Epictetus Against the Hedonists

Last night I discovered in Book III of The Discourses of Epictetus an interesting exchange between the late Stoic philosopher and an imperial official who was a follower of Epicurus. As readers may know, the Epicureans were reputed to be great hedonists of the classical world. While it’s true that their founder originally espoused a kind of enlightened materialism which urged the pursuit of pleasure in intellectual contemplation and simple living, over time this belief—lacking a transcendent and objective ethical order—gave rise to intemperance and sensuality.

Stoicism was a philosophy of personal self-improvement, noted for its austerity and its disregard of “external” goods. Yet it also understood the interplay of private choices and public life. While the Epicurean official interrogated by Epictetus is too embarrassed to admit that his colleagues seek only the “pleasures of the flesh,” the Stoic retorts that if one’s aim is personal gratification, then it must boil down to just that. Epictetus reveals the inherent flaw of Epicureanism. Not being based on an ordered set of right and wrong, it resolves itself into sheer pragmatism. The only reason Epicurus could give his pupils for not stealing is that they might get caught. But if one’s “good” is gained by theft, or other crimes, there is no real reason to abstain if one can “get away with it.”

Examining the problem of widespread hedonism, it is easy to see how the Stoic response is as relevant today as it was in the decadent phase of the Roman Empire.

In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean State? One man says, “I do not marry.” “Neither do I,” says another, “for people ought not to marry.” No, nor have children; no, nor perform the duties of a citizen. And what, do you suppose, will happen then? Where are the citizens to come from?

Epictetus condemns these doctrines as “bad, subversive of the State, destructive to the family,” and urges his listener instead

to judge uprightly, to keep your hands off the property of other people; no woman but your wife ought to look handsome to you, no boy handsome…. Look for doctrines consistent with these principles of conduct, doctrines which will enable you to refrain gladly from matters so persuasive to attract and to overpower a man.

Such a doctrine reminds us of our duties “of citizenship, marriage, begetting children, reverence to God, care of parents…..” I don’t think I could put it any better.

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