An August 2018 Example of the Ascetic View of Epicurus

  • My guess is that of every ten new articles you see on Epicurus, eight of them are going to leave a totally false impression of what Epicurus really taught, such as this one, which makes Epicurus sound like an ascetic competing with stoics and monks to see how many desires he could suppress. And as usual the inaccurate conclusions can be traced back to the single misunderstanding -- the "BUT....." --- that seems to impress ascetics most: "“Epicurus’s version agrees that pleasure is the greatest good and the best life is the most pleasant life,” says James Warren, professor of Classics at Cambridge University. “But he thinks the highest pleasure you can achieve is the absence of pain. Once pain has been removed, you don’t increase pleasure from that point on, you just vary it.”

    Thus the standard way of misrepresenting Epicurus that leads to his embrace by the ascetics and his dismissal by those who have the intelligence to see that this formulation cannot be what Epicurus really taught:

    "Pleasure IS the goal of life, but Pleasure ISN'T what you think it is! Pleasure is really a zero!"

    On the contrary, what Epicurus taught is that pleasure IS what you (the person uncorrupted by a false philosophy like asceticism) think it is, because you FEEL it and need no academic expert to interpret it for you!

    From De Finibus: "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. Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them."…or-the-reasons-you-think/


  • Someone asked about the Cyreniacs and my view is:

    Diogenes Laertius thought this was the most significant difference, which sounds likely. Key points are that Epicurus endorses BOTH pleasures of the mind and those of the body, which the Cyreniacs only endorsed those of the body, and Epicurus held that pleasures of the mind can be greater than those of the body, while the Cyreniacs apparently held a different view: "Such are his {Epicurus'] views on life and conduct; and he has discoursed upon them at greater length elsewhere. He differs from the Cyrenaics with regard to pleasure. They do not include under the term the pleasure which is a state of rest, but only that which consists in motion. Epicurus admits both; also pleasure of mind as well as of body, as he states in his work On Choice and Avoidance and in that On the Ethical End, and in the first book of his work On Human Life and in the epistle to his philosopher friends in Mytilene.

    So also Diogenes in the seventeenth book of his Epilecta, and Metrodorus in his Timocrates, whose actual words are: “Thus Pleasure being conceived both as that species which consists in motion and that which is a state of rest.” The words of Epicurus in his work On Choice are : “Peace of mind and freedom from pain are pleasures which imply a state of rest; joy and delight are seen to consist in motion and activity.”

    He further disagrees with the Cyrenaics in that they hold that pains of body are worse than mental pains; at all events evil-doers are made to suffer bodily punishment; whereas

    Epicurus holds the pains of the mind to be the worse; at any rate the flesh endures the storms of the present alone, the mind those of the past and future as well as the present. In this way also he holds mental pleasures to be greater than those of the body."

    I can see room for reasonable discussion between Cyreniacs and Epicureans as to which pleasures are more intense, as I think that is going to differ with individual context - at least our choices among them will. I can also see reasonable argument about the meaning of pleasures at "rest" for reasons we have discussed many times - any discussion of that turns on definitions of what pleasures of "rest" really are, and from the point of view of life being dynamic and ever-changing, nothing is really "at rest." But these are issues among friends who see the bigger and deeper points - that there are no religious gods or ideal forms of conventional philosophy which tell us what pleasure is, or that we should pursue something other than pleasure.