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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


*Action* As A Requirement of Pleasure

One of the strong implications of non-Epicurean philosophy is that our goal in life should be to achieve a “state” of mental peace.  Such states go under different names according to the commentator, but they are often referred to as “mindfulness” such as discussed in this article on Buddhism.  The thought seems to be that by mental gymnastics we can overcome every trouble in life, as illustrated in this comic adaptation of a passage from Marcus Aurelius.

I consider this to be a very damaging.  It is a point of view that leads to “acceptance” rather than the taking of active steps to avoid pain. Even worse, this attitude firmly shifts the focus away from where it ought always to remain: on the pursuit of pleasure.

In the Epicurean world we see this debate illustrated in the position that pleasures of “rest” (often referred to as “katastematic”) are the real goal of life, and that pleasures of “action” (referred to as “kinetic”) are only secondary, and exist purely as expedients for achieving this alleged state of “rest.”

In his article “Epicurus on Pleasure,” Boris Nikolsky argues that Epicurus gave no such priority to pleasures of “rest.”  Nikolsky states that  “the state of ‘freedom from pain’ turns out to be the effect of some external forces and is inseparable from those positive sensory pleasures which are conventionally classified as kinetic.” (emphasis added)

We won’t resolve this argument here, but if you haven’t checked out one of the key passages that Nikolsky cites in support of his thesis, you should.  He cites many passages from different sources, but one passage of particular importance is found in Lucretius (Book II, Line 963).  Martin Ferguson Smith translates this passage as follows:

“Furthermore, since pain occurs when the particles of matter in the living flesh of the limbs are disturbed by some force and reel in their places within the body, and seductive pleasure is produced when they return to their position, it is evident that the primary elements are immune to all pain and cannot feel any pleasure by themselves. The fact is that they do not consist of atoms whose displacements could cause them pain or bless them with pleasure, the sustainer of life. Therefore they cannot be endowed with sensation.”

The Loeb Library (Rouse) edition translates the same passage as:

“Besides, since there is pain when the bodies of matter, attacked by some force through the living flesh and limbs, tremble in their secret habitations within, and when they move back to their place comes soothing delight, you may be sure that the first-beginnings cannot be assailed by any pain, and from themselves can take no delight, since they are not composed of any bodies of elements so as to be troubled by any strangeness in their motions or to take any enjoyment of life-giving delight; therefore they are bound not to be endowed with any sensation.”

These passages provide persuasive authority for understanding how Epicurus defined the nature of pleasure.  The Nikolsky article explains the background in much more detail, but the important point for our current discussion is that all pleasure (and pain) result from movementfrom the contact of our bodies with bodies outside of us, and the disruption or smooth motion that results within us.

Note that there is nothing in Lucretius’ formula of pleasure and pain about the living being generating within itself some “state” in which the particles that compose it are motionless or “at rest” for any period of time.  Such a situation would be an impossibility under Epicurean notions of physics, and would be foreign to the entire structure of how Epicurus saw humans relating to the world around them.  All information from the outside world comes to us through sensation – from actions which are best understand as movement of particles between us and the world surrounding us.  That movement of particles is not stopped or even impeded by our “mindfulness” or thoughts of any kind.  The obvious detachment from reality illustrated in the Marcus Aurelius cartoon is not simply wishful thinking, it is a prescription for disaster for anyone who tries such an approach.

Discussion of the nature of pleasure therefore should not start with wishful thinking about “states of rest” and “mindfulness.”  If pleasure is the goal of life, which Epicurus and all uncorrupted animal life shows us to be the case, then it is important that we  start at the beginning, with the movement of atoms, to understand the truth and avoid confusion.  And the truth is that all pleasure requires, and consists of, mental and physical action.

Nikolsky’s full article can be found here.