56 - Am I Bothered?: Epicurean Ethics

Epicurus is infamous for thinking that pleasure is the good. But surprisingly, he says the highest pleasure is mere absence of pain. In this episode, Peter enjoys the challenge of trying to understand why.

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Further Reading: 

• J. Brunschwig, “The Cradle Argument in Epicureanism and Stoicism,” in M. Schofield and G. Striker (eds), The Norms of Nature: Studies in Hellenistic Ethics (Cambridge: 1986), 113-44.

• M. Evans, “Can Epicureans Be Friends?” Ancient Philosophy 24 (2004), 407-24.

• P. Mitsis, Epicurus’ Ethical Theory: the Pleasures of Invulnerability (Ithaca: 1988).

• G. Striker, “Ataraxia: Happiness as Tranquillity” and “Epicurean Hedonism,” in G. Striker, Essays in Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics (Cambridge: 1996), 183-95 and 196-208.

• D.K. O’Connor, “The Invulnerable Pleasures of Epicurean Friendship,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 30 (1989), 165-86.

• T. O’Keefe, “Is Epicurean Friendship Altruistic?” Apeiron 34 (2001), 269–305.

• J. Warren, “Epicurus and the Pleasures of the Future,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 21 (2001), 135-79.

• R. Woolf, “What Kind of Hedonist was Epicurus?” Phronesis 49 (2004), 303-22.

Glenn Russell's picture

Love your talks! I wanted to share my commentary

Hello and thanks.

I really, really appreciate your talks on Epicurus. As a way of saying thank you I wanted to share my commentary on the 1st 10 Principal Doctrines.




I have fallen in love with Epicurus and the philosophy of Epicureanism. I say this after studying philosophy and religion and practicing meditation for over forty years. There are a number of key ideas and insights making Epicurus something of a sagacious elder brother for me, albeit an elder brother from the ancient Greek world. One such insight is that anxiety, worry, nervousness, and fear poison our experience of life. No matter how beautiful or pleasant our surroundings, if we are anxious, on edge, dissatisfied with who we are or what we have, brooding about the past or fretting about the future, we are trapped in a kind of self-torture chamber. What is needed to release us from our torment? A philosophy giving us an appreciation and understanding of our life as embodied beings. There is no better foundation for living a free, pleasurable and fruitful life than the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus. With this in mind, I offer my concise commentary as a guide and a friend to anybody wishing to live at ease and with Epicurean wisdom in the 21st century.

1. A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness. A perfect being is too pure, too blissful to feel in a limited human or earthly way. If you had the misfortune of being raised in a religion where children are told to fear an angry, jealous God, than this is something you must outgrow if you want to live at ease as an Epicurean. Perhaps a good first step is to simply realize such a religion is one of thousands of religions throughout human prehistory and history, and many religions view God in ways other than fear. Another suggestion would be to seek out likeminded friends where you can talk through emotional issues caused by religion teachings. Since emotions and memory are so much part of our physical body, start to exercise in ways that you enjoy and find relaxing– yoga, dance, jogging or walking. Appreciate the fact that you are a sensitive, aesthetic embodied being. Live in joy, joy as an ongoing experience. There is nothing more pleasurable than a life lived in joy.

2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us. Do you get the willies when something reminds you of death? When somebody talks about death, do you feel like jumping up and running out of the room in a panic? If so, then you don’t need a doctor, you need an Epicurean philosopher. The first thing is to realize death is a complete dissolution where you experience no sensation, not even the tiniest pressure on your skin. According to Epicurus, death is a complete blank – no forms, no awareness, no sensation. In a very real sense we have this experience every night when we enter the deep sleep state. So, please see death as a close cousin to sleep. You don’t have anxiety or misgivings about entering a deep, dreamless sleep so you shouldn’t be bothered by the idea of death. To put not only your mind but also your body in harmony with this view of death, it would be wise to practice meditation and the practice of sleep done by the yogis of India, which is called yoga nidra -- very restful, very calming, giving you a deep acceptance of who you are and your own mortality. With even a small amount of practice you will come to live in tranquility and death will be nothing to you.

3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together. The key is appreciating who we are and where we are. Easy to say and not so easy to do since as humans we tend to be uncontrollable in our desires. Even when we are healthy and free of both physical and mental pain we tend to always want more. The sickness of desire – more, more, more. Enough is never enough for the unwise man or woman. If we are not experiencing physical pain or mental pain, which is the vast majority of the time, we should enjoy and appreciate the pleasure life affords. If you cannot enjoy the simple pleasure of taking a deep breath or the taste of your morning coffee or listening to the bird sing or the sight of trees turning in fall, you are missing the natural rhythms of being alive. In a very real sense, all we have is the present moment -relax and enjoy; be thankful you don’t have a tooth ache or a pounding head ache or a sprained ankle or the memory of being held captive in a prison camp. To bring yourself to a richer appreciating of the moment and your natural birthright of pleasure, take up an enjoyable exercise, which can be as simple as a morning walk. Clear your head of chatter, focus on your kinesthetic sixth sense, that is a keen awareness of your body moving in space. If you need help with developing this awareness, try the Alexander Technique or a comparable method. If you want a good practice for the mind – start by committing to memory these forty Principal Doctrines of Epicurus. There is so much pleasure available to us in our having our five senses and our body. It is simply a matter of developing the habit of awareness and appreciation.

4. Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain. Unlike ancient times, our modern world has a sophisticated medical industry with its thousand and one ways to perform operations and provide treatments to keep people alive who otherwise would be pushing up daisies. Thus, in a very real sense, we have more possibilities for pain. However, our modern world has a sophisticated pharmacological industry with its thousand and one ways to kill pain. It is something of a trade-off, but on the whole, we deal with less pain than people in ancient times. However, one thing remains the same: the ancients feared pain and we in the modern world fear pain. Pain has been and will continue to be a very real part of life. But, does that mean we have to live in fear of future pain? Epicurus says ‘no’ and for good reason. Our fear of what could happen takes us out of the pleasures we can have right here and now. Nothing spoils our tranquility more than being anxious, continually worrying, fretting and fidgeting over the future. Do you have nervous habits – wringing of hands, fidgeting with a pen, tapping your foot, pacing back and forth? If so, time to take a deep breath and think things through with Epicurus. You have dealt with pain up to this point in your life and you can deal with any future pain with even more effectively now that you are committed and dedicated to philosophy. Ups and downs, pleasure and pain are part of nature; fortunately for us, there is a lot more pleasure than pain. Are you experiencing pain right now? Probably not. Relax and sink deeper into the pleasure of what is happening in and around you. The richness of physical pleasures through our senses and mental pleasures by using our mind philosophically are very rich indeed, an endless ocean of rich experience. All we need do is become more attentive to the present and no allow ourselves to be pulled out of our on-going pleasure by fear of future pain.

5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life. Living pleasantly for Epicurus is living without agitation, anxiety and fear, being comfortable and confident with who we are, far removed from even a trace of being sexually twisted or repressed or violent or greedy for such things as wealth, fame, status and political advantage . Without being burdened by these negativities and hankerings, we are free to think in a calm and clear way. Rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion, we interact and respond sensitively to others and the world around us. What is the natural result of living such a life of Epicurean philosophy? A life lived wisely and honorably and justly, were we are seen by others as we are in fact – kind, courteous, honest, considerate and full of good will. A life lived wisely, honorably, justly and pleasantly are of one piece. Remove any one of these four qualities in us and our lives can quickly spin into a nail-biting, tension-riddled mess. Much better to stay with Epicurus in his garden and relax into the life we were meant by nature to lead. And remember, always mean what you say and say what you mean. A kind and gentle man has no place for Socratic Irony or feigned ignorance, for being snide or sarcastic or lashing out with a sharp tongue. We degrade ourselves when we are condescending to others. Avoid the coarse and crude and mean-spirited.

6. In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good. So here we are, living our lives, trying our best to be just and honorable and guide ourselves by philosophy and wisdom. Have you ever seen a rat running on a running wheel, the wheel spinning around and the rat going absolutely nowhere fast? Well, that is standard fare in our modern world for millions of people. Epicurus urges us to recognize in the grinding, competitive world of business, commerce and politics, many other people will try to force us to run on their rat wheel. Unless we really love the work we do and can do it with a measure of tranquility, we must take steps from being stuck in a bad work situation, surrounded by small-minded, gossiping co-workers or overbearing bosses, a rat wheel if there even was one. We would be well to take any steps necessary to extract ourselves from such a suffocating world of anxiety. Epicurus chose to live and teach and write in his garden commune surrounded by his friends. Although we might not live in a commune, we do have an opportunity to deepen our relationship with friends and family and choose a lifestyle, including a work environment, that has a central place for ataraxia, that is, freedom from disturbance. No need to be a hermit in solitude; rather seek out people who are supportive of who and what you are. The immediate benefit will be an improvement in both mental and physical health.

7. Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature's own prompting they originally sought. Do you want to live a secure life? Do you think you can come by the security you desire by putting yourself in the public limelight, becoming a glamour star, a celebrity, having a face recognized in an instant by the masses? In a word, do you want to be famous? If not famous, do you at least wish to enjoy high status, you know, big house, fancy car, flashy cloths, enviable job? Hankerings, cravings, endless desires and dreams of being rich and famous, and all for what? Epicurus could see right through such nonsense as so much smoke and mirrors, and thanks to advertising and the mass media today, think smoke and many mirrors. If you would like to live in inner harmony and with sensitivity and elegance, then you will quickly recognize pursuing fame and status comes at the price of anaesthetizing your senses and becoming coarse and dull. This is a big reason Epicurus urged his followers to memorize his principles. We need to be totally committed to philosophy to have the strength to fend off the onslaught of mass media and its slick, shallow, silly values.

8. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves. So there you are, faced with a decision of what to pursue and how to pursue it. Certainly you can’t have everything, or even if you could have certain things, do you really want them? Let’s take smoking cigarettes as an example. Do you want to enjoy the pleasure of smoking with the prospect that you are going to become a slave to an addiction that will cost you loads of money and probably ruin your health? Not to mention other drawbacks, like alienating people who don’t want to be around smokers and inhale secondary smoke. Epicurus would ask you to consider if cigarettes are really necessary to live a pleasurable life. Please weigh the pros and cons of such a decision. Of course, many people do choose to smoke. But you can ask: are these people using prudence? No matter what their age, are they really mature? What exactly are they considering in making their judgment? Are they understanding fully what it is to be free of addiction? Or the pleasure of living a healthy life over many years? Let’s take Epicurus as our example of a life lived wisely. His diet was simple and moderate – an occasional luxurious meal but mainly vegetables, bread and olives. Certainly we all have to eat but do we want to have food as our main focus in life – thinking the greater the quantity and more lavish the better? If good food is present, fine, we can partake in moderation; our goal isn’t to become ascetics (eating too little is not a virtue nor is it good for our health); rather, our goal is to live as simply as we must to be free. Again, it becomes a decision of what we really want in our lives. What if our priority is a desire to be happy and as free as possible from unnecessary cravings and compulsions? Then, choices leading us to be addicts or gluttons would seem like exceeding bad choices, indeed. An Epicurean motto applies here, Mens sano in corpore sano, “A healthy mind in a healthy body.”

9. If every pleasure had been capable of accumulation, not only over time but also over the entire body or at least over the principal parts of our nature, then pleasures would never differ from one another. Our encounter with the world is through our body and through our senses. And as we experience the world we have feelings about what we are experiencing; however our experiences are fleeting; nothing lasts very long. So the question arises: how to we come to live more fully? We want a variety of pleasures, but what kinds of pleasures will benefit us? Epicurus put mental pleasures and aesthetic pleasures ahead of strictly physical pleasures. For example, he loved music and he loved beauty. From my own experience there are few things more pleasurable than listening to or playing fine music or taking a walk outside in nature. Cultivate beauty in your own life – the beauty of colors, music, intimate touch, even the range of various tastes and smells. You will surprise yourself how much your senses will give you if you really open up to them. No need to chase after extravagance, the exotic or the rococo. There is a dignity and a freshness in our simple sense experience – very direct, very clear.

10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligate men really freed them from fears of the mind concerning celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, and the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures from every source and would never have pain of body or mind, which is what is bad. Ah, the profligate or, if you like, debauched men (and nowadays woman also get into the act). If you picture a group of guys and broads (their language) whooping it up, guzzling beer, wolfing down pizza, coarse language, loud voices, arrogant, self-centered utterly shameless behavior, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. This is the picture for college age but you would be just as accurate with minor variations in any phase of life. The age changes but the rushing after quick hits of pleasure remains painfully the same. Round and round the pleasure-seekers go but does such a lifestyle recognize the natural rhythms and limits of our desires? Look carefully at people to see how much grace and ease they have in their face, their expressions, their gestures and movements. The more anxiety and fear, the more pain to be sure; exactly the opposite of the happy, fulfilled life according to Epicurus, who tells us to take our time and savor simple pleasures that nature affords us when we know the natural limit of our desires. We would be well to develop a more refined, subtle experience of life by developing practical wisdom and a dedication to philosophy.

peter l's picture

more or less ...

Glenn, I did find some of the ideas here interesting but could it have been shorter? ... by the end of it I must confess I was in pain ..