Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
The Twentieth of the month is a day to remember not just Epicurus and the founders of Epicurean philosophy, but the core of the message they worked so hard to bring to the world. Unfortunately there seems to be much uncertainty about what the core of that message really was, and we often still seem to be shamed by the accusation of Cicero that we cannot proclaim Pleasure to be the guide of life in the camp, the forum, or the Senate. Over the years, a few steps have been taken to prove Cicero was wrong. Thomas Jefferson was able to insert the “pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence. Today, modern friends of Epicurus in Greece are petitioning the European Union to recognize the right to happiness. Be sure to check out their excellent new website on the Declaration of Pallini!
But as we move forward, let’s not voluntarily step backwards and dilute the message of what happiness really is: Pleasure. Throughout much of the internet, and in most academic philosophy classrooms, you will be told that the goal of Epicurean philosophy is “painlessness.” These voices proclaim pleasure is identical with, and can be defined as “the absence of pain.” For today’s Twentieth, let’s emphasize what is at stake by looking to see how well that works in the Hymn to Venus in Book I of Lucretius (here, in the Humphries version):
Painlessness, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Painlessness, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered oceans, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift of Painlessness, without which they are nothingness.
For you that Painless artificer, the earth,
Submits her flowers, and for you the deep
Of ocean smiles Painlessly, and the calm heaven shines
With shoreless and Painless light.
Ah, goddess of Painlessness, when the spring
Makes clear its daytime, and a warmer wind
Stirs from the west, a Painless air,
High in the sky the Painless-hearted birds,
Responsive to your coming, call and cry of Painlessness,
The cattle, tame no longer, swim across
The rush of river-torrents, or skip and bound
In Painless meadows; where your Painlessness leads,
They follow, Painlessly taken in the drive,
The urge, of Painlessness to come. So, on you move Painlessly
Over the seas and mountains, over streams
Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,
Over the leafy tenements of birds,
So moving that in all the Painlessness burns
For generation and their kind’s increase,
Since you alone control the way things are.
Since without you no thing has ever come
Into the Painless boundaries of light,
Without you nothing is ever Painless,
And nothing ever Painless……
* * * * * *
“Painlessness” doesn’t work at all – and for good reason. Epicurus, the master of clarity above all, did not play games with words. Epicurus never intended for us to understand that “painlessness” is the equivalent of pleasure.
Diogenes Laertius, who recorded minute details of Epicurean philosophy, saw no reason to leave us any comment this issue. Did Laertius fail to comment because he was so much smarter than we are today, and he could not imagine that anyone would doubt the painlessness view or have questions about it? Or did he think that he was absolutely clear when he recorded that Epicurus held that all pleasures – both in action and at rest – were good? Is it not in fact likely that Laertius – if it had even occurred to him – would have seen that the painlessness view totally contradicts the foundations of Epicurean philosophy, and would never be expected to be asserted, much less accepted, by Epicureans familiar with their teacher’s work?
So what exactly was Epicurus saying about Painlessness?
One possibility for interpreting the issue is suggested in the nearby graphic. Almost certainly, Epicurus was responding to Plato and others who had insisted that Pleasure could not be “the good” because they held that pleasure has no limit, and Epicurus was showing that Pleasure does have a “limit.” No doubt there are other and deeper issues involved as well.
But talk of limits is largely confined today to mathematics. Ordinary people, the target of Epicurean philosophy, no longer have the context of background that Epicurus’ own students two thousand years understood as the common field of dispute. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle have been elevated to godhood, their names are to be accepted as revealed wisdom, and no one is taught their views on the nature of Pleasure – views that Epicurus went to great effort to show were unfounded.
Perhaps new material will be discovered in Herculaneum that will provide more texts to put to rest these uncertainties once and for all. But we have ample material now to see the contradiction in the standard “painlessness” interpretation. Whatever the way forward, we cannot leave students of Epicurus shuffling their feet uncomfortably when the philosophy professors smile disdainfully that Epicurus equated pleasure with painlessness.
It is time to rescue Venus – Divine Pleasure, Guide of Life – and not leave her lingering in the back halls of museums hidden under the veil of painlessness.
I want to emphasize the point that in defending and asserting the legitimacy of “active” pleasures, we are in no way taking anything away from “intellectual” pleasures or however you would like to describe the pleasures of “rest.” The point of the Epicurean system is that *everything* is to be judged by Nature’s Prime Directive: Follow the Faculty of Pleasure! ALL pleasures are good, and we cannot judge some pleasures as more “worthy” or more “noble” or “better” than others. There is only one standard for ranking pleasures, and that is the purpose of the natural/necessary division: “What will happen to me if I engage in that activity?” THEN as we ask that question the key moment arrives: Have we kept our eye on the ball and remembered that happy living is the goal of life?
If so, then the way we evaluate “What will happen to me?” is to ask “Will it result in more pleasure to me, or will it result in pain?” Now we sometimes choose the painful activity, but ONLY to generate pleasure in the end. And we sometimes defer the momentary pleasure, but ONLY to avoid worse pain (pain that is not worth the pleasure) and to gain more pleasure later. The purpose is NOT “painlessness.” “Painlessness” can be achieved with a bullet to the brain, but “painlessness” is not the point of living. The point of living is to pursue PLEASURE — all kinds – active AND contemplative.
But don’t think you’re ever going to CATCH pleasure!!! There is no point of repose at which you have achieved all the pleasure you will ever want and you can sit down and stop. THE DESIRE FOR MORE PLEASURE IS GOOD — Nature made us to pursue pleasure from the day we are born to the day we die. The question is only how we in our individual situations pursue it so as to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.
No one appreciated intellectual reflection more than Thomas Jefferson, and yet he saw exactly this point and expressed it clearly in his letter to William Short. Short had said that he was going to pursue “repose,” and Jefferson very properly as an Epicurean called Short’s bluff, and pointed out the error of Short’s ways. Even “repose” must be evaluated by the standard of *will it bring more pleasure* !! Here’s the way Jefferson expressed it, and it goes to the heart of the issue.
“I take the liberty of observing that you are not a true disciple of our master Epicurus, in indulging the indolence to which you say you are yielding. One of his canons, you know, was that “that indulgence which prevents a greater pleasure, or produces a greater pain, is to be avoided.” Your love of repose will lead, in its progress, to a suspension of healthy exercise, a relaxation of mind, an indifference to everything around you, and finally to a debility of body, and hebetude of mind, the farthest of all things from the happiness which the well-regulated indulgences of Epicurus ensure; fortitude, you know is one of his four cardinal virtues. That teaches us to meet and surmount difficulties; not to fly from them, like cowards; and to fly, too, in vain, for they will meet and arrest us at every turn of our road. Weigh this matter well; brace yourself up.”
And one more thing – don’t think for a second that the enemies of pleasure are going to leave you in peace to enjoy your wine-tasting and your poetry! Wagner has correctly captured the attitude of the crowd in Tannhauser: The establishment does not merely condemn “sex” – sex is just representative of “pleasure in general.” The religious/Stoic/Platonic/Ascetic idealists abhor ALL pleasure.
It is easiest and most alarming to the Virtue Establishment to condemn sexual pleasure, but don’t think that is their only target. PLEASURE is their target, and Epicurus is the defender of Pleasure! Epicurus did not defend pleasure by ranking or segmenting it according to its “worth,” nor did he define pleasure as *the same thing* as absence of pain. He properly observed that pleasure is a faculty that is part of the “Canon of Truth” given us by Nature, and PLEASURE is the rule by which we judge all our actions.
There is *this* grain of truth in the Platonic emphasis on man’s rational faculty: – Nature gave us a greater rational faculty than other animals, and we ARE to use it! But our goal is the same as that of every other animal – Nature calls us to live happily! Our rational faculty is given to allow us to achieve happy living more successfully than other animals. It is absolute travesty that the rational faculty has been perverted by those in rebellion against Nature to drive us down LOWER than less intelligent animals and thereby corrupt us in ways that no healthy animal is ever dumb enough to be corrupted.
* * * * * *
Note 1: There is at least one other aspect of this I think is important: I suspect the primary reason that “limits” were being discussed is to respond to Plato/Socrates, who said pleasure has no limit. But ANOTHER IMPORTANT reason to discuss the “ceiling of pleasures”, instead of enumerating the list of pleasures themselves, is that Epicurus is not in the business of specifying some pleasures as good and some as bad. He never ranks one pleasure as “better” or “more worthy” than another, but says *repeatedly* that ALL pleasures are good. That means that he is not going to attempt to list every pleasure that the mind or body can experience, because the number is limitless. So there is no “complete list of pleasures” to refer to, and no “greatest pleasure” to refer to that supersedes all the rest. The nature of life is that is simply an accumulation of some number out of a limitless number of possible pleasures, all of which are good, during however long our lifetime is. Even on the day of his death, Epicurus was experiencing new pleasures and his life was worth living, even while in pain. The point of the ceiling is that the ACCUMULATION STOPS when the limit of the individual experience is reached – the soul cannot survive outside the body, or after death, and only experiences time as “now.” One characteristic of this “limit of experience” that IS definable is that at that moment, no pains are left to be driven away. But the absence of pains is not the essence of the experience – the essence of the experience is the pleasures themselves – in whatever particular combination the individual person happens to value.
Note 2: Letter to Menoeceus: ” And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass quickly through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It would be easy for him to do so once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in jest, his words are foolishness as those who hear him do not believe.”
1) Life is desirable! Life is desirable! Life is desirable!
2) The man who argues that it would be better never to have been born so he would never have experienced pain, at the price of never having experienced PLEASURE, is a FOOL!
PLEASURE IS DESIRABLE – DESIRE IS NOT BAD! WHAT IS BAD IS TO SEEK PAINLESSNESS WHEN NATURE HAS PUT US HERE TO SEEK PLEASURE!
Note 3: This issue may be something that is referenced in the Vatican saying that Dewitt translates as “The same span of time is the beginning and end of the greatest good.” Our goal in life is to seek pleasure, which we seek from birth to death, and our seeking it is only finished when we die. Just because we continue to seek pleasure does not mean we are in pain, it just means we are following nature!
Note 4: I deal with this issue in the recently-released “Fundamentals of Epicurean Philosophy” video:
Note 5: Reference for Cicero’s advice that Epicureans should not advocate for pleasure in public: “And indeed the Epicureans, those best of men—for there is no order of men more innocent—complain that I take great pains to inveigh against Epicurus. We are rivals, I suppose, for some honor or distinction. I place the chief good in the mind, he in the body; I in virtue, he in pleasure; and the Epicureans are up in arms, and implore the assistance of their neighbors, and many are ready to fly to their aid. But as for my part, I declare that I am very indifferent about the matter, and that I consider the whole discussion which they are so anxious about at an end. For what! is the contention about the Punic war? on which very subject, though M. Cato and L. Lentulus were of different opinions, still there was no difference between them. But these men behave with too much heat, especially as the opinions which they would uphold are not very spirited ones, and such as they dare not plead for either in the senate or before the assembly of the people, or before the army or the censors. But, however, I will argue with them another time, and with such a disposition that no quarrel shall arise between us; for I shall be ready to yield to their opinions when founded on truth. Only I must give them this advice: That were it ever so true, that a wise man regards nothing but the body, or, to express myself with more decency, never does anything except what is expedient, and views all things with exclusive reference to his own advantage, as such things are not very commendable, they should confine them to their own breasts, and leave off talking with that parade of them.
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.”