“The True Nature of Pleasure” – Norman DeWitt’s Analysis of Epicurean Pleasure

The following extended excerpt is from Chapter XII of Norman DeWitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy.”  It is presented here without comment as part of our ongoing investigation of Epicurus’ views on Pleasure and Pain. 


While the identity of the end or telos is declared to have been established by Nature, recourse must be had to observation and reflection to determine what can be truthfully predicated of it. Tied in with this problem is the question of the true relation of pleasure to pain.

On both these points the findings of Epicurus, though clear and explicit, are regularly misrepresented. Pleasure, he declares, is cognate and connate with us, and by this he means not only that the interconnection between life and pleasure manifests itself simultaneously with birth and by actions that precede the capacity to choose and understand; he means also that pleasure is of one nature with normal life, an ingredient or component of it, and not an appendage that may be attached and detached; it is a normal accompaniment of life in the same sense that pain and disease are abnormal.  [emphasis added]

It follows from this that pleasure is not to be opposed to pain on the ground alone that all creatures pursue the one and avoid the other; the two are true opposites because they stand in the same relation as health which preserves and disease which destroys. It is for this reason that the one is good and the other is evil, Vatican Saying 37: “Human nature is vulnerable to evil, not to the good, because it is preserved by pleasures, destroyed by pains.” This may be taken to mean that pleasure, as it were, is nutriment to the human being, as food is, and that human nature reaches out for it just as each living thing by some natural impulse seeks its appropriate food. It is no accident that the following statement of Aristotle is to be found in his discussion of pleasure: “And it may well be that in the lower animals there is some natural good, superior to their scale of existence, which reaches out for the kindred good.”  With this surmise Epicurus would have concurred: all creatures seek pleasure as if food; they avoid pain as if poison.

… To return now to the dualistic good, this has been seen to consist, on the one hand, of “the stable condition of well-being in the flesh.” The part that is opposed to the flesh is the intelligence. So far as this is concerned, the perfect condition is ataraxy, which is defined by the New English Dictionary as “Stoical indifference.” This signifies a confusion with “apathy.” The Epicurean sage did not cultivate indifference. It is even said of him: “He will be more susceptible of feeling than other men nor would this be an obstacle to wisdom.”  If an example be in point, mention may be made of gratitude, of which the sect made a specialty. The general objective was not to attain immunity to feeling but to keep the emotions within natural bounds, Vatican Saying 21: “Human nature is not to be coerced but persuaded and we shall persuade her by satisfying the necessary desires if they are not going to be injurious but, if they are going to injure, by relentlessly banning them.”

The word ataraxy implies a metaphor derived from the sea and the weather. One of the original synonyms is “calm,” galenismos, of which the proper application is to the sea, tranquillitas in Latin. The turmoils of the soul are specifically compared by Epicurus to storms and squalls at sea. The chief causes of the soul’s turmoils are unreasonable fears concerning the gods and death and ignorance of the natural limits of pleasure and pain. If a man has attained to true knowledge of these things and keeps his emotions within their natural limits, the reward is comparable to the peace “which passeth all understanding.” For this statement there is a specific Epicurean text, if only the editors did not emend it, Vatican Saying 78: “The truly noble man busies himself chiefly with wisdom and friendship, of which the one is an understandable good but the other is immortal.” Paradoxical as it must seem, Epicurus knows no higher praise than to call a thing immortal; being opposed in this text to understandable, it must mean “passing understanding.”

Having established body and soul upon a parity, equal partners in life, Epicurus next proceeded to propound a number of paradoxes: first, that limits of pleasure were set by Nature, beyond which no increase was possible; second, that pleasure was one and not many; and third, that continuous pleasure was possible. These new doctrines were the offspring of controversy, because the contrary doctrines had been sponsored by Plato and his followers, who in this instance agreed for the most part with the multitude.

The first paradox is part of Authorized Doctrine 3, and by this position its prime importance is revealed: “The removal of all pain is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures.” The meaning is plain if the pleasure of eating be taken as an example. Nature is the teacher, as usual, and sets the norm. Hunger is a desire of the first category according to Epicurus: it is both natural and necessary. Where this natural and necessary desire for food exists, the pleasure of satisfying it cannot be exceeded. Cicero cites the example of the first Ptolemy of Egypt, who, it was reported, had never been genuinely hungry until on a certain occasion he was parted from his escort and received the gift of coarse bread in a cabin; it seemed to him that nothing had ever been more delicious than that bread.18 This testimony is the more telling for two reasons: first, because Cicero quotes it in an explicitly Epicurean context; second, because it was this Ptolemy to whom Colotes of Lampsacus, a charter member of the sect, dedicated his satire on earlier philosophers.19

Thirst, of course, belongs in the same category with hunger, and Cicero in the same paragraph cites the example of that Dareius who fled before Alexander the Great: in his extremity he drank filthy water polluted with corpses and declared he had never drunk with greater pleasure. This example is contemporary with Epicurus and little doubt can exist that Cicero drew from it the same text as the story of Ptolemy, possibly the book On the End, which was in his hands at the time.20

It is justifiable to go further: the original source of both stories may have been the book which the talented Ptolemy himself wrote on the campaigns of Alexander. It has been shown already that he was interested in hedonism21 and it becomes probable that he reported certain incidents with an Epicurean color.

The core of the principle here exemplified is the necessity of keeping true pleasure in a necessary connection with natural and necessary desires, such as hunger and thirst. It is impossible to whip up a thirst or an appetite superior to that created by natural hunger and thirst. To the youthful Menoeceus Epicurus writes: “Plain-tasting foods bring a pleasure equal to that of luxurious diet when once the pain arising from need has been removed, and bread and water afford the very keenest pleasure when one in need of them brings them to his lips.”  This is the fixed ceiling for pleasure, which he endeavors to establish in opposition to Plato, who compared the appetitive part of the soul to “a many-headed beast” and held to the opinion that desires increase endlessly and that pleasure defied the fixing of a limit.

The natural and necessary desires that still await mention are those for clothing and shelter. The authorized teaching concerning these will be made plain by the first half of Authorized Doctrine 18: “The pleasure in the flesh is incapable of increase when once the pain arising from need has been removed but is merely embellished.” The Greek word here rendered “embellished” has also been translated by “varied” and by “variegated,” but these renderings fall short of revealing the meaning. Seneca does better when interpreting the word as “to season, as it were, and divert.” This is correct; to luxurious men it is a fact that eating is a way of passing the time. Epicurus himself applies the word poikilmata, “embellishments,” to food, Vatican Saying 69: “It is the ingratitude of the soul that makes the creature endlessly lickerish of embellishments in diet.”
Cicero, however, happens to be our best guide, because the meaning of his version is made clear by Lucretius. He says “the pleasure can be variari distinguique but not increased.”  The first of the verbs italicized applies properly to color and the second to needlework, as may be gleaned in the lexicon. Lucretius confirms this: “It hurts us not a whit to lack the garment bright with purple and gold and embroidered with striking designs, provided there still be a plain cloak to fend off the cold.”

When once the meaning of poikillo has been fixed as “embellish” and applicable alike to diet, clothing, and housing, the doctrine can be extended with precision. The function of walls is to afford protection from the weather; the enjoyment of this is a basic pleasure, and, being basic, cannot be increased. If the walls are decorated, the enjoyment of them is merely a decorative pleasure. Similarly, the function of a garment is to avert the pain arising from cold and the resulting pleasure is basic and, being such, cannot be increased but is merely embellished if the cloth is gaily colored or brocaded.

The case is not different in respect of diet. The satisfaction of natural hunger is the basic pleasure, which is not increased but merely embellished by richness of diet. Epicurus is recorded by a late doxographer as saying: “I am gorged with pleasure in this poor body of mine living on bread and water.” 27 Porphyry records him as saying: “It is better for you to lie down upon a cheap cot and be free of fear than to have a gilded bedstead and a luxurious table and be full of trouble.”

In the same Authorized Doctrine, 18, in which the ceiling of pleasure for the flesh is defined, the ceiling of pleasure for the mind is set forth: “As for the mind, its limit of pleasure is begotten by reasoning out these very problems and those akin to these, all that once created the worst fears for the mind.” These words need not seem enigmatical: the worst fears are created for the mind through false opinions concerning death and the gods, the topic of Authorized Doctrines 1 and 2. These fears rank in point of importance with false opinions concerning pleasure and pain, the topic of Doctrines 2 and 4. The cure for all these false opinions and the fears they entail was dubbed by detractors the tetrapharmacon, or fourfold remedy. It is charmingly elaborated by Epicurus in the letter to Menoeceus, which alone of his extant writings possesses literary grace.

In this letter the doctrine of the basic pleasures and the consequent fullness of pleasure is elaborated: “It is for this that we do everything, to be free from pain and fear, and when we succeed in this, all the tempest of the soul is stilled, the creature feeling no need to go farther as to something lacking and to seek something else by which the good of soul and body shall be made perfect.”29 In speaking of “going farther” and “seeking something more” he refers to the superfluous or merely embellishing pleasures.


If at this point the attention be recalled to the synoptic view, it may be observed that the telos has been presented under three aspects: first, as a unitary good it is pleasure; second, as a dualistic good it is health of mind and health of body; third, in a seemingly negative aspect it is freedom from fear in the mind and pain in the body. This seeming negativism was spotted by the antagonists of Epicurus as a chink in his armor, and the arrows of their dialectic were concentrated upon it. The weakness alleged was that of calling two disparate things by the one name of pleasure.

It is plain to see how Epicurus was led to switch emphasis to this aspect of pleasure. As usual, he was working his way to greater precision in his analysis of the subject and, as will presently be shown in more detail, he discerned that according to Aristippus and Plato no such thing as continuous pleasure was possible; they recognized only peaks of pleasure separated by intervals either devoid of pleasure or neutral or mixed. From this it followed with inevitable logic that the wise man could not be happy at all times. This conclusion was repugnant to Epicurus as a thoroughgoing hedonist and was repudiated. This repudiation could be made good only by vindicating for freedom from fear and pain the status of a positive pleasure. This in turn resulted in a doctrine of the unity of all pleasure.

Though we certainly fall short of possessing the whole argument of Epicurus, there is ample evidence upon which to construct the skeleton of a case. The Feelings, as usual, are the criterion. It may be recalled how he proved life itself to be the greatest good by pointing out that the greatest joy is associated with the escape from some dreadful destruction. By a similar argument, even if not extant, it could be shown that the recovery of health is a positive pleasure when the individual has recently survived a perilous illness. It would be a positive pleasure also to be freshly relieved from the fear of death and the gods through the discovery of the true philosophy.

To substantiate this drift of reasoning it is not impossible to quote a text: “The stable condition of well-being in the flesh and the confident hope of its continuance means the most exquisite and infallible of joys for those who are capable of figuring the problem out.” S6

This passage marks a distinct increase of precision in the analysis of pleasure. Its import will become clear if the line of reasoning already adumbrated be properly extended: let it be granted that the escape from a violent death is the greatest of joys and the inference must follow that the possession of life at other times cannot rank greatly lower. Similarly, if the recovery from a dangerous illness be a cause for joy, manifestly the possession of health ought to be a joy at other times. Nevertheless the two pleasures differ from one another and it was in recognition of the difference that Epicurus instituted the distinction between kinetic and static pleasures. The difference is one of intensity or, as Epicurus would have said, of condensation. At one time the pleasure is condensed, at another, extended. In other words the same pleasure may be either kinetic or static. If condensed, it is kinetic; if extended, it is static.

There is a catch to this reasoning, however; it holds good only “for those who are capable of figuring the problem out.” This marks Epicurus as a pragmatist, insisting upon the control of experience, including thought. His reasoning about kinetic and static pleasures is sound, but human beings do not automatically reason after this fashion; they fail to reason about the matter at all. Although they would spontaneously admit the keenest joy at recovery from wounds or disease, they forget about the blessing of health at other times. Hence it is that Epicurus insists upon the necessity of being able to reason in this way. Moreover, this reasoning must be confirmed by habituation. The same rule applies here as in the case of “Death is nothing to us.” It is not enough to master the reasons for so believing; it is also necessary to habituate one’s self to so believe. This is pragmatism.

There is also another catch to this line of reasoning. The conclusion clashes with the teaching of Aristippus and Plato and it also violates the accepted usage of language. It was not usual to call the possession of health a pleasure and still less usual to call freedom from pain a pleasure. It was this objection that Cicero had in mind when he wrote: “You Epicureans round up people from all the crossroads, decent men, I allow, but certainly of no great education. Do such as they, then, comprehend what Epicurus means, while I, Cicero, do not?” The common people of the ancient world, however, for whom Platonism had nothing attractive, seem to have accepted Epicurean pragmatism with gladness. Cicero, being partial to the aristocratic philosophy and having no zeal to promote the happiness of the multitude, chose to sneer.

The irritation which Cicero simulates in the above passage was beyond doubt genuine with those from whom the argument was inherited. They had been nettled by the phraseology of Epicurus, who was mocking Plato. The words “those who are capable of figuring the problem out” are a parody of Plato’s Timaeus  where the text reads “those who are incapable of making the calculations” and the reference is to mathematical calculations of the movements of the celestial bodies, which “bring fears and portents of future events” to the ignorant. Baiting the adversary was a favorite sport of Epicurus.

Epicureans at a later time were in their turn subjected to incessant baiting by Stoic opponents, and it may have been these who tried the reduction to the absurd by means of a ridiculous example. If those who are not in a state of pain are in a state of pleasure, “then the host who, though not being thirsty himself, mixes a cocktail for a guest is in the same state of pleasure as the guest who is thirsty and drinks the said cocktail.”

Cicero, however, had his tongue in his cheek and knew that this was mere dialectical sparring, intended rather to disconcert the opponent than to refute him. He was partial to the New Academy and to Stoicism, both of which tended to turn argumentation into a game and thus make it an end in itself. They could not fail to be intolerant of the procedures of pragmatism, of which action is the primary object and not logomachy.

This extension of the name of pleasure to freedom from fear and pain was not the sole achievement of the new analysis. In popular thought, the correctness of which Plato assumed, pleasures were classified according to the parts of the body affected, eating, drinking, sexual indulgence, philosophical thinking. In respect also of this conventional classification Epicurus exhibited finer discrimination. He not only discerned that the pleasure associated with one organ is brief and intense while that associated with other parts is moderate and extended but also observed that certain pleasures, like that of escaping a violent death, affect the whole organism.

The next step in this new analysis was to declare that this fact of extension or intension was of no fundamental importance. The high value assigned to this principle is indicated by its promulgation as Authorized Doctrine 9: “If every pleasure were alike condensed in duration and associated with the whole organism or the dominant parts of it, pleasures would never differ from one another.” Positively stated, the meaning would be that pleasure is always pleasure; it is of no consequence that some pleasures are associated with the mind, others with the stomach, and others with other parts, or that some affect the whole organism and others only a part, or that some are brief and intense, others moderate and extended. In other words, it makes no difference that some pleasures are static and others kinetic. Pleasure is a unit. This unity could be expressed in ancient terminology by saying that all pleasure was a kind of motion, kinesis or motio, the ancient equivalent of reaction.

To put the colophon upon this topic it should be added that three Authorized Doctrines, Nos. 8, 9, and 10, deal with pleasure and all three imply the quality of unity. The eighth stresses the fact that the evil attaches solely to the consequences; all pleasures are alike in being good: “No pleasure is evil in itself but the practices productive of certain pleasures bring troubles in their train that by many times outweigh the pleasures themselves.”

The ninth Doctrine has been quoted above. In it the item about “condensed pleasure” was pounced upon by Damoxenus of the New Comedy as a good cue for merrymaking; quite aptly he allowed a cook to dilate upon it. Some five centuries afterward the frivolous Alciphron testified to the longevity of the theme by assuming it to be still good for a laugh.

The tenth Doctrine, last of the three, serves to shift all ethical condemnation from pleasures themselves to the consequences: “If the practices productive of the pleasures of profligates dispelled the fears of the mind about celestial things and death and pains and also taught the limit of the desires, we should never have fault to find with profligates, enjoying pleasures to the full from all quarters, and suffering neither pain nor distress from any quarter, wherein the evil lies.” Such declarations afforded to enemies of Epicurus a means of besmirching his name, but he was absolutely honest; he did not evade the logical implications of his principles; he flaunted them. By disposition he was a teaser; he drew enjoyment from the squirming of the piously orthodox.

A variation of the same teaching appears in an isolated saying. “I enjoy the fullness of pleasure living on bread and water and I spit upon the pleasures of a luxurious diet, not on account of any evil in these pleasures themselves but because of the discomforts that follow upon them.” 42 The net effect of these pronouncements is to put all pleasures in a single class, all being good, irrespective of extension or condensation or of the organ affected or of approval or disapproval, which attach only to consequences. This is an instance where Epicurus exhibited deeper insight than Plato in the latter’s own field, discerning the one in the many.




Once Nature has been recognized as furnishing the norm, it is imperative that the study of life begin at its minimum values, which are recognized in the newborn infant, as yet lacking volition and intelligence and the greater part of sensation. At this level, while the creature is as yet unperverted and Nature reveals herself candidly, it is discerned that pleasure and life are already indissolubly joined. For this reason Epicurus wrote: “We recognize pleasure as the first good and connate with us.” By “the first good” he means that it manifests itself at the beginning as being good, being first in order of time and succession.

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