Clerestory

Epicurus

November 30, 2020

Epicurus has had a tough time of it since he wrote and taught (~341–270 BCE). It’s a good thing he was level-headed about posterity:

We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come.

Though Epicurus espoused a life of wisdom, moderation, and prudence in the pursuit of tranquility (ataraxia), his philosophy has been slandered for its hedonism, and excoriated for its atheism, for over two millennia.

Even Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers who may himself have been an Epicurean, begins his chapter on Epicurus with a long list of scandals and accusations levelled at the alleged reveller. (Laërtius, whose Lives of Eminent Philosophers is one of the major places where Epicurus’ thought has been preserved, reproduces Epicurus’ Letter to Menoecus, providing most of what I quote on this page.)

Among Epicurus’ alleged sins are that he performed magic tricks, that he “vomited twice a day from over-indulgence,” and that he “corresponded with many courtesans, and especially with Leontion, of whom Metrodorus also was enamoured.” Diotimus the Stoic (100 BCE) falsely adduced fifty scandalous letters to Epicurus. Cicero (106–43 BCE) deplored his ethics. Epictetus (50–135 CE) calls him a “preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him.”

The list goes on for several pages, before Laërtius attempts a defence of him. Even after the classical period, Dante, in the Inferno (14th C), inters him in a flaming coffin in the Sixth Circle of Hell for having believed that the soul dies with the body.

I find it sort of impressive that his philosophy sustained such controversy over such a long period of time.

It’s not that the accusations of hedonism are entirely groundless. Sometimes Epicurus doesn’t do himself any favours, writing things like: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, sexual pleasures, the pleasures of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.”

It’s hard to imagine many Stoics stomaching such a statement.

But his more famous line is that “Pleasure is our first and kindred good.” Catherine Wilson reports in The Pleasure Principle that the Marquis De Sade liked to quote this line to his victims.

The problem is that neither the old Marquis nor many others in history seem to have had the patience to read the lines which directly follow. This seems a little unfair, given how much Epicurus cares about context:

[Pleasure] is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but ofttimes pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And ofttimes we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is choiceworthy, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good. (Laërtius, p655)

I love that he balances pleasure not with pain but with annoyance. Some pleasures have side effects that are just too annoying for them to be worth it. Others pleasures are worth pursuing (he’s quite keen on friendship, for example), just as some pains are worth enduring; it all depends on context. And what is good or evil is circumstantial.

It seems that even during Epicurus’ lifetime he faced criticisms of the same kind that still affect his thought today. I’m talking about the connotations of the words “epicurean”1 and especially “hedonist.” This is despite the fact that Epicurus went to great pains to distance himself from the assumption that he’s advising wanton orgies:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is prudence. Wherefore prudence is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honour, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honour, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them. (p657)

Pleasure is not to be pursued directly, but prudently, with a view to the long-term. The pleasurable life — the good life — is synonymous with the one lived with prudence, honour, and justice, because one who lives that way is most likely to remain healthy and to keep a clean conscience. Another potential surprise, given the modern fine-dining connotation of the word “epicurean” is that he advises fasting, writing that “bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.”

As if all this misunderstanding and misrepresentation were not enough, Epicurus’ work was stored near Herculaneum, and therefore lost in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. He wrote some 300 treatises, and the library near Herculaneum also housed some of his students’ work (notably Philodemus, a contemporary of the other major Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius). But there’s some hope that parts of Epicurus’ major work, On Nature, can be restored from the Herculaneum papyri.

There are many aspects of Epicureanism which are interesting today. Epicurus, for example, followed Democritus, in arguing that matter was made up of invisible, indivisible atoms — thinking which directly influenced modern physics. The balancing of pleasure and pain influenced the utilitarians, like Bentham.

Epicurus believed that morality and all human institutions were essentially conventional, and he is ambivalent about the existence of gods, though at times he seems to see some pragmatism in believing in holding them as an ideal.

The Epicurean school was also the only Athenian school which permitted and encouraged women to join. The Epicureans’ views on marriage were mixed (Epicurus was against it, Lucretius for it, if I remember correctly), but they felt that the highest relationship was not between friends (like Aristotle), nor between husband and wife, but between an educated man and an educated woman.

The quotes above are from Lives of Eminent Philosophers. I’ve learned a lot from Catherine Wilson’s book The Pleasure Principle, which is great. I first heard about her on Robert Wright’s podcast, but I also loved her piece in Aeon.

We will be discussing modern and ancient notions of hedonism at a salon this week if you’re interested!

You can read more at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Might Epicurus be the most wronged philosopher of all time?

I continued the above post in Epicurus and Death and in Epicurus and Happiness.


  1. OED, epicurean, n.: “A person devoted to sensual pleasure, esp. to eating and drinking; a hedonist; a glutton […] In early use chiefly depreciative.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.