The Major Importance of “Confident Expectation”

In reading through Plutarch’s attack on Colotes and his Epicurean views (“That It Is Not Possible To Live Pleasurably According To The Doctrines of Epicurus“), I was struck with the importance of the theme of “confident expectation” in Epicurean thought, which is also mentioned by James Warren.

The point is that it is extremely important that we have confident expectation that the pleasures we are experiencing now will continue.  If we have a fear that we are going to lose them, then even as we experience those pleasures they will be diluted with that fear, and we will not experience the purity of the pleasure that would be possible if we did not have that fear.  See PD 12. “It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.”

And here is the classic statement of the concept, presumably from Epicurus himself, in Vatican Saying 33:  The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remaining so might vie even with Zeus for happiness.

Also, and this one certainly by Epicurus himself, in his letter to Menoeceus:  “To habituate one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health, and enables a man to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.”  [i.e. – without shrinking from, and fearless of the fortune of, threats to our loss of ability to sustain our health]

This concept is closely related to the references in the Epicurean texts to “stable condition” – the confident expectation is that of maintaining the stable condition of pleasure – and it unifies several of the subsidiary aspects of Epicurean theory:

1 – What is the benefit of “simple living” except for the confident expectation that it gives us that we will be able to continue it in the future, because it is easy to do?

2 -Why are we really concerned about the gods except for the need to gain a “confident expectation” that they will leave us alone?

3 – Why do we need to be concerned that the state of death is nothingness except for the “confident expectation” that we will not be tortured after death?

4 – Why do we need to refute the deterministic philosophers except for the need to have a “confident expectation” that our actions to control our circumstances and maintain our pleasures can succeed?

5 – What is the benefit of “self-sufficiency” and the “freedom which is the greatest benefit” of it? Is it not mainly that it gives us a “confident expectation” that our pleasures will continue?

6 – And in a general sense, is this not the same with the virtues as a whole? It is obviously not for the sake of courage or prudence or wisdom alone that we seek those tools, and they are not necessarily pleasurable in themselves. Are they not the means by which we gain the “confident expectation” that our lives and pleasures will continue?

These formulations could be turned around and stated as “____ drives away the fear of _____,” but it is a more positive way to say it as “____ gives us the confident expectation that pleasurable living will continue and _____ will not occur.   More wordy, perhaps, but this formulation focuses on the action we can take to rid ourselves of the fear, rather than focusing on the fear itself.   And not only is this more positive, but it provides a tighter link to the reason for the action in the first place. HOW does learning about the gods drive away fear?  HOW does living simply help?  HOW does being able to defend ourselves against our neighbors help us? By giving us a “confident expectation” that the gods will not interfere with our lives, by giving us a confident expectation that we will be able to continue to sustain our lifestyle, and by giving us a confident expectation that our neighbors will not interfere with us.

Pleasure as the only good was an idea held earlier by the Cyreniacs, but a key difference between them and Epicurus, as Warren points out, is that Epicurus held that if we actively pursue control over our circumstances, we can have a confident expectation that our pleasures will continue over time. Warren sees this is a pleasure in itself, and no doubt it is.  But we should not pass over the fact that this describes the mechanism by which the other tools work, and helps us understand how to use them. For another example, the way we tune how simply or not we live, or how strongly we stick to “necessary pleasures,” and how we evaluate what “necessary” means, is to evaluate whether the particular action reasonably leads to a confident expectation that the result in the future will be pleasure rather than pain.  We have no need to live less simply than is necessary to ensure our confident expectation of continued future pleasure.  And we have no need to focus on the “necessity” of a pleasure except to the extent that we are confident that we can sustain it.  It is not only the effort required to get unnecessary pleasures, but the effort required to keep them – which may not be at all possible – that we have to consider in pursuing them in the first place.

Other examples from the Epicurean texts:

  • Vatican 33. The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remain so might vie even with Zeus for happiness.
  • “the surest guarantee of security” – PD 40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.
  • Also “conviction which inspires confidence” – PD 28. The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that in the limited evils of this life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship. 
  • Vatican Saying 34 – We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.
  • Vatican Saying 7. For an aggressor to be undetected is difficult; and for him to be confident that his concealment will continue is impossible.
  • Diogenes of Oinoanda (from a passage that people question as to whether it really applies to Aristotle). The issue of the flux is one of confidence – we have to have confidence that it is not so rapid that our senses cannot comprehend it:  “Now Aristotle and those who hold the same Peripatetic views as Aristotle say that nothing is scientifically knowable, because things are continually in flux and, on account of the rapidity of the flux, evade our apprehension. We on the other hand acknowledge their flux, but not its being so rapid that the nature of each thing [is] at no time apprehensible by sense-perception. And indeed [in no way would the upholders of] the view under discussion have been able to say (and this is just what they do [maintain] that [at one time] this is [white] and this black, while [at another time] neither this is [white nor] that black, [if] they had not had [previous] knowledge of the nature of both white and black.”
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