Of these two, virtue is the more important. “The man who does not possess the virtuous life cannot possibly live pleasantly,” he declared. Among virtues, he held prudence to be chief because all other virtues were, in his view, merely special kinds of prudence.
By prudence, he meant what author Fyodor Dostoevski once called “solving the problem of existence.” Prudence consists of knowing both the worth and the cost of various satisfactions. Sometimes we have to choose pain in order to secure greater pleasure; for example, having a wisdom tooth extracted. Sometimes we have to forgo pleasure because of resultant pain; for example, we might stop drinking wine to avoid becoming ill afterward. Epicurus spoke of a scale of comparison that the prudent person uses to judge prospective courses of action in terms of their advantages and disadvantages.
One of the best counsels of prudence, he thought, was to make oneself independent of desire and, to this end, to accustom oneself to simple food and plain surroundings. His motive was not an ascetic one—he saw no good in deprivation for its own sake. However, he contended that anyone who has learned to be satisfied with the necessities of life is freed from most of the cares of the future because changes of fortune are unlikely to reduce one to starvation, whereas the slightest turn may deprive one of luxuries. Moreover, he maintained that there is an actual surplus of pleasure in the abstemious life. Bread and water produce as great pleasure to one who needs them as the luxuries of a wealthy table do to the reveler. Moreover, plain fare is better for health of body and alertness of mind. Furthermore, one whose taste is not spoiled by habitual indulgence is better able to appreciate fine food and drink when, at long intervals, these become available.
Another counsel of prudence was to retire from the world of human affairs. Epicurus, somewhat like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, regarded humanity as its own greatest enemy. To secure protection from others is a natural want. However, how shall one go about it? Epicurus doubted the wisdom of those who undertake to find security by competing for public honor and position. In his opinion, this is not “safe.” Instead, he recommended “the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world.”