Comparing "Pleasure = Absence of Pain" to "Body = Absence of Void;" A Cite to Lucretius 1:503

  • In preparing an outline of Lucretius Book One it appears to me that the following is a reasonable summary of Book One line 503:


    Since we have determined that everything is composed of only two things, atoms and void, and that nothing else can exist, we conclude that wherever there is empty space there is no body there, and where any body exists, there is no void, and from this we conclude that the atoms are solid bodies free from any void.

    Here is Bailey:

    [503] First, since we have found existing a twofold nature of things far differing, the nature of body and of space, in which all things take place, it must needs be that each exists alone by itself and unmixed. For wherever space lies empty, which we call the void, body is not there; moreover, wherever body has its station, there is by no means empty void. Therefore the first bodies are solid and free from void.

    I would like to compare Munro and others on this point, but presuming that Bailey has it correct, it seems that this might be an example of reasoning similar to the distinctions that Epicurus draws between pleasure and pain and that where one exists the other is absence.

    I make note of this because I would expect that if reasoning like this is embedded so closely into the Physics as to the nature of atoms, it is easy to suspect that the Epicureans became comfortable with such "black and white" logical division, and that this attitude of reasoning carries over from "bodies and void" into "pleasure and pain."

    The parallel is pretty clear:

    We are not able to observe the atoms or the void directly, but we are confident that they are there based on the impact that their combinations make on our senses. We are not able to observe the ultimate mechanisms of pleasure or pain either, but we are confident of our conclusions about them based on their impact on our feelings.

    This method of argument is not going to impress a skeptic who argues that nothing can be known, but it works great for those who are willing to take confidence in reasoning based on repeated evidence, and who are willing to conclude that the results of repeated experience are reliable as a basis for knowledge.

  • One implication of this:

    We know due to the extending reasoning in Lucretius how Epicurus came to the conclusion that only atoms and void have an ultimate unchanging existence, that nothing has ultimate unchanging existence other than atoms and void, and that everything is made of atoms and void and only atoms and void.

    That reasoning tells us how he "defined" atoms and void and how he deduced their existence and how he reached his "nothing but atoms and void" perspective.

    Do we have a similar understanding of the chain of reasoning by which Epicurus concluded that Nature gives us only Pleasure and Pain by which to choose and avoid (Torquatus, Diogenes Laertius) and why the two do not mix and one cannot exist where the other is present (PD03)?

    In other words, are we confident why Cicero was wrong to insist that most people are experiencing neither pleasure nor pain?

    Are we confident why Chrysippus was wrong in asserting that the outstretched hand in a normal condition -- in which it is apparently not feeling a specific stimulus of pleasure) is not feeling pain or a lack of pleasure in that condition? (Simply saying "pleasure is the absence of pain" just begs the question - *Why* must we consider pleasure to be the absence of pain?)

    And last of all, why are we confident that the host pouring the wine can be considered to be in the greatest of pleasure when the guest drinking it may not be?

    It seems to me that these issues are all closely interrelated with the reasoning about atoms and void.

  • My thoughts on this are spurred by what I did this afternoon. For years I have been kicking myself that I did not have a better "topical index" or "table of contents" for finding things in Lucretius. I have had a rough outline, but it wasn't keyed to line numbers and was not much help in finding things. And it really bugs me to have to say that "I remember that's in Lucretius but I can't remember where!"

    So to help burn this in my memory and create a better reference for everyone, I am going to go through as quickly as I can an update my existing index with line references and better summaries. Today I completed Book One. I hope to spend this weekend getting as far as possible with the rest.

    Lucretius - Editions And Topical Finding Aid

    From this review of the explanation of how Epicurus derives the existence of matter and void, it's clear that he's using what Dewitt calls "chain reasoning." He's making observations about how things work, such as nothing is seen to come from nothing, and using those observations of what IS visible to make deductions about what IS NOT visible, and then carrying forward the reasoning from there all the way to "no supernatural gods" and "no eternal soul surviving death" and of course many other things. And by the time he reaches those conclusions, he considers them iron-clad and no longer open to doubt, so he asserts them firmly and without equivocation. I would expect that Epicurus saw PD01 as complimentary and supporting of the physics reasoning about no supernatural gods, rather than that PDO1 stands on its own as sufficient proof of the position. Likewise the physics point would not stand alone to establish that there are no higher beings that are capable of meddling in our affairs (like we are meddling in the affairs of the Moon and Mars), but the anticipation/prolepsis point would establish that any beings that do meddle don't merit being considered truly blessed and imperishable beings (regardless of whether they are natural or not).

    It seems to me to be super important to observe that he's not starting with a conclusion ("there are no supernatural gods"). Rather, he's starting with evidence from observation from which he makes deductions and then builds those deductions as they naturally flow to a conclusion that is compelled not by desire or arbitrary assumption but by sound reasoning.

    I would expect him to do exactly the same thing as to pleasure and pain. He would not assert that pleasure and pain are mutually exclusive unless he had some kind of framework of reasoning to support the contention. We can observe how we feel about pleasure and pain, but we can't directly observe the mechanism of action any more than we can directly observe the atoms and the void. So we can deduce how pleasure and pain "must" operate, just like we can deduce how the atoms "must" operate, in order to create the world as we live it.

    The same reasoning that would make Epicurus comfortable to state dogmatically that matter and void never mix would make him comfortable stating that pain and pleasure never mix. The experience of the world dictates what we conclude about atoms and void, even though we can't see them directly, and the experience of living dictates what we conclude about pleasure and pain, even though we don't see atoms of pleasure or pain at work. That experience combined with "true reasoning" is the best standard of proof we can hope to obtain.

    So a preliminary way of stating where this might lead would be to say that the same knowledge that tells us all bodies are composed of combinations of atoms and void tells us also that all feelings are composed of combinations of pleasure and pain, with each element always remaining discrete and true to its own nature, but moving and combining in different ways to produce something new. The mix of atoms and void produces bodies, the mix of pleasure and pain produces our overall experience (including happiness or unhappiness).

    But the first point that would seem clear is that if we can use our reasoning to conclude that all of the universe is composed of atoms and void, and of nothing but atoms and void, then we can use similar reasoning to conclude that all of human experience is composed of pleasure and pain, and of nothing but pleasure and pain.

    With the result that we can be dogmatically certain and insistent that just like where there is an atom there is no void and where there is void there is no atom, we can say that where there is pleasure there is no pain, and where there is pain there is no pleasure. And if Torquatus and the Epicureans were approaching the issue that way, then no matter how many ridiculous examples that Chryssippus or Cicero constructed to try to prove that there are more feelings than pleasure or pain, the Epicureans would **never** agree to such a suggestion.

    There are only two components to the universe, atoms and void, and there are only two feelings, pleasure and pain. From basically that starting point, combined with the commitment to following the evidence of the senses/anticipations/feelings, you can deduce the rest of the physics and deduce the rest of the ethics.

    Perhaps a similar analogous transfer of reasoning from one branch of the philosophy to another one in PD28?

    PD28. The same knowledge that makes one confident that nothing dreadful is eternal or long-lasting also recognizes, in the face of these limited evils, the security afforded by friendship.

    And potentially another transfer from physics to ethics in PD09 (the parallel being that in the same way that atoms cannot be unlimited in quantity or size, or else one or more atoms would fill up the universe and nothing could move, individual pleasures must be limited in experience, or else there would be no room for other pleasures to be experienced):

    PD09. If every pleasure could be intensified so that it lasted, and influenced the whole organism or the most essential parts of our nature, pleasures would never differ from one another.

    As another example, could we not compare these two similar statements:

    (1) "Atoms come in numberless varieties, but we have the capacity through our senses to recognize the qualities of the bodies which they come together to form."

    (2) "Experiences come in numberless varieties, but we have the capacity through our feelings of pleasure and pain to recognize the qualities of the lives which they come together to form."

    In both cases, we are accepting the validity of our faculty of perceiving (the senses as to atoms and void and the feelings as to pleasure and pain) because these are the only faculties given to us by nature for use in these areas. (With the anticipations being the faculty which allows us to integrate all this into words, without which we could not be having this discussion.) We aren't claiming to understand every detail about how the five senses or the feelings of pleasure and pain operate, but the atomic theory gives us a framework for understanding how the the things we sense around us (the qualities of the bodies) and the things we feel (pleasure and pain) operate naturally and not supernaturally.

    For now those are almost random thoughts to consider.


    Here's the summary of Book One. It's pretty long in itself, but I think can be used to construct some ways to make things easier to find across the many translations. Now I need to do the other five.

    2.1. Book I

  • In other words, are we confident why Cicero was wrong to insist that most people are experiencing neither pleasure nor pain?

    I hypothesize that when Epicurus stated "the feelings are two: pleasure and pain" that it was a "remedy" not a "truth" -- and it is similar in nature to the "remedy" of contemplating that "death is nothing to us". Contemplation of there being only two feelings is a kind of "reframing" of how we think of the nature of pleasure.

    And so Cicero had not understood this remedy.

    A "neutral" feeling would not tell you if something is desirable or not.

  • What is the difference between a remedy and a truth?

    Snow is cold, honey is sweet - these both do not require much thought and these are both true factually. A remedy requires further thought beyond what is easily seen as true. Because death seems like such a difficult and fearful thing to think about, many people don't ever get to the point of thinking about the "truth" that if consciousness and sensation is not present then there will not be a sense of "I" after death. A remedy is truth that requires inductive reasoning.

    Most people don't spend time contemplating the feeling of no pain present in either body or mind (yet with no active stimulation of the senses) as a peasant feeling. Most poeple label no pain and no active stimulation of the senses as being a neutral state -- but this is incorrect and leads to problems (making poor choices and avoidances).

    Let me know if this makes sense.