Epicurean philosophy is best known for its advocacy of “Pleasure” as the guide to life. Epicurus taught that Nature endows humans (and all animate beings) with a faculty of perceiving feelings either of pleasure and pain. There is no natural faculty for directly perceiving “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “holy” and “evil,” or even “indifferent.” The only guide to living with which animate beings are endowed by Nature is the faculty of perceiving that which we call pleasure (experiencing something as desirable) or degrees of what we call pain (experiencing something as undesirable). Another way of stating this in Epicurean terms is that there is no good that does not stem from pleasure, no bad that does not stem from pain.
All feelings experienced by a human being, in any field – including ethics, religion, art, love, hate, or any other physical or mental activity – constitute feelings of either pleasure or pain. Thus any experience which is not painful is pleasurable, any experience which is not pleasurable is painful, and we naturally desire without the need of reasoning, logic, or divine revelation that pleasure be present and pain be absent.
From this base, Epicurus concluded that the natural desire of all uncorrupted living things is to experience a life of pleasure. Due to the inverse relationship between pleasure and pain as two sides of the same faculty, this natural desire can be described interchangeably as living with the maximum presence of pleasure or the maximum absence of pain. Because Nature programs animate beings to desire pleasure, pain is to be avoided, and accepted only as necessary in support of pleasurable living. For human beings and higher animals which are able to comprehend the nature of time, this means that pleasure should not be measured narrowly by the immediate moment, but broadly over the expected lifetime.
For purposes of illustration, the sum of the total experiences of any living being may be compared to liquid in a jar, with the jar representing the life, the liquid content of the jar representing pleasure, and any empty space in the jar representing pain. In its most desirable state, the jar is filled to the rim with liquid (pleasures) thereby eliminating all empty space (pains). Over time, it is most desirable for the jar to continue to be filled with pleasure (without emptiness; ” aponic“) and undisturbed (without spilling; “ataraxic”). Variation in the content of the jar (experiencing new pleasures in the place of old ones) is a necessary requirement of living, and is desirable, but does not increase the total quantity of pleasure carried, which is limited by the natural capacities of the jar.
It is not in the nature of a jar (or a life) to continue forever, so the measure of success of the life of a jar is not found by measuring the length of time the jar exists, but by measuring the quantity of liquid (pleasures) the jar succeeds in carrying during its span of life. All pleasure is desirable, and a full life does not require that pleasures which are more costly in terms of disturbance be preferred over others which are less costly. Humans have a large degree of “free will,” and choices and effects among pleasures will vary with individual circumstances. As the general guidance of Nature, however, all decisions should be judged by whether they will result in the jar carrying the most liquid (the individual experiencing the most pleasure) during its lifetime.
Over the centuries, Epicurean philosophy fell victim to many outside forces, including those of religion and competing philosophies, which brought it to a formal end along with Greco-Roman civilization itself. As a result of the loss of texts and scholastic continuity, there is today much controversy about many aspects of what Epicurus truly taught. One category of these controversies arose from what had already been identified by the ancient Epicureans as a fundamental error – that of conflating means and ends. Although Epicureans like Diogenes of Oinoanda resorted even to “shouting” that the question of life is not “what is the means?” but “what is the end”, over the years this distinction was lost with the rise of Stoicism, Christianity, and their related cultural viewpoints.
As a result, Epicurean concepts such as “absence of pain” (aponia) and “absence of disturbance” (ataraxia) have been transposed in modern literature from simple and straightforward descriptions of the best ways and means of experiencing pleasure, and mutated into implicit “code words” that Epicurus intended to supplant the normal definition of pleasure itself. In the process, this Stoic-promoted mutation, which redefines “pleasure” into a form of asceticism, has obscured Epicurus’ central insight. That insight was, as Epicurus stated, that “pleasure [is] the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.” By the time of Diogenes several hundred years later, it was already necessary to stress the end rather than the means by “shouting to all Greeks and non-Greeks” that “pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end.”
Although many anti-Epicureans directly embrace the view that pleasure is bad and a thing to be suppressed, confusion on these points arises even among honest students of Epicurus. Much of the problem can be attributed to failing to observe that the structure of Epicurean philosophy is cemented firmly into a series of unmovable building-blocks. These “deep-set markers” were a set of specific conclusions about the Nature of the Universe and of Knowledge that, once established, were followed consistently and without exception by the ancient Epicureans. Error and confusion are bound to follow if the student starts with a study of Epicurean ethics (the higher levels of the structure) without first studying the Epicurean conclusions about the nature of Physics and Knowledge, which provide the necessary foundation. The error of accepting any view that implies that pleasure is “bad” (undesirable) stems from failing to remember that in the Epicurean canon, pleasure is the only faculty given by Nature by which to determine that which is “good” (desirable)
As another example of a field ripe for confusion due to modern terminology, Epicurean ideas in the field of religion do not start with detailed speculations about such things as what language “gods” might speak. Long before the nature of “gods” can be considered, the Epicurean student would be taught that the elementary principles of physics establish that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, that the atoms are constantly in motion, and that the universe as a whole is infinite in extent and eternal in time. Followed logically to their conclusion, these and other observations in the field of physics make it impossible for an Epicurean to accept standard definitions of “gods,” “blessedness,” or “divinity.” Epicureans from childhood would have been taught as a matter of elemental physics to reject out of hand any suggestion of all-powerful beings, created universes, disembodied spirits, or souls living on in heaven or hell after separation from the body.
Thus when Epicureans speak of gods, souls, blessedness, or spirituality of any kind, terms like these always refer to completely natural phenomena. Likewise in ethics, all speculations about “the good” or how to live are based on a foundation that there are no absolute ideals of virtue or holiness, and that pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the unchallengeable bedrock of ethics as set by Nature.
In all aspects of human life, from religion to ethics, the Epicurean philosophy is built from the ground up to replace the irrational speculations and terminology of those who reject the evidence of Nature.