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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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Peace and Safety For Your Twentieth of April – Conventional Pleasure vs. the “Zero State”

Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!

On this twentieth of April I’d like to offer more thoughts on the issue of whether Epicurus advocated a “zero state” or “painlessness” model a the goal of life.

Another way of getting at this is to recognize that it is very clear that Epicurus recognized only two states, pleasure and pain. So by definition, when we experience anything, we are experiencing only one of these states. If we are not experiencing one, we are experiencing the other. But to say that does not say anything at all about the precise nature of what it is we are experiencing. Everyone knows what it is to eat ice cream or any other conventional pleasure. Everyone knows what it means to be burned or mentally distressed or to experience any other conventional pleasure. The major problem with “Zero-state” terminology, or “painlessness” as a single word description of the goal of life, is that it appears to any ordinary modern layman to convey a sense of “sensationlessness” or “anesthesia.”

I believe for reasons stated much more extensively here that to the extent Epicurus employed some of this terminology (and I think the extent he did is overstated) he did it because he was addressing technical Platonist objections about the limits of pleasure, as well as the criticism that pleasure cannot be the guide of life because it is not continuous. Epicurus expected his students to understand that when he talked about painlessness, it would be clear from his premises that conventional notions of pleasure had taken the place of the pain when the pain under discussion was driven away. There was no hint that there was anything mysterious, dark, mystical, or “zero-state” about the result of removing the pain.

So it is in my view entirely accurate to talk about painlessness, and to say that pleasure equals the absence of pain, to people who know the Epicurean background. But the same conversation will totally mislead and misrepresent the philosophy to people who are not initiated into the mathematical equation that the removal of pain immediately results in the space being filled with conventional pleasures – and not simply “contemplative” pleasures as is also implied by many who use the terminology.

Much of the problem with talking about “zero-states” and “painlessness” is that the education level of ordinary people has changed since the ancient world. Normal people today have no idea that Plato and other schools were concerned about the “limits of pleasure” as described in Philebus or the works of Aristotle. When modern people hear “painlessness,” in my view 98% of them hear “anesthesia.” Lucretius did not talk generally in terms of anesthesia, and neither did the rest of the documented Epicureans – they followed the lead of Epicurus in talking about PLEASURE as the guide of life. Diogenes of Oinoanda was so intent on making the point that he found the need to shout that pleasure is the guide of life “to all Greeks and non-Greeks, both now and always.” It is simply not credible to believe that the readers of the Epicurean texts were expected to take “pleasure” as a code word for “anesthesia” or “zero-state.” Had the Epicureans been talking in code about esoteric and counter-intuitive definitions of pleasure, Epicurean philosophy would never have prospered for as long and as widely as it did.

Now, some people do like the sound of anesthesia, and we should not demean the pain and bad circumstances that such people suffer. But if Epicurus had embraced anesthesia as the goal of life, and just given it a code name (“pleasure, wink-wink) then he would have been embraced as an icon of Stoicism and heralded as such today.  Instead, he became the most bitterly-denounced foe of that school – the school that in fact advocates anesthesia and zero-state as the goal of life.

So those who insist on talking about painlessness are certainly not totally wrong. Those of them who do have Stoic tendencies, and who use this argument knowingly to imply that Epicurus was Stoic-lite, are in fact guilty of misrepresentation. But those who are trying to interpret Epicurus honestly, and who are not themselves hostile to “pleasure” as that term is conventionally understood, can certainly say that pleasure “equals” absence of pain, in at least a mathematical / quantitative sense. But for that formulation to have any valid meaning to any ordinary listener, the listener must know the background context of Epicurean theory. Given how few people today have that background, talking about zero states and painlessness to ordinary people does only two things:  It (1) avoids controversy in orthodox academic peer groups, but at a cost of (2) turning off any normal person as quickly as possible from wanting to know anything more about Epicurean philosophy.

While there may be a valid role for the first perspective in academic circles, ordinary people who wish to apply Epicurus in their own lives should should be sensitive to the latter.

Note:  The graphic associated with this post portrays an ancient musician.  The pleasures of listening to music are a classic example from the ancient world of pleasures that do not fit the “replenishment” model that is part of “zero-state” analysis.  All pleasures are good, and listening to music is pleasurable and desirable, and yet the desire did not arise from any “pain” which needs to be “satisfied” by listening to music.

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As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet EpicurusSo 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.”