Epicurus is considered a major figure in the history of science as well as philosophy. In ethics he is famous for propounding the theory of hedonism, which holds that pleasure is the only intrinsic value. However, his view of pleasure is far from the stereotypical one. For Epicurus, the most pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility (ataraxia) by being content with simple things, and by choosing the pleasure of philosophical conversation with friends. To understand the teaching of Epicurus’ ataraxia, it is required to discuss on his ethics.
Epicurus ethics starts from the Aristotelian commonplace that the highest good is what is valued for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else, and Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is the highest good. However, he disagrees with Aristotle by identifying happiness with pleasure.
Epicurus’ ethics is a form of egoistic hedonism; i.e., he says that the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is one’s own pleasure; anything else that has value is valuable merely as a means to securing pleasure for oneself. However, Epicurus has a sophisticated and idiosyncratic view of the nature of pleasure, which leads him to recommend a virtuous, moderately ascetic life as the best means to securing pleasure. This contrasts Epicurus strongly with the Cyrenaics a group of ancient hedonists who better fit the stereotype of hedonists as recommending a policy of “eat, drink, and be merry.”
Happiness is Pleasure: While we have lost most of Epicurus’ treatises on ethics and happiness, his basic ideas are very clearly outlined in his justly famous Letter to Menoeceus. He begins with a claim familiar from Plato and Aristotle: that we all desire happiness as an end in itself, and all other things are desired as a means for producing happiness. But what is happiness? Epicurus gives a straightforward definition, influenced by Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy:
“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”
The source of our unhappiness: Epicurus then claims that there are two self-imposed beliefs that do the most to make our lives unhappy or full of pain. They are first, the belief that we will be punished by the gods for our bad actions, and second, that death is something to be feared. Both of these beliefs produce fear and anxiety, and are completely unnecessary since they are based on fictions. While the gods do indeed exist, being perfect and eternal they do not directly concern themselves with human affairs. As such, we have no need to fear any punishment from them, nor do we need to spend time in laborious acts of pious worship. As for death, he points out that once sentient experience comes to an end there will be no sensation of pain. As such, the fear of death is completely groundless. Indeed, he sounds curiously like a Zen master when he writes “Death is meaningless to the living because they are living things, and meaningless to the dead… because they are dead.”
Necessary and unnecessary desires: Epicurus makes an important distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires are those which are necessary to produce happiness, such as desiring to get rid of bodily pain, or desiring a state of inner tranquility. He writes that “the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and once this is obtained the tempest of the soul is quelled.” Only when we are in pain do we feel the need to seek pleasure, a need which inevitably only produces greater pain. In order to get rid of this pain-pleasure-pain cycle, we need to cultivate a mindset in which there is no pain. Thus the aim is not the positive pursuit of pleasure, as it was for Aristippus. The aim is rather the attaining of a neutral state which is best described as “peace of mind” or even “emptiness,” to use a Buddhist expression. The Greek word Epicurus uses for this state is ataraxia, which literally means “freedom from worry.”
Which pleasures are choice-worthy: Epicurus notes further that we need wisdom to see which pleasures are really pleasurable, and which pains are necessary to produce pleasure. Although all pleasures are good and all pains evil, Epicurus says that not all pleasures are choice-worthy or all pains to be avoided. Instead, one should calculate what is in one’s long-term self-interest, and forgo what will bring pleasure in the short-term if doing so will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term. Some pleasures lead to greater pain, like imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, and so the wise person will shun them. On the other hand, certain pains, like sadness, can lead to an appreciation for life or compassion, which are highly pleasurable states. We should not therefore get rid of all negative emotions but only those that lead to unnecessary pains.
The secret to our happiness: Epicurus anticipates that the greatest secret to happiness is to be as independent of external things as possible. Being content with the simple things in life ensures that you will never be disappointed. If you put your stock in unnecessary pleasures like costly luxuries and food, you will be 1) upset when you lose these things, 2) anxious to obtain them, and 3) continually pushed onwards towards greater luxuries and hence greater anxiety and disappointment. In keeping with this sentiment, Epicurus disparages the “crass hedonism” which emphasizes physical pleasure, and instead claims that the philosophical pursuit of wisdom with close friends is the greatest of pleasures;
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.”
Who is the happiest: Based on this conception of happiness, it is the philosopher who is the happiest of all people, for he chooses the stable pleasures of knowledge over the temporary and volatile pleasures of the body. Epicurus concludes that if one practices these precepts, he will become a “god among men,” for he will have achieved an immortal state even whilst in a mortal body. As he writes:
“Exercise yourself in these precepts day and night both by yourself and with one who is like minded; then never, either in waking or in one’s dreams will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.”
Valuing friendship: Note the emphasis Epicurus places on practising the precepts “with one who is like minded.” In keeping with Aristotle, Epicurus sees the indispensable value of friendship as a crucial motivator towards one’s own true happiness. Epicurus values friendship highly and praises it in quite extravagant terms. He says that friendship “dances around the world” telling us that we must “wake to blessedness.” He also says that the wise man is sometimes willing to die for a friend. Epicurus consistently maintains that friendship is valuable because it is one of the greatest means of attaining pleasure. Friends, he says, are able to provide one another the greatest security, whereas a life without friends is solitary and beset with perils. In order for there to be friendship, Epicurus says, there must be trust between friends, and friends have to treat each other as well as they treat themselves. The communities of Epicureans can be seen as embodying these ideals, and these are ideals that ultimately promote ataraxia.
- The aim is not the positive pursuit of pleasure but rather the absence of pain, a neutral state Epicurus calls “ataraxia,” which is freedom from all worry, often translated simply as “inner tranquility.”
- This state of ataraxia can be achieved through philosophical contemplation rather than through pursuit of crass physical pleasure
- The greatest destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future, especially fear of thegods and fear of If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with confidence that one’s desires will be satisfied, then one will attain tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state. In fact, given Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, it might be less misleading to call him a ‘tranquillist’ instead of a ‘hedonist.’