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Topic #F48

Epicurus and Lucretius: basic principles


25 January 2002
Scribe: Ian McElcheran


These minutes were spoken on 28 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


Guest lecturer: Prof. Rachana Kamtekar, University of Michigan


Prof. Kamtekar began her lecture on Epicurus with a bit of background information.  She told us that Epicurus was born in 341 B.C. in February.  This is known with such accuracy because Epicurus left money in will for his followers to celebrate his birthday.  She then said that Epicurus subscribed to Democritus’ atomist physics and that Epicurus was a hedonist with respect to his ethical philosophy.  Epicurus set up a school called the Garden.  This school was a community of friends, not just a method of study.  Epicurus wrote a number of affectionate letters to his friends and students.  Not only did the students study at the school but also they memorized Epicurus’ teachings and as a result of this, we have many texts.


Epicurus was seen as a saviour by his followers, which included women and slaves in addition to the free men.  He also had amateur followers, people that were not part of the community.  Epicurus’ influence spanned as far as Turkey and it took over ‘all of Italy’ (in the exaggerated report of Cicero) in the first century A.D.


The works of Epicurus that we have are mostly summaries and letters.  We do not have any in depth philosophy.  However, recently, many texts were found buried in Herculaneum, below Mount Vesuvius.  Some of this is still being recovered.  We also have a lot of hostile testimonies by Cicero and Plutarch.  These texts are useful but they might not be fair to Epicurus’ intentions.  The major work that we have to understand Epicurus is Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which is mainly a work on physics with some ethics at the beginning of the chapters.  The professor said that very little was known of Lucretius.  We do not know what his birthday was.  There is a legend that Lucretius was thrown into madness by a love potion but had a few moments of sanity in which he wrote.  The professor said that this legend most likely came from people who were trying to defame Lucretius.


Epicurus focused on ethics.  He said that pleasure is the good, which contrasts with Xenophon’s portrayal of the choice of Heracles between virtue and pleasure (vice).  Epicurus goes against tradition and says that being virtuous and seeking pleasure is the same path:


“For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s souls.

     Prudence is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good.  That is why prudence is more valuable than philosophy.  For prudence is the source of all the other virtues, teaching that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably, and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honourably, and justly without living pleasantly.  For the virtues are natural adjuncts of the pleasant life and the pleasant life is inseparable from them.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoecceus, Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett, trans. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, 10.132)


Although Epicurus thinks that pleasure is the good, he does not agree with Callicles when he says that pleasures should be maximized.  Epicurus thinks that desires ought to be restricted to those that are natural and necessary.  These are the desires that cause pain when they are not fulfilled, hunger, for example.  Epicurus says that there are no bad pleasures, only bad desires.  A student made a comment that if one has too many desires then one cannot be satisfied.  The professor responded in agreement.  She returned to Gorgias; Socrates says that the life of Callicles is that of a leaky vessel but Callicles says that the life of Socrates is that of a corpse.


The professor next read us a quote:


“So every pleasure is a good thing, since it has a nature congenial [to us], but not every one is to be chosen.  Just as every pain too is a bad thing, but not every one is such as to be always avoided.” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett, trans. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, 10.129)


She told she told us that Epicurus thought that there were pleasures to reject because of more pain.  There are desires that we cannot eliminate because we are human.  However, we need not worry about these desires because they are easy to satisfy; nature provides for us.  There are also desires that are unnatural or groundless.  These desires are hard or impossible to satisfy.  Luxuries are an example of an unnatural desire, which are hard to satisfy.  Immortality is an example of a groundless desire, which is impossible to satisfy.  The professor then quoted Lucretius:


“Therefore we see that few things altogether are necessary for the bodily nature, only such in each case as take pain away, and can also spread for our use many delights; nor does nature herself ever crave anything more pleasurable, if there be no golden images of about the house, upholding fiery torches in their right hands that light may be provided for nightly revellings, if the hall does not shine with silver and glitter with gold, if no crossbeams panelled and gilded echo the lyre, when all the same stretched forth in groups upon soft grass beside a rill of water under the branches of a tall tree men merrily refresh themselves at no great cost, especially when the weather smiles, and the season of the year besprinkles the green herbage and  pictured tapestry blushing purple to toss upon, than if you must lie sick under the poor man’s blanket.” (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Harvard, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, 2.20-36)


There are some desires that cannot be eliminated.  This limits our pleasure because pleasure is the absence of pain or the absence of unfulfilled desires.  “All that nature barks for is this, that pain be removed away out of the body, and that the mind, kept away from care and fear, enjoy a feeling of delight!” (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Harvard, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, 2.18)  The pleasures that are necessary for happiness are those that fulfill desires that cannot be eliminated.


The professor then read us a quote that she thought made a very interesting argument:


“Therefore, since treasures profit nothing for our body, nor noble birth nor the glory of royalty, we must further think that for the mind also they are unprofitable; unless by any chance, when you behold your legions seething over the spacious Plain as they evoke war in mimicry, established firm with mighty supports and a mass of cavalry, marshalled all in arms cap-a-pie and all full of one spirit, then these things scare your superstitious fears and drive them in panic flight from your mind, and death’s terrors then leave your heart unpossessed and free from care.” (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Harvard, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, 2.37-47)


She said that this was an unclear argument.  It says that what does not benefit the body does not benefit the mind.  This was a new thought about desires for riches, rank and power.  Why does Lucretius make this argument?  The professor answered this question by looking at what riches, rank and power mean to people.  These three things are a kind of immortality for us mortals, our names can live on after our deaths.  Since these represent immortality, therefore they are groundless desires and as such, must be eliminated for happiness.  To Lucretius, pleasures of the mind are representations of pleasures of the body.  However, the mind can accumulate more pleasure or pain than the body due to memory.


For Epicurus, the two most important things to know regard the gods and death.  Regarding the gods, we must know that they are perfect blessed animals.  The gods do not affect our lives because that would be inconsistent with their blessedness.  The only way that the gods affect our happiness is by our belief in them, i.e. we are happier because we believe in them.  A student then commented that Epicurus believed that worshipping the gods keeps their favour.  The professor responded by saying that worship could be just having the right spirit.  She then said that the gods were a model of living blessedly.  A student asked if desiring to be like the gods is groundless because it is unattainable.  The professor responded that we can come close to the blessed life and that could be our desire. 


Another student asked if perhaps immortality was not groundless since people end up living longer as a result of medicines made by people who want to be immortal?  The response to this question came in two parts.  The first part was that Epicurus did not see death as a bad thing.  The second part was a reminder that Epicurus preached that quality was better than quantity with respect to pleasures.  Remember the second thing that Epicurus’ followers had to know was in regard to death.  The idea that death is not a bad thing was the second thing that Epicureans had to know.  This is because death is not here now, so it does not affect us now.  Also, when we are dead, we will not be able to experience it.  Therefore we must not fear death.


We then returned to a discussion of pleasures.  Epicurus says we must restrict our desires to ones that cannot be eliminated, such as the desire for food.  The professor then gave another quote:


“And we believe that self-sufficiency is a great good, not in order that we might make do with few things under all circumstances, but so that if we do not have a lot we can make do with few, being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it most; and that everything natural is easy to obtain and whatever is groundless is hard to obtain; and that simple flavours provide a pleasure equal to that of an extravagant life-style when all pain from want is removed.”  (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett, trans. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson, 10.130)


A student saw a problem with why someone would desire more luxurious things if he is just as happy with less luxurious things.  Why, in Epicurus’ view, would one smell a rose?  Another student asked about the enjoyment of the chase, that is, desiring desire.  The professor responded by saying that there is pleasure of motion and pleasure of the state for Epicurus.  He says that these are different pleasures.  He might say that this person enjoys pain.


The lecture ended with a student saying that there is no need for progress.  We could all be happy sitting in the forest eating fruit.  The professor responded by saying that Lucretius looks at this problem in books five and six of On the Nature of Things.  He says that heroes of progress fulfill some desires but we can be happy without progress.