure" mean anyway except in context as an answer to a logic puzzle? That is why it appears to me that this entire discussion must be kept in mind as linked to Plato / Philebus for us to even understand what we are talking about. The original issue, as queried by Plato in Philebus, started with the question "Does pleasure have a limit?" Are we measuring the pleasure from ice cream in inches or pounds? What is a "limit?"

    Unless you in know the reasoning behind the question, the discussion is meaningless -- and worse: deceptive. Of course that is just how Plato intended it, as wordplay to deflate those who see pleasure as the goal of life.

  • I believe it is also useful to analogize this question to Epicurus' analysis of the boundlessness of space. We can throw the javelin endlessly and never hit the end of space, and yet the universe has a logical limit in being composed of only matter and void, outside of which nothing exists or can be conceived to exist as possibly entering the universe from outside to change it.

    Pleasure and pain stand in the role of matter and void - it is useful to consider them from the perspective of quantity for some purposes, but no one should be so foolish as to forget that the matter and space composing my body and my mind are much different to me, and of much more concern, than the matter and space composing a rock on the far side of the moon.

    The rock and my mind may be equivalent in quantity (weight) but they are dramatically different in most other,and most important respects, about which"quantity" tells us nothing.

    Why are we talking about these absurdities? Only because Plato and the logicians seek to avert us from pleasure by arguing that the greatest good in life must have a "limit."

  • Jumping ahead when we peel this back far enough we are going to see that this all comes down to feeling vs logic. Life is about feeling / sensation and logic alone is worthless, but Plato through wordplay is attempting to reverse that natural priority and convince us that logic has primacy. This is why Epicurus' canonical analysis is so important.

    But we have come so far down the wrong path for so long that today we have to walk back step by step through the argument in order to see how the Platonic / Stoic / Virtue / Dialectical Logic crowd led us astray.

  • Life is about feeling / sensation and logic alone is worthless, but Plato through wordplay is attempting to reverse that natural priority and convince us that logic has primacy.

    This reminds me of Michel Onfray's quotation about pleasure scaring people.

    "Pleasure scares people. They are scared of the word and the actions, reality, and discourses around it. It either scares people or makes them hysterical. There are too many private and personal issues, too many alienating, intimate, painful, wretched, and miserable details. There are secret and hidden deficiencies. There are too many things in the way of just being, living, and enjoying. Hence, people reject the word. They produce spiteful critique that is aggressive and in bad faith or that is simply evasive. Disrespect, discredit, contempt, and disdain are all means for avoiding the subject of pleasure."

    It's truly as if most today are frightened by the very word "hedonist" or the concept of living live pleasurably, instead believing that hardship is necessary and that in the long run you will be happier (they don't like to acknowledge that this means the after life we don't believe in).

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Yes exactly Charles - great quote from Onfray. I think that hits the nail on the head to explain much of what we encounter.

    As to Onfray generally, I have not read his material directly, but from what I've observed other people quote he's written a lot of good stuff. I gather that he also chose to differentiate himself from Epicurus and that he's not exactly an Epicurean in his philosophy, but that doesn't mean that a lot of what he said isn't exactly on point, like (for example) some of Nietzsche.

  • He's more of a modern revival of a hedonist/humanist. Devoutedly atheist and bashes Christianity alongside Islam, and even wrote a book about philosophers and their diets. Yet he is almost the definition of academia and many find him hard to access, also because of the short supply of extensive English translations of his works (at least from what Ive noticed).

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”