Does Happiness Require a Non-Epicurean Decision Procedure?

  • Almost all of our difference of opinion stems from this:


    How else ought they be interpreted? The problem I see is that it is written is very explicitly. "Whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win." And also, as we discussed a while back, PD3: "The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. [...]" It is very difficult for me to interpret this quote in any other way than what is explicitly stated. That is, when all pain is removed, that state of ataraxia and aponia are the LIMIT with respect to pleasure. I can't conceive of this in a way somehow allowing this to NOT be the limit, unless something is to be said about mistranslation, or a hole in the principle doctrines. Or even that certain modification is necessary.

    I will not say you are wrong, but I will say that I interpret things very differently because while the sentences you quote taken separately are quite clear, they do not stand alone, and they occur within a definite context which in my view prohibits the conclusions you think are clear.

    The context in my view is that long before these positions would have been stated, Epicurus had previously stated that there are only two feelings, pleasure and pain. He had also previously stated, in PD3, that the limit in QUANTITY of pleasure is the absence of pain. Everything must be interpreted in that context, and within that context, whatever is not pain is by definition pleasure, and whatever is not pleasure is by definition pain, and the quantity of absence of one is ALWAYS the quantity of presence of the other, by definition. And that means that when one goes to zero quantity, the other goes to its limit of quantity, by definition. However this is only a definition of QUANTITY, which Epicurus is careful to state in the beginning.

    So yes, zero pain is the "limit" of pleasure, but only in quantity, and not in any other respect. If it were not necessary for us to take other aspects of pleasure into account, we could by definition live the best life possible by killing ourselves, or drugging ourselves comatose, because in both cases that results in zero pain. That would be a perverse result, but that is exactly the result that is produced by reading these texts in isolation and not seeing them as part of the whole. A whole in which "Wherefore we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing" and "I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, of sex, of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.”


    The same thing goes for the sentence that when we have no pain, we have no need of pleasure. Taken alone that seems clear, but it does not mean that suicide or being comatose is the best life. Viewed from the perspective of quantity, any Epicurean who sees that pain has been reduced to zero also knows that it has been reduced to zero by filling the human experience completely with pleasure, so as to drive out all pain. In Cicero's phrase, "Nothing is preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures."


    Or, in the words of Torquatus: "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?"


    And in this context, natural and necessary also is seen not to be a call to the "zero life" but simply the observation that some things in life require a lot of effort, and some things don't, and that in general those things that require a lot of effort entail at least the possibility of a lot of pain. But if you keep in mind that the goal is pleasure, and not the zero state of absence of pain, then this observation is nothing more than a part of the analysis that before you choose to do something that entails a lot of effort, you better be sure that you will in fact get a lot of pleasure, and you better be sure that you do it in such a way as to minimize pain. Flying to the moon requires a lot of effort but can be done safely with a huge investment in modern technology, and therefore can be viewed as a tradeoff that is very worthwhile. But flying to the moon without proper preparation is going to lead to great physical pain and perhaps death, and so is not to be undertaken lightly.

    So in sum each of the quotations that appear in isolation to call for a minimal life can be seen to not call for a minimal life at all. Did Epicurus live a minimal life by surrounding himself with a philosophical school of people, churning out books, running a household with many slaves and, and leading a philosophical revolution? Did Lucretius pursue minimal living with the Herculean effort of his poem? Of course not - they saw their lives as short and precious, and needing to be filled with the activities that would bring them the most pleasure while at the same time pursuing that pleasure in a way that would cause as little pain as possible. But they certainly knew and welcomed the pain that would be required in their effort, because they knew that the pleasure that would be produced was well worth it.

  • Pivot -- I apologize if you have answered this already, but can you tell me how much of Lucretius you have read? Today I was listening to the Partially Examined Life podcast on Lucretius, and I find it interesting to correlate a person's views on Epicurean ethics with their views of Lucretius. Can you let me know how deeply into Lucretius you have read, and your reaction to it? Thanks!

  • You mention, "He had also previously stated, in PD3, that the limit in QUANTITY of pleasure is the absence of pain." Where is the word "quantity" mentioned? Magnitude, as stated in the quote, does not necessarily imply quantity. I tried to do some investigating, and the word we're contesting is "μεγέθους." Perseus.uchicago.edu defines this to be "greatness, magnitude, size, height, stature." This is very different from quantity in my opinion, and the alternative definitions show that "quantity" would be a bit of a mistranslation. Here's where I got the Greek-English principle doctrines: http://monadnock.net/epicurus/principal-doctrines.html


    It is interesting you bring up the results of reading the quote explicitly. But I do not think taking them at face-value is misreading them. The language itself prevents the reader from construing them in any fashion other than what is written, unless we should say "Epicurus MEANT to write __." And that may be fine, perhaps in his lost writings he consolidated these views.


    You mention, "Viewed from the perspective of quantity, any Epicurean who sees that pain has been reduced to zero also knows that it has been reduced to zero by filling the human experience completely with pleasure, so as to drive out all pain. In Cicero's phrase, 'Nothing is preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures.'"


    But should we think that pain can be driven out by pleasurable experience? We think of a man drinking away his sorrows, or someone going to a party to drive away his depression. Mental pain must be extinguished before we can experience ultimate pleasure in life, as ataraxia is the highest state of pleasure. Ataraxia is not achievable if there are underlying troubles in one's mind. Cicero's quote requires first, before the cramming full of pleasures, a "life of tranquility."


    And again in Torquatus, there is this condition of the pleasurable life: "undisturbed by the presence ... of pain."


    You mention, " ... before you choose to do something that entails a lot of effort, you better be sure that you will in fact get a lot of pleasure, and you better be sure that you do it in such a way as to minimize pain."


    This is precisely why I argue deep friendships are impossible in Epicurean thought. Relationships require immense effort. However, often it is without the promise of a lot of pleasure. Often it is impossible to be sure one will receive anything at all in return. Even after weighing all the pleasure associated with the totality of one's friend/partner, the conclusion may be that the sacrifice outweighs the reward. The man who cuts off the friendship may be losing much more than the man who keeps the friendship and endures the suffering. As I worded it to Hiram, some rewards can only be received by those who do not endeavor for them.


    To answer your last post - I've enjoyed all of Lucretius. It is probably my favorite work of philosophy. I would say that my favorite part of it is more to do with his arguments against the lamentation of death. Whether we wasted our lives, or lived full lives, the end of life should not be lamented. This was shocking to read, yet the arguments he made were very moving -- particularly when Lucretius directly addresses "the nature of things," and quotes her responses to the man lamenting his death.


    Apart from his ideas of death, the arguments against immortality and the existence of gods were also very fascinating to read. The reasoning he uses is very simple and intuitive but impactful. One example: the soul is “begotten along and grows along with the body” (3.457); therefore, when the body deteriorates and dies, the soul does the same.


    I was attracted to Epicurus through Lucretius, as I read his work before any of Epicurus' works. But Lucretius was a devout follower of Epicurus, and I was equally attracted by many of Epicurus' ideas once I began looking into them.


    I think PD3 can be read in another way without disturbing the body of Epicurean thought. As per PD3, the limit of the magnitude of pleasure is freedom from pain. Let's assume there is no more pleasurable a state than ataraxia, total freedom of pain. Does this reduce the Epicurean to an ascetic, called to live a dull, boring life? I would say no, because of the following: is it possible for a human being to be happy with a totally empty, pleasure-free life? The absence of all pleasure surely should be the worst suffering one can endure! True "freedom from pain" IMPLIES the existence of a multitude of pleasures, both simple and complex.

  • "This is precisely why I argue deep friendships are impossible in Epicurean thought." << If you believe that this is correct, why are you still interested in Epicurean thought? You are willing to give up deep friendships, or you simply think Epicurus was wrong in that?

    As far as "quantity" vs magnitude, size, height, stature, all of those seem to be indications of measurement in a single plane to me, and of course (at least to me) a feeling has many more dimensions than one.


    "But should we think that pain can be driven out by pleasurable experience?" -- Here I would say absolutely YES, and in fact, since there are only two feelings, there is in fact no way to drive away pain OTHER THAN replacing it with pleasure.


    It's interesting to me that after your explanation we still end up here: "True "freedom from pain" IMPLIES the existence of a multitude of pleasures, both simple and complex," which is exactly the position I take, but for different reasons.


    Perhaps a summary would be, that when you say "Mental pain must be extinguished before we can experience ultimate pleasure in life, as ataraxia is the highest state of pleasure." To me that formulation implies that ataraxia is a type of pleasure. I do not in fact that that ataraxia is a type of pleasure at all -- I think it is purely an adverbial description of the best way to experience a life of pleasures of the type we all know and understand (typical mental and physical pleasures) without any disturbance in that enjoyment. Disturbance and absence of disturbance do not tell us a thing about the type of pleasures we are experiencing, only that we are experiencing with or without the interruption of pain.


    So now I have to consider the implications of reaching the same conclusion by a different analysis! ;-)

  • I see that I had forgotten in my earlier comment this explicit use of the term "Quantity" by Martin Ferguson Smith in his translation of the Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda. That needs to be referenced in this discussion:


    Fr. 34 lower margin (Epic. Sent. 3)


    [The quantitative limit of pleasure is the] removal of all pain. [Whoever experiences pleasure, so long as it continues, cannot ever be troubled] by pain of body or of mind or [of both together].


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