Clerestory

Epicurus and Happiness

December 02, 2020

Today I’m thinking about Epicurus’ view of happiness.

This section comes directly between the two passages on the future (“We must remember…”) and on pleasure (“Pleasure is our first and kindred good”) which I quoted in my first post on Epicurus.

From the Letter to Menoeceus, p653 in Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers:

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.

We have a desire for food and shelter. These are natural. But we may also develop longings for certain luxuries, purchases, extravagances, and so on, which Epicurus would probably call “groundless.” (Desires mimetically acquired, through culture?)

Natural desires can be further divided. We have some natural desires which are necessary — food and water being the most obvious. But we might have other desires (for sex or vengeance, maybe?) which are natural but not strictly necessary for our continued existence.

The divide between the natural and the necessary in the moral world reminds me of the line Epicurus draws in the physical world, between the natural (atoms and the void) and the conventional (human government and affairs). Here’s Catherine Wilson, The Pleasure Principle (ch. 9):

Implicitly, the Epicurean distinguishes between three levels of reality: the eternal, indestructible things – the atoms; natural composites of atoms like animals, plants, geological formations, sun, moon, stars; and conventional things – driving licences, royalty, clocks, chess games.

I like that he considers basically all human affairs, including government and morality,1 conventional, or to put it another way, cultural.

Epicurus continues:

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.

So there are degrees of necessity. Social contact and purpose may be necessary for us to be happy. Healthy food, friendship, and comfortable clothing may rid us of uneasiness. Some minimal amount of food and water, some level warmth, protection from the elements, and sleep are obviously sine qua non, without which we will die.

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.

For Epicurus, since there is neither any afterlife nor are there any moral absolutes, only conventions, the only thing worth pursuing is ataraxia, or tranquillity. Since “pleasure” is such a loaded word, it might be better to think of “contentment” or “satisfaction,” something that lasts.

If one is untroubled in mind and body over a long period of time, that, for Epicurus, is the good life, the goal. He can’t see how an unpleasant life could be the goal — what would the end beyond this be? But this definitively does not mean pursuing every pleasure, nor having every luxury. Food, after all, tastes best when you’re hungry.

For Epicurus, there is nothing beyond this kind of contentment. But notice that it includes mental tranquility. This reminds me a bit of Aristotle’s idea of man as rational animal. I’m not sure that Epicurus would go so far as to argue that man must use reason, but he probably would agree that man must put his mind to good use. Physical bliss is insufficient without mental calm.

Hedonia for Epicurus is more about the absence of pain than it is about the presence of pleasure:

For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look for anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained because of the absence of pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure.

The passage immediately following this continues to explain what he means by pleasure, and I quoted it in my first post. I also wrote about Epicurus and Death yesterday.


  1. I almost wrote Architecture & Morality.

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