Managing Expectations In The Study of Epicurus

  • Here's an observation about a problem I see recurring over and over:


    People who find out about Epicurus in general or our Epicurean forums in particular often start reading because they have heard something general with which they agree. They hear and immediately like things such as: "Epicurus rejected supernatural religion," or "Epicurus rejects the idea of life after death," or "Epicurus held that pleasure is the guide of life," or "Epicurus taught that the universe is made up of atoms and his views of nature were way ahead of his time," or "Epicurus taught that it is a good idea not to live beyond one's means, because our goal is to be happy whatever means are available to us."


    They start reading about Epicurus because they identify with one of more of these general ideas, but over time as they find our more specifics, they sometimes lose interest because the specifics are not what they expect. In many cases their interest fades in disappointment because they think that just because Epicurus agrees with them on one or a couple of basic conclusions, they expect to find that Epicurus agreed with them on every conclusion that they themselves reach about how to live.


    I think the problem here - and the error on their part, which is not a flaw in Epicurus - is that they fail to understand that the Epicurean view of the nature of the universe means that different people are inevitably going to have very different experiences and backgrounds. These different experiences and backgrounds are going to lead people to have different tastes and opinions about what they find pleasing. The result is totally normal, and to be expected: not every Epicurean will reach the same conclusion on every issue in life.

    It seems to me it would help people manage expectations if we made a point of emphasizing this early in the process of discussing Epicurus. If we emphasize that from the beginning of our discussions, maybe that will lessen the impact of the "disappointment" that people frequently feel when they find some detail in Epicurus that doesn't match their own viewpoint, and they will realize that instead of being a flaw, this is a feature of Epicurean philosophy.


    Here at this Epicureanfriends.com forum we've tried to address this with the "Not Neo-Epicurean But Epicurean" and the "Our Posting Policy" graphics, These are intended to steer people away from the day-to-day political issues where the issue and the conflict and the disappointment most clearly arise.


    But I am thinking it would be good to find more ways to emphasize this issue fast and hard.

    I get the impression that Epicurus himself had such thoughts when he wrote material like PD10. What is PD10 except an in-your-face warning to put aside your personal viewpoint about what may be "worthy" or what may be "depraved" to you?


    Quote

    10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky, and death, and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full, with pleasures from every source, and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.


    The point seems to be that people have have a hard time accepting - and need to be taught clearly - that it really is true that Nature's only stop and go signal to each person is the pain and pleasure that the individual person feels - and yes, this includes the pain and pleasure of our friends and those we value, whose pain and pleasure are important to us as well.


    Calculating out the implications of that is not easy to do, and is going to differ with people and with circumstances, but the ultimate point is that there is no single rule that applies to everyone, everywhere, and all the time, and the sooner we disabuse ourselves of that notion the less likely we are to pull back once we realize that his is true.


    What are your thoughts about this, and if you agree, possible ways we could work on doing a better job of dealing with this?

  • In the attempt to fully understand and implement a philosophy, each individual to some degree has a back and forth between the examining the doctrine of the philosophy and examining the conditions of their life with respect to the application of the doctrine. This may be a positive attempt to reach a deeper understanding, a negative attempt to undermine, or anywhere in between.


    Regarding the doctrine of EP, there is a tremendous amount of discussion and disagreement about the nature of pleasure (pleasure, ataraxia, absence of pain, etc.). To me, pleasure and pain is the key to implementing the philosophy in one's life, it is the culmination of the Physics and the Canon and it is therefore critical to have a deep understanding of the subject, for which I personally am still striving.


    Regarding the practice of EP, specifically with regards to pleasure, there have been a few threads here discussing people's very specific instances of pleasure, and I think that this is helpful to all of us.


    Is there a way to examine general frameworks for applying pleasure/pain in our lives without losing sight of the individual nature of experience? Something to bridge the dogma and the specifics. A personal "macro" view to maximize the intelligent pursuit of pleasure. For me as a relative neophyte this seems to be a gap in my understanding. For instance a hedonic regimen is sometimes mentioned, which could be one way of scheduling pleasure into one's life if a person feels that that is useful. A person could also do an evaluation of pains and pleasures in their life as a means to understand for themselves how best to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, if they feel that that is valuable. Perhaps some feel that pleasure is best pursued by following their feelings in the moment. These frameworks would may be different for everybody, but it seems like a fruitful area of discussion and this could be tied in to the texts. Or is this something that everyone needs to do for themselves? I don't know.


    One last thought.... Some say that PD 10 contradicts the quote from the letter to Menoeceus: "So when we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasures of decadent people or the enjoyment of sleep, as is believed by those who are ignorant or who don't understand us or who are ill-disposed to us, but to be free from bodily pain and mental disturbance. For a pleasant life is produced not by drinking and endless parties and enjoying boys and women and consuming fish and other delicacies of an extravagant table, but by sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul." I think that DeWitt makes a good case that such a contradiction doesn't exist. Is it possible that discussing our general frameworks for applying pleasure/pain could help to clarify that these two doctrines are in perfect agreement?

  • Those are good thoughts Godfrey.

    To me, pleasure and pain is the key to implementing the philosophy in one's life

    I think in my case I have a special perspective on that which may be the result of my age and background.


    For me, I don't generally wrestle with particular "types" of pleasure, or how to implement them - I know I make the same mistakes that most people do in terms of over-indulgence, or just mistaken views of what will lead to more pleasure or more pain down the road.


    For me, the issue of "pleasure and pain [as] the key to implementing the philosophy" is more the recognition that "pleasure and pain" are what actually stand in the role of "gods" or "idealism" that I see in other people of my generation.


    Maybe the time has come when the issues of eternal life, fate, supernatural gods, divine punishment and reward, etc. are largely obsolete and even uninteresting, but I know in terms of how I have grown up the issues of existence of god, etc, were the main and overriding issues of importance.


    So in my case it is such a huge issue to recognize that gods and idealism are false leads, and that natural mechanisms of pleasure and pain take the place of those, that I find Epicurean philosophy fully satisfying without looking to Epicurus for specific hints on particular pleasures to pursue or avoid. Certainly his advice as to friendship and living within one's means are highly useful, but I don't find those particularly unique or Epicurus' version of them to be the central items of interest.


    I think people today in our much less religious and more secular society start from a much different point than did those in generations past, so maybe that partly explains why so many people are interesting in "techniques" when it seems to me that they should be asking "What's the right direction to go in the first place, regardless of technique in getting there?"

    As for the questions about contradictions such as:

    Is it possible that discussing our general frameworks for applying pleasure/pain could help to clarify that these two doctrines are in perfect agreement?

    I am thinking that is sort of a result of the same issue. People come to Epicurus thinking that they are going to read about some Stoic "mind manipulation" technique, and instead of that they find a lot of fundamentals about the nature of the universe and humanity that seems to them irrelevant, because they think they have the "end goal" already figured out and they don't need any lectures on that!


    Someone you like who are now fully into the issues won't make that mistake, but I can see what you are observing operating as part of the problem we're discussing - people are looking for a "cookbook" of quick and easy suggestions, and instead they hear lectures on issues they didn't even realize existed!


    To those kinds of complaints my general response would have to be a diplomatic version of "that's just too bad that you don't understand the questions that you should be asking." ;-) And a certain number of people like that have already equipped themselves with such blinders that there's not much hope for them to become "committed" members of an Epicurean community anyway.


    But I do think that a significant percentage of the type of people who come looking for a cookbook will recognize and say to themselves - "Wait a minute! I never knew these questions existed but I see why they are important!" And those are the ones that it would be good to be prepared for with some initial guidance about what to expect and why they need to expect it.


    As for those of us who do see and understand the issues, we too need the kind of community you're talking about - with practical advice for those of us who do see the deeper issues on how to dig ourselves out of those weeds regularly enough that we don't get overcome by the work required for the larger tasks.

  • Regarding "cookbooks," I have mixed feelings. I completely agree that there is no one size fits all formula for "how to be an Epicurean." On the individual level I think it can be helpful to have one's own personal go-to "recipes" but there's a danger in mindlessly following them. They can only be one part of the "navigating system" (to mix metaphors).


    For my personal context I've come to EP on the verge of a life transition and after several decades of ignoring and/or suppressing pain and pleasure. So this has me 1) re-examining priorities and 2) trying to reawaken to pain and pleasure. I may be unique in this but I would guess that from time to time just about everyone does this to some degree. Also, I was raised as a Presbyterian but long ago left that. I've always lived in the western US so my perspective on religion (and many other things lol) is far removed from what I understand of the South. I get great joy in realizing the folly of gods and idealism but I particularly appreciate that Epicurus came up with an integrated approach to point out that folly and to live a complete life based on this and other observed facts.

  • Just some general thoughts on the topic. An interesting one! Thanks for getting this thread going, Cassius and Godfrey.

    I see what you mean by one size not fitting all, but it seems to me that Epicurus and classical Epicureans were apparently big into supplying epitomes and summaries, both large and small (They were also fans of multi-volume behemoths), for ease in memorizing and really embedding the doctrines in one's mind for easy retrieval in any situation. So the idea of "cookbooks" within the philosophy has a fine pedigree.

    What's *in* those "cookbooks" is a whole other on-going conversation :)

    As for PD10 and the Letter to Menoikos, we've had an in-depth discussion on that over in that thread on the forum. I've never seen a contradiction between those two. My take is as follows:

    1. Pleasure is pleasure.

    2. All pleasures are good.

    3. BUT. we choose and reject pleasures with an eye to their consequences.

    4. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a drink, sex, etc., See 1.

    5. BUT the "profligate" try to overindulge those pleasures... Filling the cup after it's already full.

    6. Thus leading to pain. See 3.

    7. We don't judge the profligates' pleasure but we are within bounds to critique their choices and rejections if they're objectively resulting in pain in their lives.

    8. Epicurus offers a way out of those unwise choices and rejections of the profligate.

    I don't want to hijack this thread into a PD10 discussion but felt it was ok to weigh in since it came up.

    Looking forward to seeing where this thread goes.

  • Good comments Eugenios. As I was reading them i was thinking you're right: What's IN the cookbook is the issue!


    Because even though I think you feel you shifted your answer from cookbooking to PD10, as for me, I really consider the latter part of your post to be the fundamental start of any cookbook.


    Isn't a cookbook supposed to be about making appetizing food, and not just anything that's edible?


    I feel the same issues of "lumpiness" in our food over and over, as illustrated by a couple of word choices:


    (1) In item three, the "BUT." I explain it the same way, but why is our description so focused on "buts" which imply that what we have said before is not clear. Why is it not clear enough to say "choose pleasure and avoid pain" without having to emphasize the BUT DON'T choose unwisely (or some variation). We end up looking like the "wisdom" is the end goal rather than the pleasure, and we end up sounding sometimes like we are talking to stubborn children. Is it really necessary, once we say that pleasure is the good, to have to harp on the fact that some pleasures are going to come at a cost that is not worth that pleasure? (To repeat, I am not complaining about your formulation, I am complaining about our not being in a position to have this more easily understood).


    And that leads to:


    (2) Your item 6 ("thus leading to pain")

    This is another part of the "rhetoric" issue we face. The act of being alive "leads to pain" so we cannot expect to pursue many of the pleasures we value most without some cost in pain. So the continuing underlying issue is HOW we stack the pleasure up against the pain and decide how much pain is worthwhile. Pretty clearly it is incorrect to focus entirely on duration/time, although that is certainly something to consider. I am thinking the problem is in our inability to articulate fully the "intensity" issue (or whatever word we want to use) is a large part of the problem. I think most people understand the "long term vs short term" issue, or at least they can grasp it as soon as they think about it, and they can see that duration/time is not a sufficient analysis. Possibly the issue of "dying for a friend" may be one of the best ways to express that some pleasures are worth pursuing even if they are achievable only briefly and at great cost in pain, and some pains are worth avoiding due to their intensity even by death which (if avoided) might buy us quite a long period of time.


    Both of these comments are intended to focus on the issue that the cookbook, or the presentation, or whatever we do to set and manage expectations needs to be able to convey the issues involved and point the way to how the resolution is both individual according to context but also has a great degree of regularity given our nature as humans and the functioning of our faculty of pleasure and pain.


    My general criticism is that cookbooks that focus too much on food and wine and other specific pleasures don't communicate these underlying issues that are of pretty much supreme importance, but at the same time, it is also true that cookbooks that are nothing but general analysis are of little help unless they have specific examples of the kinds of decisions that are best to make in particular contexts.



    Edit 1: By no means do I intend to criticize Epicurus by saying this, but if we had a longer version of the letter to Menoeceus, which included specific examples of applications of his statements vs only the very high-level statements of principles that are included, we might have been able to avoid many misunderstandings about what he meant. I am sure Epicurus probably gave those specific examples in "On Nature" and other books, and that is why Lucretius seems to almost drown us in detail. So I guess that is why I think it's essential to combine the study of the letter to Menoeceus with Lucretius in order to give life and body to the high-level summary in the letter.

  • Thanks for the comments, Cassius . And I don't see any major differences of opinion here :)

    On the cookbook idea, my favorite most inviting cookbooks include the following:

    - Step by step directions of recipes

    - Nice full color pictures to show you what the dish is supposed to look like

    - Interesting prose interspersed to share background of the dishes, cultural history, or personal experiences of where the dishes came from.

    A cookbook that can be browsed, simply read for enjoyment, and used in the kitchen is a winner in my book (pun intended)

    Now, how this translates into an "Epicurean Cookbook for Life" is another conversation. Hmm...

    - Summaries of philosophy in bite sized chunks (recipes)?

    - Artwork that exemplifies Epicurean tenets?

    - Short background readings of biographies, real-like applications of EP, the Tetrapharmakos, etc.

    Just off the top of my head here.

  • I think that one ingredient that needs to be in the cookbook is:


    ...The feelings are two, pleasure and pain...

    ...they would be filling themselves full, with pleasures from every source, and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.

    ..sober reasoning, searching out the cause of everything we accept or reject, and driving out opinions that cause the greatest trouble in the soul.


    DeWitt points out that the greatest pleasure is escaping from a near death experience and realizing the joy of being alive. Taking this to a more prosaic level I think it, and the above italics, emphasize that we're leaving out the pepper if we focus solely on pleasure and the potential pains arising from overindulgence. We also need to address pain, as Epicurus most notably did in remedying the fears of the gods and of death. Great pleasure comes from removing a pain.


    There are lots of everyday pains and fears that we all experience but which are unique to each of us. Many of these are mild and/or habituated and are misconstrued by the tranquilists as a neutral zone. Searching these out and examining their causes gives one the opportunity to remedy them, sometimes by removing the cause and sometimes through the application of a related pleasure.


    In other words, focusing on either feeling to the exclusion of the other leads to an unbalanced diet. I'm beginning to realize that if we understand and use the faculty (not sure that's the right word) of the feelings as a continual interplay between pain and pleasure then the apparent chasm between "absence of pain" and pursuing pleasure disappears. It's actually extremely practical advice for daily living.


    Sorry if I got off topic.... I'm just suggesting that one recipe in the cookbook might be for a person to explore what brings them pain as well as what brings them pleasure, and to taste test the interactions between the two.

  • I don't think that's off topic at all! By the way, well done here...

    Quote

    In other words, focusing on either feeling to the exclusion of the other leads to an unbalanced diet.

    I liked that! :)

    It's always struck me that Epicureanism is a philosophy of personal responsibility. You are responsible for your choices and rejections. You are responsible for assessing the consequences of those actions. You are responsible for deciding what gives you pleasure and what gives you pain without harming others or letting them harm you. And so on. It's not an easy path but is one that provides for a lot of variation. We're not going to proscribe how to live your life. We can provide a framework and foundation around which you can build a life.

  • (1) In item three, the "BUT." I explain it the same way, but why is our description so focused on "buts" which imply that what we have said before is not clear. Why is it not clear enough to say "choose pleasure and avoid pain" without having to emphasize the BUT DON'T choose unwisely (or some variation). We end up looking like the "wisdom" is the end goal rather than the pleasure, and we end up sounding sometimes like we are talking to stubborn children. Is it really necessary, once we say that pleasure is the good, to have to harp on the fact that some pleasures are going to come at a cost that is not worth that pleasure? (To repeat, I am not complaining about your formulation, I am complaining about our not being in a position to have this more easily understood).

    I hear you. It would be nice to put that more positively or integrated instead of X... BUT Y... It looks like we're hedging our bets or something.

    I must admit that I think I'm liking DeWitt's contention that the summum bonum of Epicureanism is life itself and that the telos/goal is pleasure. I'm still wrapping my brain around that idea but feel that I like it.. I think. Maybe that's a way to go? Maybe we're starting too far along the path so we have to use the BUTs...

    Quote

    (2) Your item 6 ("thus leading to pain")

    This is another part of the "rhetoric" issue we face. The act of being alive "leads to pain" so we cannot expect to pursue many of the pleasures we value most without some cost in pain. So the continuing underlying issue is HOW we stack the pleasure up against the pain and decide how much pain is worthwhile.

    Excellent point! The "HOW" could lead to those "recipes". I've also seen the HOW as exemplified by the Principle Doctrines and other list type epitomes. The problem is there is no one HOW for everyone but (AH! There's that BUT!) we can provide principles you can apply to your life.

  • I agree with everything written above, and especially with Eugenios that Godfrey's comment is not off topic. Yes we need to be referring to both and "pleasure and pain" can be a little unwieldy and may not be exactly the right term. Clearly "pain" deserves respect as guidance from Nature too. To some extent that is why I find myself referring to "feeling" more so than pleasure or pain sometimes. I gather that the Greek word used to describe the two is some form of "pathe" and I also see (and commented somewhere recently) that Bailey uses the term "internal sensations." It would probably help to do some kind of study on what it is we are really talking about in this "faculty," because "feeling" is close but may not be precisely the right term.


    I think the place to start there would be Diogenes Laertius when he says "the feelings are two" and I think there is a reference in the letter to Herodotus where the same word is apparently used.

  • I think the place to start there would be Diogenes Laertius when he says "the feelings are two" and I think there is a reference in the letter to Herodotus where the same word is apparently used.

    You know me, doesn't take much to get me to look something like that up :)


    Πάθη δὲ λέγουσιν εἶναι δύο "and they say the Πάθη are two."


    Here's the link to the Greek Word Study Tool for that word at the Perseus Digital Library. There's also this from Wiktionary.


    I find it interesting that "what happens" seems to be a common definition:

    • (in neutral sense) what is done or what happens to a person
    • (in negative sense) suffering, misfortune

    I did find this page on Google Books that discusses pathe and includes a snippet about Epicurus and the Stoics.

    This is definitely one of those instances that the connotations of the word don't necessarily map well - one-to-one - with English.

  • From what I can see, all those "feelings" are translating πάθη pathe (citations are to Diogenes Laertius sections in Chapt. X of Lives):

  • Thank you Eugenios! I have been wanting to investigate this further for a while but not made much headway. It seems like a pretty important subject to me to clarify what is being discussed. Maybe we should split this off into a different thread or start one soon if we are able to find more on this.

  • If Bailey's "internal sensations" is referring to the same subject, then maybe what we're missing is a word or terminology that ties pleasure and pain more tightly to some kind of "internal natural guidance system" that does in fact stand shoulder to shoulder as an equivalent with "divine inspiration" or "logic" as a concept in the fight to determine what is the proper goal of life. As it is, when we talk of "pleasure" the connotation is so tightly tied to "chocolate cake" and the like that it is hard to see the forest for the trees. When we explain to people that "pleasure and pain" are the guides to life, it would be nice to have an articulate way to explain to them that Epicurus was not meaning to list PARTICULAR pleasures or pains, but was referring to the overall mechanism given to us by nature to fulfill that guidance role.


    It seems hugely important to me to be able to start with the observation that Diogenes Laertius made that "the feelings are two - pleasure and pain" in order to explain the whole issue of absence of neutral states, limits of pleasure, and especially how the presence of one equals in quantity the absence of the other.


    I bet that the ambiguity that we experience in the term "feeling" would almost without a doubt have been addressed and explained by Epicurus if we had more of the texts. On that same point, my bet is also that certain aspects of this, like with the issue of "preconceptions" are buried unrecognized in plain view in front of us in Lucretius - we just fail to recognize it.

  • (Aside: At the moment I think I am going to let this thread run without splitting off the detailed discussion of Feelings/Pathe since I do think this is directly related to the question at hand: the best way to manage expectations surely includes an accurate explanation of the role of pleasure/pain and the goal/guide of life.) However if at any point someone feels otherwise let me know and I can easily divide up the thread.)

  • If Bailey's "internal sensations" is referring to the same subject, then maybe what we're missing is a word or terminology that ties pleasure and pain more tightly to some kind of "internal natural guidance system" that does in fact stand shoulder to shoulder as an equivalent with "divine inspiration" or "logic" as a concept in the fight to determine what is the proper goal of life. As it is, when we talk of "pleasure" the connotation is so tightly tied to "chocolate cake" and the like that it is hard to see the forest for the trees. When we explain to people that "pleasure and pain" are the guides to life, it would be nice to have an articulate way to explain to them that Epicurus was not meaning to list PARTICULAR pleasures or pains, but was referring to the overall mechanism given to us by nature to fulfill that guidance role.


    It seems hugely important to me to be able to start with the observation that Diogenes Laertius made that "the feelings are two - pleasure and pain" in order to explain the whole issue of absence of neutral states, limits of pleasure, and especially how the presence of one equals in quantity the absence of the other.


    I bet that the ambiguity that we experience in the term "feeling" would almost without a doubt have been addressed and explained by Epicurus if we had more of the texts. On that same point, my bet is also that certain aspects of this, like with the issue of "preconceptions" are buried unrecognized in plain view in front of us in Lucretius - we just fail to recognize it.

    If you're referring to your first clip as Bailey and "internal sensations", yes, that's the same pathē.

    I think you're onto something. Maximizing Pleasure is the goal, but we use both pathē to make our choices and rejections (okay, avoidances, but I dislike that translation). One feeling without the other as part of the Canon is like trying to ride a bicycle with one wheel.


    This abstract I found online I found interesting:


    Quote

    In the first chapter, which is new to this edition, Konstan calls on psychology to flesh out the Epicurean understanding of empty fears and irrational desires—ancient psychology, that is: a science of the soul. Konstan’s reading of the relation between sensation (aisthēseis), the passions (pathē) of pleasure and pain, and belief (doxa) in Epicurean doctrine is unorthodox but thorough. Rather than mapping pathē onto either the soul as a whole or the body, Konstan assigns pathē to the non-rational part of the soul, the seat of sensation. He locates the emotions, which “do not seem to have a special name in Epicurean theory,” in the rational part (11). Crucial to this schema is Konstan’s claim, based on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and Diogenes Laertius’s doxography of Epicurus, that Epicureans did not consider emotions such as fear and joy to be pathē at all, since emotions depend on memory and reasoning, whereas pathē do not. The upshot is that fear, as a rational emotion, involves belief and evaluation, and is therefore susceptible to error; whence the psychological roots of pernicious “empty beliefs.”

    This is possible direction to talk of unifying the pathē into one description.

  • 1 - Oh yes that IS extremely interesting and a promising path.


    2 - I had forgotten about the word "passions" but yes - I like to use words that appear to derive from the same root so that is one to remember, even though the modern associations will need clarification.


    3 - I want to read that article.....

  • You have quoted the critical part Eugenios and it immediately jumps out why the pathe are part of the canon of truth - they are analogous to sensations and function "automatically" such as not to be considered subject to error:


    Rather than mapping pathē onto either the soul as a whole or the body, Konstan assigns pathē to the non-rational part of the soul, the seat of sensation. He locates the emotions, which “do not seem to have a special name in Epicurean theory,” in the rational part (11). Crucial to this schema is Konstan’s claim, based on Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and Diogenes Laertius’s doxography of Epicurus, that Epicureans did not consider emotions such as fear and joy to be pathē at all, since emotions depend on memory and reasoning, whereas pathē do not. The upshot is that fear, as a rational emotion, involves belief and evaluation, and is therefore susceptible to error; whence the psychological roots of pernicious “empty beliefs ....


    --and to emphasize the point that last sentence should say something to the effect "while the pathe do not involve evaluation, and thus, like the senses, are direct contacts with human reality to be considered as truly reported at all times."



    In this analysis it is extremely useful to see that "emotions depend on memory and reasoning, whereas pathē do not."


    VERY good direction I think!!