Saturday, February 16, 2013

Epicurus (341-270 BCE)


Nothing to fear in God.
Nothing to feel in Death.
Good can be attained.
Evil can be endured.
(Philodemus, The Fourfold Remedy – a renowned summary of Epicurean teachings)

Of all the pre-Christian philosophers Epicurus was least likely to attract a Christian preserver. Nevertheless, an adequate quantity of Epicurean dicta remain, besides the miraculous preservation of Lucretius’ poem.

Even in his own time Epicurus was traduced as an atheist and a sensualist. The former charge was on the right lines, inasmuch as the gods are of no consequence in Epicurean thought – being perfectly self-sufficient, they do not interfere in the lives of men.

Epicurus took care to differentiate his conception of pleasure from sensual excess. “The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; nor the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table” (Letter to Menoeceus). Nevertheless, his conception of the good is founded on the senses; fundamentally, it is plain fare enjoyed in security. Though he regards “prudence, honour and justice” as inseparable from the pleasant life, the ultimate function of these virtues is to secure pleasure. “The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.” More generally, “The stable condition of well-being in the body and the sure hope of its continuance holds the fullest and surest joy for those who can rightly calculate it”.

A somewhat complex theory of moderation controls the emphasis on pleasure. “Self-sufficiency” and “limits” are terms favoured by Epicurus. This is clear enough when he deprecates the pursuit of vain objects such as fame (“Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance”). One can concede, too, the force of his conservatism in “Among the rest of his faults the fool hath also this: that he is always beginning to live.” However, the following saying appears to be wrong: “Nothing satisfies him for whom enough is too little” (alternatively, “Nothing is sufficient for him to whom what is sufficient seems little”). This dissatisfied person could after all be satisfied by some measure of things over and above what is strictly sufficient. Even Epicurus says elsewhere that frugality should not be absolute. In fact he is unable to make a precise definition of what consitutes sufficiency; his statements can only be taken as suggestive.

There are two additional elements in Epicurus’s conception of the pleasant life: philosophy and friendship. Philosophy is instrumental as a means of banishing the fear of gods, death and other transcendental anxieties; also, because it dissuades from pursuit of the unnecessary pleasures (with their inevitable insecurities).

“All friendship is desirable in itself, though it starts from the need of help”. This leaves room for some haziness. The origin in expediency is fully in accord with what Epicurus says elsewhere of natural law and other social advantages, but it gives him some trouble, since the warmth of his feelings outruns practicality. His most satisfactory resolution is: “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help” – which ties up with security again. But there is still a sizeable leap to “Friendship goes dancing round the world proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life”.

Behind all this lies the vision of a symposium, a friendly browsing and philosophising thoroughly in accord with Greek tradition. It is, perhaps, a slave-owning conception. Procurement should be modest, Epicurus advises; but he offers no theory of production.

This gentlemanly narrowness of focus needs to be remembered. “To live under constraint is an evil, but no one is constrained to live under constraint.” This can only refer to mental dissatisfaction (for “the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom”) – applied, e.g. to bondage, it would be nonsense. Similarly, the remark “it is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself” refers not to physical labour but to tranquillity.

Epicurus’s thought is clearly not heroic, since it lacks a sense of strenuous effort, of love and of tragic insufficiency (these are the features that make it most fundamentally un-Christian). He emphasizes that the procurement of pleasure is easy. The existence of mental suffering is ignored; physical pain is considered negligible and both death and long life irrelevant.

But Epicurus’ position is strong, because he declines to allow any meaning to “good” other than what every human being regards as good. I admire the clarity, for better or worse, of such statements as these:

“No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.”

“We must not pretend to study philosophy, but study it in reality: for it is not the appearance of health that we need, but real health.”

“The laws exist for the sake of the wise, not that they may not do wrong, but that they may not suffer it.”


[Epicureanism is briefly the topic of discussion in Book III of Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814). The “I” of the poem introduces it, zealously pouring scorn on the sub-human aims of this lowly creed. Rather unfairly, it may be thought, he cites Epicureanism as an argument against Philosophy herself:

                all too timid and reserved
For onset, for resistance too inert,
Too weak for suffering, and for hope too tame... (III, 343-45)
But the despondent Solitary has no sympathy with this zeal.

                                     Ah! gentle Sir,
Slight, if you will, the means; but spare to slight
The end of those, who did, by system, rank,
As the prime object of a wise man’s aim,
Security from shock of accident,
Release from fear; and cherished peaceful days
For their own sakes, as mortal life’s chief good,
And only reasonable felicity. (III, 359-66)
He proceeds to claim that the minor tranquillity aimed at by Epicurus was also an unconfessed motive of monasticism.

Putting these words into the mouth of the Solitary, a man who has lost his faith in Providence, implies a severe qualification of their tenor. At the same time the Solitary’s misfortunes give him a certain authority – for instance, when he reproves the glib courage with which, in his own zealous youth, he would have demanded

                                     from real life
The test of act and suffering, to provoke
Hostility – how dreadful when it comes,
Whether affliction be the foe, or guilt! (III, 417-20)
There’s little doubt in my mind that for Wordsworth Epicureanism represented far more of a “live issue” than anyone but an infidel could admit. I imagine he entertained it as a secondary philosophy, the way you might support a second football team (If I wasn’t a Christian / United fan...). I think many people do. There are some football teams that, the pundits say, “attract the neutral” – that are (with pardonable exaggeration) “everyone’s second team”. Epicureanism is “everyone’s second creed”, but perhaps only if you have a first one at all. I don't think Epicureanism can be a first creed, simply because it doesn't strike me as complete; the world is too full of mental chasms, too full of anguish, horror and insanity. Epicureanism slips away from those incomprehensible portals, cannot explain them, treats them as blots. But when a reasonable and pleasant space reappears, Epicureanism reappears to occupy it.

The bases of this discussion have shifted a long way since Wordsworth wrote, and few people today have ever heard the word “Providence”.]

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