Epicurean Ethics Essay
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Upon understanding the brief and general philosophy of how to live a good life from an Epicurean’s viewpoint, I too thought that his philosophy centered around the self, how to achieve pleasure for the self, how to avoid pain to protect the self, all of which did seem very egoistic. However, throughout reading some of his theories and ideas, analyzing them, as well as reading other philosophers’ interpretations, I was able to see how this can be misunderstood if not given careful thought.
This common misconception of his philosophy was widely misunderstood because although his philosophy centered around gaining pleasure for the self and avoiding pain, it also focused on not acting upon greed when on the search of pleasure, and only satisfying needs that are natural and absolutely necessary for the survival of an individual, rather than on the kind of pleasure that is achieved by eating luxurious foods, drinking fancy wines, having a high social status and indulging in materialistic things. Aside from having pleasure as the primary goal in life, Epicurus focused a good deal on how to avoid pain as well.
In fact, Epicurus defines and measures pleasure not by how much happiness it may bring to the soul and body, but by the absence of pain which is the only way to achieve pleasure. He categorizes pleasure into three different parts which will be discussed later in this paper, as well as how one can have a peaceful and tranquil mind. To achieve the state of mind that Epicurus believes will bring pleasure to an individual’s life, one must eliminate all fears and anxieties over the unknown such as the power of God and how much of one’s life is dependent on the higher being.
To ease these frightening thoughts and anxieties, Epicurus believed it was necessary to explain all of the unknown factors of the supernatural such as the fact that Gods have no interest in human affairs and live in their own society. He also thought that much of the stress and anxiety came from not knowing what happens to the body and the soul after death. Being a naturalist, he thought it was best to explain his theory in scientific terms that are more clear and concise rather than something that was mythical and could have been made up.
Although he used the atomist theory to inspire his own, he made significant changes to it explaining exactly what does happen to the soul and the body and how there should be nothing to fear and be anxious over. Epicurus was a naturalist and adapted the concept of the atomist theory to his own beliefs. As briefly stated before, he believed that fear and anxiety comes from not knowing the unknown, such as supernatural occurrences, the concept of God, and life after death.
Therefore, by explaining how the divine and all powerful works and advising one not to fear the Gods, as well as using the atomist theory to come up with his own theory so that one knows exactly what will happen to the body and soul after death, he believes that there would be much less anxiety and fear in the mind of an Epicurean. According to the atomist theory, the universe is composed of only two things which are infinite shapes and sizes of atoms, and an infinite void. The atoms of which our universe is composed of are infinite in number, unchangeable, and are unable to be cut or divided.
It also states that our senses originate from atoms being cut off by objects Epicurus however, believed that our senses originate from our judgments and perceptions of these atoms rather than atoms being cut off by objects. Although Epicurus adapted this theory, he also made significant changes to it in support of his teachings on living a life of a tranquil mind. He emphasized it’s importance to prove that people shouldn’t have fear of life after death because if death means the loss of all consciousness in the mind and the dissolution of the body into atoms, then we have nothing to fear.
Our perceptions, judgments and experiences of the world are no longer in our consciousness, because death is the lack of all these things, therefore once death comes there would be nothing to fear or feel such as pain because our consciousness which gives life to all these things would be completely gone. Epicurus encourages his students to live a life free from the stress and anxiety of the unknown life after death, giving them a tranquil and peaceful state of mind.
This in turn contributes to his theory that to live a complete and happy life of pleasures, one must be free of all worries and anxieties, as well as avoiding bodily pain. Epicurus also believed that the source of trouble in our consciousness and what causes stress and anxiety in the mind is the fear of the divine and all powerful God. Although Epicurus is not an Atheist and was like most others during his time a polytheistic believing in many Gods, his views on religion and the all powerful God varied greatly from the rest.
Epicurus never denied the existence of Gods but held a belief that Gods and human beings had no relation to one another. He believed that Gods were not concerned with human affairs and rejected the widely held belief that Gods gave us reason to live in peace and harmony so that we can be happy and live a good life. He also rejected the idea that Gods held complete control of the path of our lives and worried over us and our conflicts greatly and instead, believed that Gods had their own separate lives and affairs and were always in the highest state of happiness.
According to Panichas’ essay in Epicurus on “Theology”, it is believed that Epicurus never fully justified why he believes that Gods are always happy but says that his belief in Gods came from the idea that we are all born with an innate knowledge of Gods existence. This means that newborn children don’t need to be given the knowledge of the existence of divine power, but are already born with that idea implanted in them.
His supporting argument for the existence of Gods is that since everyone is born with the innate idea of their existence, and everyone already has an established opinion of the Gods, then they must exist. Epicurus’ argument against the popular belief of Gods having extreme concern of human affairs and conflicts was that Gods didn’t care for human affairs because they were extremely happy living their own separate lives. Therefore, if Gods were concerned with human conflicts and troubles then they wouldn’t be happy but rather stressed, worried and anxious, which would then make them unhappy.
Epicurus’ goal in presenting his arguments using physics and atomism, against religion and its superstitious beliefs, was a way of assuring his students that they shouldn’t disturb the mind because of worries and anxieties over the belief that happiness, misery, and life after death are completely dependent upon the Gods because this in turn comes in conflict with the primary goal of life on earth which is happiness. Instead, he emphasized the importance of attaining courage through meditation on the purpose of life so that human beings can master the fear of death and the gods.
A life of happiness and pleasure in Epicurean terms is defined as having a calm and peaceful mind, free of anxieties and worries, as well as a body free of pain. By teaching his students the idea of atomism which frees people from the stress and anxieties of life after death, and the belief that the Gods are not in complete control of our lives and are merely part of their own separate society, Epicurus is able to liberate their anxious and unhappy minds and allows them to live a conscious free life from disturbances and stresses of the unknown world.
Epicurus most likely felt the need to fully explain the aspects of supernatural causes which society at the time thought to be controlled by God, as well as other natural phenomena such as how things came about on earth, so that people had a clear understanding of things they had not known before, and in turn no longer fearing them.
Popular belief of mass society during the Hellenistic period was that any supernatural occurrences of the world such as the creation of the universe, the existence of human beings, or the world having just enough resources for human beings to be able to survive were all of Gods creations. However, Lucretius who was an Epicurean student stated that the world could not have been created by the Gods because it is imperfect and such perfect beings could not have created something so imperfect as the universe.
He proves this idea in support of his argument, by stating that the world in itself which is full of imperfections, giving an example of the large amount of land that is completely useless to mankind but is inhabited by wild animals, or death that stalks every minute of our lives, could have been the creations of the divine and all powerful because if they were, then that would mean that Gods themselves are the sources of all pain and evil.
Lucretius also states that an Epicurean must accept the fact that the natural world is mortal, which means it can that it can be diseased with corruption, war, and greed and follows a cycle of creation and destruction within itself. He elaborates on this statement saying the world must be thought of as a mortal body with a beginning, and an end.
As stated before, Epicureanism holds the belief that like everything else, Gods are composed of atoms, but atoms that are different than those of human beings. These atoms in On the Nature of the Universe are described as very flimsy atoms that are ethereal, and can be barely perceived by the mind, therefore they cannot be touched. It also says that they exist somewhere among their own nature, which means that they do not exist anywhere near the society of human beings.
In explaining this theory to his followers, he did so to prove that there is no reason to live in fear of Gods because they live in a society that is completely separate and different from ours, and as stated before, they are engaged in their own affairs and have no concern for the welfare of human beings. He stressed the importance of this because Epicurus believed that all fear arises from the unknown. The unknown as being what happens to the soul, body, and life after death, and the fear and anxiety over Gods’ declaration punishments or rewards towards human beings.
By explaining all the unanswered questions of life, rejecting the idea of Gods being in complete control in the affair of our lives, in simple and naturalistic terms that can be proven through metaphysics, rather than relying on retold myths that cannot be proven, seen, or sensed, he is able to direct their minds towards a positive light in which they can achieve a state of mind that is at peace, allowing them to live their lives in pleasure and happiness.
Epicurus’ view on the soul and what happens to it after death greatly varied from the Platonic and Homeric view of the soul. Unlike Plato who believed that the soul became part of a heavenly pilgrimage, and the Homeric view that the soul descends into the darkness of the kingdom of the dead, Epicurus believed that the Soul merely dissolves upon death, which is without sensation. This means that since something that dissolves upon death is free of sensing and feeling, then there is no pain, and therefore there is nothing to fear.
Although Epicurus agreed with both the Platonic and Homeric view that an individual is composed of the body and the soul, and that upon death, the soul leaves the body, he disagreed on their views of what happens to the soul after death. Epicurus believes that the soul is corporeal, which means that what happens to the body and the soul is a physical occurrence, and once the body starts dissolving, the soul along with the body begins undergoing a physical transformation in which it also dissolves, the process therefore being void of the sensation or perception of what is happening.
The soul according to Epicurus was mainly made of breath, heat, and air which he considered to be made of a material substance. These three elements were used by Epicureans to explain the differences in characters and moods of feeling in both humans as well as animals. Aetios sums up the functions of these elements saying that the element of breath gives the soul the power to move, the air gives it tranquility and calmness, and the heat produces the perception of warmth from the body.
Epicurus also believed that the soul was made of an unknown element as well, that is much more advanced in structure and its function in the soul which allows it to feel in harmony with the rest of the elements as well as the body. Lucretius further elaborated on this hidden fourth element by stating that it is a crucial part of the soul because it provides the soul with sensation. Although the soul is the major cause of sensation, it cannot sense without the body. This then means that the soul cannot sense without the body, and the body cannot sense without the soul.
Lucretius states that the soul and the body must be united for a human being to have full access to sensation, therefore one cannot survive without the other . This theory is used in support of their argument of what happens to the soul after it is released from the body, which is that since the soul which brings sensation, reason, and perception of the outside world to the body, is released from the body, the body can no longer feel or come up with reason or judgment of what is occurring.
The soul however, has a more significant role in the making of an individual than the body does because if a part of the body is lost, such as a leg or an arm, the soul is able to remain in the body and still give an individual sensation, whereas the part that was lost such as a leg or an arm although still exists, it can no longer have the soul be a part of it or retain any sensation.
In general, the body can be viewed as the home and protection of the soul, and if the body is destroyed, then it can no longer protect nor shelter the soul, and as a result, the soul scatters into tiny separate creative energies. All of Epicurus’ teachings and doctrines can be traced back to, and are in relation to attaining pleasure which is the main goal in life. Epicurus defines pleasure as not having certain sensations of happiness, but rather as the absence of bodily pain and mental disturbance.
He also believed that pleasure and pain are the main driving forces of a human being, saying that desire is driven by pleasure, and avoidance is driven by pain. Although many view Epicureanism as a form of egoism in which all actions are taken for the benefit of the self, and although this is true, Epicurus’ theory on attaining pleasure and happiness can be seen as something that is able to balance out, and in turn, become a life of virtue. A balanced life of happiness and virtue according to
Epicurus can be attained by being prudent and having a sense of discernment when it comes to pleasure. Therefore, someone who is able to do this by acting carefully when it came to the desires and the indulgences in life, and being virtuous to this belief isn’t necessarily set and done on his/her quest for pleasure, but on the right path to attain it. Epicurus believes that without the ability to sense things such as the sight of beauty, the taste of food, the sound of music, or the feel of an object, true pleasures and happiness cannot be achieved.
Therefore, the act of sensation is of extreme importance to an Epicurean because without sensation, the good life is unattainable. Epicurus also states that there is nothing more truthful than sensation. This means that the act of sensing doesn’t need to be proven because we sense things exactly for what they are. Sensations are also not voluntary and are received through direct contact with an object or thing through the five sense organs which are sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell.
These five senses, in turn are then perceived in the mind and can be enlarged or diminished in the mind. He then considers arguments against his theory that say that just because we sense things and then perceive them in the mind that does not always make them true. A classic example he gives is an octagonal tower seen from a far distance is in actuality cylindrical, or a tall building from a far distance may look small through the sense of sight, but in reality the building only appears to be small because it is seen from a far distance.
To support his argument, Epicurus states that it is then up to the individual to use reason, logic, and our past experiences to determine whether this observation is true or not. Sensation therefore, is the basic foundation of knowledge according to Epicurus. Although sensation is of extreme importance in Epicurean philosophy, the concept of sensation still goes back to the main idea of Epicurus’ teachings which is pleasure and happiness. According to Epicurus, pleasure is the goal of all things. However, to argue against those who say his teachings are egoistic, Epicurus emphasized on the right kind of pleasure.
For example, in Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoceus” he explains that indulging in the pleasures and luxuries of life is not what makes a good life, but the choices we make when in search of pleasure and avoidance of physical or mental pain: “For it is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish, and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reason, searching, out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbances of the spirit. This quote explains that Epicurus is not concerned with the quality of material things such as fine foods and other luxuries, but rather whether these things are enough to eliminate pain so that we can have pleasure. Epicurus believes that the more we can limit our pleasures and desires, especially the ones that are most necessary and natural such as food and water to survive and avoid bodily pain, the more we are likely to attain a happy and pleasurable life.
To further understand the concept of limiting pleasures and desires, Epicurus states that when one removes all physical and mental pain, for example eating to avoid hunger, or overcoming fear and anxiety to be free of mental pain, is when pleasure can be achieved. However, it is up to the individual to not become engaged in fulfilling “natural but unnecessary” pleasures, such as eating more than needed, or having luxurious food instead of normal food. Epicurus believes that this is where we must use our judgment and good reason to pick and choose what will best fulfill our needs without being overly self-indulgent.
He divides pleasures and desires into three separate categories. The first one is natural and necessary which as stated before, are daily survival necessities like food and water. The second form of pleasure is natural but unnecessary which is a pleasure that is natural such as food, but not necessary such as having extravagant food rather than regular food that would eliminate hunger. Lastly, the third type of pleasure is neither natural nor necessary which refers to fame, having a high status among peers in society, or the desire to be accepted by others.
The ability of fully understanding these categories and practicing them religiously on a daily basis will direct one to a life that is free of bodily pain and mental disturbance. Epicurus defines the good life not by the presence of pleasure but by the absence of mental and physical pain. Once the main goal of avoiding pain and fear are achieved, the individual won’t be on the search for something that is missing because all pain is gone, thus, the desire to eliminate it is gone as well leaving the mind and body free of pain and anxiety.
Epicurus’ definition of the wise man is one who is free from most troubles. Although peace of the mind is of extreme importance in Epicureanism, one cannot achieve it without being self-sufficient. A wise man, in Epicurean standards is one who does not depend on others. Therefore high held positions such as having political power, or even something as common as marrying and having a family creates too much stress because your life becomes strained with anxiety over the actions of others which are completely out of your control.
Epicurus believes that the outside world creates too much pressure that can lead to anxiety because most of the things dealing with the outside world are outside of your control. A life of simplicity and freedom from anxiety and pain are a way of life for a wise man. When one gains complete control over these things, as well as overcoming the fears of the outside world, then one can live a happy and pleasurable life because there is no desire for things which one cannot find him/herself.
A free life according to Epicurus also means not having too many possessions because owning too many materialistic things results in robberies which only lead to more consequences and trouble all of which can be avoided. However, what a wise man should do when he is in the possession of many things is donating it and distributing them to those that are less fortunate and those in need. Epicurus says that gaining gratitude from your neighbors is more important than indulging in unnecessary things.
This thus proves that an Epicurean life isn’t egoistic as most critics seem to think but rather a way of life in which an individual can live freely without worry. Although the main idea of Epicurus’ philosophy is pleasure as the main goal, the word pleasure has a different meaning than the one we are used to. The word “pleasure” in epicurean terms means the absence of pain which is why a good amount of Epicurean philosophy discusses ways in which one can avoid pain and eliminate worries, anxieties and fears.
Pleasure according to Epicurus has nothing to do with being in the possession of luxurious items because that is not what brings pleasure to the individual but rather a peaceful mental state or being: It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and rich table and be full of trouble . ” Although Epicurus does not believe in a wise man having a family and advises that one should avoid conforming to society and the pressures of the outside world, he emphasizes the value of a strong friendship and believes it to be the second most important thing in a noble man after wisdom .
Even more surprising than this is the fact that Epicurus welcomed women into his school and considered them as potential friends despite the time period and social standards of Ancient Greece at the time. Epicurus welcomed all kinds of people into his school and didn’t look at gender, wealth, age, or social class to determine a person’s worth of attending. Aside from not picking student and friends based on external factors, Epicurus believed that all friendships arise from self-interest: “Every friendship in itself is to be desired; but the first cause of friendship was a man’s needs . However, friendships can’t always be seen as a relationship between two people that’s driven solely on one’s own self-interests and benefits, they should be much more and beyond that. Throughout time, Epicurus believes that a friendship that once started only as an act of self-satisfaction to benefit the self can become much more intimate and grow beyond the desire to be friends just to gain needs driven by sole self-interest.
He also advised that friendships shouldn’t be pushed to their extremes when on the pursuit of benefits and should not be pushed to the extreme if it’s completely void of all benefits because then, the individual would have no desire to keep the friendship alive at all. Once two friends can overcome that stage of self-interest and gain intimacy then all expectations of each other and what is needed for the benefit of the self is gone.
The mere fact of just knowing and having a friend and his/her company should bring enough pleasure to the individual to not care about other things that would only benefit the self. Epicurus did not believe that sexual love was of any benefit to an individual and although it can be associated with bringing pleasure, it causes much more disturbances in the mind that far outweigh the pleasures it may bring: “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures. Epicurus believes that fulfilling sexual desires are unnecessary for the survival of an individual and can be dealt without, considering how much mental disturbance it may bring afterwards. Epicurus categorizes this pleasure as the “natural and unnecessary” which means that although the desire for attaining sexual pleasure may be completely natural for the individual, it isn’t necessary for survival, therefore it is not an absolute necessity. This thus makes the act of fulfilling sexual pleasure to be vain and selfish, as well as bringing disturbance to the mind.
The reason Epicurus advises the wise man not to engage in sexual encounters is because the pleasure that comes from sex can be too intense for the individual to handle. When something so intense yet so pleasurable becomes a much needed desire, it is sure to bring disturbance to the mind. Another way sexual desire can be seen as creating disturbances in the mind is considering how before sexual pleasures can be fulfilled, one must pursue the person of the opposite sex and develop an intimate level of friendship or relationship.
With that relationship comes fear and anxiety over losing your partner and concerns of what the future might bring. After a relationship has been developed, child bearing is the next step which creates even more disturbances to the mind, because with children come more external and outside powers that are out of your control which result in fears, frustrations, hopes anxieties and pain all of which can be avoided if one does not become involved in an intimate sexual relationship. How does one avoid mental disturbances to achieve peace in the mind?
Epicurus believes that pleasure can still be attained without fulfilling sexual desires by simply forming strong friendships and developing a level of intimacy that would allow the friendship to survive solely on that level of intimacy and not self-interested benefits and needs. Once a deep enough level of intimacy has been developed, things such as trust, loyalty, and pleasure will surely ensue afterwards. Whereas a relationship driven by sexual pleasures will result in jealousy, hate, possessiveness, anger, and bittersweet memories that could last a lifetime.
Therefore, to avoid having to go through these struggles in life and living a life of simplicity and freedom, Epicurus advises one to seek friendships that doesn’t require too much of one’s time, energy, and physical or mental strength. Living the life of an Epicurean means living a life of simplicity, avoiding anything that is too dangerous for one’s well being even if it is the norm in society such as getting married, and being on a life long pursuit for pleasure.
As stated before, from a quick glance at Epicurus’ philosophy, one can conclude that his teachings were all self centered, however, upon further reading into his doctrines, as well as how other philosophers were able to interpret and justify some of his teachings, his true meaning of a virtuous and good life can be more clearly understood. His philosophies on how to be a wise man and achieve the good life prove how non egoistic Epicureanism is. Although it does always focus on gaining pleasure for the self, it does so only to a certain extent in which one attains enough pleasure to eliminate the pain.
Once that has been achieved, going on a pursuit for more pleasure is considered vain, and as I have discussed before, Epicurus categorizes this pleasure as the “natural and unnecessary” or “unnatural and unnecessary. ” Therefore he advises one not to seek these kinds of pleasures because that can create more disturbances in the mind. His thorough explanation and solution on how to achieve a tranquil mind by giving insight on the Gods and what happens to the soul and body after death are also a huge part of his philosophy.
Overall, Epicureanism was a very modern school of philosophy compared to the time period, and the location of where it had been originated. Epicurus’ way of not discriminating against minorities such as women or the lower class, and not religiously worshiping supernatural beings even though that had been the norm in society, is very much like the life he preaches one should live in which one doesn’t conform to the standards of the masses but pursues a path of his own, where a peaceful mind and a body free of pain can be found.