What Did Epicurus Include in "Pleasure?"

  • Poster1 - How does this reconcile the natural/necessary categories that are traditionally ascribed to Epicurus?

    IV - The categories don't restrict the pleasures. They tell us whether we should choose to indulge in the pleasure or not, and how often.

    Poster 2 - Yes but can't we also be happy with simple pleasures? For example I'd love to be driving a ferarri but i drive a hybrid so i am happy enough that i'm saving a little gas. I guess I don't understand if he's teaching that pleasures include pain that is greater than the pleasure?

    Cassius: That is exactly the point Bryan. You don't need a Ferrari, but do you really even "need" the hybrid, which is something wonderful of modern technology but would appear hopelessly complex to anyone more than a few decades ago? The Amish say that they get along quite well even today with horses and buggy's. The point is that choices are not absolute, but are relative to the individual person's circumstances. There is no absolute definition of "simple" vs "complex" and if you begin to think that there is, then you begin to fall into the error of other schools which hold that things are good and bad in themselves, made that way by gods of by ideal forms.

    There are no such ideal forms or supernatural gods. There is only you, and the options open to you, and the question of what will happen to you when you choose from among available options.

    It's not the point of these exercises to create a list of what constitutes Natural or necessary, and you don't see in the surviving epicurean literature any such lists, except in the extremely broad form we are discussing here. If you have the capacity to spend 24/7 on a riverside under a tree in the spring talking with your friends, then indeed that is the choice you should make, and that in fact might be akin to how "the gods" spend their time. But such a choice is not open to many of us (I would say "any" of us) so you have to keep your mind geared to the *practical* -- which is choosing among the options with an eye toward what the eventual total outcome will be for your life.

    Yes simple is frequently the best choice, but it is NEVER the best choice "because it is simple" -- it is the best choice (when it is) because it leads to the practical result of the most pleasure over the least pain with your entire life in view.

    Poster 2 - What if an action entails no disturbance to the performer of that action but to some other being? Said action could still entail no disturbance to the performer even in the case of the performer having reasons to believe that the action could possibly harm others. Is the pleasure produced by the action still not bad in itself in that case?

    Cassius: No pleasure is ever "bad in itself" -- Epicurus states that flatly - because "pleasure feels good" which is what makes it pleasure. There is no outside or inside standard (gods, ideal forms, or Aristotelian "essences") which operate to make a thing bad in itself.

    The common question of how to relate to others is not an exception to that rule -- there are no exceptions to reality.

    The issue of the effects of our dealings with others is answered the same way. What will happen if I choose one course vs. another.

    We might want to think that "people are special" and "there's a spark of the divine in everyone" and "Jesus loves ALL the little children of the world" but those things are fictional and simply not true.

    The question of "Don't you need religion or XYZ in order to have a happy society is addressed by Diogenes of Oinonanda (Martin Ferguson Smith translation):

    "Fr. 20

    [So it is obvious that wrong-doers, given that they do not fear the penalties imposed by the laws, are not] afraid of [the gods.] This [has to be] conceded. For if they were [afraid, they] would not [do wrong]. As for [all] the others, [it is my opinion] that the [wise] are not [(reasoning indicates) righteous] on account of the gods, but on account of [thinking] correctly and the [opinions] they hold [regarding] certain things [and especially] pains and death (for indeed invariably and without exception human beings do wrong either on account of fear or on account of pleasures), and that ordinary people on the other hand are righteous, in so far as they are righteous, on account of the laws and the penalties, imposed by the laws, hanging over them. But even if some of their number are conscientious on account of the laws, they are few: only just two or three individuals are to be found among great segments of multitudes, and not even these are steadfast in acting righteously; for they are not soundly persuaded about providence. A clear indication of the complete inability of the gods to prevent wrong-doings is provided by the nations of the Jews and Egyptians, who, as well as being the most superstitious of all peoples, are the vilest of all peoples.

    On account of what kind of gods, then, will human beings be righteous? For they are not righteous on account of the real ones or on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ Judges in Hades. We are left with this conclusion; otherwise, why should not those who disregard the laws scorn fables much more?

    So, with regard to righteousness, neither does our doctrine do harm [not does] the opposite [doctrine help], while, with regard to the other condition, the opposite doctrine not only does not help, but on the contrary also does harm, whereas our doctrine not only does not harm, but also helps. For the one removes disturbances, while the other adds them, as has already been made clear to you before."

    Poster 1: Can we conclude, then, that the pleasant life will look very similar for most people?

    In other words, barring extreme outliers, cannot we conclude that in most circumstances avoiding junk food, promiscuous sex, and reckless spending habits (for examples) will lead to the most pleasant life?

    I too would resist the urge to make a finite and definitive list of do's and don'ts but aren't some things just by the way nature is 'bad' insofar as they are almost guaranteed to bring us pain?

    Cassius Amicus: Bottom line in my view the issue is that the circumstances of the group of people you are looking at will determine how similarly they make decisions. Eskimos in Alaska in 1930 will have different answers to what is simple and what is extravagant than New Yorkers in 2019 and their lives will look very dissimilar.

    But yes, there are definitely characteristics that cut across time and place -- things that intoxicate us (romantic love) are going to be dangerous for everyone; walking on the edge of cliffs is going to be dangerous for everyone. But the 'by way of nature' you're talking about are things that arise from the nature of the human beings involved, and the way their bodies and minds operate, not "by way of gods telling us, or by way of ideal forms telling us how to live" and that's really the big issue.

    As Epicurus says in PD10, we might consider the choices of a person to be monstrous, but if in fact those choices produced for the person a happy life, we would have no grounds for condemning those choices as "objectively" wrong.

    10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligate men really freed them from fears of the mind concerning celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, and the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures from every source and would never have pain of body or mind, which is what is bad.

  • Poster 2 asked: "Can we conclude, then, that the pleasant life will look very similar for most people?"


    Perhaps so if you limit the universe being considered drastically enough. The best life for all Eskimos in Alaska in the year 1930 would probably look roughly the same, perhaps, as an example. But the true ultimate point is that just as "justice" is not the same for all people at all places and all times (and that's explicit in PD30-40) so "virtue" is not going to be the same, and so the best application of "simplicity" or "sustainabilty" is not going to be the same. And the greater the differences in circumstances between the sets of people involved, the greater the difference in what is simple and sustainable and the best net result in terms of pleasure over pain is going to be.

    And if you are diagnosed with cancer and have a year to live and have no wife and children to support, are you going to live the same way as if you are 25 and married with three kids and have no health problems?

    I think the point of all this is that an Epicurean understanding of a universe which is not ordered by gods or fate or determinism demands a sliding scale. The ultimate unifying factor is the feeling of pain and pleasure which generally works the same for most humans, but beyond those facts of nature there are no hard and fast rules. Of course "the feeling of pain and pleasure which generally works the same for most humans" is itself a set of limits and boundaries, so it is also not true to think that "anything goes."

    Poster 2 - And any order disappears into the chaotic entropy of relativism...


    Order" is the trap the religionists expect you to fall into. The nature of things derives from the properties of the elements and the qualities of the bodies that come together from the elements. That gives us all the limits and bounds we need to have confidence in reality and to learn to live happily. There is no foundation for Randian "objectivism," and suggesting that just because there is no god everything is "subjective" is equally ridiculous. Go put your hand in a fire and tell yourself the resulting pain is all relative.


    "But enough of criticism: let me turn to your puzzling letter of May 12. on matter, spirit, motion etc. It’s crowd of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can conceive thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by its creator, as well as that attraction in an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone.

    When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise."

    Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15, 1820