The Reason For The Philosophic Fighting, In The Words of Cicero’s Epicurean Speaker

There’s an important issue behind the Epicurean rejection of “Stoic” ideas which can be seen in a brief selection from Cicero. At the beginning of the Epicurean section of On Ends, the speaker introduces his topic with a few lines that seem to be nothing more than setting up the argument, but which contain a lot more than that. He starts:

“This [the ultimate good] Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the Chief Good, pain the Chief Evil. This he sets out to prove as follows: 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.”

The important thing to observe here is that Epicurus has established the answer to the most important question in life without a calculation; without a syllogism; without a revelation. He has simply used his five senses to observe a fact of reality – that Nature programs all living things to pursue their own pleasure to the best of their ability. This process – the dedication to observing facts rather than speculation as the way to determine how to live – is in my view the real foundation of Epicurean philosophy. Following the facts seems to be so simple as to need no further explanation, but it is at this root level that the opposing philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics – adamantly object. They believe something MORE than observation using our Natural faculties is necessary, and that in fact that “something more” can totally contradict what our senses tell us is our Natural guide. And so the narrator continues:

“Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them.”

Here the Epicurean is emphasizing that Epicurus would not countenance ANY compromise on this point: NOTHING more is necessary to understanding the purpose of life than observation using our natural faculties. NO “logic” or argument of ANY kind can be allowed to contradict observation, or be allowed to be a requirement for reaching the conclusion specified by Nature. But some people want to argue that “logic” is required, so the Epicurean continues:

“For there is a difference, he holds, between formal syllogistic proof of a thing and a mere notice or reminder: the former is the method for discovering abstruse and recondite truths, the latter for indicating facts that are obvious and evident. Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature. What does Nature perceive or what does she judge of, beside pleasure and pain, to guide her actions of desire and of avoidance?”

Thus the Epicurean acknowledged that “formal syllogistic proof” has a place in the world, in evaluating matters where little or no evidence is available. But speculation always has to give way to observation – we must grasp those facts that are obvious and evident and evident and right in front of us no matter what “logic” might say. Nature gives no guidance to animals or men on what to choose or avoid other than pain and pleasure. Only in men, and only after a process of perversion by religion or false reasoning or both, is the mind sometimes employed to contradict reality. And yet the Platonists / Aristotelians / Stoics will have none of this, and by Cicero’s time they had prevailed even on some Epicureans to stray from the Master’s teaching:

“Some members of our school however would refine upon this doctrine; these say that it is not enough for the judgment of good and evil to rest with the senses; the facts that pleasure is in and for itself desirable and pain in and for itself to be avoided can also be grasped by the intellect and the reason. Accordingly they declare that the perception that the one is to be sought after and the other avoided is a notion naturally implanted in our minds.

Perhaps this deviation was not as far from the Master as might appear, because this reference may be to “Anticipations,” which under the Epicurean definition was a faculty as natural as seeing or hearing or feeling pleasure or pain. But even this concession was not good enough for the Stoic insistence on “logic,” and to those who insisted that man had the providential status as “the rational animal.” So the anti-Epicurean philosophers hammered away, and even this Epicurean narrator appears close to yielding:

“Others again, with whom I agree, observing that a great many philosophers do advance a vast array of reasons to prove why pleasure should not be counted as a good nor pain as an evil, consider that we had better not be too confident of our case; in their view it requires elaborate and reasoned argument, and abstruse theoretical discussion of the nature of pleasure and pain.”

It’s hard to be sure whether the text is corrupt, whether Cicero planted an apostate Epicurean as his speaker, or what. But this last passage clearly reflects the Stoic position. They insist that it is not possible to follow pleasure – the faculty Nature gave us. Instead we must rely on syllogisms, dialectic, mathematics, geometry, religious speculation, fate, and all the other means of abstract calculation. To what end? This is key: If required, all these abstract calculations would once and for all wrestle from the common man the ability to know for himself how to live his life. Such a requirement for abstraction would place the only means to know how to live in exactly the hands where the Stoics and their other academic and religious charlatans want it: in THEIR hands.

That’s a large part of what this argument is about. The ancient Epicureans and the ancient Stoics saw it, and while their movement existed the Epicureans fought it to the end. All the many modern variants of Stoicism, religious and academic/secular, see it too. Nature gave you pleasure as your guide, and your freedom of mind to decide how best to follow her. The only way to preserve your freedom to follow the lead of Nature is to work to understand why Epicurus is right, and the Stoics and their modern descendants are wrong.
All of the above quotes are from

Note 1/13/15:  Has Cicero slipped in his bias by stating “These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them”? Because I think Epicurus would say not only NEED we not prove these by elaborate argument, they CANNOT be proved by elaborate argument! For Cicero to imply that it *might* be possible to prove that sugar is sweet by elaborate argument gives the Stoics more credit than they deserve. The senses are how Nature made us, and they are are our ultimate foundation for how we relate with reality. There’s no issue of “not *needing* to rely on logic” at all, and the wording that observation is “enough” betrays a false attitude of condescension, as if logic is “higher” and the senses are to be looked down upon. Logic *cannot* supersede or substitute for the role of the senses.

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