On Pleasure vs. Tranquility - A Dialogue With Southampton

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Hi Cassius. I'm sorry to badger you about this again, but I'm still trying to get my head around the pleasure principle. From my reading, all scholars agree that Epicurus divides pleasure into kinetic and katastematic. Am I right in thinking mainline scholars think Epicurus prized the latter over the former, and that DeWitt didn't? I ask because although mainline scholars I've read equate pleasure with tranquility / absence of pain, they nonetheless encourage the pursuit of positive pleasures like friendship etc. and talk about a hedonic calculus. My impression was that your and Elayne's accusations against mainline Epicurean philosophy was that it was static and not acquisitive; but from what I've read, that isn't true. Could you help clear things up for me? Sorry to be a pain (pun intended!) I suppose the essence of my belief about Epicureanism, and it's shared by Catherine Wilson I believe, is that Epicureanism is a type of prudential hedonism in which one aims at maximising long term pleasure. Is this not DeWitt's stance too?


First: "From my reading, all scholars agree that Epicurus divides pleasure into kinetic and katastematic." This line of thought is based primarily on a single comment from Diogenes Laertius, and from material in Cicero. None of the existing letters of Epicurus or fragments say this. As Gosling and Taylor explore, this distinction has major contradictions with other Epicurean doctrines that are equally or more clearly stated, and for that reason the contention that the distinction was important to Epicurus is probably not tenable. As Nikolsky explains, the reason that Cicero and Diogenes Laertius (much later writers) probably introduced this issue in the way that did is that the division became fashionable due to Stoic discussions well after Epicurus' own time. The Wenham article gives another perspective on why the distinction as stated by the "all scholars" you refer to does not make sense. (These referenced articles are available here.)

"...[M]ainline scholars I've read equate pleasure with tranquility/absence of pain, [but] they nonetheless encourage the pursuit of positive pleasures like friendship etc. and talk about a hedonic calculus." --- Yes they do, and this is part of the ultimately untenable inconsistency that shows why they are wrong. if indeed "tranquility" were the highest goal, then why not go live in a cave on bread and water and totally isolate yourself from the world?

It is absolutely certain that neither Epicurus nor any known Epicurean did that, and so we should ask ourselves "Why didn't they carry their philosophy to that logical conclusion?" And the answer that I think is demanded is that the logical conclusion of Epicurean philosophy is not "tranquility" but "pleasure" -- of which tranquility is but a part.

"My impression was that your and Elayne's accusations against mainline Epicurean philosophy was that it was static and not acquisitive; but from what I've read, that isn't true" << I think you probably understand this, but I want to be very very clear. Elayne and I are not arguing against "mainline Epicurean philosophy." We are arguing against "modern commentators on Epicurean philosophy" such as Nussbaum and probably Wilson and other commentators as well. The issue is not whether Epicurus was correct - I / we are arguing that Epicurus taught what DeWitt and Gosling and Taylor and Nikolsky and Wenham say that Epicurus taught -- that the goal of life is properly stated as pleasure, and not as "tranquility"

"and it's shared by Catherine Wilson I believe, is that Epicureanism is a type of prudential hedonism in which one aims at maximising long term pleasure. Is this not DeWitt's stance too?" <<< Here too there is an issue. I have not read Wilson's books in full, and I do not yet have a full understanding of her position, but I do not think it is correct to say that Epicurean advocated maximizing "long term pleasure" --- even though I have occasionally used that term myself. I think that is not correct, and the proper statement is that "pleasure" has no modifier in front of it. This should be clear from the statement of Epicurus in the Letter to Menoeceus that we seek not the longest life, but the most pleasant.

"And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest."


You make a compelling case, Cassius. I read the Letter to Menoeceus this morning. It does say: "when we speak of pleasure or happiness as the chief good, we mean the freedom of the body from pain and the freedom of the soul from confusion." That is in line with the tranquility view, is it not?


Yes it does say that, and that is the main part cited by those who take the position that "pleasure = tranquility / absence of pain = asceticism" position. it is therefore necessary to decide whether that passage overrides everything else Epicurus is recorded to have said about pleasure and sensation, and if so why, or if there is an explanation as to why Epicurus is concerned about "Quantity of Pleasure" -- you will observe that this passage is similar to PD3.

So my suggestion to you is to consider "Why is PD3 written about Quantity of Pleasure?" and "How do you reconcile this passage with the rest of the Epicurean texts and our observations about what is known about the life of Epicurus and all ancient Epicureans?" Were they hypocrites, or is there an explanation that reconciles these apparent contradictions (which of course Cicero was the first in our recorded material to complain about)?

And I will suggest to you that the explanation is found in DeWitt's observation that Epicurus was in revolt against Plato and the Platonist views of pleasure, and that is necessary for you to understand Plato's arguments about pleasure as stated in Philebus, in order to see why this issue was a concern of Epicurus. The rest of the explanation, which you must read Philebus to understand in full, is that Epicurus was addressing the specific Platonic objection that Pleasure, in order to qualify in Platonic logical terms as "the greatest good, must have a "limit," and must be of a nature that cannot be improved by the addition of more of the same. This is logical gamesmanship and manipulation of those who were "unable to figure the problem out," but it was a challenge that needed to be met. Plato and others were teaching the students of Greece that Pleasure is of such a nature that we always desire more of it, and life can always be made better by adding more of it, and students taken in by this argument would become persuaded that "Pleasure" could never meet this test and thus could never be considered to be "the highest good."

In response, Epicurus decided to meet Plato on Plato's own playing field, and so Epicurus constructed a logical argument about Pleasure to show that Pleasure does indeed have a logical limit. That limit is reached in any individual's life when our experience is one in which all our experience is completely filled with pleasures, and all pains have been banished. At this limit, all experience is occupied with pleasure, and no additional pleasure can be added. This is the "limit of pleasure" to which Epicurus was referring, not some counter-intuitive "absence of pain" as suggested by Epicurus' enemies. Always remember the wording of PD3 where the measurement context of this doctrine is unmistakable: "The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once."

We can see this issue stated in recognizable terms also in a fragment recorded in Plutarch, where there is no hint that "absence of pain" is anything other than the natural result of expelling pains by filling experience with pleasures:

"Epicurus has imposed a limit on pleasures that applies to all of them alike: the removal of all pain. For he believes that our nature adds to pleasure only up to the point where pain is abolished and does not allow it any further increase in magnitude (although the pleasure, when the state of painlessness is reached, admits of certain unessential variations). But to proceed to this point, accompanied by desire, is our stint of pleasure, and the journey is indeed short and quick." - Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 3, p. 1088C

But be wary, however, of even accepting in the first place that Plato's "limit" argument is made in good faith and worthy of concern. Recall another saying of Epicurus that is also preserved, and also applies to logical arguments about pleasure:

"...And they say that they can conceive of no other, and indeed that our nature has no place at all in which to put its good except the place left when its evil is expelled. … Epicurus too makes a similar statement to the effect that the good is a thing that arises out of your very escape from evil and from your memory and reflection and gratitude that this has happened to you. His words are these: “That which produces a jubilation unsurpassed is the nature of good, if you apply your mind rightly and then stand firm and do not stroll about prating meaninglessly about the good.- Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 7, p. 1091A


I wonder if, to a degree, Epicureanism should be thought of a bit like Christianity, insofar as there has been development / evolution of thought since ancient times that makes up for ambiguities and errors. I'm not suggesting that Epicurus was wrong, only that a degree of interpretation is needed by his followers.


Ha ha! Well there is no doubt that people after Epicurus have sought to "refine" his positions, but I would suggest to you that you should consider whether this is "refinement" or "overthrow." My view is that Epicurus understood the issues we are discussing VERY VERY well, and that he presented his views the way he did for specific reasons that we can understand if we study the material. JC, I have collected many of the text references applicable to this discussion, and especially to the logical roots of this argument in Philebus, here: https://newepicurean.com/foundations-2/the-full-cup-fullness-of-pleasure-model/  Here's just one example of how true Epicurean doctrine was interpreted, from Philodemus:


But the important ones are from Epicurus himself, such as:



It's also true that most of what he wrote is lost and slowly being discovered. I'm suggesting overthrowing him so much as suggesting faithful interpretation may be needed while ambiguities still exist.


I understand your position and like I said it is no offense to me if you wind up disagreeing with me. All I am urging at present is that you not accept any position at face value, and that you study for yourself the material that is available and see what makes sense to you. As you do that I am very interested in your own observations and conclusions -- I know those of Nussbaum and those who advocate pleasure = tranquility / absence of pain = aceticism, but what will be of help to me is hearing your opinions as you consider the material. 😉


I must admit I am much more attracted to the view that you offer, which is supported by the numerous scholars you cited, because it seems like a better life quite frankly. But I am intensely curious about this subject, will continue to study, and will indeed let you know what I make of it all.


I urge you to do that Jordan. Because I will say personally that if you arrive at the conclusion that the "tranquility" model is correct, then you will, and SHOULD, eventually discard Epicurus, just as Nietzsche did.

I promote Epicurus personally solely because I believe the tranquility model is totally wrong, is totally NOT what Epicurus taught, and that Epicurus deserves much better than the treatment he is given today.

And of course in saying this I do not mean to demean "tranquility" as an important aspect of pleasure. But I think that what is embraced in that term can and should be included in the pleasures of an astronaut, or a scientist, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or even a politician or a leader of any kind -- we should not be talking like we are shunting people off to live in caves at the lowest possible sustenance level - we should be interpreting Epicurus in a normal "seize the day" fashion to experience the pleasures that are available to people who can understand that life is short, that there are no gods or absolute "ideals" and that what we get out of life is largely up to us and how we approach it.


I quite agree. I know you don't like her work much, but it is encouraging that Catherine Wilson, in trying to popularise Epicureanism, doesn't seem to hold to the tranquility model. There might yet be hope for our creed!


if you have read her just recently can you point to chapters or pages that I should jump to? I have started the first chapter and read a little of the conclusion but I did not get much further than that.


Which book do you have? There is a new one I believe, slightly bigger than the first.


I have the FIRST one, from England, with the peeled apple on the front. Is that the one you have? I had to order that specially because that is not the version she apparently intends to sell in the USA.


Yes. I have it as an audio book. I personally think it's a wonderful book - far from a quasi self help book, it's quite a serious book of philosophy.


I will eventually order the new one too when it is available (not sure if it is now).


I can't remember which chapter exactly. The first half of the book is about physicalist metaphysics, the second is about ethics. Go to the chapter about love. Her main idea, about prudently weighing the cost and benefits of actions to maximize pleasure is there. She repeats it throughout the book.


One more comment for now, JC: Going from the record that is left, this argument about the true nature of Epicurean ethics started with Cicero and got solidified due to the katastematic / kinetic distinction the Stoics were preaching, as indicated by Nikolsky's research, which was not an Epicurean framework at all. From that point on all the Epicurean texts were lost that would have dealt with and refuted this argument. That is why this excerpt from a note by DeWitt has always stuck with me "I do not believe he could have misrepresented the truth so successfully had he not understood it completely":


So while Nussbaum and the legion of other modern commentators who preach "pleasure = tranquility = asceticism" they have the defense that they don't have a better record with which to work. Cicero, however, had the full record, and access to the best Epicurean teachers, so he does not deserve that defense. I admire Cicero in many ways, but Cicero's calculated misrepresentations and/or misunderstandings are the place in the surviving record where the issues start, as DeWitt says.

In the absence of Cicero's commentaries this whole pleasure=tranquility=asceticism would probably never have gotten started, but in fairness to Cicero he also preserved much information that indicates points to what I think is the real truth, such as in parts of the Torquatus narrative in On Ends, and in passages such as :

Cicero, In Defense of Publius Sestius 10.23: “He {Publius Clodius} praised those most who are said to be above all others the teachers and eulogists of pleasure {the Epicureans}. … He added that these same men were quite right in saying that the wise do everything for their own interests; that no sane man should engage in public affairs; that nothing was preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures."

** nothing was preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures** << THAT is what I think is the true Epicurean doctrine, as stated also by Torquatus in describing the life of the gods:

From On Ends: "XII. The truth of the position that pleasure is the ultimate good will most readily appear from the following illustration. 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? One so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is proof against all fear of death or of pain; he will know that death means complete unconsciousness, and that pain is generally light if long and short if strong, so that its intensity is compensated by brief duration and its continuance by diminishing severity. Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power; let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement."

Had Cicero not understood that the goal involved both tranquility and "crammed full of pleasures," he would not have stated his denunciation of Piso in that manner. Cicero knew the truth, but chose to use dialectical / legalistic gamesmanship to hide it.


I see. You've made a very good case and offered evidence which has won me over. Thank you for all the effort you've put in to these replies.


As to whether I have won you over, the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. I think the best test of whether someone is truly won over is that they eventually come to share the viewpoint of Lucian, and begin to take action themselves to "strike a blow for Epicurus, that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him." http://epicurism.info/etexts/Alexander.html



Goodness me! I don't want another Christ. I want a sage. Someone I revere, someone whose philosophy I believe in, study, practice, and defend. But someone who nevertheless remains human - perhaps even fallibly so. As to your last point. I always thought it strange that the so-called philosopher of tranquility seems so serious, convicted, and radical in all likenesses made of him.


Well Christ is an archetype of the type of god that is a fantasy of the imagination, and has never existed and can never exist. Epicurus was esteemed by the Epicureans as a model of a "true god" - who has achieved the best that life can offer. Now it is possible to consider the opening of Lucretius Book 5 as "tongue-in-cheek" because the Epicureans were well known for their humour, but there is also an aspect in which this analogy is useful for teaching the truth about the universe.


"As to your last point. I always thought it strange that the so-called philosopher of tranquility seems so serious, convicted, and radical in all likenesses made of him" <<< I completely agree, JC. That is the kind of observation that will firmly anchor you in the correct camp of Epicurean doctrine, like the hound who sniffs out its prey although covered with leaves.

Lucretius 1 (Munro): "[401] And many more arguments I may state to you in order to accumulate proof on my words; but these slight footprints are enough for a keen-searching mind to enable you by yourself to find out all the rest. For as dogs often discover by smell the lair of a mountain-ranging wild beast though covered over with leaves, when once they have got on the sure tracks, thus you in cases like this will be able by yourself alone to see one thing after another and find your way into all dark corners and draw forth the truth."

Don't forget - our goal is to live "as gods among men!" 😉


I'm reading Lucretius at the moment. Can you tell me: I'm not interested in reading his metaphysics - in which book does he begin to talk about Epicurean ethics? Or is it best to read it in its entirety?


For better or worse the book is mostly metaphysics, but reading that is very worthwhile because it shows you the method of thinking, which is critically important as not being based on dialectical logic. You will find that the opening of each of the five books begins with an "ethical" discussion, so you will want to read each of those up to the point where you see the discussion turning to physics again. I would also urge you to try to read all of Book 1, and Book 2 as well, as they are really geared toward showing that the nature of the soul is atomic, and not controlled by gods, rather than being supernatural. There is a well known lengthy discussion of death at the end of Book 3 (I think), and a discussion of romantic love at the end of Book 4. Book 5 appears to be focused on images and you will think that is uninteresting, but toward the middle of the book you find the most important discussion of the senses, and how logic is based on the senses.

If you can keep a fix on the reason each issue is being discussed it becomes much easier over time, but it is very true that today most people have a hard time reading all the detail, and it takes a significant degree of familiarity with the topics to get comfortable with where it all is going.

This outline might be of some small help: https://epicureanfriends.com/wiki/doku.php?id=on_the_nature_of_things

I am probably going to be distracted much of the day today but let me leave you with this:

If you conclude with DeWitt and others that Epicurus meant what he said when he focused over and over on "pleasure," and that he was not playing a word game and really meant "tranquility" then I think the natural result of that discovery is to want to explore it more and more deeply, talk about it, and move to the stage of explaining it to others. I hope that is where you end up, especially since today such a perverse misunderstanding is so widespread.

On the other hand if you conclude that "pleasure = tranquility / absence of pain = asceticism" and that Epicurus was really a word-game-playing Stoic on steroids, I hope you will take that "tranquility" message to its logical extreme, and retire to a cozy cave with bread and water and no pencils or paper or computers to write or communicate with the outside world. That will no doubt give your mind the greatest of ease and tranquility, and in so acting, from my point of view, you will do less to advance the kind of world which the Stoics and the Ciceronians plainly intend to create: a world of ideas ruled by them alone, free from any vibrant Epicurean competition.

I think you understand where I am going without a smiley face, but here is one anyway! 😉


I will certainly keep you updated on my progress 🙂 Thanks again for all your time!


Sometimes I worry that smiley faces are not enough -- you do understand my "joke" in that last part, correct? 😉


I'm British remember. Irony is what we do! 😉


LOL! Yes you are so right!