Epicurean philosophy vs. Stoicism in public popularity

  • While writing on another commentary, I tried to check for online boards focused on Stoicism. 10 years before they seemded to be much more elaborated as a community than the lone standing Epicureans. I think the degree of organisation and connecting has improved a lot since then and the content production has risen dramatically in Epicureanism. The website "NeoStoa" respectively "the stoic registry" is declining (though offering online courses with tuition). Nevertheless, people on facebook are still more adorned to Stoicism than to Epicurean philosophy. At first glance, they enjoy intensive discussions there.


    Do you have any idea, why the Stoics are still more popular than the Epicurean system of thought? My personal thesis is, that one point may be an easier applicability of Stoicism in the way of being a more abstract philosophy. You don't need to learn about the world as a whole and make your conclusions like in Epicureanism. There are lone standing "techniques", mutually intelligible with other popularized systems of thought like Zen Buddhism etc.


    I don't think there is necessarily a need for more audience - sometimes it may feel even more exclusive 8)


    What are your hypothesises and ideas? Did they start earlier spreading the internet or fit better in already existing structures? What are your observations?

  • fit better in already existing structures?

    I would say that is the key. I think Stoicism is actually the majority view of most "establishments" in the corporate and governmental and academic world, even if they don't admit it. The prevailing worldview in my eyes is some version of "virtue ethics" in which most existing institutions have their view of what is "good" and seek to apply that to everyone, and that is highly consistent with the Stoic worldview. Stoicism doesn't require overt belief in a particular theology, but it serves much the same function as traditional religion, so it's easy to move back and forth between the two, even if one considers oneself secular / humanist, and still be in the same general area.


    Epicurean philosophy is much more 'revolutionary' and "anti-establishment" in rejecting even the possibility of uniform rules of conduct for everyone, other than by agreement, and the idea of placing "pleasure" at the core of how life is to be lived is still frowned upon by almost every other camp.


    And also in the mix is that Epicurean philosophy really doesn't lend itself to a hierarchical tightly-organized framework that is conducive to money-making or power, and that in itself is a huge incentive for people who are after one or the other to focus on Stoicism rather than Epicurus.


    No doubt there are lots of other factors too but those stand out in my mind.


    I think the hurdle that Epicureans failed to cross in the ancient world, and that has to be crossed today, is that if it is every going to thrive as a substantial force it has to find a way to translate the emphasis on "Friendship" into the realization that the world is a dangerous place and that it is necessary for people of similar perspectives to band together in order to survive. The core philosophical elements of that are present, especially in the last ten PDs. Hopefully the internet age will allow that need to finally come together to reality.

  • Interesting thread. I also saw the other techniques thread. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head...

    Stoicism (along with Aristotle) got accepted and rationalized into the Christian club early on. The whole first chapter of the Gospel of John talks about Jesus being the Logos/Word, a concept straight out of Stoicism and Greek Philosophy. In some ways, Stoicism glorifies the bearing up against suffering and pain, the stiff upper lip, even voluntarily undertaking painful experiences to "train" yourself (Stoics) or "purify" yourself (Christianity). Stoics also saw pleasure as dangerous, and this also was the view of the Christian Church Fathers. This all could fit in with the Christian worldview and so Stoicism could "go stealth" and its tenets could never really die out as a dominant Western worldview. Look at the connotation of "stoic" - it's generally deemed positive by society: bearing up under pressure, not succumbing to emotional reactions, rational.

    Now, consider"epicurean": decadent, fussy, snobbish, elitist. It's becoming more positive in a foodie culture, but overall I'd say it has a more negative connotation in society at large. Christians and thus Western culture have had more than a millennia and a half to denigrate the memory and philosophy of Epicurus. And Epicurus's physics have gone mainstream since the renaissance (thanks in large part to Lucretius), but not under Epicurus's name. They've taken the bathwater but left the baby behind.

    Because of this established connotation of small e "epicureans" it creates a hurdle to get people to think they might be capital E "Epicureans." Stoics could also capitalize on the macho, tough-guy, warrior stereotype and target that audience. What's the natural audience for Epicureans? (I genuinely don't have an answer. Thoughts?)

    I also think the penchant for referring to Epicurean philosophy as EP is off-putting. It's very in-group jargony with no semantic content to a wider world. It reminds me of TM or EST. I may be reopening the can of worms by saying this, but I see no issue with using the terms Epicurean and Epicureanism. It makes a much more immediate contrast with Stoicism in people's minds. We're not Epicureanists anymore than they're Stoicists. Practicing Epicureanism vs practicing Stoicism sets up a definite choice for people. Both, in my opinion, are philosophies of personal responsibility. Both offer definite life paths and ways to set your priorities. But one glorifies overcoming pain (Stoic); one emphasizes seeking pleasure. There are also a number of "techniques" that can be gleaned from Epicurus, Lucretius, Philodemus, and the fragments. But more on that later...

  • referring to Epicurean philosophy as EP is off-putting. It's very in-group jargony with no semantic content to a wider world.


    What's the natural audience for Epicureans? (I genuinely don't have an answer. Thoughts?)

    I think these questions are related. I agree that the issue of the "ism" terminology is lost on most modern English speakers (hard for me to be sure about other languages) and I don't think the question should be made a priority in dealing with someone who doesn't see the point. I do think that some interesting points can be made by discussion the question of "isms," because there are lots of aspects of Epicurean philosophy beyond just the role of pleasure and pain, which is why a label such as "Pleasurism" or even"Hedonism" doesn't work for me, and why I never use the "Hedonist" label. Discussing the issue of what "Epicureanism" is helps flesh out that it's more than just a system of ethics. But the way most people understand the "ism" suffix (in my experience) is that it just means "system of thought" and there's nothing necessarily negative about that.


    The natural audience probably would be a subset of whatever type person it is who wants a coherent system of thought - not everyone seems to want or care about having one. I don't know that this should always be true, but it seems to be a lot easier to identify the type of person who is naturally "not an Epicurean" than "naturally is an Epicurean." There's definitely a list of attributes that can be identified, though, and among them would be the degree to which a person values thinking independently from the larger group. The issue isn't a matter of objecting for the sake of objecting, or naturally being uncooperative, but more a matter of determination to follow one's own sense of pleasure and pain rather than taking those cues from the larger society.

  • There's definitely a list of attributes that can be identified, though, and among them would be the degree to which a person values thinking independently from the larger group.

    I suppose a natural audience would be secularists, humanists, and freethinkers. But that's a very diverse group and fragmented (like our sources).

    The modern Stoics seem to have targeted the "go-getter" business-type and plugged into the "warrior ethos" thing and leaned into that in their philosophy and promotion. The whole "rugged individualist" would appeal to an American audience, too.

    I do want to say that it appears to me that many of the modern Stoics truly practice what they preach and appear to be sincere in their drive to resurrect and rebuild Stoicism, and seem to have plugged into a need out there in the world. Now, there are probably dozens of relatively well-selling and popular Stoic "self-help" books, Stoicon-type events and resources, etc. They definitely got a headstart on the Epicureans in that respect. There are way more relatively well-known Stoic authors and speakers than there are Epicurean ones. Who is it on our side? Hiram Crespo and Catherine Wilson? That's about it. With Hiram, I'm specifically referring to his chapter in "How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy" by Massimo Pigliucci (Look at that, a leading Stoic voice!) Those two are probably the go-to "Epicureans" now if the popular press would want to include an "Epicurean" perspective on something.

  • In these categories (secularists, humanists) and in the two names you mentioned (i've left out freethinkers), I think there is a key problem in that there is not yet a full and dramatic separation from the "virtue ethics" approach that's probably close to the root of Stoicism. For example I have a lot of appreciation for Catherine Wilson but I think her books fail to draw a distinction between her own personal social preferences (which we all have) from the philosophical underpinnings. Every time we represent our own ethical choices to be "the Epicurean view" on an ethical controversy, I think we bury the ultimate point deeper -- that there is no basis in the philosophy for representing that our own choices are the "correct" one. In that I think each of the categories are adopting the Stoic "one size fits all" approach, and that's deadly for the contextual and sensation-based roots of Epicurean thinking. In my view they are essentially Stoics, just taking the position that their own view of what's pleasing to them should be adopted by everyone as part of the philosophy. I'm no expert on Kant but wasn't that his view -- to be valid a position has to be extensible to everyone everywhere all the time?


    I think to be philosophically consistent you have to do both -- affirm (1) that you understand that there is no single "good" for everyone, and your choices are no more justified by gods or idealism than anyone else's, while at the same time (2) asserting that your and your friends who see things the same way are going to pursue, to the best of your ability, your own version of the best way of life independently from those who see things differently.


    I suppose a natural audience would be secularists, humanists, and freethinkers.

    It's so frustrating because one would think exactly that, but in my experience those groups have been no better than average, or maybe possibly worse as target audiences. Possibly in large part because many who have joined those camps have done so more due to their rejection of establishment morality as a personal preference rather than because they recognized that there is no idealist or religious basis for the establishment view. Either they are into virtue ethics and remaking the world in their own vision, or they are rebels without a cause, rejecting Epicurean efforts at systematic thought as much as they reject any other.

  • Another point --- It's very easy to simply say. "Follow pleasure!" and things like "Do what makes you happy!" but to have a philosophical movement, you have to explain why your point of view is correct, and why the absolutist ethical viewpoints are not valid. It can be very easy and superficial to talk about pleasure and happiness -- everyone sort of acknowledges the desirability of those things - but Epicurean philosophy is really a comprehensive view of the nature of the universe that when followed to its logical conclusions totally invalidates the absolutist approach. When you start talking in those terms, you pretty quickly move from being an amusing oddity to the establishment toward being a revolutionary threat to everything they believe in and hold dear, and that's a totally different ballgame.


    Not many people are ready or willing or able to take Epicurean philosophy to its logical conclusions. Anchoring and lleaving the discussion at the "Follow pleasure" level guarantees that most people won't give a second thought to taking you seriously.

  • Epicurean philosophy is really a comprehensive view of the nature of the universe that when followed to its logical conclusions totally invalidates the absolutist approach.

    Well, people generally don't like ambiguity. They like simple answers to complex questions. Black and white, not grey. Epicureanism makes you do the work.

  • Anchoring and lleaving the discussion at the "Follow pleasure" level guarantees that most people won't give a second thought to taking you seriously.

    Additionally, I contend we need to be careful even with the slogan "Follow pleasure" not being caricatured* or cliched into "if it feels good, do it." It easily veers into a Cyrenaic path in people's minds (not that they know who Cyrenaics were). Epicurus did not deal in Platonic ideals, but he did recommend paths that - through observation - would lead to more pleasurable lives overall.

    Edited once, last by Don: caricatured not stereotyped ().

  • They like simple answers to complex questions. Black and white, not grey. Epicureanism makes you do the work.

    Yep I think it is a combination of SIMPLE plus (to many) "distasteful," and I think probaby the "distaste" outweighs the "simplicity" issue. On that point here's one of the sections of "A Few Days In Athens" I think is well stated:


    Quote

    “It might seem strange,” said Metrodorus, “that the pedantry of Aristotle should find so many imitators, and his dark sayings so many believers, in a city, too, now graced and enlightened by the simple language, and simple doctrines of an Epicurus. — But the language of truth is too simple for inexperienced ears. We start in search of knowledge, like the demigods of old in search of adventure, prepared to encounter giants, to scale mountains, to pierce into Tartarean gulfs, and to carry off our prize from the grip of some dark enchanter, invulnerable to all save to charmed weapons and deity-gifted assailants. To find none of all these things, but, in their stead, a smooth road through a pleasant country, with a familiar guide to direct our curiosity, and point out the beauties of the landscape, disappoints us of all exploit and all notoriety; and our vanity turns but too often from the fair and open champaigne, into error’s dark labyrinths, where we mistake mystery for wisdom, pedantry for knowledge, and prejudice for virtue.”


    “I admit the truth of the metaphor,” said Theon. “But may we not simplify too much as well as too little? May we not push investigation beyond the limits assigned to human reason, and, with a boldness approaching to profanity, tear, without removing, the veil which enwraps the mysteries of creation from our scrutiny?”


    “Without challenging the meaning of the terms you have employed,” said Metrodorus, “I would observe, that there is little danger of our pushing investigation too far. Unhappily the limits prescribed to us by our few and imperfect senses must ever cramp the sphere of our observation, as compared to the boundless range of things; and that even when we shall have strained and improved our senses to the uttermost. We trace an effect to a cause, and that cause to another cause, and so on, till we hold some few links of a chain, whose extent like the charmed circle, is without beginning as without end.”

  • To take it a little further, the major theme of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about an academic who literally drove himself insane doing the work of answering abstract questions. No mention in the book of Epicurus, who could have saved him a lot of grief. There is a little in the book about the pressures and "standards" of academia which very much agrees with the idea that Epicurus' philosophy is way too simple for the "pros."

  • Godfrey if that is a theme of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" - which I have never read - I would be interested in whether there are also paralllels to Lucian's "Hermotimus" - if you have read that. I think of Hermotimus as one of the best arguments against chasing too many rabbits, but I did not realize that that was an aspect of "ZATAOMM"

  • I haven't read Hermotimus so I can't compare them. I'm about halfway through Zen &c. I think Joshua described it as steeped in Plato and I agree with that. It's basically three interwoven threads: a father-son motorcycle trip, ruminations on the virtues of understanding technology, and a "Chautauqua" attempting to tie together and advance the academic development of philosophy (minus Epicurus, of course). That, and the first person narrator is piecing together the life of Phaedrus, who is himself teaching rhetoric before he went insane and had electroshock therapy. Plenty to chew on!

  • I dislike the term "virtue-signalling", which I think is dismissive and overused, but it may have some relevance here.


    What Person A says: "I think virtue is the highest good."

    What Person B hears: "I am virtuous, and can be trusted to act 'morally'."


    Said A. "I think pleasure is the highest good."

    Heard B. "I am selfish, and plan on doing whatever I damn well please."


    Now, what would I like Person B to hear?


    "I'll be seeking pleasure today, if it doesn't cause too much collateral pain, or else interfere with my usual obligations; if you're not too busy, perhaps we can seek it together? How about a pleasant lunch?"

  • Yes "virtue-signaling" has a modern political charge to it which I don't mean to invoke in any direction. It is fairly well descriptive though, which is why I have used it somewhat, especially since the issue of 'virtue' is so closely associated with stoicism and the direction Epicurus sought to break away from.


    It would definitely be good to develop additional terms to describe the overuse of "virtue-based-analysis"

  • Well... I do exactly plan on doing as I please, with no qualifiers! It's just that what I please involves taking pleasure in the pleasure of others, not that I'm trying to avoid causing trouble or disrupting my schedule for reasons unrelated to pleasure.


    Person B needs to know what kind of person I am-- that my pleasure includes empathy-- and that I care about them. Then they should want me to be selfish for their own sake!


    I just got back from a 2 hr round trip to take my son for his first COVID19 vaccine. They are hard to get in my county, so I took him out of state, because he is high risk. I didn't do that bc of an obligation or virtue or trying to balance things out-- I did it only bc I love my son, and I enjoy doing things for him.

  • It sounds to me like Elayne is embodying KD5:

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    KD5: It is not possible to live a pleasurable life without the traits of wisdom, morality, and justice; and it is impossible to live with wisdom, morality, and justice without living pleasurably. When one of these is lacking, it is impossible to live a pleasurable life.

    Virtues like empathy, compassion, altruism are not ends unto themselves but are traits that can spring from our desire for -- and can lead to -- our personal experience of pleasure. We don't practice virtues (however that's defined) because it's the "right" thing to do; we practice virtues because it leads to a pleasurable life.


    As I understand Elayne 's post (please correct me if I'm misinterpreting):

    Well... I do exactly plan on doing as I please, with no qualifiers! It's just that what I please involves taking pleasure in the pleasure of others, not that I'm trying to avoid causing trouble or disrupting my schedule for reasons unrelated to pleasure.

    It actually seems you are in fact adding qualifiers right away:


    I do exactly plan on doing as I please which involves taking pleasure in the pleasure of others.

    Which seems to uphold the tenets of KD5. Elayne is not going to purposefully cause pain to others because she takes pleasure in the pleasure of others.


    Likewise, if we value our own pleasure, the most intelligent choice is to be kind to others since that engenders goodwill, creates bonds of friendship and love (among colleagues, partners, family members, etc.), and so increases the likelihood that our personal pleasure is more secure. This use of intelligent choice seems to me to be acting virtuously. Elayne even says:

    Quote

    [Person B] should want me to be selfish for their own sake!


    This seems to be similar to what the psychologists, Buddhists, et al. call "selfish altruism" or "intelligent selfishness":

    Which leads me to ask: What if someone does what the average person would call selfish "morally reprehensible" actions but derives personal pleasure from them?


    I'll fully agree that Epicurus's philosophy does not endorse Platonic ideals. There is no "ideal" form of beauty, chairs, Truth, etc. The philosophy clearly states that there is no absolute god-given moral authority, it's based on societal agreements and "don't harm; don't be harmed." Plus he wrote "all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good [good, blessing, benefit, useful to us], not all pleasure is choiceworthy."


    He doesn't say it's right, morally or ethically good, just basically that all pleasure is "positive" but just because it's positive doesn't make it choice-worthy. And pain is not always to be fled from. In fact, the pleasure "choice" and pain "shunned" use the same roots that Epicurus consistently uses where "choice" and "avoidances" show up in translations.


    Epicurus clearly tried to break sharply away from "virtue for virtue's sake." Virtue, he taught, was instrumental to pleasure and thus to leading a pleasurable life. So, it seems to me that Epicureans are still going to act virtuously to the outside observer. The inner motivation is going to be far different than the Stoic or Aristotelian, but the visible form/action is going to be similar.


    I get the impression from time to time that some people want to say there's no absolute moral authority to define morality in Epicurean philosophy, so anything goes as long as the person is experiencing Pleasure in the moment.


    I don't accept this. A pleasurable life is the goal. Epicurus says that's only possible if you act virtuously; and vice versa: if you act virtuously, you'll have a better chance of living pleasurably.


    People who take pleasure in what the average human would find morally or ethically repugnant aren't living according to Epicurean principles and so we would have reason to intervene and attempt to get them to change. Just because they are feeling pleasure doesn't make their life choice-worthy. I wrestle with this, but the more I think about it, the more I'm coming to these conclusions.

  • Which seems to uphold the tenets of KD5. Elayne is not going to purposefully cause pain to others because she takes pleasure in the pleasure of others.

    The seed in this comment that has the potential to grow out of proportion is the unqualified "others."

    Which leads me to ask: What if someone does what the average person would call selfish "morally reprehensible" actions but derives personal pleasure from them?

    If in fact, per PD10, he achieves pleasure, then in fact there is nothing to criticize. Where you're going of course is that depending on circumstances "some" other people (those who disagree) can be expected to react negatively. That's a purely practical concern, but an important one.

    So, it seems to me that Epicureans are still going to act virtuously to the outside observer.

    And that's where I think the danger lies. If applied as written, this gives an automatic veto power over your conduct to the unqualified "outside observer" and that would be deferring to an outside force that has no more natural or idealist authority than anything Plato or Moses came up with. Of course in most cases the "outside observer" actually does exist, in distinction from Plato's idealism or Moses' God, which do not exist, so the "outside observer" has to be dealt with.


    And that's where Epicurus is in my view very specific as to the core ways to deal with them (and I bet you know what I am about to cite):



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    39. The man who has best ordered the element of disquiet arising from external circumstances has made those things that he could akin to himself, and the rest at least not alien; but with all to which he could not do even this, he has refrained from mixing, and has expelled from his life all which it was of advantage to treat thus.


    In other words, I think the key is that you do not give unqualified "Others" veto power over the goals you choose for your life. You certainly have a practical problem with those who have political power over you, but there are ways to deal with that too (Cassius Longinus followed one such alternative) and it is generally possible to consider variations on "refraining from mixing" or "expelling from your life" as well.

    Absolutely there are practical issues involved in "others" resisting your preferred choices, but there are major distinctions between your family and friends being resistant (and in those cases you have a much heavier concern about THEIR pleasure) as opposed to those who are much more distant from you, about whom you probably have little concern as to their views, and Epicurus is clearly addressing those situations and pointing the way to the response.


    As one small example that seems appropriate, if we here in this group did not enforce rules to separate ourselves from the Stoic and Religious majorities, this group would quickly cease to exist. We try to do that in stages, being nice and diplomatic at first to see if such a person can be persuaded to at least our general positions, and become tolerable and productive here, but progressively enforcing the rules of conduct and eventually expelling them entirely when they prove incompatible to our happiness and goals here.


    I see that as pretty much exactly what Epicurus was saying about life in general, in which of course it is much harder to accomplish that, but not different in principle.

  • Don that's not a qualifier-- it's just a description of what I like to do, not a restraint separate from my pleasure. And yes, it's in the spirit of PD5. Because virtues have no meaning other than as tools for pleasure. It would be weird to remove my awareness of future consequences from actions in the present-- that seems much more convoluted and unnatural to try and live purely for the present moment, at least for me, lol. So that's not a qualifier either. What I like to do is always in the context of my regular brain. Whether my brain is normal or not, I can't say 😂.


    I disagree strongly about any implied absolute meaning for virtue common to all humans. If Epicurus was saying that, and I don't think he was, he would have been wrong. There can't biologically be one set of behaviors leading to a pleasurable life for every single human. And even for a single human, it's not wise to make any fixed virtue that could override pleasure-- there can be extenuating circumstances, such as the classic murderer asking for your friend's whereabouts. So no virtue like honesty is fixed. Everything is relative to pleasure.


    For most of us, natural empathy provides the pro-social pleasure motive. For some, fear of consequences provides the reason to abstain from harming others, which Epicurus mentioned multiple times. However, it is easy to observe that some high functioning low empathy humans have enough financial resources to protect themselves from at least some degree of asocial if not downright anti-social living. And _if_ they have pleasurable lives that way, free from both anxiety and painful punishment, only they can give testimony. It's definitely risky to live outside the typical human virtue preferences, but it can be done. Those are the folks I try to avoid strenuously!


    The reason we try to talk them out of it is for our own benefit. As Epicurus said, laws are for the protection of the wise.