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Topic #E41

Epicurus and Lucretius: basic principles


25 January 2002

Scribe: Natasha Wall


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


Guest lecturer: Prof. Rachana Kamtekar, University of Michigan



                        The lecture began with some background information on Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean school, which combined Atomist Physics and Hedonist Ethics.   Epicurus was born in Samos, in February of 341BC.   We know this because he left a will for his followers so that they could celebrate his birthday every year.   At thirty-two he moved to Athens where he set up a school called "The Garden", which consisted of a community of friends who were committed to a certain way of life.   In addition to discussing Epicurus' work, they also memorized his doctrines.   We can credit this for much of the information about Epicurus that we have. 


                        Cicero complained that Epicureanism swept over Italy.   This comment was valid, as the Epicurean movement was popular and long-lasting.   Epicurus wrote affectionate letters to his followers, who included women, slaves and amateurs (those who were not officially a part of the community.)  Epicurus was well loved and was considered to be a saviour by some, such as Lucretius.


                        A small amount of Epicurus' written work has survived antiquity.   We have summaries, which include letters and collections of maxims, but none of his in depth philosophy has survived except for in fragments.   In Herculaneum, in the eighteenth century, excavators found a mansion that had once belonged to an Epicurean (probably Philodemus).   The eruption of a nearby volcano in the first century CE has been credited for preserving this Epicurean library.   The texts are in the process of being deciphered.


                        Hostile testimonies, left behind by people like Cicero and Plutarch (who were opposed to the Epicurean notion that pleasure is good), are important sources for Epicurus' work.   The drawback of having negative testimony is that one must read though the intention of the author, however, it is beneficial because we get an understanding of how Epicureanism was viewed.


                        Our last source for Epicurus is Lucretius, whose life we know little about.   As legend has it, Lucretius was driven mad because of a love potion that was given to him, and during this insanity he wrote.   This story should be disregarded as it most likely came from someone trying to discredit him.


                        In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius focuses on the ethics of Epicureanism, specifically the idea that pleasure is good.   If we look to Xenophon's Memoirs of Socrates 2.1, we will see some contrast.   In the story of Heracles a choice is presented -  virtue or pleasure.   Traditionally people thought they had to choose between pleasure and virtue.   In Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus section 132 we see that virtue and pleasure are connected. 


                        In Plato's Gorgias,  Callicles asserts that pleasure is good, so one should maximize desire to maximize pleasure.   Epicurus argues that we should restrict desires to those which are natural, necessary, and cannot be eliminated.   Lucretius says there is a limit to the pleasure we can have, and that pleasure is the absence of pain (Line 18, book two, On the Nature of Things)


                        A student asked:  "If you maximize your desires, aren't you maximizing the chance that they will not be fulfilled?"  The answer to this was yes.   Callicles' path was risky.   Socrates comments that Callicles is suggesting  a life like that of a leaky vessel.   Callicles responds to this by accusing Socrates of leading the life of a corpse.   Epicurus was somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.


                        Epicurus does not suggest that there are good and bad pleasures.   In section 129 of Letters to Menoeceus we see that all pleasures are good, but at the same time, not all pleasures should be chosen.   There are pleasures that we should reject because they may bring about pain, but the pleasure itself cannot be considered bad.


                        In section 127 of Letters to Menoeceus, Epicurus differentiates between natural and groundless desires.   Natural desires (ie thirst) are those that we cannot eliminate because of the animal we are.   Lucretius maintains that nature gives us what we need for these desires.   Groundless desires, on the other hand, aren't necessarily bad, but they cannot be fulfilled.   So, groundless desires, such as the desire for immortality, give us a life of pain with unfulfilled desires.


                        From line 20 to 38 in book two of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, we see how he attacks groundless desires, such as wealth and power.   He states that being entertained in an elaborate hall is no more pleasurable than being entertained by a river, and that a fever will not leave a man more quickly if he is wearing "embroidered attire blushing of crimson" than if he were wearing common clothes.


                        Lucretius contends that pleasure of the mind is pleasure about the body, just as mental pain is connected with worry about the body.   This notion is highly Epicurean.   Is he suggesting that we cannot have mental pleasures without bodily pleasure?  Let's ponder this idea with regards to death.   People pursue power, riches, etc. in the hope of avoiding the fear of death - maybe they hope to be immortal by insuring themselves against ways that they can die, ie poverty.   When we fear death, we are concerned with something that is going to happen to the body.   This is how Lucretius explains the connection between mental pain and bodily pain.   The body can only experience things (ie pain) in the present, while the mind can remember and anticipate. 


                        The desire to trick death is groundless.   To be happy one must eliminate the fear of death.   One must also eliminate the fear of the gods.   There was a popular view that pain comes from the interference of the gods.   The Epicureans argue that the gods are blessed and immortal so they have no reason to interfere with us.


                        A student  asked:  "Since Epicureans believe that one cannot gain favour from the gods by worshiping them, why is worshiping the gods beneficial for those who do so?"  What is beneficial is having the right view about the gods.   The gods benefit us as models of living blessedly.   Another student then asked if trying to be like the gods was a groundless desire because it is unattainable.   The answer to this is no, because what is attainable, and what we should be striving for, is the most pleasure possible.


                        Another question followed: If we want to be like the gods, then shouldn't we also want to be immortal?  But isn't this a groundless desire?  Epicurus answers this when dealing with why we shouldn't consider death an evil.   In section 124 of Letters to Menoeceus, Epicurus states that things can only be good or bad with regards to sense-experience.   So, since death is the deprivation of sense-experience, we cannot consider death  bad, and we should have no fear of it (see section 126).   It could be argued that since death is the deprivation of a good thing (life) then we should avoid it.   Regarding this idea, one must remember that what is important is a pleasurable life, not a long one (section 126).   We should try to attain the blessedness of the gods, not their indestructibility.


                        Epicurus says that since pleasure is good, we should restrict our desires to those we cannot eliminate.   In section 130 of Letters to Menoeceus, Epicurus says that we can make do with few if we don't have a lot.   However, the question must be asked: if all I want is to have my thirst quenched, then how could I enjoy an expensive glass of wine?                   


                        Someone then asked if you can desire, desire.   Can you lose pleasure when you obtain your goal?  The answer is no.   Epicurus says there are different pleasures: kinetic pleasure, when you are moving from a state of pain to no pain, and static pleasure, when you no longer feel pain.   It was then suggested that there may be people who enjoy pain. 


                        On a final note we considered progress.   Someone said that if pleasure is just the absence of pain, then there is no need for progress.   This is not true.   As Lucretius would argue, there are certain kinds of progress (like that of Epicurus) which can help us with pleasure.   The most important thing to remember is that we cannot be happy unless we know which pleasures we need and which fears and desires we should eliminate.