The Writings of Epicurus
What Type of Lifestyle would an Epicurean Truly Lead?
In his Letter to Menoeceus and the Leading Doctrines, Epicurus claims that happiness is derived from the fulfillment of pleasure as well as the absence of pain. Most people today would probably agree with Epicurus on that point, and seemingly in other points of his work, such as his argument that happiness is episodic and that people searching for happiness are always actively avoiding pain. Given the emphasis in American culture on pleasure, one might think Epicurus is the philosopher who captures what happiness is because his argument states happiness is derived from the fulfillment of pleasures and the absence of pain. However, examining the text more thoroughly reveals that Epicurus argues that a happy person is going to be one who has simplistic desires because a happy life relies on the absence of pain. Therefore, I argue that Epicurus’ definition of happiness contradicts itself by saying the happy life is a neutral state but on the other hand, the way he works through his argument often advocates for experiencing intense pleasure.
Epicurus defines happiness as the fulfillment of pleasure and the absence of pain. He addresses what pleasure and pain are in his Letter to Menoeceus and his Leading Doctrines. In point III of his Leading Doctrines, he states, “The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.” (37) Here, Epicurus justifies my argument that his definition of happiness relies more on the absence of pain than on the presence of pleasure. Later in point VIII of the Leading Doctrines, he states that “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.” (38) But he states later that it is acceptable to endure the pain of something if in the end it brings pleasure. (36) He also says that pleasures are different depending on their sources. There is the pleasure that is short term but is very intense, and the opposite, a pleasure that is long term and low intensity. Also, there is the absence of pain, which should in itself bring pleasure. These pleasures are brought on from different sources. This proves that Epicurus believes that happiness is episodic and is dependent on the state of sensation a person is experiencing.
Following that point, Epicurus argues that knowledge is important because it allows a person to know what brings them pleasure, what the consequences of some pleasures are, and what brings pain. Knowledge allows for someone to differentiate the types of pleasures that come from different sources. Epicurus states that this knowledge stems from reason. This rationality is needed to figure out which pleasures a person should pursue and the knowledge is derived from experiences. This is justified in point XXIII and XXIV when Epicurus states “If you fight against all sensations, you will have no standard by which to judge even those of them which you say are false,” therefore resulting with “you will confound all other sensations as well as the same groundless opinion.” (39) When using reason in regard to pleasures, Epicurus states two rules. The first is to work to avoid pain. The second is to ask if the absence of a certain pleasure will cause pain. This again shows that the absence of pain is more important in Epicurus’s definition of happiness than the presence of pleasure is.
Because Epicurus’s argument relies on pleasure and sensation, the topic of death is prominent in his argument. He argues that one should not fear death because “death is deprivation of sensation” and therefore that person is not feeling pain. (35) Death does not affect a person when they are alive if they can comprehend that there is no pain in not living. In point II of the Leading Doctrines Epicurus states “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.” (37) An Epicurean would have to fully comprehend that death is not something to fear because it can bring no pain. This shows that an Epicurean would have to avoid thinking about death as a negative experience because they will not be experiencing any type of sensation, and therefore could not feel pain. However, this may be difficult to do because the thought of death often causes anxiety and is painful in anticipation.(35) Epicurus states that a life’s not meant to be longer than it is pleasant: “And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.”(35) Because of this, an Epicurus would need to aim for the least painful life, not the longest life. Does this argument therefore, suggest that Epicurus would advocate for a person to engage in a very pleasurable experience that could potentially kill them? In this situation, an Epicurean would not be afraid of death, would be experiencing a level of pleasure, and would be living by the idea that it is better to live for more pleasure than to have the longest life. On one hand, this shows that a person should live avoiding painful experiences which could often lead to death or cause death themselves, but on the other suggest that dying in a state of extreme pleasure would satisfy Epicurus’s argument.
As previously stated, Epicurus suggests that a person ask themselves if the absence of a certain pleasure will result in pain. If it does, he argues that they should avoid it, because happiness is derived from the absence of pain. This therefore means an Epicurean can not have close relationships with people. If pleasure is derived from the company of someone else and through the relationship had with them, there will be pain when they are gone. Humans find pleasure in many different types of relationships whether they are close or distant.
First, there are familial relationships. If we find pleasure in our family, but they could be gone at any time resulting in pain, are humans not supposed to have relationships with family members? Should we not rely on our parents, grandparents, siblings, or guardians even when we are merely infants? As a child, one must rely on these people, because a child does not have the capacity to care for itself yet. But does this mean that if the child meant to live an Epicurean lifestyle cannot be happy because they are deriving their pleasure from the guidance, care, and love that they are receiving from their family?
Next, consider intimate, loving relationships. This is often where the most intense relationships are found, and the loss of this type of relationship brings extreme pain. As I stated before, Epicurus argues that the absence of pain is happiness. Does this mean that Epicurus would advocate for not falling in love with someone? This could be problematic for multiple reasons. First, we derive pleasure from love and an intimate relationship with someone. Secondly, this could be problematic for the human race as a whole. Human reproduction is largely based on the loving connection two people have with one another. If people were to live an Epicurean lifestyle, and no one was to have loving relationships, the population would decrease immensely.
Lastly, considering friendships, it is the same situation. The pleasure of a friend’s presence can be absent at any moment. Even if a person is not dead, but they are not present, and their absence causes pain, an Epicurean would have to question whether it is worth having a relationship with them. Because the absence of this friend causes pain, an Epicurean should not engage in this relationship if he or she desires to be happy. Epicurus may contradict himself here because this is what his argument leads to, however in his Letter to Menoeceus he states “Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself, and with a companion like to yourself…” (37) This is where Epicurus contradicts himself, and it can be applied to all three types of relationships. He advocates for finding someone with similar interests to reason with, but what will happen when they are gone?
On top of living without relationships, Epicurus’s argument and definition of happiness lead to the conclusion that the correct way to live is without materialistic ambition or the desire to move up in social standing. What would this mean for someone who desires to follow the American Dream? This person desires to be financially successful and can afford luxuries that will bring them pleasure. However, Epicurus states that “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.” (36) For a person that does not start life with these luxuries and does not see them as the norm, the absence of these luxuries does not bring pain, and therefore they are not needed for a happy life.
Adding to this idea, Epicurus states that “pleasure is the first good and natural to us.” (36) And since pleasure is natural to us, it is the necessities and basic goods that bring us pleasure. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus also argues that “That all that is natural is easy to be obtained, but that which is superfluous is hard. And so plain savours bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips.” (36) This connects back to Epicurus’s point VIII in the Leading Doctrines. These two points together state that if something is hard to achieve or it causes pain, it is better to not take the route of pain but take the easier path and only end up with pleasure. When this is done, the simplest things, like bread and water, will bring the most pleasures. Therefore, an Epicurean would need to live a bland lifestyle and at the same time not yearn for the luxuries that they could have if they endured pain in order to acquire them. Epicurus argues that absence of all of these luxuries would not bother an Epicurean and would not bring them pain.
This presents two contradictions in Epicurus’s argument. First, by looking back on the example of the person growing up without luxuries and therefore not feeling pain without them, it is necessary to look at the opposite. What about a person who is born wealthy and experiences these luxuries daily and sees them as normal and plain? If the absence of these luxuries causes pain, wouldn’t these luxuries be necessary for this wealthy person to be happy under the definition of Epicurus–living without pain? Secondly, Epicurus states that if something is hard to obtain, it is better to take the easy route and experience the pleasures brought on by that. However, if a person is very wealthy and can therefore easily buy luxuries, they are abiding by what Epicurus says, but they are not enjoying the plain savors that he talks about. In this paper, I argued that an Epicurean lifestyle is not what one would perceive upon a first reading of his Letter to Menoeceus or his Leading Doctrines because deeper inspection shows contradictions in Epicurus’s arguments. He advocates for living without a fear of death, living without close relationships with people, and taking the most pleasure out of simplicities. However, working through Epicurus’s argument shows that he contradicts himself, and although his argument advocates for a bland lifestyle, it can also be interpreted that the experiencing of very intense pleasure is allowed and fits within his definition.