Can Emotions be Trusted?

  • Epicureanism is unique among classical schools of philosophy in its regard for emotions as a source of guidance and wisdom, even over reason. Form DeWitt, pg. 23, we have:


    “...two opposing interpretations of the phrase “living according to Nature.” To the Stoics, who hitched their wagon to Plato’s star, it signified the imitation of the inflexible celestial order by a rigid unemotional morality. To Epicurus and the Epicureans, “living according to Nature,” though they never made a slogan of it, signifies living according to the laws of our being. Of this being the emotions were recognized as a normal and integral part, undeserving of suspicion or distrust.”


    I’m struggling with the idea that emotions can be trusted as a clear guide towards what will confer the greatest pleasure/happiness. It seems to me we have all learned that we must use reason to overcome emotions constantly in order to avoid negative repercussions. There are so many instances of emotions that should not inform behaviour or decision-making, that I can hardly think of any that can be trusted. Our natural instincts are generally pretty dreadful, as evidenced by the mistakes of our youth! Think of the most emotional people you know. Are they also the happiest? Surely not.


    My question is when, and in what sense, can our natural emotions ever be trusted as a guide for behaviour?

  • Darn. How do I do insert an image?

    And then how do I delete this after typing the quote in instead? 🤔

  • I am *SO* glad you started this thread. I've been meaning to address this too.

    I'm slowly coming around to the following understanding which may or may not be shared by others on this forum.

    The problem is the English words "feeling" or "emotion." The connotation of this is that we "go with our gut." If using "our gut" is the only criteria, that's not what Epicurus meant. We also don't use happy, sad, angry, contempt, surprised, etc.

    The key term about the criteria in the original text from Diogenes Laertius's Lives (X.34), is pathē: "and they say the pathē are two: pleasure (hēdonēn) and pain (algēdona)." I've come to the understanding that a better translation would be "response" or "reaction" instead of "feeling" or "emotion". We can have two reactions - pleasure or pain - to all of our experiences. That reaction helps us make decisions to choose or reject a course of action. That reaction is not the only criteria of course. We need the evidence from our physical senses and our mental perceptions and prolepses.

    That's a brief summary of my understanding.

  • Darn. How do I do insert an image?

    And then how do I delete this after typing the quote in instead? 🤔

    I think you can only insert image from link issuing the "picture" icon in the second row. there's also the stack file option.

    You can also do a lot using the first icon on the top row with the "</>" that allows you to see the html.

  • With respect to what is pleasure and what is pain, we trust our emotions. This does not create trouble because with respect to the decision what action to take, we use reason overriding emotions to produce results which we expect to be pleasure which is worth the pain we incur during or as a side effect of the action.

    Anger is an emotion which I usually try to diffuse and will certainly override with reason when taking action. On occasion, anger may provide good motivation to take action, whereby the action is still decided upon by reason.

    Love for trusted friends is an emotion which may sometimes guide my actions with reasoning reduced to sanity checks.


    While drafting the paragraph, I did not notice Don's comment. But at first sight, there is no contradiction between his comment and mine.

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  • Quote from Martin

    With respect to what is pleasure and what is pain, we trust our emotions.

    The way that's worded, it sounds to me like you're adding another layer to the criteria of truth by saying "we trust our emotions." The reaction of pleasure and pain is precognitive. Our experience of pleasure or pain shouldn't be mediated by another layer of reason or anything else. The pathē are two. Period. Yes, we can take that initial "reaction" into account in our determination of what to choose and what to reject, but the pleasure or pain reaction is not meant to be second-guessed.

  • Thanks, Don - that makes WAY more sense: decisions based on emotional reactions rather than emotional impulses. I obviously balked at the way DeWitt put it. You can’t go by anticipated reaction either, until you have gained the wisdom of experience. So you could argue, the young are not good Epicureans, dispite their hedonism, because they lack experience in what will reliably and safely confer pleasure or pain.


    As you say, Martin, we use reason to make our best guesses until experience fills in the gap.

  • So you could argue, the young are not good Epicureans, dispute their hedonism, because they lack experience in what will reliably and safely confer pleasure or pain.

    And I think this is why Epicurus says in the Letter to Menoikeus that the one who is young can get the benefits of growing old by being fearless in looking ahead and weighing the consequences of their actions in the future, i.e., seeing themselves as being older.

  • By trusting our emotions I mean that we do not negate the precognitive reaction. In case of doubt what I mean, Don's more precise wording shall override what I wrote.

  • I will try your tips re inserting images, gentlemen. I actually did it once before, but that was on a laptop. It does not seem to be as straightforward on a cellphone.

  • Susan images should work basically the same way on both desktop or cell, so let us know if you still have problems. I don't know that I have tried on a cell phone so you may have run into something we need to look into.


    As to the merits, I think I am in agreement with most of what I have read here. I would analogize this to "trust your eyesight." You know that there are times that your vision is blurry or that there is fog or other reasons that can distort your vision, and require you to check and recheck over time what you are seeing. But sight, regardless, remains one of the canonical faculties and you "trust" it in the sense of "honestly reported" as by a witness in court, using DeWitt's analogy.


    I think exactly the same applies to feelings. I think Don's point about reactions is valid but ultimately the words that we understand and apply include feelings, emotions, etc. The main point is that like sight and hearing, feelings are honestly reported to us. They are what they are, and they are to be dealt with accordingly.


    Lot's of people advise us to be "in touch with our feelings" and that is a less revolutionary way to look at it but probably similar to what Epicurus was advising.


    Probably the main thing to keep in mind is that Epicurus never promises that the canonical faculties, even the five senses, are some automatic and magical gateway to "truth." The opinions we form from our senses are quite frequently wrong at first thought, and maybe even wrong over a lifetime. The same observation applies to feelings. The Canon does not guarantee us omnipotence or omniscience. it is simply and factually the only thing we have that is an "ultimate" faculty for us with which to discover truth. No one guarantees us that we will in fact discover "truths" about everything we'd like to know. The canonical faculties are what are real to us, but that doesn't mean that we are going to use them intelligently.


    Over time, and with experience and even training, emotional reactions can become much more accurate, at least for some people. Some people are even known to pay respects to the accuracy of something known as "a woman's intuition" about which I personally know nothing! ;-)

  • Thank you for your reply, Cassius. I see the little picture icon that allows for a web link to an image, but I can’t figure out how to upload an image from my phone.


    About feelings being our best guide to truth... Is it the philosophy that Nature actively created the pleasure/pain faculty in us to guide us towards wise action (implying a kind of providence), or would Epicurus have actually seen it as modern evolutionary theory would: a byproduct of natural selection?

  • I'd say byproduct of natural selection. Providence has too much the ring of the supernatural to me.

  • About feelings being our best guide to truth.

    Now wait, i did not say THAT did I? :-)


    That would probably be going too far. As I read what Epicurus was saying, they are one of the three legs of the canon of truth (and I say with DeWitt that Epicurus was right, and there are only three, not four). So it is important that they function together and one not be elevated as primary over the others, always keeping in mind too that "truth" is something that has to be carefully defined.



    philosophy that Nature actively created the pleasure/pain faculty in us to guide us towards wise action (implying a kind of providence), or would Epicurus have actually seen it as modern evolutionary theory would: a byproduct of natural selection?

    I go with DeWitt here and would say that it must be the latter -- that Nature did not "actively" or "intentionally" steer things in this direction for us. Nature as a whole has no consciousness or intent.


    However, if you'd like to add a layer of "mystery" to this to compensate for the lack of "intent" by nature, I think that similar "mind-blowing" implications can be found in the doctrines of eternality/infinity. I do not think that Epicurus would say that there was ever a "first" intelligent life -- yes a first intelligent life on Earth, for example, but not in the universe as a whole. The implication is that intelligent life, like the universe itself, would have existed eternally in time. (And this is not even considering the category of "gods.") if so, I think it is entirely possible in fact likely that there are and have been and will be instances of intelligent life spreading through the universe from location to location, as we are about to do to the Moon, Mars, and hopefully beyond.


    We always have to go on evidence rather than rank speculation, but I rule out nothing in that regard, and it's a pretty clear implication of the issues of isonomia and "nature never creates a single thing of a kind" which are noted in Lucretius and in the Epicurean part of Cicero's On The Nature of The Gods. But the main point is that I think we have to consider the implications of intelligent life being a category that has existed back infinitely in time, just like planets or star systems or other combinations of matter that we know, by the fact that they exist here, are possible.

  • Quote from Cassius

    As I read what Epicurus was saying, they are one of the three legs of the canon of truth (and I say with DeWitt that Epicurus was right, and there are only three, not four).

    Personally, I'm still not convinced that the prolepses and mental perceptions aren't the same "leg" of the Canon called by different names.

  • Yes that's possible Don, and maybe Diogenes Laertius was just confused. Or maybe you can examine that sentence and find a way that it doesnt add up to their being four.

  • Yes that's possible Don, and maybe Diogenes Laertius was just confused. Or maybe you can examine that sentence and find a way that it doesnt add up to their being four.

    Challenge accepted! ^^

  • Ha - be careful about how deep that challenge might lead. It is my understanding that most of the contemporary Epicureans in Greece are big fans of there being "Four" criteria of truth, so it may lead to an international conflict!


    Just today, in my messenger: