Epicurus: A Guide to the Principal Doctrines
Text, commentary and study guide
The Principal Doctrines is the main work of Epicurus on happiness. This study guide presents and explains the original text. It can be used for a class on Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness or it can form the basis for a reading group or book club meeting.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to Epicurus.
Epicurus: The Principal Doctrines
In this article, we will read together and discuss the main work of the philosophy of happiness of Epicurus, the Principal Doctrines. Epicurus wrote many works (Diogenes Laertius, from whom we know most about Epicurus, lists 44 books!). But for his theory of happiness, we only need three works:
- The Principal Doctrines is a collection of 40 sayings that summarise the whole of the Epicurean philosophy of life.
- The Letter to Menoeceus, who was one of Epicurus’ students, is one of three Epicurean letters that we have. It is a less systematic and slightly more superficial text than the Principal Doctrines, but covers essentially the same ground.
- Finally, the so-called Vatican Sayings are a collection of 81 quotes that were discovered in the Vatican Library in 1888. Some of them are almost identical to some of the Principal Doctrines, but others cover also different topics. We will occasionally refer to the Vatican Sayings when we discuss Epicurus.
Both the Principal Doctrines and the Letter to Menoeceus we know of only because the 3rd century AD author Diogenes Laertius quoted them in full in his work “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,” which also contains source material from many other Greek philosophers.
Thankfully, all these sources are available in English and anyone can read them for free on the Internet. Here are the links:
- Principal Doctrines, tr. Hicks
- Letter to Menoeceus, tr. Hicks
- Diogenes Laertius, Chapter on Epicurus. This one includes the Greek text (click on “Load” top right to see the Greek).
The Hicks translation is a bit weird at times, but it’s easily available and in the public domain, and this is why we will use it here. Whenever the translation is unclear, I will provide notes in the commentary that will, hopefully, make things a bit clearer. Other sources on the Principal Doctrines:
- Julia Hannafin offers a different translation of the Principal Doctrines without stating who the translator is.
- Epicurus.net has another translation of the Principal Doctrines, again without translator information.
- Finally, Erik Anderson offers his own modern (2006) translation. This one is interesting because it groups the text into eight sections that cover different topics, and it is the most modern of the translations listed here.
Thematic grouping of the doctrines
Erik Anderson divides the text into the following sections:
- The four-fold cure for anxiety (Doctrines 1-4)
- Pleasure and virtue are interdependent (5)
- Social and financial status have recognizable costs and benefits (6-8)
- Through the study of Nature, we discern the limits of things (9-13)
- Unlike social and financial status, which are unlimited, peace of mind can be wholly secured (14-21)
- Happiness depends on foresight and friendship (22-30)
- The benefits of natural justice are far-reaching (31-38)
- So happiness can be secured in all circumstances (39-40)
A reading-group or book-club plan
If you want to read the doctrines in a group or class setting, I propose to do it like this (which is also the structure of this article):
- Week 1: Introduction, translations, sources
- Week 2: Doctrines 1-8
- Week 3: Doctrines 9-21
- Week 4: Doctrines 22-30
- Week 5: Doctrines 31-40
Below you will find the text (in the Hicks translation) together with a short introduction to every doctrine. The comments will also include links to further reading on Epicurus’ theory.
If you are reading the doctrines with a group, I propose that you read and comment on two doctrines per day, which will approximately let you finish the reading in a week.
When the members of the reading group meet, here are some questions to discuss. I will provide more questions in the comments to each doctrine below.
- Did you like this week’s reading?
- Did Epicurus convince you that he’s right?
- What did you agree with most?
- What did you disagree with most?
- What surprised you most in this week’s text?
- What would you like to think more about?
- What was unclear and you’d like us to talk more about?
Text: Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 1-8
In the following, the used translation is Hicks, which is in the Public Domain. Sometimes, I used as a second translation the one by Erik Anderson. You will find a link in the section on the sources used. After the translation follow my notes and a few questions to think about. If you’d like to think about the text yourself first, before you read my comments, just jump from translation to translation and don’t read what I wrote after the Epicurean texts. You can come back and read these passages later, after you’ve finished reading the original doctrines. Have fun!
(1) A happy and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.
This is a weird way of beginning a treatise on happiness… After all, if we were happy and eternal beings, we wouldn’t need to read Epicurus.
My guess: Epicurus thinks that the fear of the unpredictability of the gods is one of the reasons for what he will call, later on, the “trouble in the soul.” Pain in the body and trouble in the soul are, for him, two reasons for fear and anxiety in human beings. By insisting that gods don’t “bring trouble upon any other being,” Epicurus tries to establish that we don’t need to fear the gods. Compare with the notion of the Christian God as all-loving, and of Allah as most merciful. And since we don’t need to fear them, we can aspire to let go of our anxieties and be happy.
If we remember what happened to Socrates, who was killed among other things for disrespecting the gods, it’s understandable that Epicurus does not want to say that gods don’t exist at all. So he casts them as all-benevolent, which neatly avoids denying their existence, yet takes care of our fear of them.
But there’s something else, too. The last sentence of the Letter of Menoeceus is: “For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.” So Epicurus thinks that we will ourselves be as serene and happy as gods if we try to embrace the blessings in our lives in the way Epicurus teaches.
Of course, “the gods,” or religions, as we would say more generally today, do not only cause dread and fear. It is known that believers have higher levels of life satisfaction than non-believers. You can read more about the positive effects of religion on happiness right here:
Religion has a profound effect on happiness. Multiple studies have shown that religious believers are generally happier people, an effect that is more pronounced in poorer countries.
(2) Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.
Here is Epicurus treatment of the other source of human anxiety: the fear of death. Epicurus was an atomist, so he believed that all things are composed of small units, the atoms, which fly around and combine to form the things we can see. When we die, these atoms fly apart and form new things. Since the fear of death must be based on some kind of sensation (fear of pain, fear of hell etc), if there is no sensation because the body’s atoms are gone, then there can be nothing to fear after we die.
This argument has the problem that one can still be afraid of death even if one is not afraid of what will happen after death. One reason to fear death would be to fear the process of dying, for example, which we will experience. Another is that we will miss out on life and experiences after our death. Or we might fear what will happen to those who depend on us after we die.
You can read more about Epicurus “trouble in the soul” here:
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasises that, in a world that works according to physical laws, nobody ought to be afraid of either the gods or one’s own death.
I recommend that you follow these links if you have the time. They will enrich your experience of reading Epicurus immensely and give you a much better understanding and appreciation of his work.
Discussion question: What do you think? Does Epicurus’ argument here sound convincing to you?
(3) 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 has a very simple picture of how pleasure and pain work in this paragraph: they are opposite ends of a spectrum. Our experience of pleasure and pain happens along one dimension, one line. When we go towards pleasure, we automatically go away from the pain end of the spectrum. And the other way round.
Discussion question: What do you think? Is this really the case? Or can we experience pleasure and pain at the same time?
Another thing to see here: Epicurus says that the “magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit” when all pain is removed. So there can actually not be any positive pleasure ever! Just removing all pain results not, as we would think, in a neutral state of indifference – but in a state of maximum pleasure!
Discussion question: What do you think about this? Is it plausible? Why do you think that Epicurus says that?
Read more about Epicurus’ ideas on pleasure and pain here:
For Epicurus, pleasure is nothing but the absence of pain. Pain can further be subdivided into pain of the body and trouble in the soul.
(4) Continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the body does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the body.
Obviously, this is a somewhat dubious claim. It’s a bitter irony of fate that Epicurus himself died of kidney stones, a simultaneously very slow and extremely painful way to go. Modern medicine, one could argue, has made things worse, giving more people than before the opportunity for prolonged suffering at the end of life.
(5) It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the person is not able to live wisely, though he lives well and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
This has an almost Aristotelian ring to it. The ancient Greeks were suspicious of pure pleasure, and even Epicurus felt that he must somehow connect the pleasant life with wisdom and justice (or virtue, as Aristotle would have it).
Read more on Aristotle here:
Aristotle’s theory of happiness rests on three concepts: (1) the virtues; (2) phronesis or practical wisdom; and (3) eudaimonia or flourishing.
It’s interesting, though, that the connection between pleasure and virtue goes both ways: “It is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly.” This seems strange. In the tradition of Kant, we generally accept that there is at least the possibility that some people might live wisely and justly without living pleasantly. One might perform one’s duty, for instance, and thus be just, honourable and virtuous, without actually having a lot of fun doing so.
Discussion question: What do you think? Is Epicurus right here? Do you agree that living justly entails, in some way, that one also lives pleasantly? Tell me in the comments!
Read more on Kant’s ethics here:
Deontological ethics is about actions that must be performed (or must not be performed) because the actions themselves are intrinsically good or bad.
(6) In order to obtain security from other people any means whatever of procuring this was a natural good.
This sounds all quite strange, so here is another translation:
[Epicurus.net:] In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.
Here is the Greek:
(6) Ἕνεκα τοῦ θαρρεῖν ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, ἦν κατὰ φύσιν [ἀρχῆς καὶ βασιλείας] ἀγαθόν, ἐξ ὧν ἄν ποτε τοῦθ᾽ οἷός τ᾽ ᾖ παρασκευάζεσθαι.
The “[ἀρχῆς καὶ βασιλείας]” (of high office and kingship) seems to appear only in some versions of the text and might have been a marginal note rather than part of the text (that from a footnote of Hicks). Only Erik Anderson translates it at all. We’ll just go with the Hicks translation, since it seems to make more sense.
So what does it mean that security from other people is a “natural good?”
My guess: As we will see later, Epicurus classifies the desires into “natural” (necessary and non-necessary) and “vain.” It might be that he wants to establish that safety is a natural desire, rather than a vain one, so that we are allowed, following his system, to care for our safety. Later, in doctrine 28, he will say: “Nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.” If the desire for security were a vain one, then it would be questionable whether we need friends. By establishing that what friends can give us (safety, security) is a natural good, friendship also, automatically, becomes natural and good.
Discussion question: Or is there another way of understanding this passage? Do you have any better ideas?
To find out more about Epicurus’ theory of desires, go here:
Epicurus believed that the most reliable way to be happy is to reduce one’s desires until it’s easy to satisfy them.
(7) Some people have sought to become famous and renowned, thinking that thus they would make themselves secure against their fellow-humans. If, then, the life of such persons really was secure, they attained natural good; if, however, it was insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
This passage connects to the previous one. If security is a natural good, then we are justified in seeking it. But how can we attain it? Some will try to obtain security by becoming famous or rich. But actually, this is not a promising way to go about it, Epicurus thinks. And if becoming famous or rich won’t help us achieve the goal of living a more secure life, then we are not justified in seeking these things. It is just irrational to seek fame and fortune if these don’t improve one’s security.
Epicurus does not clearly say whether the believes that fame and fortune achieve the goal of making us more secure or not. He leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.
Discussion question: So what do you think? Do fame and riches make us more secure in life? Is this security sufficient justification for seeking to be rich and famous?
For more on this topic, you might want to have a look at this article:
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote that “the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.” But why would that be so? It becomes clearer when we look at Epicurus’ theory of desires.
(8) No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.
For me, this is one of the core statements of Epicurus. Here, he tries to set himself apart from those who are against all pleasures and who think that suffering and deprivation are somehow noble and desirable ways to spend one’s life. At various times, Christian groups have, for example, proclaimed that all pleasures are evil and that a God-fearing person must abstain from enjoying them.
Epicurus disagrees. To him, it is still true that pleasures are an essential component of a good life (see doctrine 5 above). His point is not that we should avoid pleasures. Quite the opposite: “No pleasure is in itself evil,” that means, no pleasure is evil just because it is a pleasure (as opposed to a bitter duty, for example).
The problem with pleasures is a practical one: “Some pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” What does this mean? Think of a shiny new sports car. Epicurus would not (perhaps surprisingly?) say that there is anything wrong with the sports car as a source of pleasure. But in order to be able to buy it, I need to work for a long time everyday, I need to get an education, perhaps to work in an area that I don’t like but that pays well (accounting, say, as opposed to philosophy), I will perhaps neglect my family and so on. In the end, I will obtain the car, but the price that I will have paid for it, in terms of the missed time with my family, my suffering at work etc, will be “many times greater” than the pleasure that I can extract from that car.
Discussion question: This invites us to think further: What of all the material goods we have have really been worth the time and effort to obtain them? Can we name any?
Read more about our fixation on material goods here:
So has Epicurean living become so expensive today as to exclude most of us from practising it? Does one need to be rich in order to be able to afford the simple life?
Week 2: Principal Doctrines 9-21
To recap last week’s reading: In the first four Doctrines, Epicurus tries to argue against the fear of the Gods, of pain and of death. In 5 and 6, he connects happiness to wisdom and the good life, and justifies our seeking of security in life. Finally, in 7 and 8, he attacks the notion that fame, material goods and other (vain) pleasures will lead to a good life. There is nothing wrong with fame or riches, he says, except that chasing these things tends to make us miserable. Epicurus gives the impression that he wouldn’t mind a lottery win, for example, if that could be achieved without too much effort. It is not the enjoyment of things he objects to, it is the effort that we need to invest into obtaining them and then caring for them.
Back to today’s reading. In the first paragraphs (9-13), Epicurus argues for the necessity of his own approach. If people were happy, he says, due to the way they live now, we wouldn’t have a reason to look for another theory of happiness. If they didn’t fear nature and gods, we wouldn’t have to study science. What he wants to say is that his approach is eminently practical, not driven by a thirst after theory. He is a psychologist, we might say today, a philosophical counselor. The undeniable fact that people are unhappy is what justifies Epicurus’ project.
After doctrine 14, he then presents his own approach that will, supposedly, solve all these problems. This is where Epicurus presents the core of his own theory of pleasure and where he makes a case for his own, peculiar brand of hedonism. If doctrine 8 was the most important one in the previous week’s reading, then this week’s are 15 and 18. These three doctrines alone encapsulate most of Epicurus’ views about happiness and form the basis of the contemporary, popular understanding of Epicureanism.
(9) If all pleasure had been capable of accumulation, – if this had gone on not only be recurrences in time, but all over the frame or, at any rate, over the principal parts of human nature, there would never have been any difference between one pleasure and another, as in fact there is.
We begin with one of the more puzzling statements in all of the Principal Doctrines. Every commentator remarks at some point how unclear it is what Epicurus might have meant here. I find Hicks’ translation particularly hard to make sense of. What is that “frame” he speaks of? What parts of human nature? And what do these have to do with the difference between pleasures?
So I tried my own translation. If you read Greek, here is the original:
(9) Εἰ κατεπυκνοῦτο πᾶσα ἡδονή, καὶ χρόνῳ καὶ περὶ ὅλον τὸ ἄθροισμα ὑπῆρχεν ἢ τὰ κυριώτατα μέρη τῆς φύσεως, οὐκ ἄν ποτε διέφερον ἀλλήλων αἱ ἡδοναί.
And here is my attempt:
(9) If every pleasure was condensed, and if it existed both over time and over all the sum, or over the main parts of nature, the pleasures would not differ from one another.
What the other translations call “accumulation” and “prologing” is, in the Greek, a word also (primarily?) used for density. So are we talking of extending pleasures in time, of accumulating them, or of increasing their density?
One possible interpretation is that Epicurus wants to emphasise what we would now call commensurability of pleasures. Two values are commensurable if they can be measured and compared using the same standard. Two lengths, for example, are commensurable; a length and a weight are not.
It is a long-standing question in the philosophy of happiness whether all pleasures are commensurable: that is, whether they can all be compared to each other, whether they are all of the same kind. Jeremy Bentham famously thought that they were. Using his “felicific calculus” we could measure the “happiness-value” of each pleasure and compare it to the “happiness-values” of other pleasures. Others, like Aristotle, would disagree.
So what Epicurus is saying is that if we could add up all the pleasures, then they could not be different from each other. One cannot add apples to grapes; it is only possible to add apples to apples and grapes to grapes. If we could accumulate pleasures, then they must all be commensurable, that is, of the same type.
Notice that Hicks adds at the end of this, “as in fact there is.” This does not appear in the Greek text. In my opinion, one could argue that for Epicurus’ system it would be better to assume that, indeed, there is no difference between one pleasure and another.
In the end, Epicurus wants us to be flexible about pleasures and to realise that we can, without loss in the resulting happiness, replace a vain pleasure by a natural one.
I understand this to mean, yes, there is no difference between pleasures. Every pleasure (as we saw in #3) is just the removal of pain, and when the pain is gone, then there is no more pleasure to be gained. In this sense, then, pleasures can not be accumulated further. This is a natural point of saturation.
A different explanation of this passage can be found in a website by Daniel J. Castellano, “Pleasure as the Good in Epicureanism”:
Denying that pleasure accumulates over time is necessary to sustain Epicurus’s view that an eternity of pleasure is no better than a finite lifetime of pleasure. In short, we can experience no pleasure beyond that of the present. Our memory of past pleasure and expectation of future pleasure are experienced only as present pleasure, which alone provides enjoyment.
The second part of the thesis, namely that pleasure does not accumulate across a man’s body or parts of his nature, supports the claim that one kind of pleasure is as good as another. In the Epicurean version of this claim, experiencing one kind of pleasure — say, listening to music — is not enhanced by adding another kind, such as beholding beauty, at the same time. We were already in a state of pleasure to begin with, so nothing is gained by adding another pleasure, and by the same token, we are not lacking anything in our enjoyment by experiencing only one rather than several pleasures at a time. (Castellano)
Read more about hedonism, pleasure and happiness here:
Hedonism is the thesis that happiness and pleasure are the same. But is that true? Does the enjoyment of pleasures like good food, chocolate, sex and a myriad other things that we consume everyday — do these things really make us happier?
(10) If the objects which are productive of pleasures to profligate persons really freed them from fears of the mind, – the fears, I mean, inspired by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures to overflowing on all sides and would be exempt from all pain, whether of body or mind, that is, from all evil.
This is a continuation of the thoughts in #7 and #8, which we talked about last time: If mindless consuming of pleasures actually worked to make cheap and wasteful people happy, then there would be no reason to criticise such people. Epicurus wants to emphasise that he is not in principle against pleasure, or even against consumerism and excess. If these worked, they would be good. Unfortunately, though, they do not. And therefore we need a better way of leading our lives: Epicurus’ way.
Discussion question: Here Epicurus says essentially that the only reason not to be a cheap and consumerism-oriented person is that being such a person would make you unhappy. Is this true, or are there perhaps also other (moral) reasons why we should prefer to be free of vain desires?
If you’d like to see a more modern criticism of consumerism in relation to happiness, have a look at our big feature on Erich Fromm’s philosophy right here:
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
(11) If we had never been molested by alarms at celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by the misgiving that death somehow affects us, nor by neglect of the proper limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need to study natural science.
Here he once again emphasises the same point, now in relation to science. If we never had been alarmed by storms, floods or death, then we wouldn’t need science. But, unfortunately, we are.
And there’s something else here: Epicurus’ commitment to the practical side of science. Science, and also philosophy, are not purely of theoretical interest. The ultimate goal of science is to help us understand the workings of nature and thus to help us combat our fears. The ultimate goal of philosophy is to make us happier. For Epicurus, every scientific endeavour must have a practical outcome that benefits the happiness of man.
Discussion question: That’s an interesting thesis: that we need science only in order to save us from the fear of the gods. If we weren’t afraid of things we don’t understand, we wouldn’t need science at all. What do you think of this claim?
(12) It would be impossible to banish fear on matters of the highest importance, if a person did not know the nature of the whole universe, but lived in dread of what the legends tell us. Hence without the study of nature there was no enjoyment of unmixed pleasures.
Same point here. Epicurus here directly attacks religions and their legends. If we didn’t have science, we would live in a state of dread and fear. But with science, we can overcome this and see that the legends do not reflect any reality and that we don’t need to fear the gods.
Discussion question: Epicurus seems to think that religions mostly cause dread in the minds of the believers. But this does not need to be the case. For example, in a Christian context, believers can also be comforted by the knowledge that God is watching over them, or they can look forward to an eternal life after death. Do you think that Epicurus is right to focus on the negative aspects of religious belief?
(13) There would be no advantage in providing security against our fellow humans, so long as we were alarmed by occurrences over our heads or beneath the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.
There’s a hierarchy of terrors, Epicurus is saying here. There are relatively small things that scare us, like the possibility of violence or someone stealing our possessions. We can, of course, deal with those by locking our houses, by increasing police presence, or (in a more politically enlightened way) by improving the living conditions within our societies. But all these will be of little use if we’re still afraid of the much bigger terrors of the universe: floods, earthquakes, meteorite strikes, and, yes, global warming. Science is necessary because it allows us to deal with these fears (and hopefully eliminate the causes of our fears). After this is done, we can set out to organise our society in the right way.
Discussion question: One could dispute this. We can still not do much against earthquakes or meteorite strikes today, but this does not stop us from trying to make our societies more free and just. We don’t suspend social justice movements until the global warming problem is solved. Or do you think that Epicurus is saying something valuable here?
(14) When tolerable security against our fellow humans is attained, then on a basis of power sufficient to afford supports and of material prosperity arises in most genuine form the security of a quiet private life withdrawn from the multitude.
The life of the wise man cannot be pursued well in a society of savages. After having dealt with the fears of the gods and of nature, after we have employed science to help us understand the universe, now we must order society in a way that will be conducive to a “quiet, private life.” Only such a life will allow us to reach a stable state of enduring happiness.
Note also how Epicurus speaks of power and material prosperity as a necessary basis for the ideal, quiet life. This is interesting for multiple reasons: First, Epicurus is all about friendship and how important friends are for a good life. Now he seems to be saying that he would prefer “a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude.” While this does not exclude friendships, it looks more like the ideal of human existence might be a life in solitude rather than one surrounded by friends. Second, he says elsewhere that we should prefer the natural and necessary pleasures, among other reasons because they are cheap to procure. But here he makes a point of stating that “material prosperity” is a condition for the quiet, private life. This would directly contradict the project of hermits, for example, who don’t rely on material prosperity.
If you’re interested in the question of the happiness of hermits, here is an article about that:
Hermits, from the Greek “eremites,” (=men of the desert), are found in all cultures and at all times. In this article, we look at the phenomenon of hermit life as a whole, before we go into more detail in future posts in this series.
Discussion question: What do you think of these contradictions? Are friends better for one’s advancement towards happiness, or a quiet, private life? Is a basic level of material prosperity good for spiritual growth, or would it be a hindrance?
(15) Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance.
Here is another of these very central ideas of Epicurus, and perhaps his most controversial one.
We remember that Epicurus always refers back to nature. Natural desires are both good and inescapable. Natural and necessary desires cause pain when not fulfilled. And so, we have to fulfil our natural (and necessary) desires. We have no choice about that.
Luckily, though, Epicurus is saying, it so happens that these natural desires are also easy to fulfil. Vain desires “recede to an infinite distance” because fulfilling one always leads to another. If I want a car, next I will want a bigger car. After that, I will want a cooler car, a faster car, a luxury car, and so on for ever. It is well established in happiness research that most people think they would be happy if they had just a 20% higher income than their current income – and this is independent of their actual income!
This is not so with natural pleasures. Eating an apple does not make me want a bigger apple. Taking a stroll in the woods does not make me want to climb Everest. “Nature’s wealth has its bounds.”
The second part of this thought is almost Darwinian. We have evolved, Epicurus seems to be saying (of course, not using these words), to get our fullest pleasures from the things that nature provides. Our sense of beauty is aligned with how nature looks where we grew up. Our sense of taste fits the produce and the cuisine of the place we live in (they didn’t have Greek expats in China back then). The Darwinian interpretation is an anachronism, but it explains this better than any other way I can think of. If we don’t resort to some form of evolutionary explanation, why would we assume that nature always provides us with precisely what we need to be happy?
Today we can question whether this is still true. Ours is an age where supermarkets are full of cheap, industrial snacks and where natural, organic vegetables have become luxury items. Is it still true that nature’s wealth is “easy to procure”? Isn’t junk food more available than natural food? If we look at nutrition statistics across income brackets, we often find that the poorest people have the worst diets, while only the wealthy enjoy access to pesticide-free broccoli – and the Queen of England eats only produce from her own gardens.
Discussion question: If this is true, what does it say for the prospect of living the Epicurean good life today? Is it at all available to the overwhelming majority of humans on Earth today who are displaced by wars and climate, who live on the streets or the exported garbage dumps of our affluent societies? Has Epicurus become the exclusive prophet of the well-off?
(16) Fortune but seldom interferes with the wise person; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout the course of his life.
Fortune, luck, is what we need when we want to obtain something that we cannot reliably get on our own. I need luck in order to win the lottery. I need luck in order to get a better job. And so on.
The wise person, for Epicurus, is someone whose life is controlled by reason. They have reduced their desires to natural and easy to fulfil ones, and therefore they don’t need any luck. They also have nothing to lose. Their villa cannot burn down, their car cannot be crashed, their jewels cannot be stolen, simply because they do not have any such things. A person who lives simply, happy with little, and doesn’t own expensive things, is automatically immune to bad luck and not in need of good luck.
Discussion question: Fortune seems to still be of relevance, even for the wise person. What if the sage’s family dies? What if his friends die? What if the political situation (a war, say) makes the exercise of the Epicurean life impossible? What of natural disasters?
(17) The just person enjoys the greatest peace of mind, while the unjust is full of the utmost disquietude.
Here we return to doctrine 5. Being just is necessary for happiness, because being a just person affords one peace of mind. Being unjust leads to a person being “perpetually haunted,” as Erik Anderson translates.
Discussion question: Epicurus puts a great trust in one’s moral conscience in this paragraph. But is it true that the unjust are “perpetually haunted”? What do you think? Does such a kind of “natural justice” exist?
(18) Pleasure in the body admits no increase when once the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation. The limit of pleasure in the mind, however, is reached when we reflect on the things themselves and their congeners which cause the mind the greatest alarms.
Here is another core Epicurean belief: the maximum of pleasure is reached when the “pain of want” is removed. This is essentially the same idea as doctrine 3 (see last time). When we are hungry, we experience a “pain of want.” When we eat, we satisfy and remove that pain. And the state we get into when the pain of want is removed is the highest form of happiness.
This is why there is no point for Epicurus in chasing riches or any other vain pleasure: there is nothing that, say, caviar could add to our happiness when the “pain of want” of being hungry has been removed. Plain bread is as good as anything else to remove that pain, and after that perfect happiness has been achieved. Another kind of food would only add “variation,” as Epicurus says in another place, but not more happiness.
Discussion question: This is one of the most controversial claims of Epicurus. Is there really no positive happiness at all? We normally think that when our “pain of want” is removed, we’d be in a neutral state, not in a state of maximum happiness. What do you think?
(19) Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.
Pleasures don’t add up over time because we can only experience them in the moment. Yesterday’s ice cream does not add more pleasure to today’s ice cream. Each pleasure is only perceived at a particular moment. Even tomorrow’s ice cream, although a pleasant thought, is not in the same way pleasant as an actual ice cream.
And the reverse is also true: If suddenly we fall into extreme poverty and can never afford to eat another ice cream, the past ice creams we have eaten will be no consolation. We cannot re-live the pleasures of the past: they are gone for good.
It is for this reason that, in Epicurus’ opinion, only one particular moment, the present can be really pleasurable. Adding more time to the future will not change the pleasure I experience at any moment; nor will cutting time from my future reduce my present pleasures.
Discussion question: This doctrine seems to simplify the effects of time on happiness quite a bit. For one, I could find happiness in the thought that, while right now my financial situation is dire, a time will come when I will be rich and successful. On the other hand, I might also get happiness from looking back at a life well lived. In both cases, Epicurus seems to be saying, the effect is an irrational illusion. But is he right?
Read more about hedonism and the relationship of pleasure to happiness here:
Hedonism is the thesis that happiness and pleasure are the same. But is that true? Does the enjoyment of pleasures like good food, chocolate, sex and a myriad other things that we consume everyday — do these things really make us happier?
(20) The body receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end and limit of the body is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless it does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstances, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.
This passage expands further on the ideas in doctrine 19. Here, Epicurus speaks almost like a Stoic: all the pleasures we can actually experience, we experience through our minds. Controlling our minds in the right way is therefore the key to happiness. Our bodies might want to live forever, but our minds know that life is limited. They also understand rationally that future pleasures have no value. Therefore, we can train our minds to be fully happy in the expectation of a limited lifespan.
Discussion question: What Epicurus says here seems plausible on first sight, but we know that throughout the history of mankind, from the Egyptian pharaos to today’s transhumanists, human beings have always wished for immortality. And one could make a point that we are even genetically programmed to have a horror of death, which drives our evolutionary survival instinct. Is Epicurus here blind to the most basic instincts of human beings?
If you’d like to know more about the Stoics, have a quick look here:
A Stoic is an adherent of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of life. Stoics thought that, in order to be happy, we must learn to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot.
(21) He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.
And here is the summary of all that: the wise person knows that we only need to procure enough to remove the “pain of want.” There is no additional happiness beyond that. The things we need in order to achieve that are natural and easy to obtain (see doctrine 15). Everything beyond that, the things we don’t need, can only be obtained by “labour and conflict.” But since the wise person knows that we don’t need these things, they can be perfectly happy. The happiness of the wise is not a substitute for some other, fuller happiness, but is already a life that is “full and perfect.”
Discussion question: The question is, if we really gave up striving for whatever humans strive for, would we not lose something essential to humanity? If we consistently avoided “labour and conflict” would this not equal a kind of spiritual death? Aristotle thinks that happiness consists in using all our faculties and actualising our potential to the maximum extent possible. Epicurus seems to be saying that, essentially, a life spent sitting on the sofa is the best kind of human life. What do you think?
Read more about Aristotle’s views here:
For Aristotle, happiness is connected to function. Everything in the universe has a function, and a happy human life is one in which we fulfil that function.
Text: Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 22-30
In this section of the Doctrines, in the first paragraphs (22-25), Epicurus discusses his approach to knowledge. He believes that the only trustworthy knowledge comes from the senses and so we should build our beliefs upon what the senses tell us.
In the rest of this part, things seem to be a bit out of order. 26, 29 and 30 form a group of statements clarifying Epicurus’ theory of desires, while 27 and 28 discuss friendship. There is nothing particularly difficult happening in this part of the text, but 29 and 30 are central to our understanding of Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness.
(22) We must take into account as the end all that really exists and all clear evidence of sense to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.
My own translation: (22) We must take into account the ends of things and all the clarity of sight with which we justify our opinions. If we don’t, all things will be full of uncertainty and confusion.
Here we have Epicurus’ epistemology, his theory of how we can acquire knowledge of the world. Epicurus was an empiricist, in that he thought that we acquire all knowledge through the senses. This paragraph and the following two belong together to one thought.
He begins here by stating that if want to avoid living in “uncertainty and confusion,” (and surely no philosopher would want that!), we must have clear evidence for our beliefs. This evidence falls into two categories: first, we need to take into account “the end” (telos) of things, that is, their function or ultimate purpose; second, we must base our beliefs on “clarity of sight” (ἐνάργειαν: vividness, clarity, distinctness). Hicks translates “clear evidence of sense,” but the senses are not mentioned here (this comes in 23 and 24). Here, Epicurus only emphasises that we need to be clear in the evidence we use to justify our opinions.
This is a more general feature of Epicureans and atomists: that they see the world much as we would today, as the result of causal forces that act blindly on material things, as our laws of nature do. For Epicurus, the world and all the things in it are made up of “atoms” which fly around and connect randomly with other atoms to temporarily form the things we see. This is very different from a view in which the world is controlled by the will of gods or by mysterious “teleological” forces, due to which things tend to strive towards some kind of ultimate state of perfection that is specific to them. All such concepts, Epicurus thinks, just lead to confusion. Only a material world that follows fixed laws can be clearly understood and studied.
Discussion question: Is Epicurus’ belief in the clarity of science not a bit too optimistic? As our understanding of nature’s laws advances, we find ourselves confronted with more and more problems: a grand unified theory of physics seems out of reach, new subatomic particles are proliferating without any clear system, and quantum mechanics often conflicts with our most elementary intuitions about how reality should behave. Is it ever really possible to escape uncertainty and confusion, or are they an inescapable part of the human condition, a consequence of our limited mental capabilities to make sense of the world?
(23) If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those judgments which you pronounce false.
Continuing the previous thought, now Epicurus wants to emphasise that we need a “standard” to which we can refer when we justify our opinions. And the only such standard can be our “sensations” (aistheseis). What we experience with our senses is the only reliable truth. If we doubt our senses, then we won’t have any certainty about anything.
This seems to be a pretty obvious point, but actually it is quite a complex issue. For one, there are illusions that trick our senses, hallucinations and dreams. Everyone knows optical illusions where two lines are of the same length but appear to be different. Drugs, illness or even atmospheric conditions can make things appear to our senses that are really not there. And, finally, much of reality is not accessible to our senses at all: radioactivity, for example, or infrared and UV frequencies. We don’t have a sense for CO2, like mosquitoes do, and we lack a good sense for changes in air density, like cockroaches have. We cannot sense atmospheric pressure and our sense of time is easily cheated. So Epicurus probably should be a bit more cautious here about trusting the senses. We don’t need to fight against “all sensations,” but we should be aware that blindly trusting the senses is not necessarily a good strategy either.
Discussion question: Epicurus was probably aware of some of these issues, but he still thinks that the senses provide us with the best, most reliable information about the world. Do you agree? Or is there any other, better way of assessing the truth of beliefs?
(24) If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to discriminate with respect to that which awaits confirmation between matter of opinion and that which is already present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any immediate perception of the mind, you will throw into confusion even the rest of your sensations by your groundless belief and so you will be rejecting the standard of truth altogether. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not escape error, as you will be maintaining complete ambiguity whenever it is a case of judging between right and wrong opinion.
Here, Epicurus distinguishes between opinions “that await confirmation” and those that are immediately and directly present to the mind (and thus don’t require confirmation). Perhaps what he wants here is to distinguish between assumptions or predictions that we make and actual sensory facts. So when I believe that buying a new computer will make me happy, this is, Epicurus would say, an assumption that “awaits confirmation” (and that I most likely will not be able to confirm, because the assumption is wrong). On the other hand, the fact that this computer costs a particular amount of money, or that being with my best friend makes me happy, these beliefs do not “await confirmation.” They are derived of observable, sensory input and can be trusted. In this way, Epicurus builds a bridge from his epistemology (theory of knowledge) to his ethics: because now he can say why exactly we have the wrong beliefs that cause us to value “vain” desires: such beliefs are based on opinions which “await confirmation”, rather than on confirmed, experienced truths.
Discussion question: Do you think it’s true that sensory impressions don’t “await confirmation”? Descartes, for example, thought that we can be certain about the truth of some statements without needing the confirmation of the senses.
Find more about Descartes’ counter-argument here:
The overall aim of Descartes’ philosophy is to found science on a secure and absolutely certain footing. Without that anything built by science would be open to doubt following from the weakness of its foundation.
(25) If you do not on every separate occasion refer each of your actions to the end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance swerve aside to some other end, your acts will not be consistent with your theories.
I’m not sure what exactly Epicurus wants to say here. What is the “end prescribed by nature” (τὸ τέλος τῆς φύσεως)? I can only imagine that this is supposed to connect to the idea that natural things are easy to procure, while vain fancies are not (compare doctrine 15). So we should align our choices or the things we avoid according to whether they are natural or not. The “natural end” (=purpose) of drinking is to satisfy and remove thirst. As long as I drink with that natural end in mind, my “acts will be consistent with my theories.” If, on the other hand, I start drinking for taste or enjoyment, or in order to get drunk, then I am “swerving aside to some other end,” and my acts will not be consistent with nature (and will fail to make me happy).
Discussion question: Epicurus here makes a questionable connection between an action being natural (or serving natural ends) and it making us happy (which is the whole point of his philosophy). We can question this in two ways: Are there non-natural actions that make us legitimately and truly happy? And: are there any natural ends which won’t make us happy when pursued? What do you think?
St Augustine makes a similar point about how we should make choices that are consistent with the natural function of things. Read about this exciting argument here:
For St Augustine, the pleasure inherent in any activity is good as long as the activity is performed because of its intended function.
(26) All such desires as lead to no pain when they remain ungratified are unnecessary, and the longing is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to procure or when the desires seem likely to produce harm.
Now we’re back to the main topic of the Principal Doctrines: Epicurus’ theory of happiness and desires. He divides desires into three categories: necessary, unnecessary but natural, and unnecessary and unnatural (which he calls “vain” or “due to illusory opinion”). Let us rearrange these final few sentences so that can see the whole theory of desires together. So here follow 29 and 30, and we will discuss all of them further down:
(29) Of our desires some are natural and necessary others are natural, but not necessary; others, again, are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to illusory opinion.
(30) Those natural desires which entail no pain when not gratified, though their objects are vehemently pursued, are also due to illusory opinion; and when they are not got rid of, it is not because of their own nature, but because of the person’s illusory opinion.
Here we clearly see Epicurus’ classification of desires:
Natural and necessary desires cause pain when not gratified: hunger, for example, or thirst, or the requirement for basic clothing and protection against the weather and wild animals.
Natural but unnecessary desires do not cause pain when not gratified, but they are still natural. Epicurus does not clearly say here which desires he means, but I imagine something like the desire for a beautiful sunset or a sweet fruit. These are not necessary, but they are still natural. It is unclear whether the desire for friendship, an erotic relationship or sex would fall into this category. Some might say that friendship is perhaps a necessary desire, for the absence of friendship causes (psychological) pain. On the other hand, hermits live without friends, relationships and sex, so it is possible to live without these things and without also experiencing pain, which would place these desires into the “unnecessary” category.
Finally, unnatural and unnecessary desires are due to illusory opinion. And if we are driven to satisfy them, it is not because of anything in those desires themselves, but just because we don’t see clearly and we can’t get rid of our illusions. The desire for luxury items or for fame might be examples of such desires. If we want to be happy, we have to learn to get rid of those.
Discussion question: Are friends and sexual relationships “necessary” for happiness? Or can we perfectly happy without them? What do you think?
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a theory of what is required for human flourishing, which goes far beyond what Epicurus thinks necessary. You can read about the Capabilities Approach here:
In the capabilities approach, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that a human life, in order to reach its highest potential, must include a number of “capabilities” – that is, of actual possibilities that one can realise in one’s life.
(27) Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.
In these final two doctrines, Epicurus emphasises the value of friendship for happiness. One small point on the translation: the Greek here speaks of the “acquisition of friendship” (ἡ τῆς φιλίας κτῆσις), rather than “the acquisition of friends.” This might be a minor point, but I feel that the two are different in tone. The “acquisition of friends” has an instrumental ring to it, as if we expected these friends to help us ensure our own happiness “throughout the whole of life.” On the other hand, if I intend to acquire “friendship,” perhaps as a character trait, then I am not aiming to exploit any particular friend, but instead to be a good friend. “Friendship” in this sense could be understood as a character property, a virtue. Having this virtue will have good effects on my own life too, of course, but it will also benefit my friends.
You can read more on Epicurus’ ideas on friendship here:
Epicurus’ view on the value of friends has often been romanticised and equally often misunderstood. Here, we discuss Epicurus’ philosophy of friendship.
We should also note that the ancient Greek does not always distinguish clearly between friendship and love. Aristotle talks of different types of “philia,” some of which are clearly closer to love, while others might describe relationships as distant as those of business partners or travellers who are taking the same boat. So this passage might actually be talking about all kinds of human relationships, from that of business associates to that of lovers – and so perhaps it would be better to translate it as “…by far the most important is the maintenance of affectionate human relationships.”
Discussion question: Is Epicurus instrumentalising his friends here? Would you feel offended if someone said this about you: “For the happiness throughout my life, the most important thing I did was to procure the friendship of [insert your name here].”
It is fascinating how the ancient Greeks had an entirely different vision of what love is than we do. Have a look at this brief overview of ancient theories of love:
In this mini-series of posts, we trace the history of the concept of love from Plato and Aristotle through the Christian world to the Desert Fathers.
(28) The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that even in our limited conditions of life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.
Epicurus has been attacked for this passage. It can be read as “In this unsafe life, seek friends that will keep you safe,” implying that friends have mostly an instrumental value for him. In the Vatican Sayings, Epicurus writes: “23. Every friendship in itself is to be desired; but the initial cause of friendship is from its advantages.”
How much one thinks that this is a bad attitude to friendship will depend on how one reads this. We may be horrified to hear that “the initial cause of friendship is from its advantages,” but we might also, on the other hand, emphasise the word “initial.” Of course, when we initially befriend a stranger, there is no good reason for us to do so, except perhaps the expectation of some advantage (which may just be that we get pleasure from being with this person). If being friends with someone really never gave me anything, why would I want to be friends with them?
Let’s also briefly remember here that Aristotle names three different kinds of friendship, and none is fully altruistic: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of the good. In each case, we expect to receive something back from the friendship.
Arguably, it is a later, Christian influence that emphasises the caritas aspect of friendship over the utilitarian payback. As a Christian, I am supposed to love others for no reason, just because they are God’s children. But this is not an ancient Greek sentiment. Even in the best and highest kind of friendship for Aristotle, I am supposed to seek to better myself through the exchange with my friends. If a friendship does not accomplish that, it is a waste of time (at best) or it may even damage my character (in the worst case).
Discussion question: What do you think? Is Epicurus here too utilitarian about friendships?
For a different take on love and friendship, look here for Plato’s ideas about erotic love:
In Plato’s Symposium, Plato defines love as the desire for the eternal possession of the good.
Week 4: Principal Doctrines 31-40
This section is, surprisingly perhaps, all about matters of state, society and justice. Up until doctrine 30, Epicurus was talking about the nature of our desires and about the value of friendship. Suddenly now, without much of a transition, he is talking about justice.
(31) Natural justice is a symbol or expression of usefulness, to prevent one person from harming or being harmed by another.
Epicurus here begins to enlarge the scope of his philosophy, from the individual towards the whole of society. He has already begun to introduce the topic in doctrine 6, where he wrote: “In order to obtain security from other people any means whatever of procuring this was a natural good.”
He returned to commenting on society in doctrine 14: “When tolerable security against our fellow humans is attained, then on a basis of power sufficient to afford supports and of material prosperity arises in most genuine form the security of a quiet private life withdrawn from the multitude.” You can go back to the previous sessions of this reading group and have a look at the comments there.
Now here he does something interesting: he reduces justice to a purely utilitarian concept: the only function of justice is to prevent harm to the individual.
Although we generally associate social contract theories with Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the thought of some kind of “social contract” already existed in ancient Greece. Both Plato and Aristotle wrote about it. But for them, living in the well-ordered participatory democracy of Athens’ golden age, the social contract was a description of a whole, harmonious system, a way of seeing the polis as an organism. It would sound as strange to Aristotle to say that the social contract is made for the sake of protecting the individual, as it would be to say that the whole human organism is made for the sake of enabling one’s left hand to work. For Plato and Aristotle, the individuals and the state are one, and only together can they both flourish.
For Epicurus, this is not true any more. In the doctrines we are reading today, we can see that he emphasises only the gain of the individual. The social contract and the state are only respected because it is beneficial to the individual to respect them. There is no natural alignment between the interests of the state and those of the person. If the state did not benefit the person, then it would have to go.
Discussion question: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously believed that life without a state (in the “state of nature”) would be so terrible that even the worst organised society is preferable to a life in total anarchy. Do you agree with this? Or is a hard, solitary life outside of society and its amenities still preferable to a life in an evil dictatorship?
For an idea on how our societies influence us (for good and bad) and how they can interfere with our individual happiness, have a look at the thought of social psychologist Erich Fromm and his vision of a new society:
Philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm analysed the problems of Western, capitalist societies. We look at his ideas for the perfect society.
(32) Those animals which are incapable of making covenants with one another, to the end that they may neither inflict nor suffer harm, are without either justice or injustice. And those tribes which either could not or would not form mutual covenants to the same end are in like case.
The idea is reinforced here: there is no justice without a contract. For Epicurus, there is nothing like “natural” justice, an innate sense of justice, or a divine endorsement of just behaviour. There is no paradise and no hell, and there is no post-mortal retribution for unjust acts. All justice derives from the agreements we have with each other. If we don’t make any agreements (or if we can’t, like presumably “those tribes,” or like animals), then we are not unjust; we are entirely outside the categories of justice or injustice. Justice and injustice exist only where a mutual contract exists.
Discussion question: All contract theories of society have some problems: for example, what about those who cannot understand and “sign” a contract (e.g. those who are mentally unable to)? What about young children and the unborn? Should they not enjoy society’s protection because they cannot comprehend and sign a contract? Are they not capable of being harmed by injustice? What do you think?
(33) There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal association in whatever localities now and again from time to time, providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
This says essentially the same as doctrine 32.
(34) Injustice is not in itself an evil, but only in its consequence, viz. the terror which is excited by apprehension that those appointed to punish such offences will discover the injustice.
It is interesting how Epicurus here switches the perspective. In the first half of this sentence, we would expect Epicurus to say that injustice is only evil because of its consequence on the victim. Surprisingly, he turns the thought around mid-sentence and ends up talking about the consequences of injustice for the offender. And the only reason why the offender should fear injustice is because of the danger of being found out.
This is a very strange statement, but it is consistent with what he said in doctrine 31 (above). If he means it that injustice is only bad because of its consequences and that there is no absolute sense of justice anywhere, then an offender who manages to get away with their unjust behaviour has nothing to fear or regret at all (as long as they can harvest the fruits of their injustice).
Discussion question: This always reminds me of children’s Christmas folklore, where the assumption is that you have to behave because Santa Claus is watching you and might take away your presents if you are naughty. Is it true that we behave morally only because we fear punishment?
(35) It is impossible for the person who secretly violates any article of the social compact to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for right on to the end of his life he is never sure he will not be detected.
As if Epicurus himself was uncomfortable with his utilitarian understanding of justice, he tries here to row back a bit. Yes, he says, it is true that the only reason to follow the social contract is the fear of punishment. But we can never overcome this fear, because we can never be sure that we will not be found out.
The issues Epicurus mentions here go far deeper than it seems. Is fear of punishment sufficient to reliably prevent crime? In extension of this thought, can the death penalty deter criminals and contribute to a safer society? And what is the actual justification for punishment in criminal law?
To learn more about why societies punish criminals (and how to best go about it), have a look here:
Why do we have a criminal justice system? What could possibly justify the state punishing its citizens? Retributivism is the view that we ought to give offenders the suffering that they deserve for harming others.
Discussion question: Is fear of punishment really reason enough to honour the social contract? Today we know that this is not the case. Countries with death penalty can have higher crime rates than countries with more enlightened penal systems. On the other hand, if there was never any punishment for misbehaviour, could society work? What is your opinion?
(36) Taken generally, justice is the same for all, to wit, something found useful in mutual association; but in its application to particular cases of locality or conditions of whatever kind, it varies under different circumstances.
Epicurus here is concerned with change and different circumstances under which particular laws can be good or bad. I’m not sure that I understand him correctly; but he seems to be saying that there is only the one overarching principle, namely that justice should be useful to all concerned. As we would say today, the just action should benefit all stakeholders. Beyond that, he says, what is just in a particular context will depend on that context. So whether an abortion or an act of euthanasia is right or not should not be judged according to one, immutable principle, but should be seen with the particular case and its stakeholders in mind.
I am not sure what he is arguing about here, because Athens did, famously, have a court system that was emphasising just this point. Every case was judged by enormous juries of up to 6000 judges (more typically, 200 or 500, but still an impressive number). Although the legal system was based on laws, many famous lawyers and court orators made a living writing speeches to defend their clients by using all sorts of tricks to prove that their client’s circumstances were special in some way. So it doesn’t seem, from my superficial knowledge, to be the case that laws were applied inflexibly and mechanically; but I’d be happy to learn more. If any readers know why Epicurus felt that it was important to make this point, it would be great if you could explain it to us in the comments!
Discussion question: What do you think is the point of this doctrine? Is Epicurus making a moral-relativist point? Does he want to say that laws should consider the circumstances of an act as more important than the forbidden action itself?
(37) Among the things accounted just by conventional law, whatever in the needs of mutual association is attested to be useful, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all; and in case any law is made and does not prove suitable to the usefulness of mutual association, then this is no longer just. And should the usefulness which is expressed by the law vary and only for a time correspond with the prior conception, nevertheless for the time being it was just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.
This one goes together with the next doctrine.
(38) Where without any change in circumstances the conventional laws, when judged by their consequences, were seen not to correspond with the notion of justice, such laws were not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be useful in consequence of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for the time being just when they were useful for the mutual association of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they ceased to be useful.
These two doctrines emphasise the point that we should not only judge individual cases based on their individual context and merit, but, additionally, we should judge the laws themselves according to whether they are useful to society. This is not surprising from a social reformer, and Epicurus certainly was one. He might have had in mind the unequal treatment of women and slaves, who both could attend his teaching in the Garden, but where generally excluded from advanced studies in ancient Athens. He might have been thinking of piety laws, like those that cost Socrates his life. He might have thought of the treatment of foreigners, who had different rights from Athenian citizens. In these and many other cases, one might question whether particular laws are actually beneficial to society or not and whether they should better be abolished.
Read more about Epicurus’ life and the Garden here:
Epicurus (341-270 BC) is often seen as an advocate of a luxurious life, rich in good food and other pleasures. This is incorrect.
How we justify laws is not only an ancient concern. We also have many laws that can not be justified from a utilitarian point of view: death penalty and gun laws in the US, laws about nudity, about the protection of religious teachings in schools, about censorship, about the taxation of the wealthy and the big international corporations, about smoking, alcohol and drug use, about abortion and euthanasia, about religious freedoms and the wearing of Islamic dress, about gender and homosexuality. In far too many cases, our laws are dictated by antiquated religious sensibilities (and I write this as a Christian), by fear, and by ignorance of facts and statistical truths.
Our legal system does not seem much more rational than the one Epicurus was arguing against over two millennia ago.
Discussion question: Should we have a purely rational, utilitarian legal system, or is it perhaps good to also consider other values in law (e.g. religious sensibilities of the population)? What is your opinion?
(39) He who best knew how to meet fear of external foes made into one family all the creatures he could; and those he could not, he at any rate did not treat as aliens; and where he found even this impossible, he avoided all association, and, so far as was useful, kept them at a distance.
I’m not sure if it’s a fault of the translator, but this doesn’t make much sense. Is he talking about human foes or creatures in general? Erik Anderson translates it much better:
(39) He who desires to live in tranquility with nothing to fear from other men ought to make friends. Those of whom he cannot make friends, he should at least avoid rendering enemies; and if that is not in his power, he should, as much as possible, avoid all dealings with them, and keep them aloof, insofar as it is in his interest to do so.
Here Epicurus gives advice on how one should relate to others within a society. It would be best, he says, if we all could be friends. But this is not always possible. Where we cannot be friends, we should at least not become enemies, but be politely and benevolently indifferent to others. And where even this fails, we should stay away from engaging with the people we cannot tolerate. We should stay away from them as much as possible, in order to safeguard our inner peace.
Discussion question: This has always been the question at the root of political activism: how should we engage with those who have a different opinion? Should we ignore them, like Epicurus proposes, or should we fight them? Should we “deplatform” and “cancel” them or respect their right to the free expression of their opinions?
For a different take on how we should engage with others, have a look at Stoicism and the “Stoic attitude” to life:
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus (50-135 AD), one of the most important Stoic philosophers in history, recommends seeing obstacles in our lives as opportunities to improve.
(40) Those who were best able to provide themselves with the means of security against their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee, passed the most agreeable life in each other’s society; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy was such that, if one of them died before his time, the survivors did not mourn his death as if it called for sympathy.
In this last doctrine, Epicurus summarises what makes, for him, a happy life: living in peace with others, having friends and enjoying the “benefits” that come from them.
A good life, he thinks, is one that does not invite mourning when it is over. When we are sad about someone’s death, he seems to be saying, the sadness comes from the realisation that, somehow, the dead person will be missing out on future life. But if they have already lived life in its fullness, then there is nothing that they could be missing. The happy person, the Epicurean sage, has fulfilled his life’s purpose at any moment in time, and when death comes, it cuts nothing short. The wise person’s life is happy and complete every day, and stretching it on in time does not provide more value.
Discussion question: Do you agree with Epicurus here? Is it irrational to wish for an extension of a happy life? Would the sage really be ready to leave this world at any moment? And even if this was the ideal attitude to death, is it realistic to expect human beings to cultivate it?
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