Purging Yourself of Stoicism

I believe the most important task that any modern student of Epicurus can do is to examine his or her own thoughts to identify the Stoicisms that have been absorbed from the modern culture, and purge them as quickly and effectively as possible.  This morning a friend (D.V.) pointed me to an article which I think is very helpful in framing this need – an article entitled “The Stoics And Epicureans On Friendship Sex and Love” at the Montreal Review.  As usual, the article approaches Epicurean and Stoic philosophy from the modern perspective that they are essentially similar, rather than from the point of view held by the people who knew the philosophy best – the ancient Epicureans and Stoics – who knew each others to be philosophical enemies-to-the-death.  Writers like Mr. Kreitner insist on blurring the opposite definitions of the goals of life held by the two schools, and so the article largely portrays the two views on friendship, sex, and love as similar, rather than polar opposites.  That’s the common result when one fails to realize that Epicurus taught that friendship, sex, and love should be approached intelligently, so as to maximize the pleasure we can receive from friendship, sex, and love, while minimizing the pain that can accompany them if they are not pursued intelligently.  The Stoics taught the OPPOSITE goal – that these three should be repressed as enemies of their abstract devotion to “virtue” ‘and “worthiness.”

If you don’t understand this distinction then you will be led further down the road to confusion, but if you do understand the distinction, the article is highly valuable for outlining some key differences.  One of the best is this summary of Stoicism from Epictetus:

“Epictetus argues in the Discourses that friendship is only possible after the removal of any attachments to things in the external world, which tend to cause conflict between potential friends…Epictetus argues that if we see animals playing, we think they are friends. But that is only true in that particular moment, when they are playing; it is not always the case: “To see what friendship is, throw a piece of meat among them and you will learn.” … Only when we surrender our claims on all external things – such as, though as we will see not limited to, property – can we establish sincere friendships deserving of the name. Anything less is only appearance and not reality… Since Moral Worth is the only good in Stoic philosophy, only wise men – those who know what is good and what is not – can truly be friends. Thus not only is friendship possible for the Stoic, but only for the Stoic is friendship possible.”

This is hogwash, and the ancient Epicureans knew it to be so.  We can find direct reference to this in Cicero’s “On Ends” where the Epicurean Torquatus answers this argument at length:

XX. There remains a topic that is pre-eminently germane to this discussion, I mean the subject of Friendship. Your school maintains that if pleasure be the Chief Good, friendship will cease to exist. Now Epicurus’s pronouncement about friendship is that of all the means to happiness that wisdom has devised, none is greater, none more fruitful, none more delightful than this. Nor did he only commend this doctrine by his eloquence, but far more by the example of his life and conduct. How great a thing such friendship is, is shown by the mythical stories of antiquity. Review the legends from the remotest ages, and, copious and varied as they are, you will barely find in them three pairs of friends, beginning with Theseus and ending with Orestes. Yet Epicurus in a single house and that a small one maintained a whole company of friends, united by the closest sympathy and affection; and this still goes on in the Epicurean school.

But to return to our subject, for there is no need of personal instances: I notice that the topic of friendship has been treated by Epicureans in three ways:

(1) Some have denied that pleasures affecting our friends are in themselves to be desired by us in the same degree as we desire our own pleasures. This doctrine is thought by some critics to undermine the foundations of friendship; however, its supporters defend their position, and in my opinion have no difficulty in making good their ground. They argue that friendship can no more be sundered from pleasure than can the virtues, which we have discussed already. A solitary, friendless life must be beset by secret dangers and alarms. Hence reason itself advises the acquisition of friends; their possession gives confidence, and a firmly rooted hope of winning pleasure. And just as hatred, jealousy, and contempt are hindrances to pleasure, so friendship is the most trustworthy preserver and also creator of pleasure alike for our friends and for ourselves. It affords us enjoyment in the present, and it inspires us with hopes for the near and distant future.

Thus it is not possible to secure uninterrupted gratification in life without friendship, nor yet to preserve friendship itself unless we love our friends as much as ourselves. Hence this unselfishness does occur in friendship, while also friendship is closely linked with pleasure. For we rejoice in our friends’ joy as much as in our own, and are equally pained by their sorrows. Therefore the Wise Man will feel exactly the same towards his friend as he does towards himself, and will exert himself as much for his friend’s pleasure as he would for his own. All that has been said about the essential connection of the virtues with pleasure must be repeated about friendship. Epicurus well said (I give almost his exact words): “The same creed that has given us courage to overcome all fear of everlasting or long-enduring evil hereafter, has discerned that friendship is our strongest safeguard in this present term of life.”

(2) Other Epicureans though by no means lacking in insight are a little less courageous in defying the opprobrious criticisms of the Academy. They fear that if we hold friendship to be desirable only for the pleasure that it affords to ourselves, it will be thought that it is crippled altogether. They therefore say that the first advances and overtures, and the original inclination to form an attachment, are prompted by the desire for pleasure, but that when the progress of intercourse has led to intimacy, the relationship blossoms into an affection strong enough to make us love our friends for their own sake, even though no practical advantage accrues from their friendship, Does not familiarity endear to us localities, temples, cities, gymnasia, and playing-grounds, horses and hounds, gladiatorial shows and fights with wild beasts, then how much more natural and reasonable that this should be able to happen in our intercourse with our fellow-men!

(3) The third view is that wise men have made a sort of compact to love their friends no less than themselves. We can understand the possibility of this, and we often see it happen. Clearly no more effective means to happiness could be found than such an alliance.

All these considerations go to prove not only that the theory of friendship is not embarrassed by the identification of the Chief Good with pleasure, but also that without this no foundation for friendship whatsoever can be found.

In this answer, Torquatus’ second rationale betrays that even in the ancient world, some Epicureans were yielding to the seductions of Stoicism and losing the courage of their founder in denying the orthodoxy.

The key to reviving Epicurean philosophy in the modern world, and in one’s own life, is to regain that courage, seek out the Stoic corruptions that have entered your mind through today’s culture, and systematically eliminate them.  The only way to eliminate these confusions is to study them and refer to the insights of Epicurus, because “if you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the ultimate end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance turn to some other end, your actions will not be consistent with your theories.” PD25

This article in the Montreal Review contains numerous other examples of how Stoic and Epicurean positions can be confused together if we don’t keep in mind the ultimate goal.  I hope to come back to them again in the future, and I hope other students of Epicurus will use the examples in the article to dig into the differences between the philosophies.


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