DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from

10. Hedonism

Another ‘innate’ human attitude, along with the prolēpsis of god, is the pursuit of pleasure as the only positive value, or ‘end’ (see Telos). Epicurus argues that the behaviour of the newborn, and even of non-human animals, confirms that to maximize pleasure and minimize pain is the natural and primal drive (Cicero, On Ends I 30). Just as physics began with the crude mapping out of per se existents into bodies and space (§2), so ethics starts with the mapping out of all intrinsic values into pleasure and pain. And again as in physics, the next move consists in showing these two items to be jointly exhaustive: the absence of pain is itself pleasure, and there is therefore no intermediate state (Cicero, On Ends I 37–9).

This controversial thesis goes to the heart of Epicurus’ ethics. In his view, most human misery results from ignorance of how to quantify pleasure. Where some hedonists, especially the contemporary Cyrenaic School (see Cyrenaics §4), had recommended the constant renewal of pleasure through self-indulgence, Epicurusobserves that this accumulation does not increase the total of pleasure beyond that achieved when all pain has gone, but only ‘varies’ it. Freedom from pain is itself already a supremely pleasant state. The pursuit of luxury, far from increasing pleasure, enlarges your desires and leaves you needlessly vulnerable to the whims of fortune.

In his physics, Epicurus had completed the division of per se existents into bodies and void by showing that other claimants to per se existence, such as properties and time, are in fact parasitic on bodies for their existence. Likewise in ethics, he now examines the non-hedonic values which others assert, such as virtue, and argues that they are in fact valued not for their own sake but as instrumental means to pleasure (Cicero, On Ends I 42–54).

It remains to fill out the prescription for the maximization of pleasure, that is, to sketch the ideal Epicurean life. This involves calculating the relative roles of bodily and mental pleasures, and of static and ‘kinetic’ pleasures. Bodily feeling is in a way focal, since mental pleasure and pain consist ultimately in satisfaction and dissatisfaction, respectively, about bodily feeling. For instance, the greatest mental pain, namely fear, is primarily the expectation of future bodily pain (which is the main ground, and a mistaken one, for the fear of death). But although mental feelings ultimately depend on bodily ones, and not vice versa, mental feelings are a more powerful ingredient in an overall good life. Someone in bodily pain – which may be unavoidable – can outweigh this by the mental act of reliving past pleasures and looking forward to future ones. It is this ability to range over past and future that gives mental feeling its greater power. But misused, especially when people fear everlasting torture after death, it can equally well become a greater evil than its bodily counterpart.

Static pleasure is the absence of pain. The bodily version of it is called ‘painlessness’ (aponia), the mental version ‘tranquillity’ (ataraxia, literally ‘non-disturbance’). Tranquillity depends above all on an understanding of the universe, which will show that contrary to the beliefs of the ignorant it is unthreatening. (This is, strictly speaking, the sole justification for the study of physics.) Kinetic pleasure is the process of stimulation by which you either arrive at static pleasure (for example, drinking when thirsty) or ‘vary’ it (for example, drinking when not thirsty). There are mental as well as bodily kinetic pleasures, for example, (perhaps) the ‘joy’ of resolving a philosophical doubt or holding a fruitful discussion with friends. Although kinetic pleasures have no incremental value, Epicurus does apparently consider them an essential part of the good life. This is particularly because the mental pleasure which serves to outweigh present pain will inevitably consist in reliving past kinetic pleasures and anticipating future ones. So a successful Epicurean life cannot be monotonous, but must be textured by regular kinetic pleasures. In the letter written on his deathbed, Epicurusclaimed that despite the intense bodily pains this was the happiest day of his life, because of all the past joys of philosophical discussion that he could relive.

At the same time, these kinetic pleasures must be carefully managed. Some desires are natural, others empty. The latter – for example, thirst for honours – should not be indulged, because their satisfaction will bring either no pleasure or a preponderance of pain over pleasure. Even of the natural ones, some are non-necessary. For instance, the desire for food is necessary, but the desire for luxurious food is not. In order to be maximally independent of fortune, it is important to stick primarily to the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires. But occasional indulgence in those kinetic pleasures which are natural but non-necessary has a part to play, so long as you do not become dependent on them. True to this principle, Epicurean communities lived on simple fare, and even trained themselves in asceticism, but held occasional banquets (see Epicurus §3).

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Hedonism. Epicureanism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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