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Philosophy 302: EthicsEpicurus

Abstract: The ethics of Epicurus is briefly outlined.

  1. Epicurus of Samos (341-270 B. C.) founded his school, the Garden, in Athens--instructed his followers in the art of rational living.

    1. Main belief: pleasure is the end (telos) of life: by pleasure he meant the lack of pain.

      1. Pleasure is the freedom of the body from pain and the soul from confusion--not a positive condition.

      2. Taught a moderate asceticism, self-control, and independence. One should not undertake heavy responsibilities and serious involvement.

      3. Pleasures which endure throughout a life-time are sought, not momentary pleasures. Epicurus praised a life that escapes other peopleís notice.

    2. Pleasure is the absence of pain or the avoidance of pain, rather than a positive satisfaction. More important, pleasure is the lack of a troubled soul.

      1. Examples: intellectual pleasure, serenity of soul, health of body.

      2. Even though every pain is evil and pleasure good, Epicurean hedonism is meant to result in a calm and tranquil life, not libertinism and excess.

        1. Avoid pleasures which are extreme: they have painful concomitants.

        2. Avoid pleasures which are extreme: they have painful concomitants.

        3. Lasting pleasure is not a bodily sensation.

        4. "Though he is being tortured on the rack, the wise [person] is still happy."

    3. Epicurus distinguished between higher and lower pleasures (an influence on J.S. Mill).

      higher pleasures: pleasures of the mind--intellectual and aesthetic.

      lower pleasures: pleasures of the body--food, drink, and sex.

  2. Epicurus sought virtue--a condition of tranquillity of soul. Although it is based on the individualís pleasure (rather than duty).

    1. Epicurus put great stress on friendship because oneís own pleasure is dependent on others also.

    2. Peace of mind and mental well-being is achieved through philosophy--death is recognized to be merely the limit of experience and therefore having nothing to do with the quality of experience. It is not to be feared since it is nothingness.

  3. Reason: the art of calculating our conduct of life.

    1. Reason is the ability to balance one thing with another in order to calculate future happiness.

      1. Great stress on practical reason (phronesis): something more to be prized than philosophy itself. 

      2. Prudence: a person who knows how to conduct himself in the search for pleasure.

      3. Natural Science: All things is the world are atoms linked temporarily in constant motion.  Science can overcome superstition and irrational fear.

    2. The resulting outlook is something like the opportunity cost in economics: a recognition of the necessary losses in life.

  4. Historically, Stoicism was absorbed into Epicureanism. Epicureanism was not a philosophy of heroes like Stoicism was.

  5. Objections to Epicureanism:

    1. Epicurus seems to recommend "the absence of pain" as a pleasure more sought than pleasure itself. The state of no pain is not a pleasure--cf., the fallacy of false dichotomy.

    2. What many persons feel are the most significant pleasures in life such as achieving a difficult goal, Epicurus counsels for us to avoid as not being meaningful. He seems to advise a philosophy of  life-avoidance.

    3. Epicureanism is an incomplete ethics. How should we regard community virtues such as justice, societal good, and pleasure for others?  

 Recommended Sources

Epicurus and Epicurean Philosophy:  Links, texts, discussion lists, and other information is given relating to Epicurean philosophy.

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