When reading extracts of Stoics such as Cicero and Epictetus I was surprised by the hostile criticisms levelled against Epicurus and his philosophy. I had previously thought both were valid and could be adopted almost simultaneously.
Why was there such hostility? Why do I not see any similar sentiments from the Epicurean side?
Is it possible to believe in both philosophies, or are they “mutually exclusive”?
If I understand Epicureanism correctly…there’s no reason to hate it. It’s a polite and moderate approach to life. It suggests that one can live a good, productive, happy life, not merely by pursuing pleasure, but by pursuing self-sustaining pleasure. Not merely having parties, but being with friends; not merely eating and drinking, but pursuing elegance in cuisine.
I can only barely see why anyone would disagree at all, and I can’t figure why anyone would find it abhorrent. It even entails civic responsibility, because living in a tyranny strongly undercuts one’s individual ability to seek pleasure.
Can someone give a quickie thumbnail of what stoics think? Today, the word generally means “Not showing emotions” or “not showing pain.” What was their ideological basis?
(Maybe they were jealous, like Puritans in the time of the Jacobeans? How dare someone else over there be having fun!)
I finally read through Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ last year, after having read Epicurus and Lucretius over a decade earlier. My impression from Aurelius was that they were in broad agreement except on the idea of the existence of gods. The Stoics couldn’t accept that the world would not have a prime mover to set things in motion, and couldn’t believe in an ethics that didn’t respond to that. The Epicureans couldn’t see how a god could exist given the presence of evil in the world, and the apparent ease with which the world could be explained by deterministic atomism.
So at the root it seemed to be a fight between theists and atheists.
In the Meditations, Aurelius seems to be very sympathetic to the Epicureans, even pointing out the value of their positions a couple of times, except when it comes to the idea of gods, on which he comes as close as he gets to being harsh.
I mean, the big why of it is was that they were rival philosophical schools which each sought converts from the same groups of people.
But, philosophically, they were different. Epicureanism was atheistic, Stoicism, theistic. Epicureans believed in a random universe, while Stoics believed in universal laws. Epicureanism was teleological , Stoicism was deontological. Epicureanism was passive, Stoicism was active. Epicureanism was individual, Stoicism was communitarian. Epicureanism preached the cultivation of pleasure and avoidance of pain, Stoicism, the indifference to both.
Add to that, the fact that you’re talking about Cicero, here. The man was a polemicist. That’s what he did.
Epicureanism disclaims civic responsibility. For Epicureans, civic responsibility is a trap and a fool’s game. The person interested in politics can never be truly happy, because his happiness is bound up with that of other people.
I must be a rotten Epicurean… My happiness is bound up with that of other people! Other people are the major contribution to my happiness. Having a lot of friends is, I should think, an Epicurean ideal.
A minimum degree of civic responsibility is good, just like all the other necessary chores of life. You do not maximize your happiness by refusing to take out the trash: you maximize your happiness by keeping the house clean. Same with voting.
Friendship is an Epicurean ideal, and really the only unalloyed positive relationship the Epicureans recognized…Epicurus advised against marriage, sex, and having children. But I don’t know that having a lot of friends is an Epicurean ideal. If you have a lot of friends, Epicurus would say, it suggests you’re not discriminating in your friendships, and you should ask yourself, “Are all these people my friends, or am I confusing a natural desire for friendship with an equal for a vain desire for popularity from the crowd?” And binding your happiness up with other people is always a mistake, because you can’t control other people or make sure they’re happy, so if you’re only happy when other people are happy, you’re losing control of your own happiness, and that’s never good.
I’ll be back tonight with more on voting, politics, and civic responsibility.
Ah, well, at best I can only be a “reform Epicurean.” I believe having lots of friends is good, much like having lots of books. The more, the better!
I can’t control them, to be sure, but I can contribute toward their happiness (friends, not books) and that activity makes me happy.
I think this could simply be a “difference of tastes,” which Epicurus would be foolish to argue against. Tastes really do differ: cuisine that makes one person happy might be “too damn hot! Ow!” for someone else. It would be bad philosophic method to try to argue that one size should fit all.
Some people are gregarious, and are happier among lots of friends. Others are more reserved, and are better off with only a few friends.
Did Epicurus make allowances for differences in preferences?
ETA: Any other fans here of “Epicurus the Sage” by William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth?
Well, maybe you’re not an Epicurean. That’s ok!. A lot of people aren’t Epicureans.
But, as for Epicurus on politics, you have to start with the idea that Epicurus saw government as an evil. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s still corrupting. And part of that corruption has to do with power, because for Epicurus, the desire for power was a vain and self destructive desire, as was the desire for approval or fame. So you’re better out of the whole thing. Let politicians play their political games. For the later Roman Epicureans, Cicero is a good example of the foolishness of politics, especially when contrasted with his Epicurean friend Titus Pomponius Atticus.
If you look at Cicero, for instance, look at how he ended up; killed by Antony’s proscriptions, his head and hands removed. Compare that with Atticus, as described in a biographical sketch by Cornelius Nepos:
And ultimately, this, from the same source, which sums it up, I think:
The thing is, I sort of think I am…depending on whether or not there is any allowance for variability in Epicurean thought. If only “fundamentalist” hard-line followers of every word with no interpretation and context can be Epicureans, then, no, I wouldn’t be (but then there also would be no Christians, Jews, or Muslims, either.)
If there is room for variability, then I get to call myself a “form of Epicurean.”
Thus my questions: does Epicurus allow for choices and preferences in, say, cuisine? Does he allow for some people being gregarious and other people preferring isolation? Does he permit debates regarding the right role of a citizen in his society? Does he tolerate “necessity” as a subset of “the good?”
Does it make any sense to define a position so narrowly that it becomes empty?
Even when Epicurean ism was a going concern, there was no central Epicurean authority setting out doctrine, so there’s nothing keeping yourself from considering yourself an epicurean. But I can’t think of any Epicurean philosophers who endorsed political activity, or any prominent Epicurean politiciams, a other the possible exception of Lucullus.
Well, I didn’t say “political acitivty” but “civic responsibility.” Not the same thing.
Civic responsibility is like taking out the trash: it’s something you do to keep one’s domicile from becoming stinky. Maintaining the cleanliness of your environment is part of maximizing your personal happiness.
Basically, I’m rebutting the cartoonish attack on Epicureanism from St. Paul, where he derided it as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.” There’s more to it than that, including taking care and responsibility for one’s own pleasure.
(It resembles Hugh Hefner’s “The Playboy Philosophy.” One doesn’t drink to become drunk; one drinks studiously, to become knowledgeable about fine wines, so as to maximize the pleasure.)
I can find no well-documented attack by St. Paul upon the Epicureans specifically, though he was not evidently much taken with their philosophy. But he also did not promote Stoicism insofar as I can tell.