From The "Golden Mean" to tbe "Summum Bonum" - Useful or Deceptive Frames of Reference?

  • Quote from Don

    It seems to me that the "actual linguistic meaning" of"good", at its most basic, is simply "that which provides pleasure." "Evil" is"that which causes pain."

    I'm pretty sure we can all agree on this.

    Okay, good! ;) Now, we're getting somewhere. So, as a generic adjective or noun in common speech, we all(?) can agree on this this meaning of good and evil.

    Oh, and I have to applaud the use of "goodies" in #39! That was good :)

    To me it becomes questionable when it's stated as "the Good", and that seems to be just a philosophical argument which leads down a rabbit hole and is of limited or no practical use. All of the examples in post #37 are "lower case" goods and make sense both practically and philosophically as far as I can tell.

    One of the issues then is talking about pleasure as the capital G Good and not just a lower-case g good. The caveat for that is that I don't think there was any way to capitalize Greek in the time period in which were talking, or Latin in the sense we're capitalizing words for "philosophical" purposes. So, maybe I should quit that. Capitalizing is just a convenient modern shorthand for emphasis. So, no more Good, just good. That still leaves the point of contention of characterizing pleasure as the "greatest good."


    I am glad Godfrey cited "practical wisdom is the greatest good." Do we have problems with that statement? We could also translate it as "practical wisdom is the greatest good thing." You certainly can't have two greatest things. 132e. Τούτων δὲ πάντων ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ μέγιστον ἀγαθὸν φρόνησις.

    "and so the foundation (ἀρχὴ) of all these and the greatest good (τὸ μέγιστον ἀγαθὸν) is φρόνησις."

    Of course, elsewhere Epicurus says:

    ἡδονὴν ἀρχὴν καὶ τέλος λέγομεν εἶναι τοῦ μακαρίως ζῆν.

    "We say pleasure is the foundation (ἀρχὴν) and telos of the blessed life."

    So, are there two foundations? Or is practical wisdom just the foundation of our choices and rejections, and pleasure is the foundation of the blessed life?

    I'm still limiting is to one work of Epicurus's so as not to be overwhelmed. Within the letter, Epicurus defines pleasure as:

    * pleasure is the foundation (ἀρχὴν) and telos of the blessed life.

    * pleasure is the telos (the end, the fulfillment, the goal)

    * pleasure is the fundamental and inborn good

    Greek: "Καὶ ἐπεὶ πρῶτον ἀγαθὸν τοῦτο καὶ σύμφυτον"

    σύμφυτον (symphyton) carries the idea of inborn or "born with"

    πρῶτον ἀγαθὸν (prōton agathon), on the other hand, comes very close to the idea of "greatest/highest good" in that prōton is the superlative of proteros and means "first, primary, most superior, foremost-est" http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/h…ntry=prw=tos1&i=1#lexicon

    and

    G4412 - prōton - Strong's Greek Lexicon (kjv)
    G4412 - πρῶτον prōton, pro'-ton; neuter of as adverb (with or without ); firstly (in time, place, order, or importance):—before, at the beginning, chiefly…
    www.blueletterbible.org

    Translating this literally as "this(pleasure) is both the primary and inborn good (thing)" pulls out that emphasis on pleasure being set apart - primary, superior - as a good thing. *Or* is he saying pleasure is our *first* good thing as in "we are born having this good thing, ie. pleasure"? The Kai... Kai... "both x and y" may be used here to convey that meaning. Hmmm. Just thought of that possibility.

    PS: πρῶτον is the exact word that Epicurus uses to introduce the first topic in the letter about the gods. I see that also as "primarily, first in rank or importance, something foundational." Some translators just use "First,.." as number one, number two, in that context, but Epicurus doesn't use any other numbers as if it's an outline. My feeling is that he's using the sense "this is important so I'm telling you this up front!"


    Thoughts?

  • The quote from Godfrey references this quote from Don It seems to me that the "actual linguistic meaning" of"good", at its most basic, is simply "that which provides pleasure." "Evil" is"that which causes pain." I'm pretty sure we can all agree on this.


    To me it becomes questionable when it's stated as "the Good", and that seems to be just a philosophical argument which leads down a rabbit hole and is of limited or no practical use. All of the examples in post #37 are "lower case" goods and make sense both practically and philosophically as far as I can tell.

    I'll repeat this more clearly below but it seems to me that the issue is that while WE can agree on this, using Epicurean terminology, this terminology differs greatly from all non-Epicurean terminology and so is very confusing unless we constantly restate our context.


    surprised how little of a hedonist (in the modern sense of the world)

    Yes, another occasion on which I can say "I hate that word" ("hedonist") ;) this is where Elli's curse on the use of "isms" terminology rings the most true.


    Okay, good! ;) Now, we're getting somewhere. So, as a generic adjective or noun in common speech, we all(?) can agree on this this meaning of good and evil.

    Again as cited above, WE can, but the rest of the world strongly disagrees. How do we handle that?


    I am glad Godfrey cited "practical wisdom is the greatest good." Do we have problems with that statement?

    Yes it seems like we can line up more than one "greatest good" description from Epicurus. At least this one, and then the one about escape from a deadly peril, seem targeted at a greatest good, then of course we have Torquatus saying that Epicurus held it to be "pleasure." I wonder how many we could come up with, if we tried to list them?


    So in terms of getting somewhere can we even regroup far enough back to decide what our goal is here?


    1. I think we agree that Epicurus held pleasure to be "good."
    2. I don't think we agree whether Epicurus held there to be one or many goods, although it appears that maybe the weight of the evidence is that he held there to be multiple goods?
    3. I don't think we agree (do we?) that Epicurus himself used the formulation greatest good (?) Unless we accept what Torquatus wrote we don't have that in Epicurus' own words do we? Something that implies that there are multiple goods and that pleasure is the greatest of them?
    4. I think we may agree that Epicurus is using "good" with a different definition than most other philosophers (?)
    5. Do we have even a proposal as to how to deal with using Epicurus' definition while acknowledging that the rest of the world uses it differently? In the case of gods we can call them "Epicurean Gods." Are we suggesting that in this context we need to use the term "Epicurean Good" or "Epicurean Greatest Good" to avoid confusion?
  • 1. Absolutely!

    2. It would appear that he held there to be many, which makes sense to me.

    3. He seems to have used "foundational". For me, this is much clearer than "greatest", and ties pleasure to the Canon which is critical to understanding EP.

    4. I'm not sure about this one way or the other.

    5. "Foundational good" works well for me to describe pleasure, particularly since I feel that it ties it to the Canon. Calling it the Epicurean good does it a disservice in my mind by limiting it. Foundational can still be universal without getting into the rabbit hole of "greatest".

  • I don't understand the hesitancy to accept the word "good."

    I agree with Don. There's nothing bad about the word good. It may not be the best, but its better than most.

    I think a danger is that it brings to mind the Platonic uppercase Good. If we are talking about good we must take care to remember that it is not a transcendental form or abstract idea, but just a word describing pleasant things.

  • This thought just occurs to me:


    Do we think that Cicero's Torquatus was mistaken to frame the discussion the way he did? If so, do we think;


    1 ) Cicero intentionally or negligently misrepresents the Epicurean argument by doing this?

    2) Cicero was accurately reporting the way Epicureans were arguing in 50 BC?


    I ask that because if we begin to have a consensus that this form of argument was an error in talking to Cicero (who certainly did not agree with Epicurean definitions) then we might profit from figuring out how this happened.


    And in that regard I have more "immortal" words from Norman DeWitt on Cicero's presentation of Epicurean ethics: "I do not believe he could have misrepresented the truth so successfully had he not understood it so completely." (Note - this isn't necessary a reference to this part of Torquatus, but to Cicero's commentary on Epicurus in general.)


  • SInce all of us have unlimited time to read every possible article on this subject (joke!), here is the Packer article that DeWitt is referencing. I read it when I first found it several years ago, but don't remember much about it. I seem to remember that she questions Torquatus' illustration of the best and worst lives because she thinks that the description of the best life is too active, which is a position I disagree with, so I don't cite the article very often. But it's possible that the rest of the article touches on the issue that we are discussing here (the manner of presenting arguments about the "greatest good), so it might be worth re-reading.



  • I just found this paper which may be helpful...feeling too tired to read it tonight, but could be helpful in this discussion thread...


    "Cicero as a Source for Epicurus"

    by Kyle Tebo


    Cicero as a Source for Epicurus
    By Kyle Tebo, Published on 05/01/17
    repository.upenn.edu

  • I think it's important to recognize that our suspicion is toward "the form of the good", but not "goodness". (I'm going to avoid relying on an upper-case letter to distinguish these concepts because ancient Greek lacked this device).


    The phrase H TOY AΓAΘOY I∆EA or "the form of the good" was used by Plato in The Republic, and enthusiastically adopted by Plotinus, the Neo-Platonists, and, much later, the Gnostics. The concept is at the heart of Platonism, so it is fair for anti-Platonists to view any discussion of "good" with (at least) a hint of healthy suspicion.


    Of course, AΓAΘOΣ can be found in pre-Socratic literature, so the Platonists by no means own "good".


    "Agathos" is an important ancient Greek concept in general (like "telos", "ataraxia", and "eudaimonia"), and not a Platonic concept in particular. Epicurus would have augmented the meaning of "the good" for his own purposes. Personally, in terms of basic, intellectual impressions from words, when I think of "telos", I tend to think of Aristotle's "Final Cause". The same is true of "eudaimonia", which makes me think more of Aristotle's privileging of "functionality" and "excellence". Similarly, when I read "the good", I tend think of Plato, regardless of the context.


    But, again, no one owns any of these words. They are all common words with meanings that were constantly being augmented to fit the purposes of their employers. Since Plato and Aristotle won the hearts of the philosophers and theologians of the post-Classical period, the languages we inherited champion Platonic and Peripatetic definitions.


    As Don found in the Epistle to Menoikeus, and as I found in the Kuriai Doxai, inflections of AΓAΘOΣ are used frequently, much moreso, even, than a key vocabulary word like "ataraxia", which Epicurus rarely uses. Not once does Epicurus use a form of "aponia" in his Doxai, but he does use an inflection of "agathos" half a dozen times. This includes at least one use of "good" being preceded by the definite article "the", indicating, explicitly "the good".

  • I want to read the papers posted by both Kalosyni and Cassius but haven't had a chance yet. I also don't have direct responses to Cassius 's questions in post #43 yet, but I'd like to address the summum bonum issue directly in De Finibus.


    Above in post #19, I said summum bonum was the Latin translation of Greek τελος [telos]. I'm going to amend that to saying summum bonum was the Latin literal translation of Greek ταγαθον [tagathon]. Artistotle defines ταγαθον as that "at which all things aim." From Nichomachean Ethics, Book 1:

    "Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is That at which all things aim." (Note: The translator's capitalization, not mine)


    Aristotle goes on to explain what he means by ταγαθον throughout Book 1:

    https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/…4%3Abekker%20page%3D1094a Here is an illustrative excerpts:

    "If therefore among the ends (τελος/telos) at which our actions aim there be one which we will for its own sake, while we will the others only for the sake of this, and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (which would obviously result in a process ad infinitum, so that all desire would be futile and vain), it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good. [2] Will not then a knowledge of this Supreme Good be also of great practical importance for the conduct of life?"


    That "futile and vain" is significant, because the Greek words there are kenos and mataios (κενὴν καὶ ματαίαν). We are *very* familiar with Epicurus using kenon to describe actions or desires as "empty." Epicurus also uses mataios throughout his extant writings:


    VS62. If parents have cause to be angry with their children, of course it is *foolish* (μάταιον) to resist, and thus not try to beg for forgiveness. But if they do not have cause and are angry without reason, it is ridiculous to make an appeal to one who is irrationally opposed to hearing such an appeal, and thus not try to convince him by other means in a spirit of good will.


    VS65. It is foolish (μάταιόν) to ask of the gods that which we can supply for ourselves.


    Fragment 445. [We must not blame the body for the greatest evils] nor attribute our troubles to mere circumstance. Instead we seek their cause within the soul: for by giving up every foolish (ματαίαν) and fleeting desire we give birth to a confidence perfect in itself.


    Menoikeus 125b. "So, the one who says death is to be feared is foolish (μάταιος)/at fault…"


    Menoikeus 127c. “If, on the other hand (he says so) joking, (he speaks) foolishly (μάταιος) [about] things that [do not] allow (for jokes)”


    This use of kenon and mataion in both Aristotle and Epicurus leads me to consider that he might just agree with Aristotle in that our actions would be "foolish and vain" if they are not directed to one chief aim/telos/tagathon.


    Cicero's Torquatus is one of the latter-day Epicureans that believes "elaborate and reasoned argument, and abstruse theoretical discusion" are needed to disprove "why pleasure should not be counted as a good nor pain as an evil", as some philosophers maintained. "Torquatus" states that "The fact is, I think that you [Cicero] are like our friend Triarius, and dislike Epicurus because he has neglected the graces of style that you find in your Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus. For I can scarcely bring myself to believe that you think his opinions untrue."


    So, "Torquatus" is trying to beat Cicero's "Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus" by meeting on their philosophical playing field. He's going to show why Epicurus's pleasure meets the criteria for Aristotle's ταγαθον or, to give it its Latin translation, summum bonum. "Torquatus" is going to show why pleasure is the "Chief Good" and "That at which all things aim."


    Below are the occurrences of "summum bonum" (or a form of the phrase) in Book 1 of De Finibus. These are the instances spoken by "Torquatus" in his exposition of Epicurus's philosophy.


    Section 29 - Torquatus: "We are inquiring, then, what is the final and ultimate Good, which as all philosophers are agreed must be of such a nature as to be the end to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else. This Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the **Chief Good**, pain the *Chief Evil*."


    Section 30 - Torquatus: "...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,"


    Section 42 - Torquatus: "Pleasure and pain moreover supply the motives of desire and of avoidance, and the springs of conduct generally. This being so, it clearly follows that actions are right and praiseworthy only as being a means to the attainment of a life of pleasure. But that which is not itself a means to anything else, but to which all else is a means, is what the Greeks term the Telos, the highest, ultimate or final Good. It must therefore be admitted that the **Chief Good** is to live agreeably.

    "Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name..."


    Section 55 - Torquatus: "(1) The Ends of Goods and Evils themselves, that is, pleasure and pain, are not open to mistake; where people go wrong is in not knowing what things are productive of pleasure and pain." [NOTE: A variation on summum bonum: finibus bonorum et malorum]


    Section 57 - Torquatus: Notice then how the theory embraces every possible enhancement of life, every aid to the attainment of that **Chief Good** which is our object.

    quod propositum est, **summum bonum** consequamur?


    Section 70 - Torquatus: "All these considerations go to prove not only that the theory of friendship is not embarrassed by the identification of the **Chief Good** with pleasure, but also that without this no foundation for friendship whatsoever can be found."


    I want to specifically look at Section 29's quote. Torquatus says specifically that "all philosophers are agreed [the final and ultimate Good] must be of such a nature as to be the end to which all other things are means, while it is not itself a means to anything else." This is almost a word-for-word translation of Aristotle's definition of ταγαθον in Nicomachean Ethics. Torquatus's "all philosophers" shows that he's addressing a widespread philosophical idea and attempting to provide an Epicurean answer to "What is the 'final and ultimate Good' [extremum et ultimum bonorum]?"


    Also, in section 42, Torquatus specifically uses the Greek telos and defines the Greek word as "the highest, ultimate or final Good [summum bonorum vel ultimum vel extremum — quod Graeci τέλος nominant] which isn't a bad attempt at a definition, see the LSJ: "full realization, highest point, ideal; the final cause; the chief good" https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/…4.0057%3Aentry%3Dte%2Flos


    So, referring to pleasure as the Chief Good (yes, I'm capitalizing because the translator did) is addressing a specific philosophical question that "all philosophers" appeared to have asked before, during, and after Epicurus's time. Epicurus's school needed an answer to this, maybe especially for a segment of the school that felt "elaborate and reasoned argument, and abstruse theoretical discusion" were necessary at the period of time Cicero and Philodemus and possibly Zeno of Sidon were writing - and maybe even Epicurus himself in answer to a widespread Greek question articulated even before Epicurus's time by Aristotle. As of my writing this, I don't have a problem with seeing Epicurus maintaining that pleasure is the Chief Good at which all other things point.

  • "Cicero as a Source for Epicurus"

    by Kyle Tebo

    Kalosyni I read that article and it is directly on point as to Ciceros motives. It does a good job of collecting examples of Cicero's hostility. It does not really go further than that (that he was hostile) however so it doesn't help much with what Epicurus actually held. In fact the article raises an issue that I agree with (that Epicurus probably did not think the sun was only a foot wide) but then (to my reading) did not follow through with more discussion, which I gathered he intended to do.


    Regardless, the article is a good summary. I think it leaves unanswered whether Cicero was negligent or malicious, but I think the examples point clearly toward malicious.

  • Wow Don thanks for the lengthy summary.


    Maybe I am jumping to a conclusion too early but it does seem to me that the ultimate issue is still in the area of "What was Epicurus own opinion of discussing an 'ultimate good?'.


    He clearly did use similar terms himself. So no one can argue that he did not talk about the subject.


    The issue is more a question of what limitations or caveats did he imply in his usage that differs from the other philosophers.


    It seems to me that he differs not only in selecting his ultimate good ("pleasure") but in warning against placing too much weight on the discussion.


    Like one of the Frances Wright quotes above, it seems to me that the other philosophers we're implying a "magic" to the discussion in that once the proved logically there was an ultimate good, they thought they had actually accomplished something.


    I read Epicurus as saying that the exercise really accomplishes very little other than answering the philosophic question that the others insist on asking. Once you have identified "pleasure" as the answer to the logic game, you're still at the very beginning of your analysis of how to act in a particular situation.


    Which tells me that Epicurus was much less interested in the application of the logic game than he was in identifying that there is no supernatural god, and no life after death, and no logical magic that answers the truly practical question of how to live. What we are left with is "feeling" in the same generic sense as is any other living animal. Our reasoning ability lets us pursue far more elaborate means of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain than other animals, but we're ultimately all one big family of life doing the best we can with the time we have.

  • I read Epicurus as saying that the exercise really accomplishes very little other than answering the philosophic question that the others insist on asking. Once you have identified "pleasure" as the answer to the logic game, you're still at the very beginning of your analysis of how to act in a particular situation.

    That's exactly the opposite conclusion I'm reaching. I think Epicurus felt the answer one gives to that question "What is the Chief Good?" accomplishes everything. If you're aiming at something other than pleasure, your "conduct of life" is going to be off kilter. To me, it's not a "logic game," it's as practical as it gets for Epicurus in this "problem" that "all philosophers" are expected to answer. Aristotle's and "Torquatus's" definition of the Chief Good is simply "that to which all else points." Basically, why do we do what we as humans do. The telos for Epicurus is related to the chief good, but Aristotle took the idea of the telos to its absurd conclusion: e.g., the telos of the eye is to see. If I remember, Lucretius puts that idea to rest. However, the supreme good/ultimate end has concrete practical application:

    Quote from Aristotle

    "If therefore among the ends (τελος/telos) at which our actions aim there be one which we will for its own sake, while we will the others only for the sake of this, and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (which would obviously result in a process ad infinitum, so that all desire would be futile and vain), it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good. [2] Will not then a knowledge of this Supreme Good be also of great practical importance for the conduct of life?"

    One of my reasons for maintaining Epicurus would say there is a supreme good is his distaste for infinite division or regression. Part of Aristotle's definition here is: if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (which would obviously result in a process ad infinitum, so that all desire would be futile and vain), it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good. It seems to me Epicurus would say, "Okay, so you ask what is it that is the ultimate end of our actions what our conduct of life should steer by? It is pleasure. We choose everything because of pleasure, sometimes pleasure in the moment, sometimes pleasure in the future, but always pleasure. Not virtue. Not wisdom. Not the καλός. I spit on all those unless they bring pleasure." *That* "fact" - that pleasure is the one thing to which all else aims - then underpins all of Epicurus's "conduct of life."

    PS: Of course, there are many things which produce pleasure, just as there are many virtuous actions, just as there are many ways to become wise, just as there are many beautiful things (one meaning of καλός. That doesn't negate the fact that we should steer toward pleasure as the chief aim.

  • I don't know that what Don and i are saying is really that different. The word "pleasure" is just like any other word - it is a placeholder for innumerable numbers of individual pleasures which we have to decide to choose or avoid. It is only one among several starting points for action, which is what I mean as "answering the philosophical question."


    Obviously it's tremendously important to do that properly, because the major alternatives are "virtue," "piety," and "logic" (maybe I would add "nothingness" if we want to include certain other viewpoints). And yes i agree that answering that question is tremendously important so as not to associate with the wrong people and so as to know how to answer the question when it comes up. Identifying the greatest good solves those problems for us. It tells us to which school we should belong. And of course that is tremendously important.


    But we still arrive at the same point once we identify "Pleasure is the Greatest Good:" because the daily question that has to be answered moment by moment is "What next?"


    My view as to why Don and I seem to be dancing around but not appearing to agree is that we don't at this point have the same attitude toward the "role of logic'" question. I think Epicurus considered the Platonic / Aristotelian assertions of "logic' to be equally as deadly as the arbitrary assertions of religions, and that he was arguing against both with similar intensity. Even though Plato and Aristotle did believe in their gods, their error was not primarily one of religion - it was the way they were applying their logic. Therefore i think Epicurus saw TWO major enemies of right thinking, religion and improper use of logic, and what I am trying to do is to bring out that side of what he was attacking and what he was saying.


    Just as with "gods' and "all sensations are true" and the subtleties of "absence of pain" (and probably more terms if I thought about it longer) I think that "pleasure" and "greatest good' have to be parsed for their deeper meaning and not taken at face value. Saying "pleasure is the greatest good" in his time was filled with implications that need to be brought and, rather than treated as if that formulation answers every question.


    To repeat Wright, in a passage where I think she was right in seeing this in Epicurus:


    "In the schools you have hitherto frequented,” she continued, addressing the youth, “certain images of virtue, vice, truth, knowledge, are presented to the imagination, and these abstract qualities, or we may call them, figurative beings, are made at once the objects of speculation and adoration. A law is laid down, and the feelings and opinions of men are predicated upon it; a theory is built, and all animate and inanimate nature is made to speak in its support; an hypothesis is advanced, and all the mysteries of nature are treated as explained."


    And I don't consider this to be a "fight' in any way between me and Don but an extremely helpful way to get at some issues that I am not sure I previously recognized.


    In the past I was criticized (not here) by harping too much on pleasure, and I hope to always continue to be criticized for that because I think that "pleasure" is the ultimate answer to these questions. But going into it as deeply as we are doing helps us understand (i think) where Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics were wrong and have to be attacked.


    They weren't just wrong because they attacked Pleasure, they were wrong in their reasons for attacking it, which involved not just religion but their logic and/or their implications as to their logical analysis of "The Good." They didn't base their attack on Pleasure as "I attack it because Zeus told me so." They based their attack on Pleasure on a logical framework which Epicurus found to be in error.

  • But we still arrive at the same point once we identify "Pleasure is the Greatest Good:" because the daily question that has to be answered moment by moment is "What next?"

    You use that to wisely inform every choice and rejection in the conduct of your life. Pleasure is your North Star, the lighthouse by which to steer your little boat.

  • I am working to try to catch up on editing this week's podcast and I realize I am doing everyone a disservice by not posting it before we got so far into this conversation. Not that we solved anything in the podcast, but I for one have probably been all over the board between here and in the podcast in trying to focus in on these issues. Will get it up hopefully later today.

  • This is a very illuminating discussion! Thanks to both Don and Cassius .


    First, I reacted to post #53 with total agreement.

    Quote from Don
    Quote
    23-9f93d8f94fca54fa8e91d055eb8208cd2ac9b0c8.webp Quote from Cassius But we still arrive at the same point once we identify "Pleasure is the Greatest Good:" because the daily question that has to be answered moment by moment is "What next?"

    You use that to wisely inform every choice and rejection in the conduct of your life. Pleasure is your North Star, the lighthouse by which to steer your little boat

    Following up on this quote: whether we define pleasure as the guide (North Star, lighthouse) or greatest good, once one has understood pleasure as foundational they still need to use practical wisdom in making choices and rejections. Once you're sailing to the lighthouse, you need to make wise decisions so you don't sink your little boat, and logic games won't be of much use. I think that's the point Cassius was making and I'm pretty sure we all agree on that.

  • logic games won't be of much use.

    I'm legitimately sorry for being dense, but I'm just not seeing the "logic game" in all this. Steering toward pleasurable experiences should undergird all our choices and rejections. That's Epicurus's answer, as I see it, to the question of "what is that to which everything else points?". We should aim at that goal/telos. That's the definition of the "Greatest Good" - simply that thing that you base your "conduct of life" on. I don't see it as a logic problem or some kind of gotcha question. It seems eminently practical to me, and I think Epicurus's answer makes the most sense of any other possible answer.

  • That's Epicurus's answer, as I see it, to the question of "what is that to which everything else points?

    My answer to that part Don would be that it is not clear to me AT ALL that in an atomistic universe as we understand it to be, that there IS or SHOULD be something "at which everything else points." We *don't* think that in regard to the movement of the atoms through the void, so why should at some other point there be a single goal?


    That is a *huge* presumption for the Platonists et al to be making -- that there is a "single good" that makes sense to everyone.


    What I am suggesting is that if you come at the world through religion, then you stipulate that "god" sets the terms. But religion isn't the only way, and from the Pythagoreans and their numerology on through to Plato and his world of ideal forms, there is a "logic-based" approach through which you can allegedly conclude that there is a single good.


    I'm suggesting that Epicurus rejected *both* approaches.


    In religion, it's pretty simple to say "You're wrong because there is no god."


    But in "logic-based approaches" it's not so simple to understand what they even are saying, must lest decode and refute it.


    They are postulating things in their formulas and their syllogisms that have to be questioned lest you be tricked. Is it really self-evident that it makes sense to talk of a single highest good? That's pretty much the question we're debating. If we're all in good faith about the basic fundamentals that there's no supernatural realm then we can presume that no one is trying to pull anything over on us, and we can talk about pleasure being "good." But while we agree on what pleasure is (a feeling) no one has ever defined explicitly what "good" is, and so you get packed into that word various presumptions which are at least potentially at odds with Epicurus. Among them are:


    Can something be "good" without it being directly attached to pleasure and pain? The world seems to shout "yes" but I am not sure Epicurus would agree.


    Are there in fact then many "goods"?


    If so, what makes something good? We say pleasure, but the rest of the world shouts that it's more than that.


    We pretty much agree I think that there are many pleasures, but they are unified to an extent because our feeling tells us they are pleasures. But all those many pleasures aren't identical to each other in every respect. Sex is not the same as filing your fingernails.


    Are all pleasures equally pleasing? Are all goods equally good? If they are not equal and identical in every respect, can they be ranked?


    Is there an absolute ranking to which all can refer, or is it purely personal how to rank them?


    All these questions tend to get hidden if we jump to "pleasure is the greatest good" and think that ends the process.


    Those are questions enough, but I seem to recall (and I bet someone can remind us) that Plato traps some of his interlocutors in his dialogues by talking about "cookery."


    As I understand it (and I may be grossly wrong) he asks questions like we are discussing now, and he asks "How do you know which pleasure (or good) is the greatest?


    And he ends up suggesting that the only way we can know which good is the greatest is through WISDOM.


    As a result, you end up concluding that if you have to have wisdom in order to know what is the greatest good. Thus by that reasoning it is wisdom itself, and not any other good that's in the competition, that therefore must be considered to be the greatest good.


    (And that's the analogy to "cookery" -- the cook must know how to combine the elements in order to produce the best result in the food that is eventually to be served.)


    I am concerned that that what I am arguing is going to sound like "nominalism" -- which I understand to mean that words have absolutely no meaning except what we give them, with the presumption that everything is totally relative in life and no certainty is possible in anything. I don't mean to be arguing that. But to a certain degree it is true that words are just symbols that we assign in our human brains, and that process of assembling symbols seems to me to be the "opinion" part of the thought process, which Epicurus held is preceded (and guided or tested by) the three canonical faculties, including pleasure and pain. So ultimately I think Epicurus was stressing that the feeling of pleasure is the only ultimate guide, but that as soon as we translate any of this into "opinions" we have to be on the lookout for errors.


    So to repeat something I've asserted already, I think we are always on firm ground when we talk about the feeling of pleasure as being the guide of life. But when we talk about happiness or "good and evil" and other higher-level concepts, it looks to me like Epicurus was saying something like "Yes use those words because you have to, but be careful how you use them and be careful what you're admitting when you use them."



    I want us to at least get to the point where we can clearly articulate the issues involved. We're getting closer, but I am not sure we are quite there yet. However I think we will get there.


    One way to make progress would be if we were all clear on what Epicurus was warning about in his "don't walk about uselessly talking about the good" statement, and also what Torquatus is talking about when he said that Epicurus didn't hold that logical argument was necessary to establish that pleasure is desirable. We ought to at least be able to agree that he was warning about *something* and be able to articulate what he was warning about.