Epicurus on Pleasure and the Complete Life
Epicurus on pleasure and the complete life
EBSCO Publishing Citation Format: APA (American Psychological Assoc.):
NOTE: Review the instructions at http://support.ebsco.com/help/?int=ehost&lang=en&feature_id=APA and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay special attention to personal names, capitalization, and dates. Always consult your library resources for the exact formatting and punctuation guidelines.
References Rosenbaum, S. (1990, January). Epicurus on pleasure and the complete life. Monist, 73(1), 21. Retrieved October 4, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.
EPICURUS ON PLEASURE AND THE COMPLETE LIFE
The popular impression of Epicurean hedonism is that it advocatesa a life of sensual delights. Scholars know, however, that this impression is mistaken, both because of the overall conceptual structure of Epicurus' ethics and because Epicurus prominehtly and repeatedly expressed such ideas as this:
So when we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of the dissipated and those that consist in having a good time, as some out of ignorance and disagreement or refusal to understand suppose we do, but freedom from pain in the body [aponia] and from disturbance in the soul [ataraxia]. For what produces the pleasant life is not continuous drinking and parties or pederasty or womanizing or the enjoyment of fish and the other dishes of an expensive table, but sober reasoning which tracks down the causes of every choice and avoidance, and which banishes the opinions that beset souls with the greatest confusion. 1
This is not the usual idea of abandoning oneself to a life of sensual delights. Not only must one apparently pursue "sober reasoning" in a kind of abstract hunt for obscure causes, but one must also achieve the absence of pain. It does not sound like much fun. There have been the confusing sensualist passages, but responsible scholarship has shown that they are properly subordinated to other statements Epicurus made about pleasure.2
The frustrating problem for sympathetic scholars is that Epicurus' hedonism seems too austere. Genuine human thriving seems impossible in the framework of such a philophy. Seneca recognized "how sober and abstemious the 'pleasure' of Epicurus really is," but found comfort in associating Epicurus' good with the virtue of the Stoics.3 Other thinkers took little comfort in the sobriety of Epicurus' pleasure. Aristippus and the Cyrenaics ridiculed the Epicurean life of pleasure as a life akin to being asleep? and George Santayana more recently denounced Epicurus as a "soul that is renouncing everything" and as a consummate ascetic who "hated life."5 The problem is that Epicurus apparently characterized pleasure as the absence of pain, and so little remains of his writings that scholars can hardly go beyond that negative description. 6
The apparent identification of pleasure with the absence of physical and mental pain (aponia/ataraxia) is the most prominent feature of Epicurean hedonism. To the contemporary mind, whose notion of pleasure is conditioned by that of the classical empiricists and Plato, a hedonism which permits no middle ground between pleasure .and pain seems wrong. Moreover, the great difficulty with this hedonism is that characterizing pleasure as the absence of pain seems too negative and superficial. Such a definition fails to yield easily any positive impression of what living a good life would be like or to give any clues about how to lead it. Providing a consistent and positive interpretation of the hedonism is important for unifying Epicurus' comments and for offering some useful direction to humans struggling to live good lives. Otherwise, Epicurean ethics can probably never be more than an interesting ideological relic which furnishes a field of play to historians of philosophy. Since the most significant defect of Epicurean hedonism is its incompleteness, the purpose of this paper is to begin to remedy this defect by pursuing a fresh approach to the entire subject.
The hypothesis on which my approach is based is that there are much closer connections among Epicurean theses about desire, pleasure, and death than have yet been recognized and explicated. As a consequence, I am convinced that a more positive and more profound understanding of the hedonism can emerge from a thorough philosophical consideration of those texts in which these subjects are most closely connected. One of the key texts expresses an Epicurean doctrine about pleasure which has only recently begun to receive sympathetic scholarly attention. This is the idea that a life of pleasure cannot be made greater or "better" by prolongation. Implying, as it does, that the goodness of a life is completely independent of the length of a life, this thesis has struck many as ridiculous. An investigation of the intelligibility of this thesis, however, and the extent to which it may be plausibly supported, illuminates positively the hedonism and unveils the several significant connections between it and the thanatology. Further-more, the exploration of a very recent objection to this controversial thesis reveals the uniqueness and attractiveness of Epicurean hedonism. This jection, in the tradition of Santayana's, seems to rely on an Aristotelian notion of the good life, and insists that the Epicurean doctrine about pleasure is not compatible with complete human living. I shall show that the objection ignores the obscure but significant Epicurean idea of complete living, and I shall use this idea as a means of illuminating Epicurean theses about pleasure, death, and desire.
Pleasure and Duration The doctrine in Epicurean philosophy which most closely relates the thanatology and the hedonism is Kuria Doxa (Key Doctrine) 19, which, to some extent, is developed in KD 20 and 21. This controversial doctrine has been largely ignored by scholars until recently, but is directly about both the life of pleasure and the fact that death can cut short any life at any time. 8 KD 19, together with 20 and 21, state that
( 19) Infinite time and finite time contain equal pleasure, if one measures the limits of pleasure by reasoning.
( 20) The flesh places the limits of pleasure at infinity, and needs an infinite time to bring it about. But the intellect, by making a rational calculation of the end and the limit which govern the flesh, and by dispelling the fears about eternity, brings about the complete life [ton pantele bion], so that we no longer need the infinite time. But neither does it shun pleasure, nor even when circumstances bring about our departure from life does it suppose, as it perishes, that it has in any way fallen short of the best life; and
( 21) He who knows the limits of life knows how easy it is to obtain that which removes pain caused by want and that which makes the whole of life complete [holon bion pantele]. He therefore has no need for competitive involvements. 9
KD 19 implies the striking and "counterintuitive" idea that if one is living a good life, a pleasureful life, extending it is not warranted by the ideal of living well. Epicurus expressed the same idea less completely and more briefly in the Letter to Menoiceus when he said that the wise man "seeks not to enjoy the longest period of time, but that which is most pleasant." 10
Most of us might find quaint, noble, or "philosophical" the thought that we should seek the best life and not merely the longest, and perhaps we could, with proper exemplars, be enticed into agreeing with this. But the supposition here seems to be that we should not care about the length of our lives. Once it occurs to us that we could have the best life for the longest possible period of time, we feel a powerful urge to resist the Epicurean idea. It would be difficult for most of us not to care about the lengths of our lives. Who would not choose a wonderful (or minimally decent), long life over a wonderful (or minimally decent), short life? In this common preference lies the apparent absurdity of Epicurus' doctrine. I shall show, however, that Epicurus' idea is more congenial than it seems, and it can help us comprehend more positively his hedonism.
The understanding of KD 19 should reflect the fact that Epicurus distinguished his hedonism from that of the Cyrenaics by recognizing two types or modes of pleasure. He used the term 'hedone' to designate each one, but distinguished between katastematic (or static) pleasure and kinetic (or active) pleasure. Diogenes Laertius reported this:
Epicurus disagrees with the Cyrenaics on pleasure: they do not admit static pleasure but only the kinetic type, whereas he accepts both types, for soul and for body, as he says in his book On choice and Avoidance and in On the End and in book I of On Lives .... 11
Epicurean texts contain little about this distinction, but Cicero put it this way:
Cicero: "Does a thirsty man, may I ask, take pleasure in drinking?"
Torquatus [Epicurean spokesperson]: "Who could deny that?"
C: "Is it the same as the pleasure of quenched thirst?"
T: "No it is of a different kind. Quenched thirst involves static pleasure, but the pleasure of the actual quenching is kinetic."
C: "Why, then do you call such different things by the same name?"
T: "Don't you remember what I said just before, that when pain has been completely removed, pleasure is subject to variation but not to increase?"
C: "...I don't quite understand the nature of this variation, in your claim that when we are free from pain we then have the greatest pleasure, but that when we are enjoying those things which bring a pleasant motion to our senses, the pleasure is then a kinetic one, which causes a variation of pleasures without increasing that pleasure of freedom from pain." ::
The difference between kinetic and katastemtic pleasure seems to be that between the pleasure of the activity of satisfying desires, wants, or urges, and the pleasure of being in a state of having satisfied one's desires, or perhaps as appropriately, being in a state of not having (certain types of) desires or urges. 13 The distinction, however, has been problematic. Reliable sources are not clear about the distinction, and there seem to be plausible alternative ways of explicating the distinction and understanding the relationship between the two sorts of pleasure.14 Annas characterizes static pleasure somewhat more positively than Cicero when she says that it is "the pleasure one gets when functioning without interference, in the natural state" or "the pleasure of normal untrammelled activity.":s Although the more popular notion of pleasure is closer to that which Epicurus seemed to designate kinetic pleasure, Epicurus somehow subordinated kinetic pleasure to the "pleasure" of natural human functioning, without disturbing needs or desires. That there is a difference between kinetic and static pleasure is important for understanding KD 19, and also for resolving a number of apparent inconsistencies in Epicurean texts. 16
However problematic the distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasure is and however difficult it has been to understand in any very exact way, it is important to realize that Epicurus regarded the highest good as ataraxia/aponia, these constituting katastemtic pleasure.
So when we say that pleasure is the end [telos]... [we mean]... freedom from pain in the body and from disturbance in the soul. 17
Diogenes Laertius reports plainly that, for Epicurus, this end consists in static pleasure.
In On Choices he [Epicurus] speaks as follows: 'Freedom from disturbance [ataraxia] and absence of pain [aponia] are static pleasures [katasternatikai eisin hedonai]; but joy and delight are regarded as kinetic activities [kata kinesin energeia]. 18
The highest good, for Epicurus, is static pleasure, and it is further the absence of pain--aponia/ataraxia. This makes it clear that Epicurus was not basically advocating a life of sensual delights, and one may hypothesize that many of the misunderstandings of his hedonism developed without a clear view of this crucial distinction. 19 KD 19 and its controversial implications must be understood to apply to katastemtic pleasure, not to kinetic pleasure or the active process of satisfying desires.
There is one more preliminary, One of Epicurus' repeated expressions has not been fully appreciated, yet it illuminates further the nature of the hedonism? In the Letter to Menoiceus, he said that "Plain flavours produce pleasure equal to an expensive diet whenever all the pain of need [to algoun kat' endeian] has been removed; . . .",21 and in KD 18 said that "The pleasure in the flesh does not increase when once the pain of need [to Rat' endeian algoun] has been removed, but it is only varied."22 He seems frequently to have associated pain with lacking, needing, or wanting something. Although it is clear in these passages that Epicurus was using this phrase in the contexts of eating and physical pleasure, there is no reason to think that it would not also apply to mental pleasure. The term 'algos' also applies to the mental. Epicurus appears thus to have related in some way physical and psychological lack or need to physical and psychological pain of the sort that would entail the absence of pleasure. These passages suggest that pain or distress comes from desire (of some sort), and the clear implication is that there is a close connection between desire and pain. This connection promises to shed light on the nature of katastematic pleasure and on the relations among Epicurus' theses about desires, pain and the good life.23 In the context of KD 19, then, one may take it that the end of the Epicurean good life is katastematic mental and physical pleasure. Further, this somehow amounts to the absence of desire, that is, the absence of unsatisfied urges which might provoke a disruptive change of activity (or activity type). This should not be taken to mean that the Epicurean good life may be achieved only by ridding oneself of all desires. One cannot live without the motivation of desires, nor did Epicurus recommend such an absurdity. Epicurus distinguished among types of desire, and urged ridding oneself of unnatural and unnecessary desires, apparently thinking, on the evidence of the passages about desire, lack, or need, and pain, that only the satisfaction of natural and necessary desires could result in the good life.
Scholars have been frustrated over the apparent lack of argument for so controversial and counterintuitive a view as KD 19, with its implication that temporal extension will not enhance a pleasurable life? However support for the thesis comes from the Epicurean concept of pleasure itself. Once one sees that the concept of pleasure KD 19 employs is is consistently present in Epicurean texts, the essential basis for the thesis is clear? The fundamental questions about KD 19 concern what it means and what it assumes about pleasure.
KD 19 may not be sympathetically understood to be about how much pleasure a life contains, where this is understood in terms of the ratio of times during which a person has pleasure to times during which the person could have had pleasure. It is clear that a longer life, in which, during the lengthened period, one had more moments of pleasure, could be more pleasureful than a shortened life. Such a life could have a higher ratio of pleasure. KD 19 is rather about the time required to enjoy or have the highest good of life.:26 The time during which one has the greatest good, during which one is experiencing katastematic pleasure, is all the time required to have it, and no extension of that time can enhance the quality of one's life. Therefore, once one is happy, or experiences pleasure, the desire to prolong one's life cannot be reasonably based on the desire to live the good life. If, however, the greatest good were kinetic pleasure, then this would not be so. The intensity of the joy or delight associated with kinetic pleasure seems capable of indefinite increase. Therefore, one seeking this good would naturally seek to prolong life, in order to experience higher and higher levels of (kinetic) pleasure. 27 The thesis that the end is static pleasure and that such pleasure is not increased by temporal extension entails that once a person achieves happiness, there is no need to live longer.28 The happy person's life can be no less happy than the life of another which lasts much longer; the life of the happy octogenarian is no more valuable than the life of the happy sexagenarian.29 The (katastematic) pleasure a person has at an one time cannot be increased or made greater by lasting for a longer time. Therefore, KD 19 entails that, for happiness, the length of a life is unrelated to how happy that life is.30
What then is the Epicurean concept of pleasure such that, when a person has (katastematic) pleasure, it cannot be increased or made greater by continuance, such that it is complete at one moment'/Katastematic pleasure can fit the thesis only if it is something like an occurrent state of persons (their minds and bodies) such that, at any time, either one is in that state or one is not. Thus katastematic pleasure is going to be like health.31 If one thinks of health as a quality which persons can have in degrees, perhaps the analogy should be to complete health, since complete health is not a property persons may have in degrees. Being healthy, or being completely healthy, is a state of persons such that a person either is in that state or is not. Analogous to the thesis of KD 19, if being completely healthy were the greatest good of human life, then once a person were completely healthy, she would have achieved the greatest good of which humans are capable. Extending the person's lifetime, during which she could be completely healthy, would not make her complete health better, or greater.32
Epicurus may easily be thought to have taken (katastematic) pleasure as analogous to complete health.33 When one becomes completely healthy, greater health is not possible; when one experiences (katastematic) pleasure, greater pleasure is not possible. He declared in KD 3 that
The removal of all pain is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, pain or distress or their combination is absent?
Taking the removal of all disease to be the limit of the magnitude of complete health (including mental disease, broadly enough construed to include negative moods), one can understand how a person's complete health cannot be increased by occurring for a longer time. It is as great as it can be at all times a person has it. Analogously, if the absence of pain is katastematic pleasure, then Epicurus apparently thought that pleasure is an occurrent state such that either one is in the state or one is not. One either has reached the limit of pleasure or one has not. One either has no pain or one does not. Therefore a life full of such pleasure Will be like a life full of complete health. A totally pleasant life could not be more pleasant, however long its extent. Of course, this is not to say that people do not desire to extend their lives of pleasure. They might want their lives to be extended so as to increase the total time of pleasant living or to increase the variety of their (kinetic) pleasures. Epicurus thought, however, that the goal of achieving the greatest good of life would give one no reason to do so. Additionally, the desire to live longer would arguably be an unnatural and unnecessary desire, based on the false belief that long life is necessary for happiness.
Cicero and the Preference for a Long Life That a pleasant life could not be made more pleasant, or that a fully good life could not be made better, by temporal extension has struck many as wrong. More of what is good is commonly taken to be better.35 Cicero objected to KD 19 in the following terms:
but if one thinks that happiness is produced by pleasure, how can he consistently deny that pleasure is increased by duration? If it is not, pain is not either. Or if pain is worse the longer it lasts, is not pleasure rendered more desirable by continuance? On what ground then does Epicurus speak of the Deity (for so he always does) as happy and everlasting? Take away his everlasting life, and Jove is not happier than Epicurus; each of them enjoys the Chief Good, that is to say, pleasure?
Cicero was here understanding pleasure and pain in roughly the way in which he thought they were universally understood, as agreeable and disagreeable sensations, more closely akin to Epicurus's kinetic pleasures than to the static pleasures of ataraxia and aponia.37 His objection is thus equivocally irrelevant, because it wrongly presupposes that KD 19 is about kinetic pleasure. However, a closer consideration of the objection will be valuable both in clarifying Epicurus' view, in enhancing its plausibility, and in providing clues to a deeper understanding of the Epicurean idea of the good life?
Cicero's objection appears to have a simple logical form, as follows: If pleasure is not increased by duration, then pain is not increased by duration; but pain is increased by duration; therefore pleasure is (also) increased (and made more desirable) by duration, contrary to Epicurus' thesis. Cicero is counting on the attraction of the premise that pain is made worse by duration, and he is counting on the apparent and commonly received categorial similarity of pleasure and pain as modes of sensory stimulation. However, he seems to be taking pleasure not in the sense of katastematic pleasure, but in the sense of kinetic pleasure.
Suppose that pain is unpleasant or "disagreeable" sensation, resulting from sensory stimulation, and let it include thirst and hunger, thus countenancing Cicero's own illustration of pain, which he used in the explication of the Epicurean distinction between the two types of pleasure. Pain seems indeed to increase by duration; it is a feature of human experience which admits of degrees. Taking thirst and hunger to be pains, this seems obvious, for thirst, once it begins, varies over time, and increases. Hunger does too. One becomes thirstier and hungrier over time. Even considering the pain of a headache, and ignoring and daunting difficulties of identity over time for common pains, the pain of a headache may evidently increase over time and vary intensity. These are obvious facts, and clearly ones on which Cicero relies in this argument. The main problem with Cicero's objection lies in his associating pain and pleasure as he does.
It is not correct that if katastematic pleasure is not increased by duration, then pain is not increased by duration. It is possible that once pleasure is attained, it does not vary in intensity, does not increase through duration, and that when pleasure is missing, that is, when there is pain, the pain varies in intensity depending on duration. This may indeed be the Epicurean view. One may need to qualify this statement, depending on the possibility of there being some pain, say, hunger, at the time when one is otherwise in a katastematically pleasant state. It may be possible for there to be pain with respect to one category of experience, but stable pleasure with respect to others. Ignoring this complication and the exact relationship between katastematic and kinetic pleasure, it may be possible to illustrate the idea which undermines Cicero's argument by using a "pain" which varies in intensity. Imagine that the only thing which prevents a person from being in a state of katastematic pleasure is being thirsty. Suppose that over a relatively long time, this pain (this thirst) increases, until the person locates a source of water and begins to drink, By hypothesis, the pain increases over time and hence becomes greater through duration. However, once the person becomes satiated, before which, one may suppose there is a gradual diminution of the pain in the course of drinking, then there is a total lack of pain, or, more positively, pleasure (katastematically). The resulting lack of pain, i.e., pleasure, does not become greater the longer it lasts, although it may be varied. The pleasure due to a lack of pain need not become greater through duration even though the pain which a person may undergo can become greater or less through duration. Using the basic assumptions of Epicurean hedonism, Cicero's main premise may be rejected.
There is yet another objection to KD 19, and most thoughtful people are likely to be struck by this objection when they consider the doctrine. One might object that it may be correct that once the highest Epicurean pleasure (katastematic) is achieved, a longer life cannot increase the pleasure, in the sense explained, or make it greater. However, it seems better that pleasure continue, and most persons would want to extend their lives in order to continue having pleasure. Perhaps, it would not increase the ratio of the pleasure one had during those times when one had pleasure, but, surely, so the objection would go, longer periods of pleasure are more desirable than shorter periods of pleasure. Then, although, in some sense, one's pleasure could not be greater, one could have more of it, and this is desirable.39 Furley seems to press this objection when he considers the support for KD 19 which might lie in taking katastematic pleasure as analogous to sight or health. Thinking of the analogy to sight, Furley says, "sight may be complete at any moment in its duration, but one is not therefore content with seeing just one thing. Why should one not want a second, third, fourth pleasure, each of them perfect?"40 Thinking further of the analogy of pleasure to health, he says, "It may be irrational to want greater health, or pleasure, if we already enjoy them completely and to perfection; but there is surely nothing irrational in wanting more of them."41 Since this objection seems to be such a satisfying and persuasive reply to KD 19, it should be examined thoroughly.
It is important in the face of this idea to comprehend the logical relationship between this and the Epicurean thesis that pleasure cannot be increased by extended duration. Once one apprehends this relationship, one can easily see that this very satisfying idea does not really refute the Epicurean view. To address what appears to be Furley's objection, grant first that it is not irrational to want additional times of pleasure and that there is no reason not to want to have additional times of pleasure. After all, this is what Furley's comments amount to. This seems to mean that if a person wants to extend her time of pleasure by extending her life, then she is not irrational in so desiring or there is no reason for her not so to desire. However, it does not follow from this that it is rational or reasonable for her to desire to extend her time of pleasure or that there is reason for her to desire to extend the pleasure. Only if it were rational for her to desire this or there were reason for her to desire this would there be some ground for her to desire to extend her life. Moreover, only if there were some such ground might the Epicurean view be shown to be wrong. This is because the thesis that pleasure is complete at a given time and not capable of being increased by extension, coupled with the Epicurean doctrine that pleasure is the highest good, entails that there is no good reason for extending one's life which can lie in some feature of pleasure or in achieving the greatest good. If there is no sound argument that there is a good reason to extend one's life, then there is no argument which undermines the notion that pleasure is not increased by extension.
Understanding why this attractive idea does not refute the Epicurean view and understanding what it does not entail are important. Basically, it does not refute the Epicurean principle because 'irrational' and 'rational' are not contradictories in their application to desires. Not irrational does not entail rational. It is possible for a desire to be neither irrational nor rational, neither morally, epistemologically, or prudentially defective, nor based appropriately on reasons. It is possible for a desire to be nonrational. A nonrational desire would be one which is neither forbidden by the standards of rationality (whatever they are), nor required by appropriate standards of rationality. Such a desire would be one which a person does not have an obligation to have and does not have an obligation not to have. This shows that a person may well desire to extend his or her life, to extend his or her time of pleasure, even though there may be no good reason to do so. There not being any good reason to do so does not entail that it is irrational to do so. In short, this Epicurean view does not by itself imply that there is anything wrong with wanting to extend the time of one's pleasure, although there may be other Epicurean reasons for not wanting to extend one's pleasure? To the extent that, according to Epicurus, one might have good reason for one's wanting to extend one's life, that reason would have to lie in something other than the value of achieving the greatest
It is useful to notice one subtle, but nevertheless fallacious, way to express this objection about the general preference for repeated pleasure or lengthened pleasure. The expression is suggested by Cicero's remark,"... is not pleasure rendered more desirable by continuance?"43 To describe the prolongation of pleasure as "desirable," as Cicero does, is inappropriately tendentious, for to say that something is desirable is to connote that actually desiring it is reasonable. Thus, it is a question-begging description which goes considerably beyond what one is warranted in saying. In either the Ciceronian or Epicurean senses of pleasure, people do actually desire to extend their pleasure by extending their lives. From this fact, however, it does not follow that it is desirable to extend one's life, for this connotes the matire idea that one has good grounds for desiring to extend one's life, and it does not follow that one has good grounds for desiring to extend one's life. No claim that extending pleasure is desirable can be justified by the fact that it happens to be desired.44
Some might feel that I have misunderstood Cicero and that I have been insufficiently sympathetic to the idea he might have been struggling to express. They might exercise their philosophical imaginations, and argue that Cicero meant something that would justify the claim that extending one's pleasure is desirable. Some might urge that his claim that pleasure is rendered more desirable by continuance be understood in such a way that it is not a question-begging way of describing the basic fact on which Ciero's argument depends. Consider the following. If persons were asked to choose between two lives, each of which would be completely full of pleasure (of the katastematic sort), but one of which would be twice as long as the other, most, if not all, persons would choose the longer life. Most persons, given a free choice, would, all else equal, choose a completely pleasurable life of 50 years over a completely pleasurable life of 25 years. Surely, one might advocate, this shows that a longer pleasurable life is more desirable than a shorter pleasurable life. This is perhaps another way of trying to support Cicero's claim that pleasure is rendered more desirable by continuation, and it is perhaps a way of understanding what might have inclined Furley to reject KD 19. It is also another way to capture the most attractive common objection to KD 19. However, the supposition that all people would prefer a longer life of pleasure to a shorter one shows no such thing. It shows at most that people universally prefer a longer life of pleasure to a shorter one. It cannot show the preferability of a longer life of pleasure, where this connotes some sort of normative defect in those who do not so prefer.
The Complete Life The most troublesome objection to the idea that living well is independent of the length of one's life is recent, and stands fully in the tradition of Aristippus and Santayana. Santayana urged that Epicurus renounced "everything" and "hated life."as Very recently, this objection has been better expressed and developed as the idea that the Epicurean way of life somehow does violence to the manifold richness and multiple possible goods of human life, that the Epicurean life is truncated and barely human, and that in holding the absence of pain to be the highest good, Epicurus would desiccate the human spirit. This contemporary version of the objection is inspired, I believe, by a widespread awareness of the great sensitivity which Aristotle displayed for the varied facets of human thriving and which Aristotle wisely incorporated in his account of moral goods. In arguing against Mitsis's defense of KD 19, Gisela Striker rightly associates KD 19 with the fear of death, and insists that in arguing against the fear of death, Epicurans completely misunderstood what it was.46 Distinguishing between the fear of being dead and the fear of premature dying, she argues that whereas Epicurus, Lucretius, and the other Epicureans argued against the fear of being dead, the real human death anxiety is the fear of dying prematurely, and thus Epicurean arguments are beside the point in being directed to the wrong fear. Her idea is that humans have a rough normative sense of what constitutes a complete human life, that the correlative completeness takes time (approximately a normal human lifetime), and that the real human fear of death is the fear of dying before one's life is complete. This objection to Epicurean ethics is double-edged. If correct, it not only undermines KD 19 and with it the idea that katastematic pleasure is the highest good, but it also completely undercuts the fundamental principles of Epicurean thanatology. It undermines KD 19 because it entails that human well-being is not, as the Epicurean doctrine implies, independent of time. The objection subverts the thanatology because it entails that Epicureans addressed the wrong fear. The objection is that Epicurean ethics does not appreciate humans and cannot be appropriate for humans. It is a powerful argument, because it goes to the very heart of Epicurean ethics, and captures clearly many of the inchoate reservations of those who have understood the rudiments of Epicurean ethics. Consequently, a critical examination of the objection will unveil an important dimension of Epicurean ethics and will augment considerably our understanding of the hedonism.
Unfortunately, the idea of completeness for a human life is very obscure. Striker uses an analogy which serves to introduce the idea. Imagine that human lives are like operas, to some extent, with a beginning, middle, and end, a first, second, and third act. People who go to the opera want to see the entire opera, and they do not want to miss a part. Saying, therefore, to a serious person that it is all right to miss part of normal life, or that it does not matter how long the life is (as KD 19 and Epicurean thanatology imply) is analogous to saying to an opera buff that it is all right to miss the last two acts of the opera or, perhaps, that it does not matter how long the opera lasts. Viewing it for one act, or even part of an act, would be as good as seeing it to the end. That would be absurd. The question, however, is whether this analogy sheds much light on the idea of a complete human life.
One problem with it is that "our lives are, after all, not operas with a well-defined finale at the end."47 Another difficulty is that our lives are not as well-structured with standard elements as a good opera is structured with aesthetic elements. Human lives do not seem typically to be much like operas at all. But Striker says that
Nevertheless, the analogy seems close enough to make us understand why some older people, like Socrates, do not seem to fear death or decide to end their lives if they discover that they are terminally ill and would only gain a few weeks of intense suffering. A human life, like a drama or a opera, has certain stages that we expect to live through, and since time is not reversible, our expectations become more limited as we grow older. There is of course no definite point at which we could say that a human life is complete, and this is why even people who do not fear their eventual death will not commit suicide unless they can clearly foresee that what remains would be only suffering, or perhaps the existence of a contented infant?
It is significant that it does not seem possible to say much more about the completeness of a human life than that a complete life necessarily contains some elements which require the passage of time, a length of time which comes close to approaching the average human lifespan. Striker's argument against Epicurus depends on two premises. One is that the fear of death is really not the fear of nonbeing, but is rather the fear of dying prematurely. The other is that a complete life, or perhaps complete, human living, necessarily takes time. I proceed to argue that these premises cannot be the basis for a sound refutation of Epicurean ideas.
Striker's thesis about the fear of death is doubtful for several reasons. First, there is no argument for it. That argument is necessary is shown by the fact that human death anxiety is a protean phenomenon. This itself is a reason to doubt the claim. Those who fear death fear painful dying; they fear nonbeing; they fear the unknown; and, sometimes, they fear dying too soon. It is thus mistaken to characterize it primarily as the fear of dying too soon. Older people who have, by any account, mature or complete lives still are capable of suffering death anxiety, notwithstanding prominent cases such as that of Socrates and Hume. Finally, and most importantly, it is not in the least bit clear what a premature death is.
The very idea of a premature death undoubtedly engages an awareness of our desires to do certain things in the future or to achieve important goals. Depending on whether the intensity of these desires is commensurate with our fear of death, we may be tempted psychologically to identify death anxiety with the desire to finish our projects. We may hence feel that Striker is correct in identifying the fear of death with the fear of dying too soon. We may even try to define maturity in terms of the kinds of goals we have. However, beyond this psychological account of our temptation readily to agree with Striker's assessment, once one tries to grasp the notion of a premature death, large questions loom. What exactly is a premature death, and, correlatively, what is a mature life? The unanswerability, or the arbitrariness of the answerability, of these questions shows that the concepts are too insubstantial to bear the weight they must in Striker's argument.
One might define maturity, and, correlatively, a death before maturity, generally in one of two ways, either objectively or subjectively. Perhaps, it could be defined in terms of the occurrence in a life of certain events or certain types of events. It seems impossible to choose and justify in any objective way what types of events or goals would be necessary or sufficient for a mature life, and thus it seems hopeless to try to comprehend the idea of mature life in objective terms. What events or goals would one choose7 Having a successful career, having adult, happy children, having playful, loving grandchildren, finishing one's most basic projects? Why would these make a life mature, and how could one justify one's choices? A career can always be more successful, depending on the notion of success. Children can always do more engagingly interesting things. One can always have playful, loving greatgrandchildren. There are always more projects to adopt. It seems impossible to list definitively the essential elements of a mature life, just as it seems impossible to say when a person becomes mature. Maturity is relative, and it involves a process which is capable of continuing. The task of saying reasonably what constitutes a mature life and, consequently, of specifing a premature death is at best dubious. The concept of a premature death appeals not because it is at least minimally clear, for it is not, but only because of its psychological appeal, the idea engaging intense desires to finish this or that project. The task of objectively specifying maturity is insurmountable, and whatever specification one adopts will permit the possibility of people being mature and still fearing death.
Perhaps maturity might be defined in some subjective way, say, in terms of characteristics which vary from person to person, and which some persons may lack altogether. Maybe people will be mature when they have achieved a goal which they think is important. Some people might not have goals, and some might have no goals they think are important, and such people would not be able to be mature. Of course, they probably would also not fear dying prematurely (but they could still fear death). The danger of this way of characterizing maturity is that the concept could easily become useless. The only mature people would be those who had pursued goals they thought important and had achieved them. The people who continually acquired new important goals would never be quite mature, and those who never had any goals they thought important would never be mature. In any case, people could always prevent a premature death by never adopting goals which might be defeated by death. Such people need never fear a premature death, if such is maturity and such is the fear of death. 49
Whatever the difficulties in describing maturity in some kind of subjective terms, there is considerable logical obstacle in using such a conception of maturity in conjunction with the idea that a complete human life takes time. Any subjective notion of maturity would completely undermine an objective notion of the complete human life and the correlative idea that such a life necessarily takes time. A person's death is premature only if the person is not yet mature or his or her life is not yet complete. But if maturity is subjectivized, then completeness will also be subjectivized, and then the idea of an objectively complete life which takes time evaporates. All these considerations undermine the attempt generally to identify death anxiety with the fear of dying too soon.
The idea of completeness remains to be explored. For the sake of focusing on the temporal features of completeness, I shall treat it separately from the notion of a mature life.50 The basic question is whether living completely, or whether a complete human life, takes time. Two competing notions of the complete life are relevant to answering this question. Those who oppose Epicurean hedonism on this point implicitly accept an idea of completeness which opposes the Epicurean view. However, there is a plausible alternative notion of completeness which is compatible with Epicurean hedonism. The objection that Epicurean hedonism is incompatible with complete human living relies basically on a time-dependent concept of completeness. Once Epicurean ethics is seen to rely on an appealing time-independent notion of completeness, Striker's objection will seem unfounded.
According to the view that a human life is not complete unless some specific types of processes occur, processes which require time, a complete, full life must last long enough for certain things to happen. For example, suppose that a person must achieve important goals or realize some potential in order for the person's life to be complete. It takes considerable, though variable, time to achieve important goals or realize potential, depending on the goals and the potential. Many who take this view would agree that a youth who tragically died at fifteen years, full of hope, promise, and potential, would not have lived a complete life. A mature adult who adopted the goal of writing a good novel and who died before the completion of the project might not have lived a complete life. Both examples entail time-dependent completeness, and on such a conception Striker bases her objection to Epicurean hedonism as manifest in KD 19.
The only way to defend Epicurus against this charge is to reject this notion of completeness, and to show that another, plausible notion of completeness is operative in Epicurean ethics. Necessarily, the Epicurean concept of katastematic pleasure and the correlative idea of completeness latent in KD 19 does not require the passage of time. A human life would have to be capable of being complete at any moment of its duration. The Epicurean idea would be this: There is no goal or type of goal, the objective achievement of which is necessary for a person to live a complete life. The requirement that a person achieve such goals in order to have a complete life would be, for Epicurus, an abstract, unjustifiable, and anxiety-producing cultural imposition on human thriving.31 Rather, the only requirement for the human good life, for human happiness, and for complete human living is having (katastematic) pleasure, lacking pain, and functioning naturally, unimpeded by disturbing urges and untoward desires. This does not take time, but is, like complete health, complete at every moment one has or experiences it. This does not mean being asleep, but includes pursuing the fulfillment of goals connected with natural and necessary desires. 52 It means further living without fear and living fully engaged in one's projects, without being concerned or worried about their completion, about the time it will take to finish them, or about what will happen after they are finished. According to this idea then, the Epicurean view of the significance of projects for human life lies in the way they may or may not engage the natural capacities of the human, not in their completion. Completeness thus lies in a certain time-independent quality of one's activities, not in whether the activities produce specific (future) results. If one's natural capacities are engaged by the projects one adopts, and one pursues those projects without desires which can interrupt engagement in those projects, then one has katastematic pleasure. No passage of time is required to bring about such engagement. It is not that the completion of projects in the future is unimportant, but rather that being unimpededly engaged in the activity of completing them is the only essential aspect of their contribution to one's well-being. It might also be said that the meaning of human life, for Epicurus, is not related to what a person accomplishes, but to being fully engaged in acting on the right kinds of desire.
There is not just one way to think of completeness in human lives. There are two ways to understand completeness, one compatible with KD 19, the other not. The one presupposed by Striker's argument is vague. Although the very expression, 'a complete life', itself suggests something definite, it is not clear what would constitute a complete life. However vague it is, it is clearly meant to be time-dependent. The one on which Epicurus obscurely relies is better said to be the idea of complete living, rather than that of a complete life. It is not time-dependent. A decision whether to accept KD 19 and its implications thus depends fundamentally on which one of these seems most appealing. In addition, whether what I have identified as the Epicurean concept of completeness is ultimately a suitable philosophical addition to Epicurean hedonism depends on very large questions about the relation between katastematic and kinetic pleasure and about the nature of desire and motivation. I cannot discuss these questions now.
I have not argued for the Epicurean idea of completeness. I have merely described it as a hidden presupposition of Epicurean ethics. The examination of Striker's objection enables one to see its role in the hedonism. The simple description of it coupled with the realization that the alternative may be hopelessly vague or impossible to use may, however, make it somewhat attractive. One must reflect further in order to decide which of the two is the more appropriate. However one decides this issue, it is appropriate to conclude that there is yet to be a sound refutation of the Epicurean idea that the good life, the life of pleasure, is not diminished by brevity. Neither the arguments of Cicero and Striker, nor the common idea that people prefer long life show that Epicurus was wrong about this. Moreover, understanding why the arguments do not defeat KD 19 unveils yet unseen aspects of Epicurean ethics, which seem much more congenial to human thriving than Epicurus's description of pleasure as the absence of pain would have led one to expect. Understanding these aspects will contribute significantly to our positive comprehension of the view that the good of life is the absence of pain.53
NOTES 1. Epicurus, Letter to Menoiceus, Diogenes Laertius, X, 131-32 (tr. Long and Sedley: A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)). See also Cicero, De Finibus I, 37.
2. Two such sensualist passages may be found in Diogenes Laertius, X, 6 (paraphrased by Cicero in Tusculan Disputations, III, 41-42) and in Epicurus' letter to Anaxarchus, Usener 116 (cited also by Plutarch, Adversus Colotem, 1117A).
3. Seneca, Dial. vii (De Vita Beata), 12.4-13.2. Also cited in the 17th Century by Quevedo in his "Defensa de Epicuro." Don Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Obras Completas Tomo I: Obras en Prosa (Madrid: Aguilar, 1961), p. 979.
4. Diogenes Laertius, II, 89.
5. George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922), p. 33.
6. Recent scholars continue the attempt to remedy this deficiency. See the very recent work of Julia Annas, "Epicurus on Pleasure and Happiness," Philosophical Topics 15 (1987), 5-21; and Phillip Mitsis, Epicurus' Ethical Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).
7. See Mitsis's discussion of Locke, Bentham, and others, in "Pleasure, Happiness, and Desire," in Epicurus' Ethical Theory, pp. 11-58.
8. See the discussions of KD 19 in David Furley "Nothing to us?" in The Norms of Nature, Schofield and Striker (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 75-91; J. C. B. Gosling and C. C. W. Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 356--60; Fred D. Miller, Jr., "Epicurus on the Art of Dying," Southern Journal of Philosophy, 14 (1976), 169-77; Phillip Mitsis, "Epicurus on Death and the Duration of Life," in Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium on Ancient Philosophy vol. 4, ed. by J. J. Cleary (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), pp. 295=314; and Gisela Striker, "Commentary on Mitsis," in Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium on Ancient Philosophy vol. 4, ed. J. J. Cleary (Lanham: 1988), 315-320.
9. KD 19, 20, and 21 (tr. Long and Sedley).
10. Letter to Menoiceus, Diogenes Laertius, X, 126. See also Vatican Saying 42.
11. Diogenes Laertius, X, 136. (tr. Long and Sedley).
12. Cicero, De Finibus, II, 9-10. (tr. Long and Sedley).
13. Whether pleasure is a feeling or sensation accompanying these states (of satisfying desires or having satisfied desires), or these states themselves is a question which is not now important to decide. Mitsis discusses this in the first chapter of his book.
14. Rist, following Cicero in De Fin., takes kinetic pleasures to be variants of static pleasures (p. 106 and pp. 170ff); A. A. Long takes kinetic pleasures to be necessary conditions for static pleasure, in Hellenistic Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 61-69.
15. Annas, p. 9. She notes the fact that Epicurean katastematic pleasure is close to Aristotelian pleasure in Nicornachean Ethics VII, where pleasure is the "unimpeded activity of the natural state." Rist and Merlan also see the connections between Epicurus and Aristotle. J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), especially "Pleasure;" and Philip Merlan, Studies in Epicurus and Aristotle (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960).
16. Epicurus added to the distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasure a distinction between mental pleasure (ataraxia) and physical pleasure (aponia), arguing that mental pleasure is the more important, but it is not important now for my purposes to use this latter distinction.
17. Letter to Menoiceus, D. L., X, 131 (tr., Long and Sedley).
18. D. L., X, 136. (tr., Long and Sedley).
19. Cicero, for example, failed to appreciate it properly in De Finibus and in Tusculan Disputations.
20. Mitsis, however, uses the passages relating pain and need to reinforce his argument that Epicurean hedonism is best understood in terms of desire satisfaction rather than feelings or sensations, Epicurus' Ethical Theory, p. 31. His work on the hedonism is extremely important for advancing the understanding and appreciation of Epicurean ethics. Long and Sedley also seem to appreciate the significance of these passages, but, understandably, do not develop a systematic treatment of them, p. 123.
21. D. L., X, 130 (tr. Long and Sedley).
22. KD 18 (tr. Long and Sedley). The very same expression is repeated in KD 21.
23. Epicurus classifies desires in the Letter to Menoiceus, at D. L. X, 127 and in KD 26, 29, and 30.
24. David Furley claims that this view"... is just dogma, without argument, and the surviving Epicurean texts offer nothing in the way of argument," in "Nothing to Us?," in The Norms of Nature, Malcolm Schofield and Gisela Striker (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 81. Phillip Mitsis, however, has argued that the second occurrence of Lucretius' symmetry argument at De Rerum Natura III, 972-77 is really an argument for KD 19, in "Epicurus on Death and the Duration of Life," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy vol. 4, J. J. Cleary (ed.) (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 295-314. J. C. B. Gosling and C. C. W. Taylor suggest that Epicurus' concept of time supports KD 19, in The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 357.
25. Fred D. Miller, Jr. seems to have noticed that support for KD 19 comes from the Epicurean concept of pleasure, and he observed that Epicurus's idea of (katastematic) pleasure is very similar to Aristotle's idea of pleasure in Nicomachean Ethics Book VII, in "Epicurus on the Art of Dying," Southern Journal of Philosophy 14 (1976), p. 174f. Rist and Annas, among others, also note the similarity between the Aristotelian concept and the Epicurean. John M. Rist, "Pleasure: 360-300 B.C.," Phoenix 28 (1974), 171-74, and Annas, 9. See also note 17, above.
26. Epicurus, Vatican Saying 42: "The greatest good is created and enjoyed at the same time [Ho autos chronos Kai geneseos tou megistou agathou Kai apolauseos]."
27. John M. Cooper suggested this idea.
28. This is reinforced by KD 20: "...the intellect, by making a rational calculation of the end and the limit which govern the flesh, and by dispelling the fears about eternity, brings about the complete life, so that we no longer need the infinite time. But neither does it shun pleasure, nor even when circumstances bring about our departure from life does it suppose, as it perishes, that it has in any way fallen short of the best life."
29. Epicurus believed that the basic value relevant to making such assessments is the good of pleasure. The role and status of other values, such as virtue, is a separate issue, but is obviously important in the overall assessment of Epicurean ethics. 30. This is a recurrent theme in Hellenistic ethics.
31. Furley considers the idea that health is analogous to pleasure, in "Nothing to Us?," p. 8If.
32. Furley sees clearly that "what seems to be needed is a simple distinction between 'more' and 'greater'." p. 82.
33. Epicurus did think of philosophy as analogous to medicine, as Martha Nussbaum has convincingly shown, in "Therapeutic Arguments: Epicurus and Aristotle," in The Norms of Nature, Schofield and Striker (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 31-74 (See especially 36f.). She reminds us of various Epicurean writings which express the analogy between health and the aim of ethics, between philosophy and medicine, between philosophical argument and medical treatment. She also reminds us that "the first four of the Kuriai Doxai were known to pupils as the tetrapharmakos, or four-fold drug." (p. 37) See also, her recent description of Lucretius' therapy for sex and love, in "Beyond Obsession and Disgust: Lucretius' Genealogy of Love," Apeiron 22 (1989), 1-59.
34. KD 3 (tr. Long and Sedley, p. 115). See also KD 18.
35. A full development of Epicurean ethics would show that this is a false belief which can give rise to happiness-defeating desires,
36. Cicero, De Finibus, II, 88.
37. Cicero, in one of his attacks on Epicurean hedonism, expressed our common view of pleasure as follows: "...the universal opinion is that pleasure is a sensation actively stimulating the percipient sense and diffusing over it a certain agreeable feeling." De Finibus II, 6-7.
38. Mitsis usefully discusses Cicero's point in a different context, concentrating on the apparent asymmetricity of pain and pleasure in what appears to be a kind of hedonic calculus in the Letter to Menoiceus, in Epicurus' Ethical Theory, pp. 26f.
39. One of Cicero's objections centered on this idea, in De Finibus, II, 88 where he said," . .. is not pleasure rendered more desirable by continuance?"
40. Furley, p. 81.
41. Furley, p. 82.
42. Epicurean theses about desire and pain, for example, may ultimately be used to show that there is something wrong with this.
43. De Finibus, II, 88.
44. The reader may recall the fact that the main reason Epicurus gave for his nor-mative conclusion that pleasure is the telos consists in "the cradle argument." Roughly, the cradle argument is that seeking pleasure is natural, because the untutored such as infants seek (static) pleasure. If the argument were to be interpreted in terms of desire, so that its premise would be that untutored people desire pleasure, then this use of the cradle argument would appear inconsistent with my argument that desire does not generate desirability. The paradox evaporates in the environment of Epicurean views about natural and unnatural desire. This is yet another point at which the significance of the theory of desires is evident. For a discussion of the argument, see Jacques Brunschwig, "The cradle argument in Epicureanism and Stoicism," in The Norms of Nature, Schofield and Striker (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
45. Santayana, pp. 3If.
46. Gisela Striker, "Commentary on Mitsis," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy vol. 4, J. J. Cleary (ed.) (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 315-20.
47. Striker, p. 318.
48. Striker, p. 318.
49. Steven Luper-Foy misunderstands Epicurus, and wrongly insists that completely consistent Epicureans would have to restrict their desires to those indefeasible by death in order for death not to be bad for them and for them not to fear death. He thinks that the consistent Epicurean, in order not to fear death, would have to refrain from having meaningful, future-directed, goals, and would thus be incapable of living a meaningful life, in "Annihilation," The Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1987), 233-:52. Richard Sorabji mentions this type of attack in Time, Creation, and the Continuum (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 180. See a sketch of my counterargument to this line of attack in "Epicurus and Annihilation," The Philosophical Quarterly 39 (1989), 81-90. ,
50. It is clear however that these are not logically separate, if the fear of death is the fear of dying before being mature and being mature is defined in terms of having lived completely.
51. Epicurus wrote to Pythocles urging him to flee from all forms of culture [paideia]. Bailey, Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Fragment 33, p. 128/9; Usener 163. See also Useher 117 (Athenaeus 588A), in which Epicurus is quoted as praising Apelles for studying philosophy before becoming tainted by culture.
52. I cannot now explicate fully the somewhat difficult Epicurean theory of desires and what must 'have been the correlative theory of motivation, but a fully systematic philosophical interpretation of the Epicurean ethics will reveal that the category of natural and necessary desires includes not only the desire for food and drink but also various intellectual desires, which may vary from one individual to another.,
53. This paper is part of a larger study in which I explicate and defend the principles of Epicurean thanatology, show the manifold connections between the thanatology and the hedonism, and uncover the implications of Epicurean ethics for contemporary moral issues. In writing this paper, I have benefitted greatly from discussions with Diane Urey and from advice by John M. Cooper.
21:22, 4 October 2007 (PDT)Alfino
Stephen E. Rosenbaum, Illinois State University
If you have any problems or questions, contact Technical Support at http://support.epnet.com/contact/askus.php or call 800-758-5995.
This e-mail was generated by a user of EBSCOhost who gained access via the GONZAGA UNIV account. Neither EBSCO nor GONZAGA UNIV is responsible for the content of this e-mail.