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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

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Setting the Stage For Discussion of Pleasure

Recently the Society of Epicurus published a transcript of a Spanish-language interview given by Hiram Crespo and Alexander Rios about the philosophy of Epicurus.  They did an excellent job, and the transcript is well worth reading – and viewing on-line if you know Spanish! Hiram, Alex, and the Society of Epicurus are doing a tremendous job to promote Epicurean ideas in new frontiers.

Reading the interview prompted me to try to analyze the reasoning behind some of the questions that were asked, as a way to think about how these issues can be explained more clearly, and that is the subject of this post.

The interview begins with Hiram explaining that Epicurean philosophy arises from a particular way of looking at the universe – as natural rather than supernatural – and how it is necessary to judge for oneself rather than to accept the popular opinion of the crowd. Then Hiram says “He [Epicurus] took insights from science and physics and applied them to the realm of ethics. The art of living. Taking this knowledge about the true nature of things and to live happily and at ease.”  

Alexander adds that our decisions have to be based on the faculties nature gave us, and then Hiram says, “I see Epicureanism as a vehement affirmation of life, joy, pleasure, and in general all the things that make life worth living.” Hiram then proceeds to discuss how this differs from Stoicism and popular ideas about how to achieve happiness.

Here is what I found interesting.  Rather than ask questions about what it means to “live happily” or what it means to be “at ease,” the interviewer asks a series of detailed questions about highly technical issues, and how Epicurus compares to other systems.  He starts out this way:

Yes, Hiram. When we were talking about this conversation between us three you were saying that is you could entitle this, it would be the science of happiness. So based on this and what Alex was saying that this has helped him to be more present, as you said more attentive, I was reading in this Las Indias review, they mention a researcher that talks about synthetic happiness as superior to natural happiness and says something very interesting. He says that we all think that natural happiness is real and good and other happiness sort of has less value. How have you experienced this and you, Alex? Have you put this in practice?

I also note that the word “pleasure” appears only five times in the interview, all spoken by Hiram or Alexander, never by the interviewer. The choice of questions by the interviewer, and his failure to ask any questions about the meaning of pleasure or happiness, raise my awareness of what I think is a crucial issue:

The interviewer seems to be doing what almost all of us do at first, before we have reflected on the details of Epicurean doctrine.   He is presuming that he knows the meaning of pleasure as Epicurus used it, and thinking that it is not necessary to examine the meaning of pleasure.

Epicurus observed that young animals seek pleasure, and held that this is reliable evidence on which we can base our own assessment of the role of pleasure, because: “Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature’s own unbiased and honest verdict.”  Torquatus in Cicero’s On Ends.  

The aspect of this which is important at present is to observe that the animal continues to follow pleasure as long as it remains unperverted.  Although “perversion” may be too strong a term to use in the present context, in my view most people enter discussions of pleasure with presumptions that are foreign to Epicurean analysis.  As we consider this, let’s discuss two things that most people thing of as examples of pleasure – sex and cinnamon rolls – and ask ourselves whether these are in fact pleasures.  It seems to me that many people are going to approach this question from one of three primary perspectives:

  1. Perspective One:  Sex and cinnamon rolls are pleasures because God made them that way.  If we are ancient Platonists, or modern religionists, we believe that God molded “patterns” in heaven, or in some other dimension, and that all  instances of cinnamon rolls, and all instances of sex, are pleasures because they derive a special nature from the pattern in which they were made.  Guided by that, we consider sex and cinnamon rolls to be pleasures, and there is no need for further analysis.  Whether we should in fact choose them is purely a matter for our reasoning mind to calculate the consequences logically, perhaps also with prayer, if we think God will reveal to us whether he wants us to indulge in them or not.
  2. Perspective Two:  Sex and cinnamon rolls are pleasures because they contain within them “essences” which make them pleasurable.  If we were ancient Aristotelians, or modern Objectivists, we would congratulate ourselves that we have freed ourselves from the primitive superstition of Plato.  We would be proud (and in fact quite arrogant) that we have discovered means to categorize objects by use of our reason according to the “nature” of sex and cinnamon rolls.  We will look down our noses at those who seem incapable of being “logical,” or who say that God holds sex and cinnamon rolls to be bad.  We will also look down at those “hedonists” who hold them to be unreservedly good.  And we will particularly applaud those enlightened few who join us in talking about “moderation” and the “golden mean.” That’s because they – like ourselves –  have reasoned their way to seeing that being in the middle – never seeking too many or too few – is the always the “just right” choice.
  3. Perspective Three:  Sex and cinnamon rolls are pleasures if we say so.  Tom might not like them, so to Tom they are not pleasures.  Dick might love them, so to Dick they are pleasures.  Harry might not be sure, so to Harry they are questionable.  If Harry is particularly intellectual, he will say that it is “probable” that they are pleasures, or that they are “preferred” but of course not really essential, don’t you know.  From this perspective, whether a thing is a pleasure or not is purely up to the decisionmaker – and I mean purely up to him.  The question is totally a matter of “what feels good” – with no other basis whatsoever for answering or even thinking about the question.  If we are trendy and into tag phrases, we will say that man is the measure – that everything around us is an illusion anyway.  We will say that we decide – in the Stoic manner – what we are going to consider pleasure, and what we are going to consider pain.

From an Epicurean perspective, none of these three are correct.  All lead to total misunderstanding of Epicurus’ teachings about pleasure.

Let’s refer to an example given by Epicurus in his letter to Menoeceus, and consider how it illustrates the matter.  Epicurus writes:

It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life….”

What is Epicurus criticizing? Before we answer, consider that Epicurus has said elsewhere:

For I at least do not even know what I should conceive the good to be, if I eliminate the pleasures of taste, and eliminate the pleasures of sex, and eliminate the pleasures of listening, and eliminate the pleasant motions caused in our vision by a visible form.”

So was Epicurus grossly inconsistent?  Did he forget what he had said elsewhere when he wrote to Menoeceus?  Was he a muddled thinker, unworthy of further consideration except as a footnote to Stoicism, when he said he would not know the good except for pleasures of taste and sex, and then turned around and criticized wine and sex in another text?  Emphatically Not.

So what was Epicurus criticizing? Read the text:  he was criticizing the unbroken succession of these activities, and not the activities themselves.  As always when we seek to understand Epicurus, we should use common sense and our own human observations.  These were the foundations for Epicurus, and they must be our foundations when we seek to understand Epicurus. So let’s use Epicurean analysis to answer the three perspectives listed above:

  1. Perspective One:  Are sex and cinnamon rolls pleasures because God made them that way?  Certainly Not! There is no supernatural being cutting out patterns in heaven or anywhere else, and there is no other dimension where these patterns exist.  It is absolutely false to say that God made sex and cinnamon rolls as pleasures.
  2. Perspective Two:  Are sex and cinnamon rolls pleasures because they contain within them “essences” which make them pleasurable?  Certainly Not!   The universe is composed of bodies and space, and there are no “essences” which demarcate whether a thing is a pleasure or a pain.  This is the error of “essentialism” described by Richard Dawkins in an excellent article here.  It is an error that transfers the location of the supernatural pattern from another dimension to this one.  Solving nothing, it simply duplicates the problem in a more complicated way, and leads to similar errors.  In the case of Aristotle, it leads to the error of thinking that there is some essential “good” and “bad” amount of each thing, from which we can calculate our “golden mean” or “moderation,” and thereby know how much of each to choose.  All of this is warmed over Platonism, and incorrect for the same reason Plato was incorrect – essentials and divine patterns do not exist.
  3. Perspective Three:  Are sex and cinnamon rolls pleasures if you say so?  Again, Certainly Not!  It makes not one bit of difference whether Tom chooses to like sex and cinnamon rolls or not.  It is the great error of Stoicism to think that through mental will-power we can dictate to Nature the facts of reality – including the principles which govern our faculty of pleasure and pain.  It is true that Tom and Dick and Harry have a degree of control over whether they choose to expose themselves to sex and cinnamon rolls, and grow to like them more or less through experience.  On the other hand, it is hogwash to assert that they were born as Aristotelian “blank slates,” or Randian “beings of self-made soul,” who have programmed their faculties of pleasure and pain from scratch, like science-fiction self-programming robots.

So what is Epicurus saying about the proper perspective?  Epicurus lays out rules of choice and avoidance based on the single standard of “what will happen to me if I pursue this desire?”and “what will happen to me if I do not?”  And there is no proper and Natural standard other than pleasure itself to judge the result.

So now it is time to focus on the perspective that underlays the Epicurean analysis:  Pleasure is a faculty, given to us by Nature, by which to perceive that which is good in life.  Sex and cinnamon rolls are “pleasures” only if our faculty of pleasure, as programmed by Nature, and honed through our own experience, under the circumstances in operation at the moment of judgment, tells us that they are.

If we have just had sex with ten women (or men, depending on your situation) then immediately having sex with an eleventh may be another pleasure, or it may be painful.  If we have just eaten ten cinnamon rolls, then eating the eleventh may be either pleasurable or painful.  There is nothing dictated by God, nothing dictated by the “essence” of the thing, and nothing dictated by your choice to think of it that way that determines whether the eleventh sex partner or cinnamon roll will be pleasurable or painful.

The Faculty of Pleasure (and pain) is in the Epicurean Canon of Truth because it is a faculty analogous to seeing or hearing.  Faculties in the canon report what they observe according to the rules that Nature provided, and they do not report their findings with the addition of opinion.  And this means that just as with the faculty of seeing, we can expect to encounter conditions under which the things that we see (or find pleasing) must be tested through repeated observation, and observation from different perspectives, to determine the correct opinion about it that we should hold.

If the weather is foggy and our vision is obstructed, we stay further from the edge of the cliff to avoid falling over.  If the conditions under which we find a matter to be pleasurable are such that engaging in the pleasure will lead to more pain than the pleasure is worth, then we choose to avoid the pleasure under that circumstance.  The sense of sight does not report to us the full picture of any situation without analysis, and the sense of pleasure does not report to us the full consequences of engaging in the desire.  Both require that we learn to analyse the information provided so that we can then act accordingly.  And it is at this stage – and not as a substitute for pleasure – that Epicurus observed:  Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.  (PD 16)  And this is also the context for the observation in the letter to Menoeceus that the most pleasurable life is possible only if we engage in “sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”

The present application of all this is that when we are discussing pleasure, we must make sure to define what we are talking about.  The world of today has been so conditioned by religion and competing philosophies that the perspective discussed here is rarely considered. It is up to us to explain to people that when Epicurus was discussing pleasure, he was talking about a faculty given us by Nature, and not a “set of things” which was defined by God, or defined by “essentials,” or defined by our “preference.”

Lucretius referred to pleasure as “Divine Pleasure, Guide of Life.”  In a very real sense, it is only this Epicurean perspective which can truly be considered “living according to Nature.”  It is just as fallacious to set our minds to “living simply” as it is to set our minds to “living extravagantly.” 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. (Vatican Saying 63)

It is just as wrong to “live for others” as it is to “live for oneself.”  Add to this list any slogans cherished by religions, politicians, philosophers, or social commentators that you care to consider.  And certainly, to be sure to understand the point, do not fail to entertain the most seductive alternative of them all: “living virtuously.”  Here again we can turn to Torquatus:   Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name, and do not understand the true demands of nature. If they will consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school dilates on the transcendent beauty of the virtues; but were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable? We esteem the art of medicine not for its interest as a science, but for its conduciveness to health; the art of navigation is commended for its practical and not its scientific value, because it conveys the rules for sailing a ship with success. So also Wisdom, which must be considered as the art of living, if it effected no result would not be desired; but as it is, it is desired, because it is the artificer that procures and produces pleasure. 

In every case in which we attempt to substitute something else for Nature’s guide of pleasure, the error is the same.  And the result is the same also:  confusion.  “We must consider both the ultimate end and all clear sensory evidence, to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.”  (PD 22)

All of these are false alternatives because they are constructions that men have invented to replace the guidance of Nature.  This is pure rebellion against Nature, because:  “Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature. What does Nature perceive or what does she judge of, beside pleasure and pain, to guide her actions of desire and of avoidance?”  Torquatus in Cicero’s On Ends.  

So in sum, it is essential that we understand, and that we explain to others, the nature of Pleasure in the Epicurean system.

Pleasure is not:  (1) a set of patterns molded by God, (2) an intrinsic essence residing in a thing waiting for us to recognize it, or (3) whatever we say it is.

Pleasure is a faculty, with Natural principles of operation, just like seeing or hearing.  Among all the components of the Canon of Truth, it alone is the one given us by Nature with the role of acting as the guide of life in perceiving what is to be chosen as “good.”  The fact that men find different things pleasurable, and in different intensities, is no more reason to deny the role and the value of the faculty of pleasure than the fact that some men are born blind, or nearsighted, is reason to deny the role and the value of the faculty of sight.

Only when we begin to look at things from this perspective can we appreciate the guidance that Epicurus left us in these deceptively simple words:

Wherefore we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is should be chosen, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good.

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Notes for Future Revisions Of This Post:

  1. For those who are interested in pursuing the analogy of the faculty of pleasure as an innate sense similar to seeing and hearing, be sure to read “Dialogues on Innate Principles” by Jackson Barwis.