On Epicurean Extremes


Epicurean Philosophy is a subtle one. Its meant to be a guide to life, and since human existence is a really complex issue, the philosophy has to be as well. There are very few black-and-white issues in the system. It's not even a question of grays. Epicurean Philosophy is a rainbow.

On the surface, things seem rather easy. Pleasure, good; Pain, bad. But... and there is always a but... but almost immediately, questions arise. What kinds of pleasures are good. Whose pleasure? Pleasure at what cost? A proper hedonistic philosophy would answer such questions. And Epicurus does.

It's just that it takes time and effort to grasp all the subtleties. It's perhaps this difficulty — more than any other — that provokes the extreme positions that circulate among the Epicureans today.

Here we'll tackle three of them. Perhaps by the end you'll see the common thread.


"We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. 128. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life."
Laertius 127 — 128, Letter to Menoeceus.

There are some Epicureans that promote asceticism. Considering that they are talking about a hedonistic system, this might seem odd, but there is a reason for this opinion. It's not one that can be swept away simply as obviously wrong, because there is a reason why someone might reach this conclusion.

Epicurus doesn't advocate that you should fulfill any and all of your desires. There are limits to what pleasures you should pursue. The pleasures of lying, cheating, and stealing are self-evident... but what about the natural-but-not-necessary ones? The vast majority of pleasures?

You can live a happy life without ever fulfilling any of them. That's why they are not-necessary. Some argue that you ought not to fulfill them, that you should abstain from them. Like you must abstain from the vain ones. This view is reinforced by the fact that many not-necessary desires and pleasures can become dangerous. You can over-indulge and come to harm. So wouldn't it be better to only fulfill the necessary ones, just to be on the safe side?

Hopefully all of you have the vague sense that this is somehow wrong. Can you articulate why? Take a few minutes to try before reading on.

Because all pleasures are good.

"No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves."
Principal Doctrine 8

If you say that "These pleasures are categorically bad", you are mistaking Epicurus. For him all pleasures are good... It's just that some bring long-term consequences that are bad. The classification of pleasures in the Menoeceus is conceptual. In the real world there is only pleasure, not clearly definable types of pleasures.

Condemnation of some pleasures without analyzing consequences is very common today, but it's a mistake nonetheless.

(Note for those of us who have been in the trenches a long time: Yes, it's the influence of that philosophical school.)

Katastematic is better than kinetic.

This extreme takes two forms. Firstly, it's the disvaluing of the active (kinetic) pleasures, in favor of the stable (katastematic) ones. Secondly, it's the disvaluing of bodily pleasures, in favor of the pleasures of mind. They are slightly different from each other, but basically caused by the same mistake.

The aim of Epicurean Philosophy is Happiness. This is the state of perfect painlessness, either in the body or the mind. The ancient greek word for this is eudaimonia. Because this term was most prominently used by Aristotle, Epicurus and the Epicureans used the more precise terms of aponia and ataraxia. The painlessness of the body, and the painlessness of the mind. Freedom from pain and anxiety.

This is where the trouble starts. It's common to conflate active and bodily on one hand, and stable and mental on the other. Equally common is to think that mental is superior to the body. There is some justification for this mistake in our sources, but remember that the philosophy is a subtle one.

"He further disagrees with the Cyrenaics in that they hold that pains of body are worse than mental pains; at all events evil-doers are made to suffer bodily punishment; whereas Epicurus holds the pains of the mind to be the worse; at any rate the flesh endures the storms of the present alone, the mind those of the past and future as well as the present. In this way also he holds mental pleasures to be greater than those of the body."
Laertius 137.

It's understandable to read this passage in Laertius, and come away with the ideas of "katastematic is better than kinetic" and "mental is better than bodily". The mistake is a matter of quoting out of context... This passage is both the source and the answer to this extreme position.

Read the paragraph carefully. Do you see it? Again, take your time...

The difference between mental and bodily, or katastematic and kinetic, isn't a matter of quality, but of quantity. Mental pains are worse because there are more of them, and katastematic pleasures are better than kinetic because there are more of them. Bodily and kinetic are for the here and now, while mental and katastematic extend in time and quantity.

You can have all the mental pleasures you can, but if you neglect the body you'll never be happy. You can also bask in the light of all the katastematic pleasures that you want, but if you don't indulge in the kinetic pleasure of eating... you'll die.

(Note from the trenches on the other front: Mind-Body Dualism is religious hogwash. A human is a whole, not a collection of parts.)

Epicurus was an atheist.

"First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed, [...] For verily there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest;[...]"
Letter to Menoeceus, 123

You understand that calling Epicurus an atheist was an insult, don't you? And a lethal one, at that. They murdered Socrates on trumped up charges of atheism...

Reading the Letter to Menoeceus should cure people of this notion, but apparently Epicurus' own words aren't enough.

Epicurus wasn't some silly person who understood nothing about human societies of his time. Religion is still a major issue in our societies today. He saw the importance of proper understanding of the divine, and taught accordingly.

The purpose of Epicurean Philosophy isn't to promote atheism or any other theological position. The goal (telos) is to teach humans how to live happily. Could you live peacefully if you thought that there was torture in the afterlife waiting for you? Or that the roar in the Heavens was Thor coming to kill you?

"If you do not on every separate occasion refer each of your actions to the end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance swerve aside to some other end, your acts will not be consistent with your theories."
Principal Doctrine 25.

This Principal Doctrine applies to the end goal of the whole system as well as to the goal of a single life. The goal is only and always the happy life of a human.

God does not hate you.

This is the beginning of the theological positions in Epicurean Philosophy. And make no mistake, the philosophy is a religious worldview.

For those of you who are having a fit over this... You should go read this.

Epicurean Philosophy isn't atheism in principle, but it is in practice. The gods (who don't exist) are utterly and totally uninvolved in human life. So un-rip your shirts and un-bunch your underwear, and take a deep breath.

Epicurean Philosophy has religious implications and positions, but it isn't a religion. In fact... You can have your atheistic cake, and eat it too.

The common thread?

Did you catch it?

Admittedly that was a rhetorical question, and a bit unfair. The answer was in the first sentence: subtlety. The mistake so saddeningly common is that people reach for the seemingly easy answer... and it betrays them. The ascetic denies himself perfectly good pleasures, the Katastematic ignores her body, and the atheist charges head on against religion when a flanking maneuver is far superior.

Having the occasional feast with friends is a marvelous thing. Using your body in many different ways is the road to health. And watching the confusion in the face of a religious leader when you start to talk about souls, is pure schadenfreude... but still a pleasure.

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