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More Thoughts On The Limits of Simple Living

A good friend cited today a link to a short article on Epicureanism at “My Left Wing.” This rather short article makes a good point, but I would still put a finer point on it.  The author writes: “Note for example that the Epicurean approach does not strictly require seeking mild pleasures. It is also in accord with Epicurus’ principles to live extremely, if one realized this mean putting up with extreme misery, or at least, risk of that.”

I wish he had said that first, instead of “But Epicurus advocated the the opposite: personal restraint and intentional simplicity of pleasures.” If he had, it would have been clearer that Epicurus did NOT advocate simple pleasure FOR THE SAKE OF SIMPLE PLEASURE.

Nature’s goal for us is ALWAYS *net*pleasure; there is NEVER some other criteria, so Epicurus did not advocate simplicity for the sake of simplicity but rather that we *calculate the proper approach to pleasure.* Yes, simple activities often lead to net maximum pleasure, since simple activities generally involve little hardship, but the pleasure calculus, and explicitly VS63 and other excerpts, make clear that there are definitely times when more extensive effort should be pursued to generate net maximum pleasure:

VS63: “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.”

Letter to Menoceus: “Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much…..”

Cicero On Ends: “In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain emergencies and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.”

Cicero On Ends as to Temperance (which is closely related to living simply): “The same principle will lead us to pronounce that Temperance also is not desirable for its own sake, but because it bestows peace of mind, and soothes the heart with a tranquilizing sense of harmony. For it is temperance that warns us to be guided by reason in what we desire and avoid. Nor is it enough to judge what it is right to do or to leave undone; we also need to abide by our judgment. Most men however lack tenacity of purpose; their resolution weakens and succumbs as soon as the fair form of pleasure meets their gaze, and they surrender themselves prisoners to their passions, failing to foresee the inevitable result. Thus for the sake of a pleasure at once small in amount and unnecessary, and one which they might have procured by other means or even denied themselves altogether without pain, they incur serious disease, or loss of fortune, or disgrace, and not infrequently become liable to the penalties of the law and of the courts of justice. Those on the other hand who are resolved so to enjoy their pleasures as to avoid all painful consequences therefrom, and who retain their faculty of judgment and avoid being seduced by pleasure into courses that they perceive to be wrong, reap the very highest pleasure by forgoing pleasure. Similarly also they often voluntarily endure pain, to avoid incurring greater pain by not doing so. This clearly proves that Intemperance is not undesirable for its own sake, while Temperance is desirable not because it renounces pleasures, but because it procures greater pleasures.”

This appears to me to be one of the most frequently misunderstood aspects of Epicureanism for those who do not study the texts.  It pays to be on the lookout for it and to correct it within ourselves when we are tempted to fall for it.