Why Is the Subject of “Limits” Important?

Do you see why the subject of “limits” was so important to Epicurus that the word is found no less than thirteen times over nine of the forty Principle Doctrines?

Do you realize why, if an Epicurean admitted that pleasure has no natural limit, the result would be the destruction of the view that be best life is one of pleasure?

Think about this: as Plato argued in his “Philebus” dialogue, a thing which has no limit is a thing which can be measured in different quantities, with some quantities more and some quantities less than another. If you want to live the “best” life, however, you must know which quantity is best so you can pursue that particular quantity.

In the case of Pleasure, if pleasure has no natural limit, how are you to know WHICH quantity of pleasure to measure for yourself? Should you not always be pushing yourself as hard as you can to experience more, more, more, without regard to pain or anything else?

So once you see that pleasure can always be measured in greater or smaller quantities, must you not look to some OTHER factor – outside of pleasure and different from pleasure – by which to decide how much pleasure to pursue for yourself?

And if there is some factor outside of pleasure, and separate from pleasure, which is required in order to determine how to live the best life, is not then that outside factor, which is not pleasure, the ruler of pleasure? And does this not show that pleasure alone is not the greatest good?

The answer is, “Yes, it would – *if* pleasure has no natural limit established by Nature herself.”

So Epicurus met this argument head-on. Epicurus knew that if pleasure is admitted to be ruled by some other factor which is not itself pleasurable, or which is valued only because it leads to pleasure, then pleasure itself cannot be the highest good.

And so Epicurus worked to identify the “limit” of pleasure. And he did so not, as some wish to argue, as an endorsement that it is always best to seek pleasure in modest quantities, or pleasures of a particular (e.g. “simple”) type. Those who reach this conclusion have unwittingly accepted Plato’s argument and destroyed the foundation of pleasure as the guide of life.

The argument that modest or moderate quantities, or pleasures of a particular type, are “always” best is an abstraction which does not address the particular situations of particular people. If in fact a particular person is able to achieve greater pleasure under his or her circumstances, then there is no reason for that person not to pursue that quantity or type of pleasure which is suited for his circumstances. And so Epicurus made the point explicitly: PD10 “If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life.”

And so it is essential to see that the assertion that it is “always” better to seek modest pleasure is an assertion of a logical abstraction which would be – if true – superior to the guidance of pleasure itself. And so to warn us against this Epicurus said in his VS63: “Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.”

Epicurus identified explained the natural limits of pleasure because in so doing he establishes the necessary foundation of Epicurean philosophy: Nature has given us pleasure alone as the guide of life, and we have no need to look for any ruling factor outside and separate from the nature of Pleasure itself.


SOCRATES: A gift of heaven, which, as I conceive, the gods tossed among men by the hands of a new Prometheus, and therewith a blaze of light; and the ancients, who were our betters and nearer the gods than we are, handed down the tradition, that whatever things are said to be are composed of one and many, and have the finite and infinite implanted in them: seeing, then, that such is the order of the world, we too ought in every enquiry to begin by laying down one idea of that which is the subject of enquiry; this unity we shall find in everything. Having found it, we may next proceed to look for two, if there be two, or, if not, then for three or some other number, subdividing each of these units, until at last the unity with which we began is seen not only to be one and many and infinite, but also a definite number; the infinite must not be suffered to approach the many until the entire number of the species intermediate between unity and infinity has been discovered — then, and not till then, we may rest from division, and without further troubling ourselves about the endless individuals may allow them to drop into infinity. This, as I was saying, is the way of considering and learning and teaching one another, which the gods have handed down to us. But the wise men of our time are either too quick or too slow in conceiving plurality in unity. Having no method, they make their one and many anyhow, and from unity pass at once to infinity; the intermediate steps never occur to them. And this, I repeat, is what makes the difference between the mere art of disputation and true dialectic.
PROTARCHUS: I think that I partly understand you Socrates, but I should like to have a clearer notion of what you are saying.
SOCRATES: I may illustrate my meaning by the letters of the alphabet, Protarchus, which you were made to learn as a child.
PROTARCHUS: How do they afford an illustration?
SOCRATES: The sound which passes through the lips whether of an individual or of all men is one and yet infinite.
PROTARCHUS: Very true.
SOCRATES: And yet not by knowing either that sound is one or that sound is infinite are we perfect in the art of speech, but the knowledge of the number and nature of sounds is what makes a man a grammarian.
PROTARCHUS: Very true.
SOCRATES: And the knowledge which makes a man a musician is of the same kind.
SOCRATES: Sound is one in music as well as in grammar?
PROTARCHUS: Certainly.
SOCRATES: And there is a higher note and a lower note, and a note of equal pitch:— may we affirm so much?
SOCRATES: But you would not be a real musician if this was all that you knew; though if you did not know this you would know almost nothing of music.
SOCRATES: But when you have learned what sounds are high and what low, and the number and nature of the intervals and their limits or proportions, and the systems compounded out of them, which our fathers discovered, and have handed down to us who are their descendants under the name of harmonies; and the affections corresponding to them in the movements of the human body, which when measured by numbers ought, as they say, to be called rhythms and measures; and they tell us that the same principle should be applied to every one and many; — when, I say, you have learned all this, then, my dear friend, you are perfect; and you may be said to understand any other subject, when you have a similar grasp of it. But the infinity of kinds and the infinity of individuals which there is in each of them, when not classified, creates in every one of us a state of infinite ignorance; and he who never looks for number in anything, will not himself be looked for in the number of famous men.
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