Book Summaries

The Epicureans (A History of Western Philosophy)

Chapter XXVII: The Epicureans

The philosophy of Epicurus, like all philosophies at the time with the exception of Scepticism, was designed to secure tranquility. Pleasure was the good. He says in a book on The End of Life, ‘I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight.’

‘The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.’ The pleasure of the mind, we are told, is the contemplation of pleasures of the body. Its only advantage over bodily pleasures is that we can learn to contemplate pleasure rather than pain, and thus have more control over mental than over physical pleasures.

Epicurus thought that unless virtue means prudence in the pursuit of pleasure, that it was an empty name. And that ‘justice’ means acting in such a way so that one has no reason to fear other men’s resentment. Such a doctrine can be applied for the origin of society such as the social contract.

But Epicurus disagrees with some hedonist predecessors who distinguished between active and passive pleasures, or dynamic and static pleasures. Dynamic pleasures are the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain.

Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium which results from the existence of the kind of feeling that would be desired if it were absent. Hunger, while being satisfied, is a dynamic pleasure. But the feeling of satiation after eating is a static pleasure.

Epicurus thinks that it is more prudent to pursue the second instead of the first, since it does not depend on the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain. We should thus aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures, rather than violent joys.

It seams that Epicurus would wish to be always in a state of having eaten moderately, never in that of a voracious desire to eat. He is led to regarding absence of pain, rather than the presence of pleasure, as the goal of the wise man.

The pains of the stomach ache outweigh the pleasures of gluttony.

Desires for wealth and honor are futile because they make man restless when he might be contented. The greatest good is prudence; it is even more precious than philosophy.

Philosophy was a practical system designed to secure a happy life, it required only common sense, not logic or mathematics or any elaborate training described by Plato. He advises his young disciple Pythocles to ‘flee from every form of culture’.

He advised abstinence from public life. The more power a man achieves, the more he increases the number of those who envy him and wish him injury. Even if he escapes misfortune, peace of mind is impossible.

The wise man will try to live unnoticed, so as to have no enemies. Sexual love, a dynamic pleasure, comes under the ban. Sexual intercourse has never done man any good, and he is look if it has not harmed him.

Lucretius denounces love, but sees no harm in sexual intercourse if it is divorced from passion.

The safest of social pleasures, according to Epicurus, is friendship.

Eat little, for fear of indigestion; drink little, for fear of next morning; eschew politics and love and all violently passionate activities; do not give hostages to fortune by marrying and having children; in your mental life, teach yourself to contemplate pleasures rather than pains. Physical pain is certainly a great evil, but if severe, it is brief, and if prolonged, it can be endured by means of mental discipline and the habit of thinking of happy things in spite of it. Above all, live so as to avoid fear.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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