Happy Twentieth of April!
If you haven’t already watched the Youtube presentation by Elena Nicoli on how Epicurean philosophy has helped in her own life, I hope you will. I set up a discussion thread on EpicureanFriends.com to talk about it in more detail, including an outline of her major points. If you have comments or questions on this post, please sign in to EpicureanFriends and post them in the discussion there.
For this Twentieth post, however, I’d like to focus attention on aspects of Epicurean philosophy that were not mentioned in the talk, but which are essential to reaching the conclusions that were discussed. I reworked the list into nine points, written in the form of questions that might go through the minds of someone in the audience as they listened to Ms. Nicoli’s presentation:
- All this sounds fine, but why should I accept Epicurus’ opinion that a simple life is all I should want out of life? Aren’t there more important things than pleasure and pain? Shouldn’t I live so that I will go to heaven, and not go to hell? Those things are more important than pleasure and pain aren’t they?”
- All my life I have been taught that I should be a good person – that “virtue is its own reward,” and that I should not ask for anything in return for being good. Are you telling me that is wrong? Why?
- Haven’t we always been taught that nothing good comes easily? Why should the best part of life be easy to obtain? I see people around me suffering and dying in misery and pain all the time. They didn’t find a happy life easy to obtain. Doesn’t that show that Epicurus was wrong?
- I seem to hear you saying that avoidance of pain is the highest goal. Are you really saying that? If so, why shouldn’t I avoid all pain by killing myself?
- I hear you saying that the simplest life is the best. If I really want the best life, shouldn’t I go ONLY for bread, water, and a cave to get out of the weather? That would be the purest application of Epicurus, wouldn’t it?
- Did I hear you say that we should never want power? I live in a pretty bad neighborhood, and the people in the country next door are talking about invading our country. Right about now I would really like the power to put the criminals in jail and the power to stop the invaders before they burn my house. How can that be wrong – but you said I should NEVER seek power?
- OK now I hear you saying that “static” pleasure is the best kind of pleasure, and that comes from absence of pain and not from the senses. But then you’ve also said that static pleasure “feels good.” Are you trying to have it both ways? If the best kind of pleasure feels good, then I understand what you mean? But what kind of pleasure is worth having that I can’t feel?
- You say that your version of the pleasurable life can be satisfied, but that people who chase sensual pleasure can never satisfy their quest. Well tell me, then, how much time do I need to satisfy your definition of a pleasurable life? Can I take enough pain pills til I feel no pain, lie down in my bed, and stay there til I stop breathing from an overdose? If I’ve reached that state of total painlessness, there really isn’t anything more for me in Epicurean theory is there? Why should I be concerned if I die tonight from an overdose? I won’t feel any pain at all, and I’ll feel “high” on the way there, so isn’t that what you are telling me is the best way of life?
- I have heard that Epicurus also said “There is also a limit in simple living, and he who fails to understand this falls into an error as great as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.” (VS 63) How do you reconcile that statement with your contention that the most simple life is the best life?
Epicurus and his followers in the ancient world had answers to each one of the questions – answers that are persuasive even today. But before you can decide for yourself whether to accept Epicurus’ answer, you have to be able to state that answer in terms that are understandable to you, and consistent with Epicurus’ position. It’s one thing to disagree, but before you can disagree with someone you ought to be able to restate their position in clear terms.
Can you state Epicurus’ answer to these nine questions?
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.”
Additional discussion of this post and other Epicurean ideas can be found at EpicureanFriends.com.