Introduction to the teaching of Epicurus

Here pleasure is the greatest good‹ – that sounds like naive advice at first. Along with stoicism and skepticism, Epicurus’ teaching is one of the three great philosophical currents of the Hellenistic period.With the concept of pleasure in the center, Epicureanism is often misunderstood and led down comical ways. We should therefore approach Epicurus’ teaching with caution and thoroughness.

  1. Epicurus as a person
  2. Sources and standards of teaching
  3. About the Epicurean doctrine
  4. Emphasis on the presence
  5. The ideal: The Epicurean sage
  6. The Epicurean concept of pleasure
  7. Linking pleasure and reason
  8. The three opponents of joie de vivre
  9. A remedy for pain
  1. How is Epicureanism misunderstood?
  2. What is the basis of the Epicurean doctrine?
  3. What does the Epicurean sage personify?
  4. To what extent do we have to differentiate the Epicurean concept of pleasure from the everyday concept of pleasure?
  5. What exactly are the three opponents of joie de vivre and Epicurus’ solutions?

Epicurus as a person

The name Epicurus (341 to approx. 270 BC) is of course in connection with the foundation of one of the three great philosophical currents of the Hellenistic period, which is based on a hedonistic doctrine. The Greek philosopher and epicurean epicurean was born on Samos and founded his school in Athens around 306 BC in the form of a garden, the so-called Kepos.

A special feature of the Epicurean garden was that everyone could become a student there, even slaves were allowed – really unusual for these times. According to bad rumors, even in his own lifetime, he had taught there an “unlimited pursuit of the senses” [1], which, given the inscription at the entrance to the garden, could actually work like this:

Here you will feel good: Here pleasure is the greatest good. [2, p.8]

However, we will see that this conception does not do justice to Epicurean philosophy, since the concept of pleasure Epicurus fundamentally deviates from our everyday concept of pleasure as the mere satisfaction and fulfillment of wishes and desires.

Sources and standards of teaching

There are only two points left to say about Epicurus for our claims: first, the sources and second, the claims of his teaching. As far as the original texts are concerned, Epicurus – like many other ancient authors, unfortunately – looks damn bleak, because “Epicurus’ writings are almost completely lost.” [1]

In addition to the reproduction of Epicureanism by the two Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Lucrez (98-55 BC), only a few fragments and references by other philosophers, who in turn came to Epicurus from second hand, are available as access to the doctrine. But we shouldn’t let that confuse us.

Much more important for us is the second point, namely the claim of the Epicurean teaching. In fact, Epicurus shares this aspect with many ancient ethicists, because, for example, also for the philosophy of the Stoa it is true that practical wisdom is higher than knowledge [cf. 1]. So it’s not just about knowing what is the right thing to do, but simply doing it. Michel de Montaigne sums it up very nicely:

The letters of philosophers such as Epicurus and Seneca are not empty and meaningless, they have their value not only in the fine choice of words, in the correctly arranged and rhythmic abundance of expression, but they are full of beautiful, wise speeches that make one not more verbose, but wiser and which teach us not to speak correctly but to act correctly. [3, p.136]

About the Epicurean doctrine

Like any ancient doctrine, the Epicurean doctrine is also comprehensive, that is to say: it can be roughly divided into the two areas of physics (description of the world) and ethics (description of correct action). With physics, statements are made about what and how the world is, according to which action adapts accordingly:

Physics is also only a preliminary stage to correct action. Its task is to show that the world can be explained entirely from the natural context of things, that gods neither created it nor intervened in its course, and thus free people from fear.

It is precisely the task of physical knowledge of the world – in which Epicurus closely follows the atomic theory of Democritus – to take away man’s fear of supernatural powers, which otherwise darken his soul, and thereby make him capable and free to fully enjoy it earthly life that Epicurus indeed recommends. [1]

On this basis, one immediately recognizes that Epicurus’ teaching – as pointed out in the last sentence – revolves around the enjoyment of earthly life. What is to be understood by this earthly enjoyment, however, cannot be the mere satisfaction of pleasure, but solely the focus on individual happiness in life or even salvation, which is expressed in the Greek term eudaimonia (bliss).

This is typical of the ancient philosophical schools, because Aristotle, with his virtue ethics, and the Stoics,  too, regarded happiness or calmness as the highest goal of human life. The only decisive factor is the different paths taken by the respective schools to achieve this goal.

Emphasis on the presence

A central feature of all these schools against their differences is, for example, the emphasis on the present life. Those who rigidly focus on the future automatically become unhappy. This presence is particularly emphasized in the Epicurean doctrine, which Michel de Montaigne comments in one of his essays as follows:

Desires always carry us into the future; they deprive us of the possibility of feeling and paying attention to what is now; instead, they pretend things are going to happen to us, maybe only when we no longer exist. It is unhappy who cares about the future. [3, p.46]

In this context, Montaigne also quotes an important rule of Plato’s life, which at its core illustrates this central aspect of the Epicurean teaching, namely the turn to the present in the expression of complete carelessness with regard to future events:

Do what is yours and know yourself. [3, p.46]

Whoever has this self-knowledge no longer takes ‘the foreign’ for ‘his’; Then, more than anything, he is drawn to self-study and self-cultivation; what is superfluous he no longer wants to do, and what is useless no longer thinks and plans … With Epicurus the wise man should not look into the future and should not worry about it. [ibid.]

The ideal: The Epicurean sage

It is easy to formulate what the supreme ideal of the Epicurean doctrine is. The wise man is undeterred by fears of metaphysical speculation and, on the other hand, lingers in the acquisition of pleasure, which is primarily implemented in the regulation of needs:

He has set limits to his desires and is indifferent to death; he has correct ideas about the immortal gods without fear of them in any way and shows no decency when it is better to leave life that way. Equipped with such properties, he is always in a state of pleasure. There is not a moment when he does not have more pleasure than pain. [4]

The Epicurean concept of pleasure

Already in the introduction I pointed out that Epicureanism was often wrongly misinterpreted precisely because of its hedonistic core. I have just pointed out that, above all, the regulation of needs contributes to staying in a constant state of pleasure and therefore not just blindly striving for maximum pleasure. Hans Joachim Störig aptly describes it:

But Epicurus by no means teaches rampant hunting for the senses. However, he describes happiness as the sole goal of man and defines this very simply as gaining pleasure and avoiding displeasure. But he knows that excesses of all kinds are usually followed by more painful setbacks. Reason must therefore guide and curb the pursuit of happiness. [1]

Linking pleasure and reason

Menoikeus, a friend of Epicurus, sums up this restraint of pleasure by reason aptly by speaking out against the naive conception of pleasure and sums up the correct meaning of pleasure in the context of the philosophy presented by Epicurus – pleasure and reason go hand in hand :

Neither constant drinking and moving, nor the enjoyment of boys and women, nor of fish and everything else that a sumptuous table has to offer, can create a pleasurable life. But only a level-headed reason that recognizes both the causes of all choosing and avoidance, and also drives away the empty opinions from which the soul is most concerned.

So the origin of all of this and the greatest good is reason. That is why reason is also more valuable than philosophy, from which all other virtues stem, because it teaches us that it is not possible to live with pleasure without living sensibly, nobly and justly, and so it is impossible, sensible, noble and to live justly without living lustfully. [2, p.34]

Because the virtues are firmly fused with a pleasurable life and the pleasurable life cannot be separated from them. [2, p.34]

The three opponents of joie de vivre

In summary, we should once again bring all the central motifs that revolve around the Epicurean concept of pleasure to the point. According to Epicurus, we have to assert ourselves against three adversaries of the joy of life: firstly against fear, then against pain and finally against the licentiousness of desires.

Fear prevents us from enjoying life and appears in two forms, namely, fear of death and fear of the gods. The latter is supposed to be eliminated by Epicurean physics. But what can you do about the fear of death? Epicurus has the following suggestion ready:

Get used to believing that death means nothing to us. Because everything that is good and everything that is bad is a matter of perception. But the loss of perception is death. Therefore, the correct recognition that death has no meaning for us makes the transience of life a source of pleasure, in that it does not promise us an unlimited time, but instead abolishes the desire for immortality. [5]

The most gruesome of all evils – death – has no meaning for us; for as long as we are there, death is not there, but if death is there, then we are not there. [5]

A remedy for pain

The other two adversaries, namely pain and the taming of desires, can be dealt with in one go, because after all the point of moderation is probably only to skillfully avoid certain forms of pain. Asserting oneself against the licentiousness of desires ultimately refers to the coveted avoidance of pain and does not need to be dealt with separately.

But how can pain be avoided now? Quite simply: through pleasure! This is precisely the core of the entire Epicurean teaching. Along with this, Menoikeus expressly emphasizes: When we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasure of debauchery or pleasure addicts […] Our goal is rather that you neither feel physical pain nor feel unrest in your soul. [2, p.31]


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