Epicurean Ethics and Friendship

To continue my discussion of Epicurus, the Hellenic philosopher followed thinkers like Democritus in being a materialist. He held that the world was composed of particles of varying sizes and arrangements, with the soul merely consisting of atoms of a particularly fine quality. However, in contrast to most atomists, who favored determinism, Epicurus insisted on free will.

His ethical theory revolved around the central facts of physical sensation and our rational judgments about our experiences. In all fairness, Epicurus was not a crude sybarite. For him the highest pleasures were katastematic (those attained in a state of rest) versus kinetic (those of movement). Intense sensual pleasures were not to be sought so much as intellectual ones; the Epicurean ideal is an absence of pain and anxiety. It is perhaps helpful to note that Epicurus was plagued by chronic ailments throughout his life, hence the rather valetudinarian ideal.

Epicurean adages are not without a certain dignity and psychological acumen. “He who is not satisfied with a little,” he declared, “is satisfied with nothing.” He also maintained that it is more gratifying to confer benefits than to receive them. Self-control is important, and one should deny oneself short-term pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Moreover a state of mental contentment may permit oneself to enjoy, on balance, supreme happiness even if afflicted with physical pain or debility.

But in the end all things are referred to the calculus of gratification. On the one hand, Epicurus was wary of sexual pleasure since it so often brings misfortune or complications in its wake. On the other, he had no problem with theft or adultery in principle so long as it was not detected. He explained that laws were advantageous insofar as they protect us from the rapacity of others, while obedience to custom is generally preferable to the likelihood of being caught and punished. Notions of justice are pragmatic and contractual—e.g. what is useful to the respective parties versus an absolute norm.

Of Epicurus’ precepts the one that is the most noble and touching is the emphasis on friendship. He diverged from Plato in divorcing eros from philia (to my mind, a decided improvement). Passion destroys our security, he maintained, while friendship nourishes it. Epicurean fellowship offered mutual aid, as well as intellectual pleasure, in a world of hardship and frequent political strife. Although his ethos would seem prone to opportunism, Epicurus believed (somewhat paradoxically) that the blessings of friendship can be obtained only through genuine loyalty and even sacrifice.

In the end, his materialism undoubtedly places the bar all too low in securing a measure of human happiness. Yet as flawed as Epicureanism is, it does shame those of us who profess nobler beliefs into exercising at least some of the thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice demanded of this ingenious hedonist.

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