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PHIL 223/4-01 Critical Argument

Contrast of Epicurus and Epictetus Which Doctrine is Tenable?

Jane Sorensen

April 7, 1994

Epictetus and Epicurus

3031284 Epicurus and Epictetus have similar objectives on the achievement of the good life; I intend to show that Epicurus' objectives are far more applicable than Epictetus. This statement holds true both today and in a historical perspective. For the attainment of the good life, which Epictetus declares is a life of inner tranquility that comes from conforming to nature (reason and truth), there are three objectives: one must master his desires, perform his duties, and to think correctly concerning himself and the world. Epicurus defines the good life as that of moderate and enduring pleasure. One's needs are equanimity, bodily health and comfort, and the exigencies (needs or demands intrinsic to a situation) of life. In order to make life any more pleasurable, one must firstly cultivate virtue, particularly that of prudence, and secondly study philosophy, which Epictetus advocates, too. Already it occurs to those who have experienced pleasure and pain in proportional amounts and fear neither, to lean towards Epicurus' definition and conditions of the good life. Further explanation of both of these philosophies is necessary. Epictetus regarded philosophy as the means to achieve a tranquil mind; therefore one must master her desires. All vexation is the result of a disproportion between our wills and the external world. People suppose that happiness is possible only when the external world comes up to their expectations, but the philosopher knows that this situation rarely comes to pass. If one builds up such hope, she is bound to be disappointed. Therefore, she should only desire what is actual, which is the situation she is in at that moment, whatever it is. To guard against the disturbance of tranquility that comes with the changing of situations, she must therefore prepare against it, like an athlete practices and competes before the real competition begins. The person who has mastered his desires is now fully able to perform his duties, as he would not be in any position to perform any other, nor would ambition or laziness hinder him. Epictetus compares a man to a body part, stating that a foot is no longer a foot when detached from the body, and that a man is not a man when separated from other men. As a citizen of the world, each one has a duty to all other men, and thus lays the prerogative to understand divine administration and the connection of things. These duties are not just what the conventional conception of them is, which is state- and custom-related. All men are brothers, because all men 2

Epictetus and Epicurus

are the sons of Zeus, Epictetus maintained, and we have as much duty to our brothers as to a man that happened to wear an emperor's crown. Thirdly, one unites the previous principles in the concept of right thinking. The control of the desires is rational, as is discovering one's duty to God and man, but every man should study to avoid rashness of judgment and deception, and to see things as they really are. One must learn to test what is good, because although people men are naturally endowed with common moral conceptions, they often disagree upon what is good. If it is good, then it does not conflict with what one really wants, which ultimately is the tranquil life. As Epicurus contends that equanimity is a condition of the good life, this parallels Epictetus' thesis. In order to have peace of mind, one must avoid unpleasantness from fellow men, escape pangs of conscience, and not worry about the future. To know how to do this, and to further one's pleasure, which is the standard by which all good is judged, one must cultivate virtue. "The man who does not possess the virtuous life cannot possibly live pleasantly," Epicurus declared. Prudence is the virtue from which all other virtues are derived, since prudence consisted in knowing the worth of various satisfactions versus their cost. By this standard, one can choose pain in order to secure greater pleasure, which is basically the reason why people who are sick allow doctors to operate on them, to take an example from current context. Furthermore, one of the best counsels of prudence, he thought, was that one can make themselves independent of desire, and therefore accustom themselves to plain food and surroundings. This motive was not ascetic, since he saw no good in deprivation for its own sake, but that once accustomed to plainness, the event of a banquet or the like will be all the more pleasurable. Liberation from desire is also liberation from necessity, as will be discussed again. Bodily health and comfort, while being contingent to the good life, had but little thought expended upon it by Epicurus. Acute pain in the body rarely lasts long and chronic illnesses permit a predominance of pleasure over pain in the flesh. The exigencies of life are those that are taken care of by necessary desires--those desires that arise from any deprivation or allow a definite satisfaction. These desires are so exacting that he counseled to concentrate on these alone, as opposed to artificial desires which are cultivated, and which eventually come into conflict with those that are natural and necessary. 3

Epictetus and Epicurus

Two points that Epicurus urges us to keep in mind concerning the pleasurable life and its requisites are that no pleasure is in itself bad, it is when it is weighed with its cost that it loses its value; and that "necessity is bad, but there is no necessity to live according to necessity." He often spoke of pleasure passively, that is, as 'freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.' Since he recommended one to be independent of desire and live a simple life, in order to free oneself from the cares of the future, it follows that one does become liberated from necessity, since fortune is unlikely to reduce a man to starvation, but it can deprive one of luxuries. Therefore, the similarities between Epicurus and Epictetus are that the good life is attained in having peace of mind, and that this is met through the mastery of one's desires and the limiting of necessary desires or objects, and that the study of philosophy helps to further these goals, in that it teaches you what to pursue and avoid, and that, for Epicurus, it is pleasurable in itself. This is where the similarity ends. They both seem reasonable as doctrines of self-control. The one that is superior in its coherence and in its applicability is Epicureanism. Given that both utilitarian and egoistical ideals are the ways of the day, pleasure is still used as a common way of measuring the good of something. Many people today would far rather experience exquisite pleasure, followed or preceded by thunderous pain, at least once in their life, than to spend their whole life avoiding either for the fear of uneasiness. The latter position is the one Epictetus advocates. He expounds that the position one is currently in is the same one that God has placed him, and whatever God wills that person to have will come to him, if only he takes in moderation when it comes. It is useless to desire anything except that which God desires for you, because desires will culminate in frustration when they go unfulfilled. Epictetus stated that it is better for one to starve than suffer a turbulent mind. To prepare oneself against fate, that is, to go according to the will of God, one must prepare themselves against disappointment in the following manner: "'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.' And then examine...whether it concerns the things which are in our power, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our power, be prepared to say that it be nothing to you." [Enchiridion, I] 4

Epictetus and Epicurus

With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind, or contribute to use, or are loved with fond affection, remember to tell yourself of what nature they are, beginning from the most trifling things. If you are fond of an earthen cup, that it is an earthen cup of which you are fond; for thus, if it is broken, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, that you kiss a being subject to the accidents of humanity; and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. [Enchiridion, II] The subject against which all good is weighed is, to Epictetus, one's own self-discipline. If anything can harm one's self-discipline, then that object is to be reviled. This is in accordance with the Stoic tradition, it seems, because suicide was advocated to those who could not adhere to its doctrine. Zeno, the founder of Stoa, killed himself because his finger hurt. This parallels a passage in the Bible (unknown chapter and verse) that stated 'If your left hand offends thee, then cut it off and throw it away from thee....And if your left eye offends thee, then pluck it out....' Epicurus would therefore accuse Epictetus of insensibility, to which Epictetus would reply that he only needs to sense that which is within his control. Since only one's mind and body are in one's control, and since Epictetus scorned the needs of the body and took no pleasure in it, then the only pleasure that Epictetus did allow and encourage was that of pursuing philosophy. Epictetus accuses Epicurus of hedonism. For is the good something we can have confidence in? Yes. What is pleasure? Something that is insecure. Therefore pleasure is not the good. Socrates used a similar argument to prove to the hedonists that pleasure is not the good, and pain is not evil, when one can experience pleasure and pain in the same quality at the same time. In fact, current thought (common denotation) basically allots that pleasure and pain, good and evil, while not mutually exclusive, are indifferent--pain is beneficial when it comes to 'good, pleasurable' pursuits such as exercise, beauty, medical health, and, for some, sex. Pleasures that are evil and pains that are good have been rampantly expounded upon throughout history. If pleasure and pain has so often been alternated between good and evil, even within each period and context, then they must be indifferent. It is reasonable to say, however, that faced with two goods, the egoist will choose the more pleasurable for himself, and the utilitarian will choose the more pleasurable for all around. Epicurus would rebut the accusation of hedonism in the following manner: Though no pleasure is a bad thing in itself, pleasures must be chosen judiciously (using prudence), for 5

Epictetus and Epicurus

sometimes the means to procure pleasures are greater in pains than the pleasures are worth, or that the pains imminent upon receiving pleasures cancel the pleasure or leave a balance of pain. The means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures, and finally, the duration of pleasure is more important than their intensity. Experience shows us that intense pleasure is not of frequent occurrence in the course of events and the desire in the intervals between causes far more frustration than it is worth. A very easy example of this which applies today is in the case of sex. Those who think about it all the time are more frustrated when they are not having it, and less prone to be satisfied, when their fantasies make them prone to unrealistic expectations. Epicurus also maintains that active pleasures are only important insofar that the pain of unfulfilled natural desires, such as that for sex or companionship, is terminated. The passive pleasures, which are the ones that hedonists underrate, are more fundamental than the active, since they contribute to freedom from trouble in the mind and pain in the body. This freedom is, for Epicurus, the whole definition of pleasure. Epictetus would also have a problem with Epicurus standard of social responsibility: there isn't one. Epicurus advocated, especially for those whose tranquility depended upon it, to retire from the world of human affairs. His view of the world was somewhat like that of Hobbes, that humanity is its own worst enemy. He didn't flaunt society in the same manner as the Cynics; he saw the social contract as something that necessarily came about, and being necessary, it was natural. His problem was how one should go about securing protection from others. It must have appeared to him that nothing was safe in any case, that is, there was no determinate way to avoid unpleasantness, or the potential for unpleasantness, from others. Epictetus maintains that there are duties that one must fulfill towards her brethren, and then that there are duties one must fulfill towards her position in the state of the world. Because Epicureanism does not have a clause concerning correct thought, it permits the existence of ambition or resentment. Epicurus would rebut: ambition is an artificial desire, and that it is useful only when it takes away pain. Therefore, if you are starving, and have no roof over your head or you love someone and think it reasonable to propose (this is what I think: you haven't already got them, so what have you to lose? Their answer is out of your control anyway), then 6

Epictetus and Epicurus

ambition is a good thing. What, Epictetus? You really think it's better to starve than strive? Epicurus would also state that resentment is a pain that one might bear against someone else, and gives added impetus to remove oneself from society. However, it is apparently a good thing that the blacks in the Civil Rights movement didn't remove themselves, and that they didn't consider their position in American society as God-given, because their cumulative level of happiness or painlessness, if it could be measured, has improved. A more conclusive rejoinder of Epictetus' declaration of social responsibility is of what moral significance a duty holds, that does not prolong the absence of pain or give a little pleasure? Epictetus contradicts even himself when he considers social constraints and obligations, for why should one perform duties for his state and brethren, when he does not care for either? [It has been historically documented that the Stoics cared nothing for society outside their limited membership, and Epictetus himself was in want of a man who would apply all of the principles; their limited membership did not offer a satisfactory one. It was probably because these principles were so inapplicable, that society scorned them as they scorned society. For who can not love their child, or enjoy good company, or fail to trivialize the objects that the Stoics trivialized most?] Epictetus declared that our higher understanding, when we think correctly, obligates us, therefore we must obey the place where God puts us. This argument seems tautological. [When we think correctly, we think as God thinks, so what makes God's will superior to ours, if he makes us aware of his will in such a simplistic way?] A final point that Epicurus can state, that Epictetus would agree with, is that society is not harmed in the least when a member leaves, especially if the citizens are so self-disciplined to not flinch when their own spouse or child dies. Society is indifferent to an individual who shuns his obligations, especially a correct-thinking society. May it also be noted that Epicureanism has scholastically been considered the ethical bridge between Greco-Roman pantheism and Christianity. Its principles were very widely practiced, for a span of seven centuries, and there are some modern Epicureanists. Stoicism, on the other hand, as I have already mentioned, met with relatively little success, if success is measured in the conversion of populations to its principles. In conclusion, I have shown the similarities and the differences between Epicurus' and 7

Epictetus and Epicurus

Epictetus' objectives to attain the good life. I have included, in my argument that Epicurus' doctrine is the more applicable of the two, a historical perspective, and shown that it is still applicable today.

References
Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Frank Magill and Ian McGreal, Eds. Harper and Row, New York, 1961. Great Traditions in Ethics, 5E. Albert, Denise, Peterfreund, Eds. Wadsworth, Inc., Belmont, California, 1984. Epicurus and His Philosophy. Norman Wentworth DeWitt. Greenwood Press, Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1954. Moral Discourses, Enchiridion and Fragments, Epictetus. Translated by Elizabeth Carter, 1758. Everyman's Library, Dutton, New York, 1966. The Philosophy or Epicurus. Translated by George K. Strodach. Northwestern University Press, 1963.