Epicurus and the Ethics of Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

If philosophy is not only an academic, theoretical discipline but a way of life, as many Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought, one way of evaluating a philosophy is in terms of the kind of life it entails.

On that score, if we’re playing the game of choose your favorite ancient philosopher, I would say I’m most inspired by the vision of Epicurus. This is not because he had compelling arguments for his views. The fragments of original texts that we have, and the unreliability of many of the commentaries of his contemporaries, leave us with little knowledge of his actual arguments. What is attractive about Epicurus is the vision of a good life that emerges from his work and life.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle at their academies or Stoic sages who populated the ruling class (or endured crushing hardship from the wrong side of that boot), Epicurus presided over “The Garden.” In that tranquil private space outside Athens, he and his followers gathered to enact a humble life of modest pleasure enjoying the bounty of the harvest with friends in conversation. The ideal was that even people of limited means could live a life of contentment and ease if they thought clearly about the nature of pleasure, grasped the need for moderation, and rejected superstitious religious and political beliefs that caused psychological turmoil.

With this vision of a good life, Epicurus and his followers such as Lucretius achieved something remarkable. They developed an ethics of virtue based on wholly naturalistic principles, which included an ancient version of physical atomism, observations about the importance of pleasure to human psychology, and the real, everyday needs of human beings all without appeal to tradition or the authority of the Gods. It was a project of demystification as well as liberation yet one that was readily accessible to and aimed at ordinary people.

Despite that distinctive achievement, Epicurus’s theory of pleasure tended to undermine rather than support his vision. But with some modification, Epicurus’s thought provides a viable and admirable philosophy of how one should live that continues to be relevant.

The central feature of his vision of a good life is the importance of pleasure. Epicurus was a hedonist—he believed that pleasure was the ultimate good and the only thing that was valuable in itself. I should at this point reveal that I am no hedonist. I think there are other activities that we value intrinsically (more on that shortly). Nevertheless, the enjoyment of one’s life and the aim of gaining as much pleasure from one’s activities as possible is the most accessible and intelligible comprehensive goal that one can have. If there is one thing we humans can agree on, it’s that pleasure is on balance a good thing, and this agreement about pleasure’s importance is shared from the cradle to the grave and cuts across all other differences. The recognition of pleasure as a consummate good acknowledges the importance of desire satisfaction in a healthy psychology as well as its role as a reinforcer, supplying us with a powerful motive to pursue activities that enable us to survive and flourish. To deny the central role of pleasure in human life, one must be in the grip of a peculiar ideology—which is precisely what Epicurus argued. When you strip away the mythologies and superstitions imposed by religious authorities, ruling elites, and antiquated social conventions, the pursuit of pleasure remains as a foundational good.

The obvious rejoinder to Epicurus’s defense of pleasure is to point out that some pleasures are thoroughly destructive. Are not drug addiction, alcoholism, and sexual exploitation, as well as the hunger for power or wealth, driven by the pursuit of pleasure? To answer this kind of objection, Epicurus developed a distinction between kinetic pleasures, which were the result of atoms in motion, and katastematic pleasure which is a product of our “soul atoms” in a restful, static equilibrium. Kinetic pleasures such as sex, the thrill of victory, or the excitement of travel are driven by desires and thus leave us with the psychological “pain” of anticipation, longing, and persistent frustration. Katastematic pleasure, by contrast, is a state of being free of physical and psychological pain which, when accompanied by the proper understanding of our real needs, produces tranquility. Except on occasion to avoid boredom, we should avoid kinetic pleasure because tranquility, the absence of psychological disturbance, is the most valued state, according to Epicureans.

But this answer to how we can limit the negative effects of the pursuit of pleasure is where his theory goes wrong and fails to support his vision. Epicurus was not only a hedonist; he was also an egoist. It was his own feelings of pleasure that had intrinsic value. What about the pleasure of other inhabitants of the garden? Epicurus seemed to have thought that his interest in his own pleasure was sufficient to motivate concern for the well-being of his associates. He apparently was a generous sort and believed one’s own pleasure is compromised if those around you are unhappy. But their pleasure mattered only if it contributed to his.

However, an interest in one’s own pleasure only is too thin a reed on which to rest the generosity and good will needed to support the well-being of the people around us. If we are to support others effectively, we must have a concern for their interests for their own sake. Relationships depend on trust which cannot rest on the contingencies of how and when someone experiences pleasure. Under conditions of threat where interests conflict, how much would you trust someone if you were sure they cared only for themselves? Only if we sometimes consider the well-being of others for their sake will the pleasures of The Garden be secure.

Epicurus supported his view on the value of pleasure by pointing to what is natural for human beings, which he thought was most evident in the behavior of children whose drive for pleasure develops long before socialization kicks in. It is society and its mythologies and superstitions that persuade us that pleasure is dangerous and should be avoided, according to Epicureans. But as “natural” as pleasure is, it is equally “natural” for human beings to care about others for their own sake, not merely because they contribute to one’s own tranquility. We naturally develop attachments to people we care about, and these attachments often require activities and emotions that are psychologically or physically burdensome. Such concerns and the capacity for empathy that supports them don’t appear to be the product of mythologies. Friendships and family relationships would be incoherent without such cares.

Lucretius’s views on love are telling:

“It’s easier to avoid the snares of love than to escape once you are in that net whose cords and knots are strong; but even so, enmeshed, entangled, you can still get out unless, poor fool, you stand in your own way.” (De Rerum Natura)

He rejected love precisely because it often causes psychological pain thus upsetting the tranquility of katastematic pleasure. But that is neither “natural” nor particularly intelligible as a way of life.

Katastematic pleasure as the foundational pleasure is suspect for a further reason. Even if we simplify life to the point where we pursue only those pleasures that require no effort or anxiety, we still cannot sustain a condition in which physical and psychological pain is absent or even substantially mitigated. Life is simply too hard even in the friendly confines of Epicurus’s Garden. As any gardener knows, gardening can be full of disappointment. And cooking a simple meal for others is not without effort and stress. Pain, disappointment, and frustration, persistent anxiety, and grief are part of life, and in most cases, the pursuit of kinetic pleasure is not their primary source.

With some thought and care to avoid desiring what one can’t acquire, most kinetic pleasure can be gained without adding substantially to the amount of pain and distress one must endure. No doubt one will restlessly anticipate that upcoming European vacation and will suffer the inevitable disappointment when it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. But that doesn’t gainsay the genuine pleasures had on the trip. Epicurus seems to have conflated feelings of mild frustration, temporary dissatisfaction, anticipation, and longing with real psychological pain. Perhaps he never knew real psychological pain.

What about the pursuit of destructive pleasures if we no longer hold katastematic pleasure as an ideal? Epicurus was surely correct that we need to pursue pleasure carefully. The problem with addictions and the inordinate pursuit of power or wealth is not that they disrupt tranquility. Rather they become obsessions and thus incapacitate the addict from a wide range of pleasures that would otherwise be available. An addict is surely a poor example of someone capable of pursuing a wide range of pleasures, especially those associated with the exercise of basic human capacities. Similarly, the opportunity costs of the pursuit of power and wealth are not a trifle. For someone who genuinely cares about pleasure, the time and energy it takes to pursue wealth and power is a powerful deterrent.

Suitably shorn of egoism and his inordinate respect for tranquility, something like the following principle could govern an Epicurean-inspired life:

“Do no harm and then enjoy your activities and make sure others enjoy theirs as well.”

Notice that this principle has no maximization requirement so utilitarian monsters are kept at bay. Neither shall stern Stoic sagacity, Aristotelean aristocratic excellence, or Kantian austerity darken the entrance to The Garden. This is a moral principle for everyone with a generous heart.

Does this principle get all of ethics under its umbrella? No. It won’t resolve tragic conflicts, solve the problem of climate change, or gird our loins for the tasks of a just war. Ethics sometimes requires that we think more broadly about human value than what pleasure can give us even if we generously consider the pleasure of others to be as important as our own. But it gets about 90% of what we need for an ethical life.

As moral theories go that’s a damn good percentage.

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