Peace and Safety to the Epicureans of today, no matter where you might be!
On this twentieth of May, here is another example in the category “how to read Epicurus reasonably.” In other words, when we read Epicurus, do we expect every sentence he writes to stand alone and be a self-contained philosophy in itself, or is it necessary and appropriate to read each passage in context of the other important aspects of what we know about Epicurus?
Take this example: In PD5 it is stated: “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.”
This could be taken as a flat statement that it is impossible to live pleasurably at any moment in life unless you are wise, honorable, and just. Of course such a reading is obviously questionable in regard to most normal person, who ar frequently less than wise, less than honorable, and less than just, but who still occasionally experience great pleasure. But that objection might be answered with “But Epicurus means ‘it’s impossible to live pleasantly for very long.'”
So let’s take the challenge a step further: What about children?
Children are neither wise, nor honorable, nor just. And yet they live long years in what would appear to be in a very pleasant state. Are we to take the example of children as proof that this maxim – one of the top five principal doctrines – is wrong?
This is a particularly important question since Epicurus looked to the state of children, and young living things of every kind, for proof of his observation that pleasure is the natural end of life: “Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature’s own unbiased and honest verdict.” If children could not be living happily due to PD5, how can their example be used to establish that the goal of life is pleasure?
The answer to this is found in reading Epicurus’ statements in context with the rest of his doctrine. Epicurus would seem to be clearly referring to “live a pleasant life” and “living pleasantly” in the sense of a normal human lifespan, not from the point of view of moment to moment. It is also easy to observe that, in the case of children, there are forces of wisdom, honor, and justice being exerted in their lives – by their parents – and if those forces are not present, the children are unlikely to be very happy.
Many other similar points could be raised in defense of PD5, but there is one in particular to consider. There is constant argument among those who study Epicurus whether “absence of pain” and “absence of disturbance” and not “living pleasurably, in the ordinary meaning of that phrase” is the best definition of the goal of life.
I frequently use the example that Epicurus stated, elsewhere in the same letter, that life is desirable, and it is folly to assert that we should never have been born, and thus it is clear that we accept some degree of pain in order to produce a greater amount of pleasure. This shows that choosing pleasure overrides the goal of avoiding pain, even though both remain important principles that should not be overextended. It is clearly wrong to achieve zero pain by committing suicide (at least in all but extreme circumstances). It is also clearly wrong to pursue pleasures that lead to massive amounts of pain. But we accept some pain as the cost of living, and we do not pursue death – the only guarantee of permanent painlessness. A full reading of the overall contexts allows everything to be reconciled.
A less frequent example might be even more thought-provoking: What about children, and especially those children who as a result of disease or disability do not reach adulthood, or are for the full length of their lives unable to learn and apply wisdom, justice, and honor for themselves? Are their lives by definition not worth living, because they will never live fully happy lives and apply PD5 on their own?
If one were to take an out-of-context view of PD5, that might be the conclusion, but that would certainly be wrong. All questions must always be referred back to Pleasure as the goal of living. In this case there is also the Epicurean doctrine that it is not necessary to live an unlimited time in order to live happily. Many people can and do live pleasurably even under very difficult circumstances, and for them life is worth living as long as it lasts, just as it is for all of us.
As I was talking with Hiram Crespo about this post, he suggested that I cite the well-known case of Temple Grandin, who has lived a happy and successful life despite a serious disability. This is a good example, and there are many others:
So the bottom line is that it is always necessary to interpret Epicurus in the full context of his philosophy.
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.”