The Principal Doctrines is a collection of forty of the most important articles of Epicurus’s teaching, presumably extracted by a disciple from the master’s voluminous works. It was widely known in ancient times and was preserved by Diogenes Laërtius (probably third century b.c.e.) in his Peri bin dogmatn kai apophthegmatn tn en philosophia eudokimsantn (third century c.e.; The Lives, Opinions, and Remarkable Sayings of the Most Famous Ancient Philosophers, 1688). Together with the Letter to Menoeceus, also found in Diogenes’ works, it constitutes our only firsthand source for the ethical teachings of Epicurus. The most important supplementary source is Lucretius’s poem, De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1862).
Epicurus’s central teaching was that pleasure is the standard by which every good is to be judged. He distinguished between feelings of pleasure and judgments concerning good and right, and in the Letter to Menoeceus, he maintained that the latter, insofar as they have meaning, must refer to the former. “For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.”
No pleasure, said Epicurus, is in itself bad. He maintained that pleasures are all the same kind. Some pleasures are more intense than others, some last longer, and some satisfy a greater portion of the body; but if these differences could be set aside, one pleasure could not be distinguished from another. Unfortunately, however, the limitations of human existence compel us to distinguish between pleasures. In actuality, no pleasure can be chosen in isolation, and the conditions that are necessary to our enjoying some pleasures are also annexed to pains. In the Letter to Menoeceus, he stated, “For this reason, we do not choose every pleasure, but sometimes pass over many pleasures, when greater discomfort accrues to us as the result of them.”
Therefore, Epicurus turned his attention to the consideration of desires. Some desires, he said, are natural and others are illusory. By the latter, he meant physical desires of the sort that neither arise from any deprivation nor admit of definite satisfaction—desires that attach to artificially cultivated tastes. Already in his day, the public supposed that he and his followers pursued the pleasures of profligacy and vice. Such was far from the case. The reason was that such artificial desires inevitably come into conflict with natural desires that are far more important. Indeed, Epicurus held that not all natural desires are to be satisfied. He distinguished between natural desires that are necessary and those that are merely natural. The necessary ones are so exacting that we are counseled to concentrate on them alone.
The strength of Epicurus’s philosophy, compared with the Cyrenaic and other philosophies of pleasure, derives from its deeper understanding of the psychology of human needs. People have three kinds of needs that will not be denied: equanimity or peace of mind, bodily health and comfort, and the exigencies of life itself. Fortunately, according to Epicurus, few things are necessary in order to sustain life and keep the body in health, and they are comparatively easy to obtain. Illness is unavoidable, but as he pointed out, acute pain rarely lasts long, and chronic illnesses permit a predominance of pleasure over pain in the flesh. On...
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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.”
It is in connection with the harm that we may expect from others that Epicurus introduced the virtue of justice. In opposition to the teaching of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle but in agreement with that of Greek philosopher Democritus, he denied that justice has its foundation in nature. All justice, he said, originates in “a pledge of mutual advantage to restrain men from harming one another and save them from being harmed.” It does not exist among primitive tribes, and what is considered just in one country may be quite different from what is considered just in another. In fact, within the same land, as circumstances change, what was once considered just may be so no longer. For the justice of a law ultimately depends on its being to the mutual advantage of both parties.
Epicurus raised the question that Glaucon raised in Plato’s Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), book 2, whether it is not to one’s advantage secretly to act unjustly if one can do so without detection. The answer is that one can never be confident that one will escape detection, and that anxiety would spoil the fruits of the crime. “The just man is most free from trouble, the unjust most full of trouble.”
After virtue, Epicurus considered philosophy the second most important means for securing the life of bliss. “Let no one when young,” he wrote to Menoeceus, “delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old grow weary of his study.” Epicurus was not recommending philosophy as a solace against the sorrows of existence nor as a diversion that yields a satisfaction of its own. By philosophy, Epicurus meant a kind of mental hygiene, based on a naturalistic worldview that, if its implications were understood, would free people’s minds from superstitious fear and moral anxiety.
The view of nature that recommended itself to him was that of Democritus, who denied that the world was created by the gods or that there is any ultimate purpose in life, all things having been formed by the accidental collision of atoms falling through empty space. One who is convinced that this is the case has, according to Epicurus, two great advantages over those who hold to traditional beliefs: First, one is freed from religious scruples; second, one is freed from the fear of death.
Epicurus did not deny the existence of the gods, which he identified with the heavenly bodies. He held that they are composed of the same fine, smooth atoms that make up human souls and are the basis of reason and feelings. However, because the gods are eternal and blessed in their regular motions, Epicurus found no reason to suppose that they are exacting and vengeful, or indeed that they pay any attention to humans. He explained the traditional view, that the gods are the source of human misfortune and of blessedness, as arising from the tendency people have to view other...
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Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939. Contains an excellent chapter, “The Epicurean Escape,” which places Epicurus in the context of his times and also evaluates the tenets of his philosophy.
Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Contains a lucid, short explanation of Epicurus’s complex theory and a scholarly bibliography (now somewhat outdated).
Englert, Walter G. Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1987. A fascinating study of an...
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