Comment at the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group On Pleasure As The Highest Good

  • I don't encourage anyone who is not currently using Facebook to use it, and I am gradually but progressively cutting back on using it myself. I mainly use it for "recruitment" to come into contact with people I never would otherwise, so I do monitor and help with moderating the page. As long as I have time I'll probably continue to do that, just like I encourage people, if they desire, to participate in Reddit or other forums where they might meet like-minded people who would be good to get to know. I consider this Epicureanfriends.com forum to be the place where I post everything of significance where I want to be sure that it is preserved and seen and discussed by like-minded people, but that doesn't mean we should ignore other places where we can find good people.


    Today I posted this at Facebook, which I think is a useful reminder here at Epicureanfriends too:




    Seems to me that it is time for a periodic reminder to current participants and applicants to the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group: At the top of our group page we have the slogan traditionally attested to have been the "motto" of the original school of Epicurus in Athens - "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry, here our highest good is PLEASURE." (emphasis added)


    In other places around the internet you will encounter people who talk as if Epicurus held "painlessness" or "tranquility" or "stillness" to be the highest good, as if they know better than Epicurus what he "should" have said. This Facebook page is devoted to a classical interpretation that takes Epicurus at his word, and incorporates within his system all his statements about tranquility and absence of pain in a way that gives full effect to everything he said, without rewriting Epicurus to suit modern neo-Stoic idealism about the nature of virtue and pleasure.


    The moderators maintain this group with that classical Epicurean view in mind. We welcome and encourage you to submit posts and participate in threads with the goal of pleasure in view. We are mindful that there are many who disagree with the "pleasure" emphasis, and we moderate the group to ensure that those of us who wish to associate with the classical view have a place here where we can do so with like-minded people. If you are firmly of the view that the word "painlessness" represents the ideal that you wish to be associated with in studying Epicurus, then you will find many other places on the internet and at Facebook where your arguments will be welcomed. We ask that you respect our goals within this group and post those arguments elsewhere.


    Citations convince no one who has their mind made up on this subject, but for those who are new to the group or to Epicurean Philosophy, here are several of the most clear statements in the ancient Epicurean texts on this issue:


    (1) Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus:


    And for this cause we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.


    (2) Torquatus in Cicero's On Ends:


    I will start then in the manner approved by the author of the system himself, by settling what are the essence and qualities of the thing that is the object of our inquiry; not that I suppose you to be ignorant of it, but because this is the logical method of procedure. We are inquiring, then, what is the final and ultimate Good, which as all philosophers are agreed must be of such a nature as to be the End to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else. This Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the Chief Good, pain the Chief Evil. This he sets out to prove as follows: Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature's own unbiased and honest verdict.


    ...


    The truth of the position that pleasure is the ultimate good will most readily appear from the following illustration. Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind, undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain: what possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable? One so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is proof against all fear of death or of pain; he will know that death means complete unconsciousness, and that pain is generally light if long and short if strong, so that its intensity is compensated by brief duration and its continuance by diminishing severity. Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power; let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement.


    (3) Diogenes of Oinoanda, Fragment 32


    If, gentlemen, the point at issue between these people and us involved inquiry into "What is the means of happiness?" and they wanted to say "the virtues" (which would actually be true), it would be unnecessary to take any other step than to agree with them about this, without more ado. But since, as I say, the issue is not "what is the means of happiness?" but "What is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?", I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end. Let us therefore now state that this is true, making it our starting-point.


    ---------


    It's one of the purposes of this group to meet new people with whom to share our views, so these topics will always be welcome issues for discussion as we go forward. But as a result of our openness to meeting new people, you'll sometimes see debate about these issues from those who hold opposing positions, so please be careful to be sure you work to understand what you read. We'll appreciate your help and comments in moderating the group to keep the argument under control, and we ask your understanding that this group isn't a general philosophy forum where debate for the sake of debate, and argument for the sake of argument, is appropriate.


    Note: I am only one of the moderators of the group, and I write here only from my own perspective about our goals and moderating guidelines. Please consult the "About" page and the opening post from Elli for a full statement of our long-standing guidelines.

  • Here's a response worth preserving, and my response to that:


    AT:

    I do hope we can calm down those people who keep telling us that epicureans somehow prioritise short-term pleasure over long-term pleasure. I believe that deeply embedded in Epicurus’ thinking is the assumption that pleasure should be measured over an entire lifetime. Therefore anything that generates pleasure now while building up pain later is not a rational choice.


    Cassius:


    Andy thanks for the comment. I do think your first sentence is spot on, but I am afraid we can't count on "calming down" many of those outside the group - we seem to live in a sea of people who either (1) see Epicureans as "hedonists" in the common derogatory meaning of that word, or (2) see Epicureans as proto-stoics who prize "tranquility" above pleasure. It's going to be a constant struggle to point back to the texts and point out that Epicurus held clarity to be of prime importance, so that when he used the word "pleasure" he didn't actually mean "comatose." But the "struggle" is definitely worth it as this is the kind of philosophic exchange which can be both enjoyable and productive at the same time.


    Interestingly enough on your second and third sentences, I used to say exactly the same thing myself, but I am no longer thinking that "an entire lifetime" is really the precise point, unless you qualify that "entire lifetime" might be very short. It's hard to escape that conclusion due this very clear statement in the letter to Menoeceus: "(But the wise man neither seeks to escape life) nor fears the cessation of life, for neither does life offend him nor does the absence of life seem to be any evil. ***And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.***


    I think that second sentence rules out a flat preference for "length of time of pleasure" as overruling all other factors. Epicurus was pretty precise that "the most pleasant" is the way to weigh the question, rather than the longest period of time. And I think we can see the logical basis of the point if we think about it. If we consider anything that is "outside of pleasure itself, such as "noble pleasures" or "virtuous pleasures" or "longest pleasures" then we logically put ourselves in the position of needing to understand the nature of "nobility" or "virtue" or "time" and that is going to require wisdom or knowledge of those other factors in addition to pleasure.


    That's the logical trap set by Plato in the Philebus which you can find by reading that dialogue. Once you admit that there is a standard by which to measure pleasure that is different from pleasure itself, you box yourself in (logically, that is) to admitting that this other factor is as important as is pleasure. Once you admit that this other factor is "as important" then Plato will show you, logically again, that what you really need is knowledge of this mystical art of judging, more so than pleasure itself.


    So from a practical point of view, definitely all of us judging our own lives are going to consider how long our future pleasures will last, and how long our future pains will last, and consider that in making our judgments. But one of the reasons we are here, and one of the main ways we end up understanding Epicurus and being able to fight off the attacks of those who elevate virtue or something else to the role of "ultimate good," is to study what Epicurus was saying and see that he was both practical and an expert at logical argument.

    And what he was saying is clear: the ultimate good cannot be defined "universally" in more detail that "Pleasure." It's up to each of us in our own lives to come to terms with what that means to us, and apply it accordingly. That might mean choosing to live very simply and live so as to savor every last drop of a 100+ year life. Or it might mean, if we are so inclined at age 25, to strap a rocket to our back and fly to Mars so as to experience the delight of that experience, even if we know that the price will be we'll be dead in a year.


    There's no way "logically" to make that decision as a universal for everyone. Nature does do it for us; nature leaves it up to us to do it. Everyone has their own personality and their own judgment about these things, and that's why I think Epicurus phrased things the way he did, and that's why this sentence and the others quoted above are very precise and do not provide a qualifier to the word "pleasure":


    "We are inquiring, then, what is the final and ultimate Good, which as all philosophers are agreed must be of such a nature as to be the End to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else. This Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the Chief Good, pain the Chief Evil. "

  • Fragment 116 says, and according to Attalus's Usener website, from Plutarch:

    Quote

    Plutarch, Against Colotes, 17, p. 1117A: Such is ... the man who, in in the letter to Anaxarchus can pen such words as these: "But I, for my part, summon you to sustained pleasures and not to empty virtues, which fill us with vain expectations that destroy peace of mind."

    The pleasures Epicurus calls us to are ἡδονὰς συνεχεῖς hedonas sunekheis "constant, continuous, sustained." So I don't think this refers to length of time, but he is calling us to make decisions that lead to one pleasure after another and pleasures or pains that lead to pleasure "down the line" even if not in this present moment. I still maintain this kind of terminology refers to long-term pleasure as opposed to the longest time. I've had this discussion elsewhere on the forum.

  • I agree with you I think Don, and I do see a distinction between long-term and longest time.


    I also think that there is a possibility that this phrasing may be another targeted argument against Plato, and you'll recall that DeWitt discusses this as a point of contention, that Plato had argued that another reason that pleasure could not constitute the goal is that it is not always present (not continuous being the implication):


    This first is from page 66






    So while I agree with you again that there's a logical distinction between long-term vs longest, and duration of pleasure is certainly a legitimate consideration, I think this one may be parallel in nature to "absence of pain" - it may need to be "compartmentalized" as a logical rejoinder to an anti-Pleasure argument from Plato and the usual suspects, and as a result handled carefully outside that context, so as not to overstretch its application.


    I am glad you posted that because otherwise I would not have gone back and looked up these sections in DeWitt, which I remembered only vaguely.


    I think I am only now after 10+ years realizing the significance of some of these sections from DeWitt, and after our discussions here and in the Lucretius podcast. I read the words here, and I thought I understood them the first time, but it's really beginning to sink in to me how DeWitt is pointing out that Epicurus was both the ultimate pragmatist, and disdainful of dialectical logic, but also at the same time he responded directly to Plato in logical terms, playing Plato's own game. I think this explains some of the difference in interpretation that I still have in discussing these things with some other people. I am going to have to be more careful to both point out the inadequacies of "logic" while at the same time point how how Epicurus uses "logic" himself, as carefully as any of the Stoics or Platonists did -- just like DeWitt observed.


    And ultimately that's my best argument against the "absence of pain passages" - that they are logical points being made in the context of refuting the anti-Platonic arguments, but were never intended to represent the full picture of the nature of pleasure any more than geometry or map-making can represent true reality - they are useful for discussing aspects of reality but they aren't reality themselves. So it may be that the "continuity" issue fits in the same category.

  • As far as Epicurus going back and forth, sometimes using logical arguments focused primarily on refuting Plato and the logical arguments of others, vs sometimes focused more practical through the use of real-life examples, this passage from the Biography by Diogenes Laertius may be relevant:


    Quote

    The internal sensations they say are two, pleasure and pain, which occur to every living creature, and the one is akin to nature and the other alien: by means of these two choice and avoidance are determined. Of investigations some concern actual things, others mere words. This is a brief summary of the division of their philosophy and their views on the criterion of truth.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Comment at the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group” to “Comment at the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group On Pleasure As The Highest Good”.
  • I'm putting this here as a placeholder, because I'm unclear on what that portion that you underlined actually means. Not just here as you posted, but recently as I've been re-reading DL. I want to dig into the text and get clear what it actually means:

    Quote

    τῶν τε ζητήσεων εἶναι τὰς μὲν περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων, τὰς δὲ περὶ ψιλὴν τὴν φωνήν.

  • In DL X.34, Diogenes describes two kind of inquiry or investigation (ζήτησις "zētēsis") carried out by the Epicureans:

    Quote

    "there are two kinds of inquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words."

    This translation seemed unsatisfactory to me, so I wanted to delve a little deeper into the original text. However, it appears a note to the text references section 37, which does shed light on the latter part of the sentence in 34:

    Quote

    DL X .37: "In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote, in order that by reference to this we may be in a position to test opinions, inquiries, or problems, so that our proofs may not run on untested ad infinitum, nor the terms we use be empty of meaning. [38] For the primary signification of every term employed must be clearly seen, and ought to need no proving; this being necessary, if we are to have something to which the point at issue or the problem or the opinion before us can be referred."

    So it appears the investigation into 'nothing but words" refers to an investigation into the clear meaning of the language used in any inquiry. This also appears to be borne out by the original text. The first kind of investigation is "concerning pragmata" τὰς περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων.

    πραγμάτων (pragmatōn) is the genitive plural of πρᾶγμα (pragma) and means:

    - deed, act, fact

    - occurance, matter, affair

    - thing, concrete reality

    - thing, creature

    - thing of consequence or importance

    - (in the plural) circumstances, affairs

    - (in the plural, in bad sense) trouble, annoyance


    So, it would appear the first kind of inquiry is of "things" in concrete reality. We're looking at existence, things as they exist. This could also be investigations into deeds, acts, I.e., the why and how things happen possibly..


    The second kind of investigation is concerning "nothing but words" τὰς περὶ ψιλὴν τὴν φωνήν. This makes it sound trivial, but section 37 gives this form of inquiry more gravitas. It's not "nothing but words" but it's an investigation into understanding the clear meaning of all words and language used to argue a point. This comes out clearer if we look at the definitions of the terms involved:


    τὰς περὶ ψιλὴν τὴν φωνήν

    ψιλὴν = psilēn

    (Note: this is the latter part of the names of the Greek letters u-psilon and e-psilon)

    accusative feminine singular of ψῑλός

    - naked, bare

    - bald, smooth

    - unclad, uncovered

    - small, frail, delicate

    - simple, plain

    - (military) light (troops)

    - unarmed

    - (of words) without meter (i.e. prose)

    - (poetry) without music (Epic vs Lyrical)

    - (singing) without music (a capella)

    - (music) without singing (instrumentals)

    - (grammar) without the rough breathing (i.e. with the smooth breathing)

    - (grammar) describing the unaspirated voiceless stops, π (p), τ (t), κ (k), as opposed to the aspirated voiceless stops, φ (ph), χ (kh), θ (th)


    φωνήν = phōnēn

    accusative singular of φωνή (phōnē, e.g., English telephone)

    - sound

    - Usually of the human voice: voice, cry, yell

    - The voice or cry of animals

    - Any articulate sound (especially vowels)

    - speech, discourse

    - language


    So, I would offer that the second kind of investigation is concerned with plain language, unadorned speech, no flowery discourse. Say what you mean, know what you're saying, and make your point.

  • I think that's a very useful dive into the meaning of that section, but I do think there will remain an important distinction between the realities of things, which we detect through the senses, and our opinions about them, which can only be expressed through words, and which will always include the possibility of error mixed in to those opinions. Otherwise there would be little need to have made the point, since he had already in section 37 made the point about the importance of clarity.


    Because in the end what is the implication of the distinction? I'm not sure what the answer to that question would be, but maybe the most obvious possibility is that inquiries about things can be settled through reference to the things themselves, but that inquiries about words are always ultimately matters of convention and opinion, wherein again error can take place. (it occurs to me to ask, "There are errors other than lack of clarity, correct?")

  • Quote from Cassius

    I think that's a very useful dive into the meaning of that section, but I do think there will remain an important distinction between the realities of things, which we detect through the senses, and our opinions about them, which can only be expressed through words, and which will always include the possibility of error mixed in to those opinions. Otherwise there would be little need to have made the point, since he had already in section 37 made the point about the importance of clarity.

    It's important to remember that section 34 is Diogenes's commentary about the Epicureans, and 37 is Epicurus himself writing to Herodotus. So, when you say "he had already ... made the point..." that's not the case. Epicurus is making the point about clarity of language in 37 for the first time here.

    A *VERY* (almost painfully) literal translation of Diogenes's commentary in 34 is:

    Quote

    τῶν τε ζητήσεων εἶναι τὰς μὲν περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων, τὰς δὲ περὶ ψιλὴν τὴν φωνήν.

    And of inquiries (there) are, on the one hand, those concerning of concrete things; on the other hand, those concerning simple language.

    (Note that the second is singular, so I am inclined to translate it singular as in language, speech, and not plural as in words.)

    There two are listed using μεν...δε.... That's where the "on the one hand... On the other" come in. This is a very common feature of Ancient Greek. If you want to dive a little deeper, here's a good intro to that online.

    My conjecture is that Diogenes is setting up a dichotomy of inquiries where Epicurus saw a means to an end. It wasn't inquiries about words, it was inquiries using simple, direct language. The only inquiries about words would be to establish the clear meaning of words so works could be easily understood and not "run on ... ad infinitum." The only way we are going to transmit the truth of our canonical observations and the truth about the nature of things (atoms, void, etc.) is to through the clearest, simplest language possible. Epicurus is saying we don't use flowery rhetoric or poetry (Sorry, Lucretius) because there's a chance the results of our inquiries would not be understood.

  • The only inquiries about words would be to establish the clear meaning of words so works could be easily understood and not "run on ... ad infinitum."

    I do think that is a significant part of the issue, especially as to poetry and other flowery and overly-complicated language. But I also am concerned about taking that too far as the full point. I think in that direction lies issues involved with the "present impressions of the mind," and concepts vs preconcepts, and whether there are four legs of the canon rather than just three.


    Best way I can think to state my concern at the moment is that I think Epicurus was thinking that all communication through words is inherently limited and fall short of reality, just like math and geometry are inherently limited in what they can do. I believe that this position is one of the most important in the philosophy as providing the antidote to rationalism. No matter how clear we try to make our words or our theorems they will always fall short of reality.


    Edit: For what it's worth I decided to see what wikipedia says about "rationalism":


    In philosophy, rationalism is the epistemological view that "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge"[1] or "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification".[2] More formally, rationalism is defined as a methodology or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive".[3]


    In an old controversy, rationalism was opposed to empiricism, where the rationalists believed that reality has an intrinsically logical structure. Because of this, the rationalists argued that certain truths exist and that the intellect can directly grasp these truths. That is to say, rationalists asserted that certain rational principles exist in logic, mathematics, ethics, and metaphysics that are so fundamentally true that denying them causes one to fall into contradiction. The rationalists had such a high confidence in reason that empirical proof and physical evidence were regarded as unnecessary to ascertain certain truths – in other words, "there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience".[4]


    Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position "that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge" to the more extreme position that reason is "the unique path to knowledge".[5]

  • Quote

    I think Epicurus was thinking that all communication through words is inherently limited and fall short of reality, just like math and geometry are inherently limited in what they can do. I believe that this position is one of the most important in the philosophy as providing the antidote to rationalism. No matter how clear we try to make our words or our theorems they will always fall short of reality.

    I'm open-minded here, but what leads you to think this? I agree that we experience reality subjectively, but the only medium we have to communicate anything is through shared language. If Epicurus had the realizations he did and only experienced it for himself but didn't use language to communicate it, we wouldn't be discussing any of this.

    Now, I will admit that we can communicate with "body language" - a comforting hug, a stern look - and that is immediate if the cultural context is shared. But that can't convey complex ideas from my head to yours. We have to use language, and Epicurus is advocating using the most simple, direct language to accomplish this to cut down the possibility of misunderstanding. Now, we have to interpret his words because we neither live in his cultural context nor speak Ancient Greek as a first language.

    I would contend that rationalism makes use of rhetoric and flowery speech to obfuscate reality. Epicurus advocates direct language to uncover and convey reality as it exists. That's still a blow against elevating rationalism but he can't argue against rationalism unless he sets the parameters of what kind of language to use.

  • "We have to use language, and Epicurus is advocating using the most simple, direct language to accomplish this to cut down the possibility of misunderstanding."


    That is certainly true, and so therefore Epicurus must have agreed with it.


    But that does not mean that words, no matter how precisely defined, can ever be the equivalent of the thing itself, or reveal it in all its dimensions. That limitation also seems true from a non-supernatural atomist perspective, but the rationalism of Plato and others seems to elevate words into something more - like the Logos of Christianity. (In the beginning was the word.....)


    As per the implication of the Wikipedia excerpt, it would appear that Epicurus held that such a view of the nature of words and concepts is incorrect and that words are purely matters of convention.


    I think there is a close parallel Herr between words and math and geometry, both of which too Epicurus would have used while also remembering their limitations.

  • Don absolutely I am with you on stressing of clarity as critical to Epicurus, I am just saying that no amount of clarity can convert words into something they are not - into real things which can reach the same status of reality as the canonical faculties.


    But that is just what advocates of a fourth leg of the canon concluded, as per Diogenes Laertius. Dewitt writes, and I agree, that this was a mistake - I think a huge one.

  • This is one of several references in DeWitt to this issue, and it seems to me that DeWitt's reasoning is highly persuasive:


  • Oh, now I like your explicit statement that words and by extension language itself is a convention. Just like other cultural phenomena, e.g., a group of people make contracts to not harm nor to be harmed... Likewise language evolves in a particular context to facilitate co-existence among people.

    I also agree with your last paragraph. So, I don't think we basically disagree. I just don't want to stretch this farther than it needs to be.

    My take is that this is saying language is a socially-evolved tool for understanding and communicating reality just like math or geometry. As such, we don't want to hide reality behind complex arguments in any of those spheres, but be as direct as possible. I will say that I could see this being used as an argument for so-called elegant solutions to math and science problems. Using the least amount of argument to explain the most widely applicable solutions.

  • So this is where I got my reference to the "mere words" passage -- I had forgotten DeWitt said this: