An Attempt to Reconcile Epicurus' Hedonism with His Epistemology and More Particularly with His Physics

By Faucher, Kane X. | Nebula, March-June 2008 | Go to article overview

An Attempt to Reconcile Epicurus' Hedonism with His Epistemology and More Particularly with His Physics


Faucher, Kane X., Nebula


In Book III of his Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines four types of forensic questions for cases in which accountability is sought to be derived from actions, otherwise known as stasis theory. These are: 1) was the act committed? 2) If so, were there harmful consequences? 3) If so, to what degree (or intensity) of harm? 4) All things considered, was the act justified? Ethics, in order to be substantive, must endeavour to forge its link between theoretical postulates and practical application, allowing passage from an epistemic process of beliefs or reasoned-out maxims to the arena of action (or inaction, as the case may be, which can in itself be considered a mode of action). It is not the intention to distort the analysis of the foregoing with a heavy-handed Aristotelian perspective, but to posit this initial forensic detail as ancillary to a deeper understanding between the seemingly disparate Epicurean hedonistic ethics (the privileging of the pleasures of the mind as enduring over that of the body, which is ephemeral) and his various assertions made in his physics and epistemology. In the process of our analysis, we will return to this fourfold question set, reframed in so far as it can elucidate more normative claims.

It proves difficult to set Epicurean ethics upon the foundation of his physics, for pleasure and pain are not atomic qualities. They are epistemic "movements" (and we use this term with reservation), for the pleasure that Epicurus endorses is that of the catastemic, or tranquil variety. However, we cannot be cavalier and ignore the suspiciously analogous links between the physics and the ethics, for even if constructing this bridge be a task worthy of Sisyphus, it may provide us with an understanding of a continuity among the mental processes of Epicurus as an attempt to remain as consistent as possible with his principles. These analogies will be put forward in a tentative and speculative fashion, but not as a decisive means of imputing to either his physics or ethics a causal relation that is firmly established.

For Epicurus, the supreme good is pleasure--and of this variety, the sort that produces a state of ataraxia. This state stands as the highest epistemological ideal for Epicureans since it is the state in which one is at complete untroubled peace, neither in want or excess (akin, in a slight way, to the Buddhist ideal of "nirvana"), and most importantly a freedom from pain and distress. He provides a typology of desires in terms of those that may be called full and those that may be deemed empty. When we speak of full and empty, we do not call up the strict definitions of bodies and voids, but more so the effect of full meaning being substantive, or material, and emptiness being nonsubstantive, or immaterial. In this typology there is a split between natural and empty desires, the empty being a process of purely imaginary fictions taken into the mind that plague it with complications that are unnecessary and inhibit a proper pursuit of pleasure. These empty desires are characterized as being hard to procure, beyond the immediate limits of our power, and with a tendency to cause more pain upon acquisition. For example, to desire the attainment of public office would entail grand efforts, and though it would bestow upon one prestige, title, and wealth, these forms of pleasure are not without their perils. Moreover, if the candidate fails to procure this pleasure, the candidate will feel a sense of loss and pain. Of the natural variety of desires, these are split up into the necessary (those desires that are complete the thought--that are what?) and the automatic (those desires that are inherent in the body for its maintenance). Of the necessary desires, Epicurus splits them up into three categories: those desires necessary for happiness (e.g. friendship), those necessary for freedom from distress (e.g., peace), and those necessary for living (i.e., rest). Owing to the privileged status of pleasure as itself the pursuit of life, its very goal, virtues such as justice, prudence, and so forth are rendered to be in the service of life--in fact, as the very instruments necessary to procuring a refined sense of pleasure.

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