Notes on Epicurus

Originally Written in 2008:

Epicurus Notes One

We begin with the Tetrapharmakos:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.-Philodemus of Gadara attributed this to Epicurus in Herculaneum Papyrus

There are few simpler words than that and few that get one more scorn.  It almost sounds flippant, but it is also the key to the redeemable elements of Buddhism.   The popularity of Buddhism, an allure that sucked in my father in his twenties and that he both burdened and disillusioned from me, is based on ripping down the baggage and arriving at a similar conclusion.   Gods are irrelevant, if not unreal.  Death is unavoidable.   Things that are good are as easy as the scope of your desires.  And surviving is as hard as you want it to be.  Yet many people think Buddhism has some ideological alliance or similarity to Stoicism (which betrays a lack of knowledge of both).  Now this is, perhaps, overly simple and overtly radical.  It is enough to have the hebrew term for Epicurean ( apikorsim) mean disbeliever in the Mishnah  More radical, but not radical enough for Epicurus to get condemned the same way Socrates did, was this:

God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can.If he wants to and cannot, he is weak — and this does not apply to God.If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful — which is equally foreign to God’s nature.If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful and so not a god.If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them

and this, from the Sovran Maxims (also attributed to Epicurus):

If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to distinguish between opinion about things awaiting confirmation and that which is already confirmed to be present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any application of intellect to the presentations, you will confuse the rest of your sensations by your groundless opinion and so you will reject every standard of truth. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not avoid error, as you will be maintaining the entire basis for doubt in every judgment between correct and incorrect opinion.

Now these are two radically different doctrines, but it is surprising how modern these things sound.  You see a very basic understanding of confirmation bais in the second term, and a basic refutation of Platonic notions of Godhead in the first if omnibenevolence and omnipotence is assumed (it is also interesting how Gnostic some of this sounds with the quote fromt he Sovran Maxims).  Sovran Maxims notions of justice is interesting, and actually, somes up the arguments of Jeremy Betham and John Stuart Mill quite nicely (and also reads like a slightly stuffy version of justice as articulated by the American pragmatists):

Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men’s dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.


There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.

Betham and Mill may have wanted whether or not it be the same for all deleted, but I think the acknowledge of a non-homogenous world implicit in that statement is sort of genius.  The roots of this may be a moderating of the Cyrenaics who was led by Aristippus of Cyrene, who was one of Socrates students who derived the POLAR opposite meaning from Socrates questions than did Plato, and Epicurus was definitely responding to the anti-materialism and puritanical impulses of Platonism and Neo-Platonism.

Epicurus shared a preoccupation with Pyrrho against Ataraxia which means freedom from fear, something that the Stoics also shared with him.  Epicurus as fear as the driving factor behind almost all politics and most injustice (check the Sovran maxims for specific maxims on this), but unlike Pyrrho, he did not find epistemological hyper-skepticism as enabling that freedom (note this is different from modern methodological skepticism) as the lack of ability to make any judgement outside convention was too limiting.

Aponia, was the other state, which was pleasure in the negative sense, pleasure as the lack of pain.  This was the other major concern of Epicurean thinkers and made up the bulk of their ethical and political framework (politics, in Epicurean terms, is to be avoided beyond the level of simple contracts).

Epicurus Notes Two

Epicurus reformualates a basic ethics and outside of that ethic, one is supposed to avoid any more ties into public life: lathe biosas. Mestrius Plutarchus attributed this to Epicurus. For those of you who don’t deal in classic Greek:  get through life without drawing attention to yourself. Or live secretly. Now,this is an ethical priniciple for Epicurus.  Why is this?   Because theethic of reciprocity is a central point Epicurean doctrines, we got tothe Principle Doctrines (Sovran maxims):

A blessedand indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no troubleupon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for allsuch things imply weakness.

Tying yourself into partisan ideologies imply an inability to stand on ourown feet.  This ties into what I said about independence the other day,I will turn back to the Sovran maxims:

Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary;and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.

And, while I disparage overly articulate epistemology,  this is based off of Epicurean ideas about epistemology(again, the Sovran maxims):

If you reject absolutely anysingle sensation without stopping to distinguish between opinion aboutthings awaiting confirmation and that which is already confirmed to bepresent, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any application ofintellect to the presentations, you will confuse the rest of yoursensations by your groundless opinion and so you will reject everystandard of truth. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastilyaffirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which doesnot, you will not avoid error, as you will be maintaining the entirebasis for doubt in every judgment between correct and incorrect opinion.

Is any of this tying anything together?

Epicurus Notes Three

So how is Epicurus relevent to the (post?)modern world with its market economy and its high pressure job market.   Well, let me turn to someone else’s

Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains. Physical pleasures and pains concern only the present, whereas mental pleasures and pains also encompass the past (fond memories of past pleasure or regret over past pain or mistakes) and the future (confidence or fear about what will occur). The greatest destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future, especially fear of the god and fear of death. If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with confidence that one’s desires will be satisfied, then one will attain tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state. In fact, given Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, it might be less misleading to call him a ‘tranquillist’ instead of a ‘hedonist.”

from This European Myspace post that’s pretty good

According to Epicurean ethics and ideology:  the problems of the current are as much problems of priorty and problems of fear.   Safety is always somewhat an illusion.  You have to get rid of fear as much as possible–accepting that you will die. Now this is not an excuse for not planning the future, but it is a point of departure–you can only control what is in your sphere of influence.

From the above post:

Because of the close connection of pleasure with desire-satisfaction, Epicurus devotes a considerable part of his ethics to analyzing different kinds of desires. If pleasure results from getting what you want (desire-satisfaction) and pain from not getting what you want (desire-frustration), then there are two strategies you can pursue with respect to any given desire: you can either strive to fulfill the desire, or you can try to eliminate the desire. For the most part Epicurus advocates the second strategy, that of paring your desires down to a minimum core, which are then easily satisfied.

Epicurus distinguishes between three types of desires: natural and necessary desires, natural but non-necessary desires, and “vain and empty” desires. Examples of natural and necessary desires include the desires for food, shelter, and the like. Epicurus thinks that these desires are easy to satisfy, difficult to eliminate (they are ‘hard-wired’ into human beings naturally), and bring great pleasure when satisfied. Furthermore, they are necessary for life, and they are naturally limited: that is, if one is hungry, it only takes a limited amount of food to fill the stomach, after which the desire is satisfied. Epicurus says that one should try to fulfill these desires.

Vain desires include desires for power, wealth, fame, and the like. They are difficult to satisfy, in part because they have no natural limit. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants. These desires are not natural to human beings, but inculcated by society and by false beliefs about what we need; e.g., believing that having power will bring us security from others. Epicurus thinks that these desires should be eliminated.

An example of a natural but non-necessary desire is the desire for luxury food. Although food is needed for survival, one does not need a particular type of food to survive. Thus, despite his hedonism, Epicurus advocates a surprisingly ascetic way of life. Although one shouldn’t spurn extravagant foods if they happen to be available, becoming dependent on such goods ultimately leads to unhappiness. As Epicurus puts it, “If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give him more money; rather, reduce his desires.” By eliminating the pain caused by unfulfilled desires, and the anxiety that occurs because of the fear that one’s desires will not be fulfilled in the future, the wise Epicurean attains tranquility, and thus happiness.

The desire to change society–which almost everyone seems to want to do–is almost always “vain and empty” if one always view it one the “macro-society” scale. The “micro-society” scale is where it is all at because you DO actually have influence there. The whole “religious” and “secular” battles of the public society that have been annoying me lately are in the later category. I don’t fear God because I want to keep my fear of death minimal and healthy.  I think we need to keep the secular sphere as a secular sphere, but if one wants to effectively do that–most of that needs to be done at the micro-level of society.


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