It is interesting to think about what Lucretius had in mind in Book One of “On The Nature of Things” when he spoke about Epicurus "yearning to be the first to burst through the close-set bolts upon the gates of nature." What kind of gates was he talking about? Who bolted them? How do those gates keep us from Nature?
I can't be sure which gates Lucretius had in mind, but I can suggest one "gate" that is particularly in need of bursting, as it stands directly in the way of a better understanding of Epicurus' teachings on the nature of pleasure.
Cicero The Gatekeeper
An internet search for "Epicurus," "Pleasure," and "Cicero" brings up a 2016 article by a noted Stoic, Donald Robertson, entitled "Cicero on Epicurus' Ambiguity."
Referring to Cicero's famous philosophical work "On Ends," Robertson writes, "In the text, Cicero focuses on the confusion caused, even in his day, by the ambiguity of some of Epicurus’ key concepts, particularly the way he defines “pleasure” (hedone) as the goal of life. At different times, Epicurus seems to mean different, and perhaps even conflicting things, by his use of this word.”
Robertson writes that "sometimes modern fans of Epicurus appear confused by this double-meaning. They argue that by “pleasure” Epicurus only meant the absence of pain (ataraxia) and that he did not mean what we ordinarily think of as sensory pleasures, like good food and drink, sexual intercourse, etc. The older Cyrenaic sect of Aristippus made sensory pleasures of this kind the goal of life and they claim that it’s merely “slander” to suggest Epicurus was referring to these sort of things at all. However, even in the surviving sayings of Epicurus, today, he does appear, at times, to praise these run-of-the-mill sensory pleasures, much like Aristippus and the Cyrenaics before him. Ancient commentators on Epicurus appear to be nearly unanimous in their belief that he said this."
It is a sad state of Epicurean affairs when a Stoic writer makes more sense than many who are supposedly pro-Epicurean, but Robertson is right: Epicurus most certainly did include within the term "pleasure" the sensory pleasures that everyone understands to be a primary meaning of the word. As a Stoic, Robertson would not be expected to work very hard to explain Epicurus more sympathetically, so he leaves the phrase "absence of pain" to be understood presumably as the sort of nothingness familiar to us from our friendly neighborhood Buddhists. Indeed, many modern Stoics wink and nod that occasionally a little pleasure might be acceptable, so long as they can remain aloof from pleasure’s charms and keep them at arm’s length from their pursuit of virtue.
“Absence of Pain” As the Key To Pleasure
But those of us who want to understand Epicurus can go further and look for the explanation that Torquatus, Cicero's spokesman for Epicurus in “On Ends,” gives as to what "absence of pain" really means. When we seek it out, we will find that there is no mystery beyond the grasp of the ordinary people of 50 BC about whom Cicero complained were embracing Epicurus in droves. We may also even find that Epicurus is understandable even today, at least by those who are uncorrupted by commentators who use conventional morality and religion to turn Epicurean pleasure into asceticism.
As Robertson rightly states, Epicurus did not limit pleasure to agreeable stimulations of the senses. In addition to those agreeable stimulations which we all consider to be pleasure, Epicurus went much further. Epicurus asserted that all the awarenesses and experiences of life fall within one of two - and only two - categories of feeling. Those two categories are pleasure and pain, between which there is no middle ground and beyond which there is no third condition.
Epicurus held that all feelings in life, whether “stimulated” or not, are either pleasure or pain. If you are conscious of your condition at all, you are at all times feeling a collection of either pleasures or pains. And make no mistake: the Epicureans were not referring only to bodily pain and pleasure. When the Epicureans spoke of pleasure and pain, they were clearly including all types of feelings, both mental and bodily, specifically including mental joy and delight and mental fears and anxieties.
Seen in this way, the term "pleasure" is not an abstraction referring only to the sum of one's experience. As is obvious to anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible and in fact normal to feel many things simultaneously in separate parts of mind and body, and to consider those feelings separately and apart from each other. If we simply step back and think about all the feelings and awarenesses of experiences that are going on in our lives, we can consider them separately and see that each of these feelings are either pleasurable or painful. Given that the choices of classification are only two, we are led inexorably to see that there is an exact equivalency in quantity: the presence of one equals the absence of the other. From this perspective, pain "is" the absence of pleasure, and pleasure "is" the absence of pain.
The Feelings Are Two With No Middle Ground
We can see these points being made clear in a variety of Epicurean texts:
Writing long after Cicero and hundreds of years after Epicurus, Diogenes Laertius preserved the point in section 34 of his biography of Epicurus: “The internal sensations they [the Epicureans] say are two, pleasure and pain, which occur to every living creature, and the one is akin to nature and the other alien: by means of these two choice and avoidance are determined.”
Torquatus makes the same point several ways, first in On Ends (at 1:30): ”Moreover, seeing that if you deprive a man of his senses there is nothing left to him, it is inevitable that nature herself should be the arbiter of what is in accord with or opposed to nature. Now what facts does she grasp or with what facts is her decision to seek or avoid any particular thing concerned, unless the facts of pleasure and pain?
Even more clearly, Torquatus asserts (in On Ends at 1:38): “Therefore Epicurus refused to allow that there is any middle term between pain and pleasure; what was thought by some to be a middle term, the absence of all pain, was not only itself pleasure, but the highest pleasure possible. Surely any one who is conscious of his own condition must needs be either in a state of pleasure or in a state of pain. Epicurus thinks that the highest degree of pleasure is defined by the removal of all pain, so that pleasure may afterwards exhibit diversities and differences but is incapable of increase or extension.”
That the two conditions of pleasure and pain are separate and unmixed in any particular feeling, and that we are talking about individual feelings and not simply about an abstract overall sum, is also clear not only from Torquatus but from the words of Epicurus himself:
PD03: “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.”
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.”
All of this taken together shows not only that Epicurus did not limit pleasure to sensory stimulation, but that he also included within the term pleasure all feelings of awareness of being alive that are not felt to be painful. Cicero himself recognized these points in his argument with Torquatus, and neither Cicero nor modern commentators have any excuse for ignoring these explanations of the full meaning of the word “pleasure” in Epicurean terms.
Challenge And Response
These points are most striking when we see how Torquatus responded to the challenges set forth by Cicero. Among the most stark was Torquatus’ answer to the charge made by the Stoic Chrysippus, who asserted that if pleasure were indeed the ultimate calling of life, even a person’s hand would feel the lack of pleasure if that hand were not constantly stimulated. Torquatus explained the fallacy in Chrysippus' reasoning at On Ends 1:39:
“For if that were the only pleasure which tickled the senses, as it were, if I may say so, and which overflowed and penetrated them with a certain agreeable feeling, then even a hand could not be content with freedom from pain without some pleasing motion of pleasure. But if the highest pleasure is, as Epicurus asserts, to be free from pain, then, O Chrysippus, the first admission was correctly made to you, that the hand, when it was in that condition, was in want of nothing; but the second admission was not equally correct, that if pleasure were a good it would wish for it. For it would not wish for it for this reason, inasmuch as whatever is free from pain is in pleasure.”
This provides an unmistakable marker as to how Epicurus considered that the normal healthy condition of life - in this example, a hand in its normal pain-free condition - is a condition of pleasure. Once it is understood that whatever is alive and aware of its condition is feeling either pleasure or pain, the only deduction that can be reached is that whatever is not feeling pain, be it a hand or a full human being, is feeling pleasure in that part of its experience.
Cicero preserves a similar argument by challenging Torquatus to say, as the Epicureans evidently held, that two people who are not in pain but involved in very different activities can both be considered to be experiencing pleasure. This challenge came specifically in the form of comparing a host at a party who is pouring wine to a guest at the same party who is drinking the wine. These are very different activities, and on the face of it only the drinker relieving his thirst might be considered to be experiencing pleasure. Cicero does not allow Torquatus to explain this example other than to accuse Cicero of quibbling, but the implied affirmative answer to the hypothetical question preserves for us an example similar to Chrysippus' hand:
On Ends 2:16: “This, O Torquatus, is doing violence to one's senses; it is wresting out of our minds the understanding of words with which we are imbued; for who can avoid seeing that these three states exist in the nature of things: first, the state of being in pleasure; secondly, that of being in pain; thirdly, that of being in such a condition as we are at this moment, and you too, I imagine, that is to say, neither in pleasure nor in pain; in such pleasure, I mean, as a man who is at a banquet, or in such pain as a man who is being tortured. What! do you not see a vast multitude of men who are neither rejoicing nor suffering, but in an intermediate state between these two conditions? ‘No, indeed,’ said he (Torquatus); ‘I say that all men who are free from pain are in pleasure, and in the greatest pleasure too.’ ‘Do you, then, say that the man who, not being thirsty himself, mingles some wine for another, and the thirsty man who drinks it when mixed, are both enjoying the same pleasure?’”
This passage clearly sets out what is really at stake in this argument. Cicero wants to maintain that unless we are receiving sensory stimulation it is improper to consider ourselves to be experiencing pleasure. But in Epicurean analysis, neither the condition of not being thirsty and pouring nor the condition of being one who is thirsty and drinks constitute conditions of pain, and thus by both logical deduction, and by a feeling that is readily understandable that life while not suffering a specific in pain is a pleasure, both people in Cicero’s example are experiencing pleasure. Cicero does not allow Torquatus to place a bow on the package, but one can imagine how Torquatus could have lit Cicero’s anger even further. Had Torquatus been allowed to proceed, he would no doubt have observed that by stating as a premise of the hypothetical that neither the host nor the guest were experiencing any pain, it may be concluded, as Torquatus did in regard to the “vast multitude of men” cited above, that both the host and the guest were not only experiencing pleasure, but the greatest pleasure possible!
(Are you at this point still concerned that what you are reading by talking about absence of pain, Epicurus calling for us to do nothing in life - to retreat into a garden or a cave and close the doors around us so that we can escape all pain? For now, let’s simply recall that Epicurus himself in his letter to Menoeceus states that some pains are to be chosen, when such choice leads to lesser pain / greater pleasure. Let’s further observe that no Epicurean in recorded history interpreted Epicurus as calling for inactivity and passivity and followed such a course, and that in fact every Epicurean we know of was actively engaged in pursuing life. Can you really imagine a typical vigorous Greek or Roman finding inactivity as a way of life attractive? We know from Cicero himself that Epicurean philosophy was taking Italy “as if by storm,” and that Cicero made no accusation of passivity against Torquatus. On Ends makes clear that if Cicero found Epicurean actions to be objectionable, it was not because the Epicureans were guilty of too little indulgence in sensual activity. Were the Romans at the height of their power suddenly indulging in an orgy of asceticism? At the end of this article we will return to this concern of passivity, and focus on how fallacious and ridiculous such an interpretation of Epicurus’ meaning would be.)
The Gate Opened
How does this all make sense? The ancient Epicureans stressed both that life is desirable and that life is short. Given its dearness, it is both right and proper to consider being aware of being alive - for any amount of time in which you are not aware of being in pain - to be an awareness of pleasure. Here it is important to see that the "awareness" is a very important qualification. Neither life nor pleasure exist in the air: Epicurus is not saying that a rock is feeling pleasure because it is not feeling pain. Only the living can feel pleasure or pain, but when you are aware of being alive, and you understand that all your feelings can and should be categorized as either painful or pleasurable, then any mental or bodily experience that is not painful is pleasurable.
Torquatus hammers the point home further by rejecting Cicero's exasperated objections:
On Ends 2:9: Cicero: “[B]ut unless you are extraordinarily obstinate you are bound to admit that 'freedom from pain' does not mean the same thing as 'pleasure.'” Torquatus: “Well but on this point you will find me obstinate, for it is as true as any proposition can be.”
On Ends 2:11: Cicero: “Still, I replied, granting that there is nothing better (that point I waive for the moment), surely it does not therefore follow that what I may call the negation of pain is the same thing as pleasure?” Torquatus: “Absolutely the same, indeed the negation of pain is a very intense pleasure, the most intense pleasure possible.”
Cicero also objects (Book 2, XXVI), that happiness defined in terms of pleasure cannot be the highest good, because it is impossible for a human to always be experiencing pleasure. Cicero says “For if the life of happiness may cease to be so, then it cannot be really happy. Who indeed has any faith that a thing which is perishable and fleeting will in his own case always continue solid and strong?”
Epicurus rejects this argument, and holds that the wise can feel continuous pleasure. How can this be so? Because Epicurus knows what we all know when we step back and reflect: Not all pleasures are exactly the same. The common unity of pleasure is that pleasure is any experience which we find to be agreeable, of which there are many kinds of experiences. The pleasure of eating ice cream is obviously different from the pleasure of sex in terms of intensity, duration, and part of the body involved. Similarly, pains differ in intensity, duration, and parts of the body as well. Nevertheless, all that we find agreeable is deserving of the name of pleasure, and all that we find disagreeable is deserving of the name of pain.
In defining the total absence of pain as the highest pleasure, Epicurus is referring to the sum total of all pleasures and pains, considering all the intensities, durations, and parts of the body involved. When all of these feelings of intensity, duration, and bodily location are considered as consisting of either pleasures or pains, the most pure and complete summation that is possible is when all of these many and varied experiences are found to be pleasures, unaccompanied by pain in any part of one's experience. The wise will consider this condition to be the highest pleasure in the sense of the most complete pleasure, even though it is not the most intense stimulation.
Bursting Through The Opened Gate
Perhaps the most striking example of this analysis can be seen in the life of Epicurus himself. Despite being in excruciating pain from kidney disease during his last days, Epicurus claimed to be happy. How? Because feelings of pleasure and pain can be offset against each other.
Diogenes Laertius records this: “ When he [Epicurus] was on the point of death he wrote the following letter to Idomeneus: ‘On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The disease in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their natural severity: but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you. Do you, as I might expect from your devotion from boyhood to me and to philosophy, take good care of the children of Metrodorus.’”
Torquatus explained this in further detail:
On Ends 1:56 : "By this time so much at least is plain, that the intensest pleasure or the intensest annoyance felt in the mind exerts more influence on the happiness or wretchedness of life than either feeling, when present for an equal space of time in the body. We refuse to believe, however, that when pleasure is removed, grief instantly ensues, excepting when perchance pain has taken the place of the pleasure; but we think on the contrary that we experience joy on the passing away of pains, even though none of that kind of pleasure which stirs the senses has taken their place; and from this it may be understood how great a pleasure it is to be without pain. But as we are elated by the blessings to which we look forward, so we delight in those which we call to memory. Fools however are tormented by the recollection of misfortunes; wise men rejoice in keeping fresh the thankful recollection of their past blessings. Now it is in the power of our wills to bury our adversity in almost unbroken forgetfulness, and to agreeably and sweetly remind ourselves of our prosperity. But when we look with penetration and concentration of thought upon things that are past, then, if those things are bad, grief usually ensues, if good, joy."
On Ends 1:62 : But these doctrines may be stated in a certain manner so as not merely to disarm our criticism, but actually to secure our sanction. For this is the way in which Epicurus represents the wise man as continually happy; he keeps his passions within bounds; about death he is indifferent; he holds true views concerning the eternal gods apart from all dread; he has no hesitation in crossing the boundary of life, if that be the better course. Furnished with these advantages he is continually in a state of pleasure, and there is in truth no moment at which he does not experience more pleasures than pains. For he remembers the past with thankfulness, and the present is so much his own that he is aware of its importance and its agreeableness, nor is he in dependence on the future, but awaits it while enjoying the present; he is also very far removed from those defects of character which I quoted a little time ago, and when he compares the fool’s life with his own, he feels great pleasure. And pains, if any befall him, have never power enough to prevent the wise man from finding more reasons for joy than for vexation.”
Thus there is no mystery or ambiguity about how a proper understanding of “absence of pain” is the key to understanding pleasure as the guide and goal of life. Absence of pain is pleasure by definition and experience when we view pleasure properly, and the terms are interchangeable. When absence of pain is seen simply as another term for pleasure, the total absence of pain becomes the highest pleasure, not because the highest pleasure consists in the most sensory stimulation, but because when considering together every mental and bodily condition and experience of life, those conditions cannot be improved in terms of pleasure when all of them are pleasurable. Pleasure unaccompanied by pain is the most complete pleasure possible, and this is true regardless of whether the component pleasures arise from "stimulation" or from the simple awareness of being alive and not in pain.
Again, we see this thought process at work in Principal Doctrine 09: "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." This shows that Epicurus understood that the many and various types of pleasure differ in intensity, in duration, and in location of the body that they effect, but that regardless of these differences, the many ways in which pleasure is experienced are all properly considered to be within the wider meaning of the word "pleasure."
Is The Key To The Gate A Game of Words?
Epicurus' expansion of the meaning of “pleasure” may appear to some to be a word game, but it is no more a word game than Epicurus’ assertion that there are indeed "gods," but that the gods are neither supernatural nor omnipotent nor involved at all in human affairs. Words have meaning, and ideas have consequences. By making his terms clear, Epicurus was asserting that pleasure is the normal healthy default condition of life, and that every experience while we are alive should be considered to be pleasurable whenever it is not painful. Norman DeWitt explains the significance of this well in Epicurus And His Philosophy, page 240:
“The extension of the name of pleasure to this normal state of being was the major innovation of the new hedonism. It was in the negative form, freedom from pain of body and distress of mind, that it drew the most persistent and vigorous condemnation from adversaries. The contention was that the application of the name of pleasure to this state was unjustified on the ground that two different things were thereby being denominated by one name. Cicero made a great to-do over this argument, but it is really superficial and captious. The fact that the name of pleasure was not customarily applied to the normal or static state did not alter the fact that the name ought to be applied to it; nor that reason justified the application; nor that human beings would be the happier for so reasoning and believing."
Epicurus' entire philosophy is geared toward providing an accurate and true understanding of the nature of things, showing us as humans how to navigate within nature and live the best life possible to us. Cicero and other opponents of Epicurus do not want to recognize that in the final analysis that we must grasp both intellectually with our minds and emotionally with our hearts and souls that it is Nature through Pleasure and Pain, and not gods or logical idealism, that provides the true guidance system of all life.
To repeat for emphasis, Epicurus’ opponents are aroused to a fever pitch to deny that with Pleasure as our guidance system we have no need of false religions and empty notions of virtue. Cicero and those who follow his same path today may think that they are using “absence of pain” as a mysterious gate which bars the way to living life in accord with Nature’s standards of pleasure and pain, but that gate cannot hold once you observe how Epicurus provides the key which allows you to pass it. Those who can see how Idealism, Humanism, and Virtue-Based ethics stand guard at the gate with a false interpretation of “absence of pain” can follow Torquatus and Epicurus forward past those same gates.
Wrestling The Key From The Gatekeepers
Before we finish we need to see that Torquatus provides us another important example: Ideas alone are not sufficient to wrestle the key from the gatekeepers. Just as the first Torquatus stepped forward to wrestle the necklace from his Gallic foe, action must be taken, because the gatekeepers do not offer the keys voluntarily.
It is possible that Cicero himself was aware that he was on thin ground arguing against the surging Epicurean movement of his day. Cicero could have picked any number of his Roman friends to stand up as the champion for Epicurus, and his choice of Torquatus reveals that Cicero may have known he was going too far. Cicero had at his disposal his close friend Atticus, who not only was a dedicated Epicurean but who embodied what many people then and now consider to be a classic Epicurean. Atticus was famously a friend to those on both sides of the Roman Civil War. Rich, educated, and able to devote himself to a life of leisure, Atticus would have been a better symbol for Epicurus if Cicero could have expected his Epicurean readers to accept pleasure consisted in sensual stimulation alone. If not Atticus, Cicero himself mentions other prominent Romans, such as Thorius Balbus, who were reputed to have been devoted to pleasure while still leading creditable lives as Roman leaders.
In the end, we know that Cicero himself later admitted to Cassius Longinus, the devoted Epicurean on whom Cicero was relying as his last hope for recovery of the Roman Republic, that Epicurean philosophy has much more vigor than Cicero had supposed. Rather than picking Atticus or Balbus or others, Cicero picked as Epicurus’ standard-bearer Lucius Manlius Torquatus, latest in a long line of the most reputable fighters in Roman history. Wikipedia reports that this Torquatus "was a Roman politician and military commander. He was active during the Crisis of the Roman Republic and Caesar's Civil War. He commanded troops at the battles of Oricum, Dyrrhachium and Thapsus. The last of these ended the war, in a defeat for the faction Torquatus supported; he escaped the field, but was captured and killed shortly after. He is portrayed by Cicero in De Finibus as a spokesman advocating Epicurean ethics."
The full biography of Torquatus and his family reveals that they were people of action. The Torquati were not retiring wallflowers who ran from pain, but were central participants in the political and military upheavals of their times. In On Ends, Torquatus defends his ancestors’ actions no less vigorously than he defends Epicurus. He does not hesitate to embrace his ancestors’ active military exploits, from grabbing the necklace from the Gallic foe in single combat, to the famous and tragic episode where the father executed his own son, as all being totally consistent with Epicurean ethics.
Cicero’s Torquatus, like his ancestor standing against a giant Gaul, stabs in the heart the vapid arguments of modern commentators that Epicurean "absence of pain" equates to hiding in one's bedroom under the covers, and that there is no fight or struggle from which a good Epicurean will not retreat. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Torquatus explains in On Ends. The sort of soft hedonism that equates to Buddhist retirement or Stoic apathy is logically possible only to those who rely on an incorrect understanding of “absence of pain" to keep the gates bolted shut to those who have the courage to see that Epicurus endorsed active engagement with life.
It is easy to see how the example of Torquatus and Cassius Longinus, who defended their Epicurean views with their lives in military battle, comports with the examples of Epicurus, Lucretius, Diogenes of Oinoanda, and many others, who carried defended their ideas in battle with philosophical enemies. The fragile snowflake representation of Epicureans which prevails today is sustainable only by those who insist on seeing “absence of pain” in a way that contradicts how the ancient Epicureans actually lived.
It long past time to challenge the gatekeepers who insist that good Epicureans must be passive and retiring and inactive. The correct and active model of Epicurean life is as was explained by Torquatus:
"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."
All of this is not to say that every Epicurean must be a military campaigner like Torquatus and Cassius Longinus, or a philosophical campaigner like Lucretius or Epicurus himself. In an Epicurean universe where there is no absolute right and wrong, and where Nature gives us only pleasure and pain by which to determine what to choose and what to avoid, we each have to look to our own feelings to determine how best to spend our lives.
Will some people who sincerely believe that they are applying Epicurean principles decide to retreat into a walled garden, shut themselves off from the world and from as much of its pain as possible, and decide that this is the best use of their lives? No doubt some will.
Some, but not all.
Others will reflect that those who use Epicurus’ name to justify passivity are intrepreting fragments of remaining texts through a Buddhist or Stoic or Nihilist lens when they call for retreat in all things. And those others will also reflect that the ancient Epicureans who had access to all the texts and to authoritative teachers of Epicurean philosophy did not choose to retire from life, but to engage in it to the best of their ability.
In the end, we all come back to the same destination: Death indeed is nothing to us, for after we die we cease forever to exist. Life is in fact short, and we pass out of life feeling as if we had just been born. How do we wish to spend the precious time that we have? Can we live with ourselves feeling as though we are running afraid from every pain like a child who imagines dangers in the dark? Those who seek justification for that attitude should look elsewhere than Epicurus. If we wish to embrace the fullness of life, we must willingly step forward and for the sake of pleasure stand up face to face with pain, and for that we can look to Epicurus for the example to follow.
Picture credit: Historia Militum
A collection of Epicurean texts is available at EpicureanFriends.com