Pleasure and Time – Stoics v. Epicureans
A recent post on the Epicurean Philosophy facebook page pointed out that Pierre Hadot has written in “Philosophy as a Way of Life” that “both Stoicism and Epicureanism … posit … that one instant of happiness is equivalent to an eternity of happiness.” I have not had a chance to read this book to determine if this is an accurate quote, but I suspect it is correct in respect to Stoics. For example, in Lucian’s dialog “Hermotimus,” Lucian has his Stoic character (Lycinus) say the following (note that the context makes clear that the stoic is arguing for “virtue” as the meaning of the “happiness” stated here):
Ly. That may be; but about these twenty years–have you your master’s promise that you will live so long? is he prophet as well as philosopher? or is it a soothsayer or Chaldean expert that you trust? such things are known to them, I understand. You would never, of course, if there were any uncertainty of your life’s lasting to the Virtue-point, slave and toil night and day like this; why, just as you were close to the top, your fate might come upon you, lay hold of you by the heel, and lug you down with your hopes unfulfilled.
Her. God forbid! these are words of ill omen, Lycinus; may life be granted me, that I may grow wise, and have if it be but one day of Happiness!
Ly. For all these toils will you be content with your one day?
Her. Content? yes, or with the briefest moment of it.
(I will look for additional cites to back up Hadot’s statement, and post them below as I find them.)
So I believe Hadot to be correct in terms of Stoicism. Is he correct in regard to Epicurus? Did Epicurus hold that ataraxia, or the state of being without pain (to the extent those terms may be considered to be different) consists of some sort of transformational state in which an instant of ataraxia is the equivalent of an eternity of happiness?
What about PD19? “Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.” Does this mean that Hadot is correct?
I would argue “No,” and here’s why:
(1) The very next doctrine after PD20 says: “The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.” The final sentence of this passage indicates that we should welcome the accumulation of pleasure so long as we live. There is nothing here that indicates a transformational moment in which no more pleasure would be pleasing to us. In addition, the “end and limit of the flesh” would appear to be a lifetime of the highest quality pleasure and the minimum pain because Nature has not created us to live and die in an instant, but with a normal life span of many. As a final point, the mind can grasp that all things made of atoms that come together eventually disintegrate. This means that we know we will age and die, and that we much choose pleasure and avoid pain while we can. But we also know that as we age there will come a point where pain exceeds pleasure. When we reach that point, we have lived a complete life if we have lived by Epicurean principles – we have achieved all the pleasure that was possible for us. Such as person who has lived such a life has nothing to regret, because it makes no sense to regret the impossible.
(2) In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus writes: “And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. ” Here Epicurus is specifically measuring pleasure by time (“the time which is most pleasant.“) There is no mention here of a mystical “one moment equals an eternity” transformational state. If such a state were advocated by Epicurus, this passage would surely have been the place to mention it.
(3) Perhaps most important of all, we see Epicurus again specifically discussing pleasure in terms of time in this passage from the Letter to Herodotus:
“There is another thing which we must consider carefully. We must not investigate time as we do the other accidents which we investigate in a subject, namely, by referring them to the preconceptions envisaged in our minds; but we must take into account the plain fact itself, in virtue of which we speak of time as long or short, linking to it in intimate connection this attribute of duration. We need not adopt any fresh terms as preferable, but should employ the usual expressions about it. Nor need we predicate anything else of time, as if this something else contained the same essence as is contained in the proper meaning of the word “time” (for this also is done by some). We must chiefly reflect upon that to which we attach this peculiar character of time, and by which we measure it. No further proof is required: we have only to reflect that we attach the attribute of time to days and nights and their parts, and likewise to feelings of pleasure and pain and to neutral states, to states of movement and states of rest, conceiving a peculiar accident of these to be this very characteristic which we express by the word “time.”
This is a difficult passage, but its meaning is probably this: Epicurus is saying that time is an attribute of reality that we perceive directly through the senses. Just as we perceive that sugar is sweet and fire is hot — matters which Epicurus refused to debate and simply pointed to as proof — we perceive directly through the senses that time passes. We can not and need not seek for proof of the correctness of any of these perceptions — it is in our makeup as humans to perceive matters in this way, and to judge them as real.
Now, what about this question: Epicurus contends that all pleasures are good, and that we cannot measure pleasure by virtue or nobility, but indeed the reverse – we judge a thing virtuous or noble only if it is productive of pleasure. If pleasure is a unity, a sense, something that is not subject to being measured by reason or logic alone, why is it fair to say we can measure pleasure by time? Is time not just an outside factor like “virtue”?
The answer to that question is the same as indicated above: Pleasure can be measured by time just as pleasure can be measured by touch, taste, sight, smell, or sound. Time is something we perceive directly, and just as with the five senses, the passing of time is perceived without the addition of opinion. “Virtue” on the other hand, is pure opinion – purely an abstract construction of reason. As the Epicureans argued vigorously, “virtue” has no intrinsic meaning, and is to be measured only according to whether it is productive of pleasure. And pleasure is something that is established as real to us by the senses – just as sugar is sweet – no reasoning, no logic, no syllogisms involved.
From this point of view, it is entirely appropriate to measure Pleasure by time. It is therefore entirely appropriate to desire that time to be extended as much as possible within the limits of nature. Does this conflict with PD3? No. PD3 says (Bailey translation): “The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.” This doctrine establishes a limit of quantity at a particular time, and establishes that at the particular time being judged, the pleasure under consideration cannot be increased in purity/intensity past the point where all pain has been removed. It says nothing about any kind of transformational state in which an instant of atarxia equals an eternity of happiness. In fact it says nothing about time whatsoever. To read it otherwise would be to conclude that Epicurus held two chocolate pies consumed over two days has no additional increment of pleasure over one pie consumed over one day. Such a conclusion would be counter to all experience and reality, and therefore cannot be what Epicurus intended.
What these passages and the letter to Herodotus seem to be saying might be summed up as this: Perceiving time is like seeing a tree – our conceptual reasoning may tell us that the tree is made of spinning atoms in void moving at an incredible speed, but our senses tell us that a tree is a big, hard thing with branches and leaves. Epicurus is saying that we must have confidence in the senses; we must never give in to theoretical logic divorced from evidence – we must accept reality for what it is. Even though conceptual reasoning might lead us – if we are foolish and fail to test the evidence – that trees made of void and atoms too small to see are not solid, and we can walk right through it, our senses tell us otherwise. Our senses tell us that this is a very big and solid object, and it is not a good idea to run into it with our car.
Likewise, in regard to time, conceptual reasoning tells us that time is nothing more than atoms moving through the void, and that seems to be an airy and fairy-tale kind of unreality. Yet our senses tells us that time is something real and important and to be reckoned with – and that when enough of it has passed we will be dead. Epicurus says the choice between these two is clear – you must not hesitate or doubt — trust the senses and act accordingly.
Thus time qualifies as a proper way to measure pleasure. We must continue to seek pleasure, just as we seek to avoid pain, every day of our lives. There is no transformational, semi-mystical shortcut – no state which can ever be reached in an instant and thereby last us for eternity. Humans do not last for eternity, and neither does pleasure. Longings for eternity are the domain of religions — and Stoics — who seek to substitute their own ideas of what “should be” for what Nature has established as the facts of reality. “Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! …while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! … In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature “according to the Stoa,” and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism!” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)
And that means there is no short-cut to achieving a happy life. Happy living requires activity and effort from birth to death. It is only after we come to the end of our days, and we look back with satisfaction to see that we have not been deluded by the false gods such as “virtue,” that we can say we have lived a full and complete life. And it is at that point, no matter how many years that may end up to be, that the Epicurean says of what he has achieved:
VS 47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.