Common Fallacies About Epicurus (#2): Epicurus maintained that Pleasure is the “Greatest Good”

A close reading of the evidence indicates clearly that Epicurus taught that life itself, rather than pleasure, is the “greatest good.”  This issue ranks with the statement “all sensations are true” as a source of confusion and controversy.  In his 1951 article “Epicurus:  The Summum Bonum Fallacy,” Norman Dewitt explains “how the lack of a definite article in Latin obliterated the doctrine of Epicurus that life itself and not pleasure is the greatest good.” [emphasis added]  Dewitt shows convincingly (with citations that are omitted from the following excerpt) how this fallacy came to pass:

In Greek the end or telos of an art or activity is called “the good” of that art or activity.  Life itself is an activity, and its telos is above all others “the good.” Thus the telos and “the good” are equivalents.  For neither of these is there an equivalent in Latin. So translators adopted summum bonum as a makeshift. Its demerit is ambiguity, and through this the fallacy originated.  In Greek the practice is to say “the greatest good” and not “the highest good,” and to Epicurus “the greatest good” was not pleasure but life itself.  In other words, to him the summum bonum was not the telos.

Epicurus, holding body and soul to be alike corporeal, placed the two on a parity, and one of his definitions of happiness is “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”  Moreover, denying both pre-existence and immortality, he was bound to see all values concentrated within the brief span of mortal life.  Thus life itself became “the greatest good.”  …

Epicurus had no patience with Platonic dialectic; he said there were “two kinds of inquiry, the one about realities and the other about sheer verbiage.” It was his determination to dethrone reason and set up Nature as the norm.  The feelings, for instance, were one of Nature’s criteria.  In order to identify “the greatest good” he instituted a simple test.  The greatest good is bound to be associated with the greatest pleasure or joy.  Now, no joy is greater than the escape, let us say, from imminent shipwreck.  This joy results from the preservation of life.  Life, therefore, is the greatest good.  The pertinent text is as follows:  “That which causes the unsurpassable joy is the bare escape from some awful calamity, and this is the nature of ‘good,’ if one apprehends it rightly and then stands by his finding, instead of walking around uselessly and harping on the meaning of ‘good.”‘

Recognition of life as “the greatest good” is on record in Vatican Collection 42:  “The same span of time embraces both beginning and end of the greatest good.” The meaning of this is not obscure.  It marks life as limited by birth and death.  It denies both pre-existence and survival of the soul, and is a contradiction of Plato, who sponsored both these doctrines.  Editors, however, misled by the summum bonum fallacy, feel bound that “the greatest good” shall be pleasure, and consequently emend the text, producing a sentence genuinely obscure, which need not concern us.

Other confirmatory passages are citable. The “desirability of life” is mentioned as a reason for placing a higher value upon old age as against youth,’ contrary to a prevailing opinion.  The same feeling motivates the scorn expressed for a dictum of Theognis: “A good thing it is never to have been born or, being born, to have passed with all speed through the gates of Hades.” The supreme value placed upon life determines also the attitude toward suicide (Vatican Collection 38): “Small is the man from every point of view who discovers many plausible reasons for taking leave of life.”

This doctrine of Epicurus furnished philosophy with a perennial topic.  He thought of life as a voyage or a journey in which the wise man should always find a balance of pleasure over pain.  Suicide in his opinion was not a dereliction of duty, but the abandonment of an opportunity to enjoy happiness to the fullest degree. In the second of his books On Lives he is reported as saying:  “But even if deprived of his sight, [the wise man] will not turn aside from the journey of life.”

The prevalence of this fallacy among both modern and ancient commentators provides another reminder why DeWitt emphasized at the beginning of his book Epicurus and His Philosophy that “[a]t the very outset the reader should be prepared to think of [Epicurus] at one and the same time as the most revered and the most reviled of all founders of thought in the Graeco-Roman world.”   The student of Epicurus must be prepared to look past what DeWitt described as “the slanders and fallacies of a long and unfriendly tradition” to see for himself the truth of what Epicurus really taught.