Epicurean Hedonism: Pursue Pleasure but Beware of Desire

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Like his teacher, Democritus, the pleasure-seeking philosopher, Epicurus, believed the universe to consist of indivisible atoms constantly in motion. Image by pschubert.

Few substantial philosophical movements owe their entire existence to the thinking of just one man. Epicurus, born in 341 B.C. in Samos in Greece, has this distinction and Epicurean philosophy continued to be influential after his death in 270 B.C.

Epicurus’ thinking was in stark opposition to the morality of the time and his so-called hedonism was widely criticised.

Epicureanism and another important movement, Stoicism, were the main philosophical positions in the Hellenistic world before and after Epicurus’s death in 270 B.C.

Who Was Epicurus?

This feisty philosopher had firm, independent views. Epicurus followed Democritus, his teacher, who was a proponent of the scientific theory of atomism. Epicurus believed in the gods, but denied that they had any interest in human affairs.

Jeremy Harwood, inEpicurus” says:


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If they were willing to prevent evil but were not able to do so, they could not be omnipotent, if they were able to do so but unwilling to do it, they must be malevolent. If they were both able and willing to do so, how could evil exist?”

Epicurus also rejected the idea of an afterlife, which exposed him to much criticism.

“Unlike Stoicism which had a long period of development, their doctrines were fixed from the beginning by their founder,” explains Bertrand Russell in “The Epicureans.”

The Pursuit of Pleasure

We have learned what we know about Epicurus from a volume of Diogenes Laertius called “Lives of Eminent Philosophers.” Besides atomist Democritus, Epicurus also studied under Plato.

He thought of himself as a practical philosopher and espoused the pursuit of pleasure as a virtue. Happiness and pleasure were the greatest good, according to Epicurus, while pain was bad.

Epicurus defined two types of pleasure: the first being the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating something. The second was the pleasure of having your desire fulfilled, like a satisfied, full stomach. The first kind of pleasure is a “moving” pleasure, and the second kind is a “static” pleasure.

Natural, Necessary and Unnecessary Desires

We experience both natural and necessary desires, and also natural, but unnecessary desires. Also, we sometimes indulge in what Epicurus called “vain and empty” desires.

“Natural and necessary desires are the desire for food, shelter, and the like. Vain and empty desires include those for riches, power and fame, which are practically impossible ever to satisfy because they have no natural limit,” explains Jeremy Harwood. The point is that people who are innately driven to increase their wealth are also driven to acquire more and more. This is a false notion of desire.

Russell describes how Epicurus had a difficult and rather poor youth, but he founded his school in 311 B.C. in Mitylene, then in Lampsacus and then, from 307 in Athens. Now he had settled down to a more placid existence. He had a house and a separate garden, and he taught his pupils in his garden.

His philosophy disciples, his brothers, his friends, their children, and slaves comprised his charges. Russell mentions his natural inclination to friendship and affection, which endeared him to those he taught and befriended.

He praised his diet of bread and water and said, “I spit on luxurious pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of the inconvenience that follows them.”

Unfortunately, he also had a darker side to his character, as he became defensive if fellow-philosophers questioned his doctrines.

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Epicurus encouraged the pursuit of happiness, but warned against the perils of dynamic desire like sexual love. Image by Penywise.

No Sex Please, We’re Epicureans

Epicurus entreated his students to “flee from every form of culture,” says Russell. Another “dynamic” – as opposed to “static” pleasure, was that of sexual love.

“Sexual intercourse,” says Epicurus, “has never done a man good and he is lucky if it has not harmed him,” quotes Russell. Apparently, he appears not to have seen any contradiction in this, since obviously the human race would die out if everyone followed his advice.

Russell says:

“He was fond of children (other people’s) but for the gratification of this taste, he seems to have relied upon other people not to follow his advice. He seems, in fact, to have liked children against his better judgement, for he considered marriage and children a distraction from more serious pursuits.”

For Epicurus, the most desirable of desires was that of friendship.

Fear – A Double-Edged Sword

Bertrand Russell expresses the opinion that Epicurus had a great empathy for the problems of mankind and believed his philosophy would help them to live without fear. Unfortunately, so many exceptions to the prescribed pursuit of pleasure actually limited real happiness.

As Russell summarises:

“Eat little, for fear of indigestion, drink little, for fear of next morning; eschew politics and love and all violently passionate activities; do not give hostages to fortune by marrying and having children, in your mental life teach yourself to contemplate pleasure rather than pain.”

Simply, Epicurus believed that pain could be overcome by following his beliefs, and so could the consequences of fear. The two greatest sources of fear, according to Epicurus, were the fear of religion and the fear of death. These two concepts were connected, since religion taught the fear of death.

This is the opposite of how people today view religion, as a consolation with the promise of a possible afterlife. The “supernatural” was to Epicurus a terrifying prospect. Immortality merely threatened no escape from the fear of pain.

Although he was not very interested in science, he did believe that the soul is a material entity composed of particles like breath and air.

Thus, the philosopher has done away with any need for fear – no gods to punish since they were not interested in human affairs, no afterlife where humans might be tormented or in pain.

“Though subject to the powers of nature… we yet have free will and are, within limits, the masters of our fate.”

Epicurus’s Legacy

Our instincts regarding death are deeply-rooted, and Epicurus’s theory lacks wide appeal, and was slowly rejected at the same time of the rise of Stoicism. Nevertheless, claims Russell, it continued among a cultivated minority for around six hundred years. People began to seek more hope and comfort from their religion. Some followed Neoplatism, others pursued Eastern beliefs.

Finally, in increasing numbers, Christianity – where all that was good would come to humankind in the afterlife – met the needs of the people far more satisfyingly than Epicurus’s weary creed.

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