Epicurus: The Life of Pleasure

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), a Greek philosopher who was born on the isle of Samos, lived much of his life in Athens, where he founded his successful school of philosophy, called the “Garden,” because of the meeting place of the school. To Epicurus the chief aim of human life is pleasure. This is mistakenly linked today with gluttony and an “eat, drink, and be merry” approach toward life. Epicurus distinguished various types of pleasures. For example, some are intense but last only a short time, and others are not so intense but last longer. Also, some pleasures have a painful aftermath, while others offer a sense of calm and repose.

According to Epicurus, all people have an immediate feeling of the difference between pleasure and pain. “We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us,” he said, “and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again.” But he distinguished between various kinds of pleasures. Some desires are natural and necessary, like food. Others are natural but not necessary, as in the case of some types of sexual pleasure. Still others are neither natural nor necessary — for example, any type of luxury or popularity.

What might a Stoic say about caring deeply about a fine car and other luxuries?

Stoics believe that it is appropriate to enjoy beautiful things, both material things and things in nature. But someone who has a dependency on such things gets completely out of sorts when the car gets ruined in an accident or stolen off the street. So Stoics would counsel that you give material things only the status they deserve and not let them rule your life.

The Greatest Pleasure Is Freedom from Pain and Distraction

The philosophy of Epicurus is not what Epicureanism stands for today — a sensuous, profligate lifestyle or the elaborate tastes of a gourmet. In fact, he believed almost the opposite. The true life of pleasure consisted in an attitude of imperturbable emotional calm, which required only the simpler things of life. The Epicureans turned in the direction of an ideal for living, which they called ataraxia, or tranquility of soul.

The ultimate pleasure humans seek is repose, Epicurus said. By this he means the absence of bodily pain and the gentle relaxation of the mind. This sense of repose can best be achieved by scaling down your desires, overcoming useless fears, and, above all, turning to the pleasures of the mind, which have the highest degree of permanence.

You need a basic but healthy diet, a prudent moral life — where people keep their agreements — and good friends. In the interests of well-being, you must constrain your pleasures. What should you fear? Only the things you know. Since only good or bad sensations (pleasures or pains) should concern you, and death is not a sensation, you should not fear death.

In his Letter to Menoeceus Epicurus wrote:

When we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasure of profligates and those that consist of sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind. For it is not continuous drinkings and revelings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, or the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit.

Does it look like Epicurus had returned to that typical Greek idea of shunning excesses? Yes, he believed in a life of moderation. The most virtuous among us realizes which pleasures are the most satisfying and chooses to shun those pleasures which produce pain. The safest and most desirable life is one of simple pleasures. The wise person has learned to need little and lives prudently.

Epicurus was not a prude or a puritan. He did not say that people should seek only tranquility of the soul. According to him, physical pleasures are fine and people should not avoid them completely. In fact, he said, “Pleasure is the starting-point and the end of living blissfully. For we recognize pleasure as a good which is primary and innate.”

Individual Pleasure Versus Social Duty

For Epicurus one does not find the good life through service to human beings, but in the pleasant, decent company of intellectually fascinating friends. He would as readily detach himself from the company of poor people, whose needs are many, as he would from the tyranny of exotic foods.

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