Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be – Happy Twentieth!
Does the issue of “limits” in regard to desire require that we necessarily choose the lowest possible quantity or quality of that desire? I contend that the answer is “no” and that the Epicurean framework comes down to suggesting the proper answer to this question: How much of any desire should we pursue? In other words, how much is the “perfect” quantity of any desire to pursue?
In Epicurean philosophy there is no consideration of the false contention that there are external ideals or religious standards by which to answer this question. But without a proper framework of analysis, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that things like money, fame, and power are desirable in “unlimited” quantities, and that “more” of these is always “better.”
If we are considering how to measure the proper quantity of a thing to pursue, an Epicurean needs a concept of “limits.” And what standard for setting those limits would an Epicurean suggest in place of the world’s false ideas of gods and virtues?
The answer is to look for the quantity that we would consider to be “perfect” based on our human characteristics. Perfect quantities are not properly thought of as “more perfect” or “less perfect.” In fact, having more of a thing which we consider to be “perfect” makes that thing “imperfect.” The same goes for the “virtues” – the completely virtuous man does not have too much courage (or too little courage), but exactly the “right” amount of courage.
This quality of self-regulation things we consider to be “perfect” does not appear in those things which vary in quantity. Something that is “hot” can always be “more hot”; something that is “cold” can always be “more cold.” Of these, how do we know the “right” temperature?
And in pleasures such as money, fame, and power, how do we know we are seeking the “perfect” or “limited” amount of these?
According to Epicurus, we know the right amount to pursue by looking to the natural limits of the desires:
VS81: The disturbance of the soul cannot be ended nor true joy created either by the possession of the greatest wealth or by honor and respect in the eyes of the mob or by anything else that is associated with or caused by unlimited desire.
PD20: The flesh perceives the limits of pleasure as unlimited, and unlimited time is required to supply it. But the mind, having attained a reasoned understanding of the ultimate good of the flesh and its limits and having dissipated the fears concerning the time to come, supplies us with the complete life, and we have no further need of infinite time: but neither does the mind shun pleasure, nor, when circumstances begin to bring about the departure from life, does it approach its end as though it fell short in any way of the best life.
These two Epicurean sayings do not suggest that the desires should be eliminated, or brought down to the lowest possible quantity, but only that we should pursue the pleasures in quantities that are appropriate (limited) under the circumstances.
We do not need “the greatest weath” but that amount of wealth that actually allows us to life pleasurably and without pain. We do not need honor and respect by huge numbers of people (“in the eyes of the mob”) but only the the amount of honor and respect in those who are again sufficient to allow us to live pleasurably and without pain. In the same way, we do not shun pleasure, but pursue that amount of pleasure which provides us a pleasurable life without pain.
And so what is the “perfect” quantity of pleasure for us? That quantity of pleasure which under our personal circumstances produces a life completely full of pleasure and without any accompanying pain. Looking at the question this way, in terms of natural limits, provides us a workable standard based directly on our own personal situations, without any reference to false gods or false ideals.
For further thoughts on limits:
VS25 Poverty, when measured by the natural purpose of life, is great wealth, but unlimited wealth is great poverty.
VS22 Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason. (see Principle Doctrine 19)
VS59 It is not the stomach that is insatiable, as is generally said, but the false opinion that the stomach needs an unlimited amount to fill it.
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 the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group and EpicureanFriends.com