Here is a hypothetical that may help with thinking about the role of “virtue” and “painlessness” in Epicurean philosophy. The assumptions of this hypothetical are very simple and designed to be as real-world and transparent as possible. There are no tricks here, so don’t spoil the usefulness by worrying that there are, or trying to insert your own unusual circumstances or facts which are not provided. Let’s start:
Suppose you are a normal 45 year old male. You are ordinary in every way – well-educated, stable personality, good personal relationships without being overly dependent on others or with others overly dependent on you, normal job, totally normal background. In other words, you have no unusual entanglements or background that would make you anything other than an “average guy in the year 2015.” (I am going to presume we are talking male here, but just reverse the sexual references to suit your preference and this applies to anyone.)
Here’s the assumption: You have decided to go to your doctor for a regular checkup. After the exam, the doctor tells you “I am sorry to let you know but you have a very rare disease. It is always fatal. You have four days to live, and at the end of the fourth day you will surely die. There is no treatment; no hope for cure. I am sorry.”
After you digest that, the doctor continues:
“There is no way out of your disease, but you should know that I have just been named president of the “Make-A-Wish” Foundation, and because of your special situation I can offer you one of two “Make-A-Wish” options for your last four days. You can choose only one, but either one you choose all your expenses will be paid.”
“With either option you pick I am going to supply you with expert attendants who will make sure that you have everything you need til the very end. However there is one difference between the two sets of attendants you get on the different options. If you choose Option One, your attendants will make sure that you don’t suffer any serious pain, but you will probably suffer the kind of ordinary pains that you are used to feeling. If you stub your toe it will hurt; if you cut your finger on paper it will be sharp for a minute; if you think about dead babies you will get sad – that kind of thing. If you choose Option Two, you don’t have to worry about being in pain of any kind at all, no matter what you do. Let repeat that: if you choose Option Two your attendants will be equipped to stop you from suffering any kind of pain at all, before it starts, and nothing will harm you or cause you any mental or physical pain no matter what you do.”
Here are your two options. Remember you cannot mix and match. You can choose only Option One or Option Two, which you will follow for the entire four days:
On the first day, if you choose option one, you will be launched into space on the newest Virgin Galactic spaceship. You will orbit the moon, and you will experience all the excitement of seeing the earth from space in a way that almost no man alive has ever had the chance to see. If you choose option two, you will go to a monastery in Siberia. You will be assigned a room with a cot and all the bread and water you can eat and drink, but you will spend the day with the world’s foremost expert on Marcus Aurelius learning all you might ever want to know about courage and practicing it until you are an expert.
On the second day, if you choose option one, you will jet to the most exclusive private beach in the Mediterranean where you will spend the day doing whatever you want in the company of the top five finalists in the Miss World Contest, who have been instructed to fill your day with all the sex and romantic affection that they can provide, which they will willingly do, with no worries about making your family bigger after you are gone. If you choose option two, you will go to the same monastery in Siberia, equipped in the same way, but you will spend the day with the world’s foremost expert on Aristotle learning all you might ever want to know about wisdom and practicing it until you are an expert.
On the third day, if you choose option one, you will be taken to the Napa Valley in California and spend the day in the most exclusive restaurants, drinking the best wine and eating the best food that money can buy. If you choose option two, you will go to the same monastery in Siberia, equipped the same way, and you will spend the day with the world’s foremost expert on Plato, learning all you might ever want to know about justice and practicing it until you are an expert.
On the fourth day, if you choose option one, you will be taken to Bayreuth Germany (because you told me you were an opera fan) and you will be given the best seat in the house to attend a private showing of Tannhauser performed by the best actors and musicians ever assembled. If you choose option two, you will go to the same monastery in Siberia, equipped the same way, and you will spend the day with the world’s foremost expert on Epictetus, learning all you might ever want to know about temperance and practicing it until you are an expert.
You’re a very lucky man to have these options – most people never get to experience any of these things. You will get do all of whichever option you pick with absolutely no cost to you. If you choose Option One and you use good common sense you will engage in all the activities I promised and you will very likely suffer only minimal pain – at most – while you do it. If you choose Option Two, you will become more virtuous than any man alive, and while you are doing it you will certainly suffer no pain of any kind whatsoever.
But remember, at the end of the fourth day you will die no matter which option you choose and no matter what you do during those four days.
The choice is yours.
Which option will you take, and why?
Note 1 – If you would like to comment, please join us in the Facebook discussion forum here.
Note 2 – The associated photo comes from this EXCELLENT video.
Note 3 – For a review of the foundational principles of Epicurean philosophy which would be used to answer this hypothetical, check our Foundations of Epicurean Philosophy page. For more detailed presentation of the Epicurean citations on on the nature of pleasure, check our “Fullness of Pleasure” page here.