Reading Epicurus: Pleasure and pain (Happiness #22)

“The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.”

— Epicurus, Principal Doctrines (transl. Hicks), #3

What is Epicurus saying here exactly?

As previously discussed here, Epicurus doesn’t think that there are any positive pleasures. What he calls pleasure is just the absence of pain. If we can reach a state of mind where all pain is totally absent, then this we can call happiness.

Note that here Epicurus does not refer only to bodily pain, like a tooth-ache or such. “Pain” for him is every sensation that is negative, and that distracts us from being at peace. This can be a tooth-ache, but it can also just be hunger, thirst, the feeling of being tired. It can also mean anxiety: if I am afraid of losing my job, for instance, or afraid of a medical examination that is going to take place tomorrow. These are all causes of “pain.”

And, of course, the biggest such cause of pain is fear. We are afraid of small things: spiders, or dark corridors in the night. But we are also afraid of bigger things: of losing our loved ones in an accident. Of becoming incurably ill. And, of course, of dying.

We will talk in a later post about how Epicurus tries to rid us of these fears, especially the fear of death. But in order to understand the quote above, it is not necessary to go into the details of particular anxieties and fears. It is sufficient to note that if we have such fears, we will not be happy. So far, everyone would agree.

But now comes the Epicurean move: He reverses the argument above. If we do not have such fears, he says, then we are perfectly happy.

Is this plausible?

Epicurus really needs to make this point. Because what he wants, in the end, is to say that we can become happy by reducing our desires. And the happiness that we will achieve by getting rid of our desires is as good as the happiness we would get by fulfilling them (see here for a detailed explanation of that thought). Now that couldn’t be the case if fulfilling my desires, let’s say for a chocolate, gave me anything positive. Then I would need that chocolate in order to be happy.

But if Epicurus manages to convince us that the perfect happiness is just the absence of pain (as he tries above), then the chocolate would not give me any positive pleasure. What gives me pleasure is the absence of hunger. As long as I’m not hungry, my happiness is perfect, and it doesn’t matter a bit whether I came to that state by eating caviar, or plain rice, chocolate, or a piece of dry bread.

Epicurus again:

“Pleasure in the body admits no increase when once the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation.” (Principal Doctrines, transl. Hicks, #18).

Surely, he’s onto something here. Five minutes after I’ve eaten a piece of chocolate, and the immediate sensation of its taste is gone, I will indeed not feel any difference in my happiness: I will not be hungry, and this will be the only thing I’ll know. Whether I’ll have reached that state by eating any of a whole range of possible foods, I’ll be unable to say. My fullness, the absence of my hunger, is the only thing that I will still perceive. And that sweetness of the chocolate, or the blandness of white rice: these are only variations of that basic happiness of not being hungry. They don’t actually contribute to the degree of happiness itself. And indeed, in the long run my happiness (and my health) will be better served by choosing the white rice, or a dish of vegetables, over the chocolate.

Whether we agree with Epicurus or not, the idea is worth thinking about for a moment. In a culture like ours, where advertisements and commercial interests always try to push us towards fulfilling our desires in the most expensive, most consumerist, most troublesome ways for ourselves (which are the most profitable ways for those who try to influence our choices): in this environment, it is refreshing and empowering to realise that what we really want when we buy something is to get rid of a need, of what Epicurus would call a pain: hunger, thirst, the need for transportation, the need for a phone that will allow us to talk to our family and friends. These needs are legitimate, and we should try to address them.

But an old, second-hand phone addresses the need for a phone just as well as the newest iPhone. An old car takes me everywhere just as well as the newest Tesla. To spend a lot of money pursuing iPhones and Teslas is therefore irrational: it distracts us from what really counts in life, and it actually harms us. By taking away a disproportionate amount of my money, an iPhone or a Tesla renders me unable to pursue other things; while a cheap phone or car leaves me equally satisfied, costs less in the long run to maintain, and leaves a lot of cash in my pocket that I can use to pursue the fulfilment of other desires that might be more important: the desire for a home that is not mortgaged, the desire for an education that does not plunge me into life-long debt, and so on.

So perhaps it is true, after all, that the best, the most valuable, the most lasting kind of happiness is nothing but the absence of pain.