Epicurus' Noble Spirit

"Someone will say: What then? Do you think Epicurus meant that sort of thing, or that his views were licentious? I certainly do not. For I see that many of his utterances breathe an austere and many a noble spirit. Consequently, as I have often said, the question at issue is his intelligence, not his morality. However much he may scorn the pleasures he has just approved, yet I shall remember what it was that he thinks the highest good. For he has not only used the term pleasure, but stated clearly what he meant by it. ‘Taste,’ he says, ‘and embraces and spectacles and music and the shapes of objects fitted to give a pleasant impression to the eyes." I am not inventing, I am not misrepresenting, am I? I long to be refuted. For why am I exerting myself except to get the truth in every problem unravelled? But wait! Epicurus also says that pleasure does not increase when pain has been removed, and that the highest pleasure is the absence of pain. Three big mistakes in a few words. One because he contradicts himself. For just now he said that he had not even an inkling of any good, unless the senses were in some sort tickled with pleasure; now, on the contrary, he says that the highest pleasure is freedom from pain. Is it possible to be more self-contradictory? The second mistake is that, as there are three natural states, one of joy, the second of pain, the third of neither joy nor pain, he here thinks the first and third identical and makes no distinction between pleasure and absence of pain. The third mistake he shares with certain philosophers! that, though virtue is the object of our eager seeking and philosophy has been devised for the sake of securing it, Epicurus has severed the highest good from virtue. ‘Yes, but he often praises virtue.’ He does, and so too C. Gracchus, after he had granted extravagant doles and poured out the funds of the treasury like water, none the less, in his words, posed as the protector of the treasury. Why am I to listen to words, seeing that I have the deeds before my eyes? The famous Piso, named Frugi, had spoken consistently against the Cornlaw? When the law was passed, in spite of his consular rank, he was there to receive the corn. Gracchus noticed Piso standing in the throng; he asked him in the hearing of the Roman people what consistency there was in coming for the corn under the terms of the law which he had opposed. 'I shouldn't like it, Gracchus, to come into your head to divide up my property among all the citizens; but should you do so I should come for my share." Did not the words of this serious and sagacious statesman show with sufficient clearness that the public inheritance was squandered by the Sempronian law? Read Gracchus speeches and you will say he was protector of the treasury. Epicurus says a pleasurable life is impossible unless accompanied by virtue; he says that fortune has no power over the wise man; he prefers a plain to a rich diet; he says there is no season when the wise man is not happy: all thoughts worthy of a philosopher but at variance with pleasure. ‘He does not mean the idea of pleasure.’ Let him mean any pleasure he pleases; surely he means pleasure of the kind that has no share in virtue. Come, if we do not understand pleasure, do we understand pain either? Therefore I say that it is not open to the man who measures the highest evil by the standard of pain to introduce the name of virtue." (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations III.20)

"Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems too little." (Epicurus, Vatican Saying 68)

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