Category: Persons

Epicureanism and Plato

‘Epicureanism’ here refers quite generally to a coherent system of philosophical views on Physics/Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics, the author of which is principally the Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). Epicureanism gained currency in the Hellenistic period and had an influence that reached deep into the Roman Empire. Though there is reason to believe that Epicurus devoted most of his intellectual energy on issues relating to physics/metaphysics and epistemology, ‘Epicureanism’ is chiefly associated with Epicurus’ views on Ethics.

Physics and epistemology

At first sight Plato’s philosophical views would seem a highly unlikely source of influence for Epicurus’ thinking. Indeed, on most, if not all, issues the two thinkers occupy diametrically opposed positions. This can be seen with a brief look at the basic tenets of Epicurus’ physics that are largely an adaptation of the metaphysical views of the early atomists Democritus and Leucippus. In Democritus’ and Leucippus’ view, Being, non-Being, and motion are the basic metaphysical principles. The so-called atoms comprise Being. These are unalterable, and hence indivisible, corpuscles of all possible shapes, infinite in number, impossible to perceive through the senses due to their minuteness but yet infinitely varying in size and always in motion. Non-Being is the void, which permits the motion of atoms and is infinitely extended. Anything perceptible in the world around is simply a configuration of atoms that are stably joined together. Perceptible things come to be because atoms become conjoined to form such configurations and are destroyed when these configurations come apart because the atoms forming them disband.

Plato appears fully to ignore the atomists. He never mentions them anywhere in his dialogues, though he does mention views that are recognizably theirs (as for instance in the Laws, Book X). There are, however, two striking and easily identifiable points of difference that need to be mentioned. First, according to Plato, the whole of nature, including the firmament with everything in it, is a finely tuned teleological system. Its existence serves a telos, i.e., a purpose, which is good. One important consequence of this is that a scientific explanation of nature needs to account also for the purpose that nature serves and to uncover the goodness of this purpose. By contrast, according to the atomists and, consequently, to Epicurus and his followers, nature has not come to be for any purpose and serves none. Everything that surrounds us, including ourselves, is the result of some precisely specifiable state of the atoms in the universe at some time t and sets of causal relations between them. The only thing that a scientific explanation of nature requires, therefore, is a precise specification of such a state and an account of the causes to which the atoms are subject.

The second important difference concerns their views on epistemology. According to Plato, knowledge can only be of Being, and Being consists in a set of ideal, non-perceptible substances that are outside time and space, namely the Forms. The perceptible world about is the object not of knowledge but merely of opinion. Epicurus and his followers, as the atomists before them, did not believe in the existence of anything other than the perceptible world, and so, for them, this is the only object of knowledge there is. The Epicureans believed further that the only source of knowledge is ultimately sense perception and that sense perception is the most important test of any claim to knowledge.

Ethics

As should be expected, Plato’s views on Ethics diverge greatly from those of Epicurus, even though it is clear, though not much noticed, that Ethics is the area in which Epicurus is mostly indebted to Plato. The key relevant notions here are pleasure, pain, and Hedonism.

Greek Ethics are eudaimonistic. All Greek ethicists agree that eudaimonia, which we may safely understand as happiness quite generally, is the legitimate ultimate goal of every human being. The fundamental purpose of the ethicist is to arrive at a coherent view on what actually constitutes human happiness and how it is achievable. ‘Pleasure’, which is understood by both Plato and the Epicureans to refer, quite generally, to a conscious state of mind of an agent that the agent finds agreeable, becomes an important issue in this context. A happy life must, among other things, feel good to the individual who leads it, and, clearly, pleasure feels good to anyone who has it. According to Aristotle’s testimony (Nichomachean Ethics 1101b27-31; 1172b9-15), Eudoxus of Cnidus, a student of Plato, may be the first to have advanced an Ethical theory that is broadly hedonistic.

Hedonism claims that pleasure is the only intrinsic good (i.e. good in itself for what it is, and for no other reason) and pain the only intrinsic bad (bad in itself, and for no other reason). Everything else is good or bad derivatively, insofar as it can help the individual get pleasure and avoid pain. Hedonism receives strong intuitive support from a natural disposition humans have, which is part of their psychological constitution, to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Still, having a disposition to do something does not in itself imply that it is good for one to do it. The typical argument of the ethical Hedonists for dealing with this objection, used by Eudoxus, according to Aristotle, and perfected by the Epicureans, is that since it is an indisputable fact of human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain it is also good for humans to do so; for it is good to follow one’s nature.

Plato is not a hedonist, but he discusses hedonism and pleasure extensively in important dialogues such as the Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic IX and the Philebus for the simple reason that Hedonism seems prima facie an attractive view. He objects to the Hedonist that solely focusing on one’s desire for pleasure is demonstrably harmful for the agent who does it. At the same time Plato clearly recognizes the motivational relevance of pleasure and accepts that it is good and that pain is bad, but denies that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain the only intrinsic bad. He claims, and seems right to insist, that most people accept that there are good and bad pleasures, a claim that is difficult for the Hedonist, who holds that only pleasure is good and pain bad, to accommodate. The ethicist’s overarching task, according to Plato, is to develop a comprehensive theory of ethical value that provides, among other things, criteria independent of pleasure and pain for selecting the good pleasures and avoiding the bad ones, and do the same with pains.

Though Plato’s objections were sufficiently damning to remove hedonism from the philosophical scene for a long time, Epicurus manages expertly to exploit the views on the physiology of pleasure Plato develops in the Philebus in order to reinstate Hedonism as a credible Ethical theory. Plato’s claim, there, briefly stated, is that there is a natural state of balance for every organism, which is the optimal physiological state for it to be in. A disturbance of this state due to, for instance, a deficiency of liquid or nutrition is, if large enough, signalled psychologically to the agent who suffers it as pain. Replenishing the organism with a view to restoring it to its natural physiological state is psychologically signalled to the agent as pleasure. Hence, the pleasure or pain experienced by an agent can be said to owe their existence to a kind of physiological movement. Pain is due to a movement away from the organism’s state of balance whereas pleasure is due to a movement toward it (31b-32b). When balance is restored in the organism, the agent achieves, as a result, a neutral state as regards pleasure and pain in the sense that he experiences neither (42e).

Epicurus adopts Plato’s view that departure from the physiological state of balance is painful for the agent, whereas restoring that state is pleasant. However, this pleasure, which is often called kinetic in discussions of Epicurus’ views to indicate that it is due physiological movements, is only one of two kinds Epicurus claims exist. In Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X, 136, Diogenes Laertius appears to be quoting from Epicurus’ work On Choice and Avoidance a passage that distinguishes this from another kind of pleasure, which is called katastematic or, as we may say, static pleasure. The state to which this pleasure corresponds is the one in which the agent does not experience any pain or any kinetic pleasure, hence the name ‘katastematic’. This state, which is no other than the one in which according to Plato in the Philebus the agent experiences neither pleasure not pain, is the one that produces the highest pleasure according to Epicurus. This move makes it possible for Epicurus to rank pleasures compatibly with being a hedonist, since the criterion enabling him to do that is pleasure-based. First, as already mentioned, katastematic pleasure is the highest possible for the agent to experience. Second, there are better and worse kinetic pleasures depending on how effective they are in helping the agent achieve and maintain himself in the state that produces katastematic pleasure.

Conclusion

Plato’s influence on Epicureanism was basically restricted in the domain of ethics. Epicurus and his followers adopted arguments from the Philebus and gave them a turn (or interpretation) that is, wholly or partially, un-Platonic in scope and intention. They thus managed to use central elements of one of the most devastating criticisms of Hedonism in the theory of Philosophy to support their hedonistic claim that pleasure is the highest good for a happy life.

Author: Panos Dimas
  • Baily, CBaily, C. ed. , Epicurus. Hildesheim, 1970.
  • Long, A. A. , Sedley, D. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Cambridge, 1987.
  • Smith, M.F. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Indianapolis, 2001.
  • Usener, H. Epicurea. Ρώμη, 1963.
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