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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus


Pleasure and Achievement

Here is a passage from DeWitt that I was thinking about tonight, on the nature of “pathe” (or “feelings”) which consists of (1) pleasure and (2) pain. I don’t think we pay enough attention to focusing on the implications of this faculty, which is a full one-third of the Epicurean “test of truth.” Here, DeWitt makes the point that it is a mistake to equate the “feelings” with the senses themselves, as modern scholars have a habit of doing, because the faculty of pain and pleasure manifestly also works on our mental processes and emotions. Pain or pleasure in these mental operations is not only separate from the five senses, but greater in intensity than pleasure or pain from the five senses.

I think this is very significant, because anti-Epicureans try to imply that Epicurus taught that we should follow bodily pleasures (wine, women, and song) while Epicurus clearly taught that mental/emotional pleasures are more intense. When Epicureans follow pleasure, they are not simply following the pleasures of the five senses. An Epicurean following the mental and emotional and “spiritual” pleasures is capable of equaling or exceeding any achievement in life by any adherent to any other philosopher, and the Epicurean can do it without the hypocrisy and self-delusion of those who claim to work for “duty” or “god” or “country” or the like. The level of achievement open to an Epicurean in any intellectual field – art, music, science, and even mathematics or geometry – is as high or higher than that of any student of any other philosophy.  And in reaching that level, the Epicurean is properly motivated toward that goal by the mental pleasure that comes from the achievement.

Here is DeWitt making the foundational point that students of Epicurus need to keep in mind, from Chapter 8 of “Epicurus and His Philosophy”:

“The Feelings are two,” wrote Laertius, “pleasure and pain, characterizing every living creature, the one being akin, the other alien, through which the decisions are made to choose or avoid.”


This means that pleasures and pains are Nature’s Go and Stop signals on all levels of existence, that of the lower animals included. They are distinct from the Sensations by two removes: in the meaning of the Canon sensation is restricted to the sensory stimulus; it is the intelligence that registers recognition or nonrecognition; it is the Feelings that register pleasure or pain. These are accompaniments of sensation, as Aristotle observed in advance of Epicurus.


The prevailing belief that Epicurus was an empiricist has led scholars to merge the Feelings with the Sensations. It is true that both may be called by the Greek word pathe, but this coincidence of predicate is offset by logical absurdities. Since the Sensations are confined to the five senses, the merging of the Feelings with the Sensations would exclude fears and hopes and all the higher emotions. Again, since Epicurus reduces all sensation to touch, the merging of the Feelings would confine these also to touch. Still again, according to Epicurus the higher emotions, which are included in the Feelings, have a different seat from the Sensations, deep in the breast. How then could they be one with the Sensations? Lastly, unless the Feelings are something distinct from both Sensations and Anticipations, Epicurus would lack a criterion on the level of the higher emotions, where the issue of happiness and unhappiness is ultimately decided.


It would also be obligatory, should the Feelings be merged with the Sensations, to ignore all gradations in pleasures, which Epicurus did not. Like Plato and Aristotle, he recognized the existence of higher and lower pleasures and he employed the same terminology. The pleasures of the flesh are denoted by the noun hedone and the verb hedomai, the higher pleasures by the noun euphrosune and the verg euphrainomai. For instance, it is the latter verb he employs when he speaks of the “higher enjoyment” experienced by the wise man in attendance upon public spectacles and also when he speaks of the “serene joy” with which the wise man approaches the end of life. He has still another synonym to employ, chara, when he denies that unlimited wealth can bring any “worthwhile happiness,”  and he uses the same word of that “peak of happiness” that comes of the confident expectation of health of body and peace of mind. These are Feelings but not Sensations in the meaning of the Canon.


It is true, of course, that Epicurus sponsored a doctrine of the unity of all pleasures on the ground that body and soul are coterminous and cosensitive and both corporeal, but this does not mean that the pleasures and pains of the flesh are on a level with the pleasures and pains of the mind. In the meaning of the Canon there are two classes of Feelings, the one class accompanying the activity of the senses, the other accompanying the social and intellectual activities of the individual and specifically located in the breast. Neither class of Feelings is identical with Sensations.