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Epicurus and the Philosophy of Pleasure

by November 16, 2021

by Kevin Blood
Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure…
According to Seneca the Younger, these words could be seen at the entrance to the philosopher Epicurus’ garden in Athens. It was a place of seclusion, where, with a small group of friends, Epicurus taught and lived out his philosophy. But what was his philosophy, exactly?
During Epicurus’ life, his teachings grew in popularity, becoming one of the dominant philosophies of the age. He was a polymath. He covered diverse subjects, from ethics to biology. Epicureanism reached its zenith around 70 B.C. While popular in Rome, it faced criticism. Its teachings countered the Roman virtue of piety (pietas), the carrying out of all one’s obligation to the family and the gods, and ancestral custom (mos maiorum). Its emphasis on withdrawal from public life flew in the face of the Roman political system, where patricians were encouraged to follow the ‘ladder of office’ that an aspiring politician was expected to climb, handing out benefits and bribes to friends and clients as they rose.
For some ancient commentators, Epicurus’ views on the gods and the soul were problematic, and they proved the same for Christian scholars, who thought Epicurus’ views heretical. The Epicurean view? Simply put, when we come to a true understanding of the gods, we can conclude that they do not exist, or if they do, that they are indifferent to us. For Epicurus the soul is mortal.   He insists on materialist empiricism and his naturalistic, evolutionary, ideas about the formation of the world and the development of human societies cannot be reconciled with many religious teachings. For his heresy, Epicurus can be found in Dante’s Sixth Circle of Hell.
Bad press from ancient and medieval opponents of the philosophy, and skimming of its basic principles, play a part in the idea that Epicureanism is common hedonism, the self-centred and short-term pursuit of sensual pleasures, regardless of consequences. This reading of Epicurus’ teachings is reductive and misleading.
Epicurus teaches pleasure is the supreme good.  We should seek pleasure to achieve a good and happy life of good spirits (eudaimonia). Genuine pleasure, for Epicurus, involves the elimination of fear and pain. This is achieved by having enough food, a comfortable living situation, tranquil relationships, close friends, and the practice of moderation.
Bust of Epicurus
Bust of Epicurus
Epicureanism divides pleasure into two kinds. Active pleasure (kinetic pleasure) is felt when satisfying a desire or removing pain. For example, eating when hungry. Static pleasure (katastematic pleasure) comes from contentment or tranquility. For example, feeling full and satisfied after eating. These pleasures manifest in physical and mental forms.  The physical? Freedom from things like hunger, thirst, or ill-health. The mental? Freedom from negative thoughts, like fear and worry.  Freedom from physical disturbance is aponia and liberation from mental disturbance is ataraxia.  Epicurus has time for kinetic pleasures, but they are short-lived, so he places greater emphasis on the benefits of katastematic pleasures, which last longer.
Epicurus differentiated between physical and mental pleasure and pain. Physical pains are fleeting and encompass only the present. Mental pains endure and can encompass the past (like pleasant reminiscences or regretting poor decisions) and the future (like confidence or doubt about what may happen).
Because katastematic pleasures concern the meeting of desires and the relieving of fears, Epicurus clarified and sorted the types of desire we experience by dividing them into three groups: Natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, and unnatural and unnecessary (the vain desires).
The first is to be sought after, we should be receptive but wary of the second, and the third should be avoided. 
Natural and necessary desires, like the need for food, water, comfortable shelter, and human companionship, are hard to get rid of, but simply satisfied, giving pleasure when they are. They are necessary for life, and for a happy life, we must meet these desires. In satisfying them we reach aponia.
For Epicurus, natural and unnecessary desires, like fine food, designer clothes or sex, are not necessary for life, and are not always easily satisfied. These are kinetically pleasurable; yet they offer a katastematic risk: the greater the indulgence in these pleasures, the more habitual their consumption becomes.  If they are unavailable, we risk losing peace of mind because of an inability to fulfil an inessential desire. Epicurus’ advice is to be open to these desires, but to try to not become used to them.
Unnatural and unnecessary desires are things like a lust for power, wealth and fame, the vain desires. Epicurus teaches us these desires are not natural to human beings.  We are molded by society to want them, they are unnecessary and hard to satisfy, and without natural limits. Think of the person who relentlessly pursues power. No amount of power will satisfy them because it is always possible to get more and when they get more they fear losing it. They gain mental anguish, and the anger and enmity of those around them, who become envious. For Epicurus, these desires are unnecessary and unnatural. They cannot be satisfied, they lead to pain and fear, and they should be avoided.
"Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little" - Epicurus
“Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little” – Epicurus
Epicurus’ advocation of simple living is not to be followed too stringently. He was no puritanical ascetic, denying material possessions and pleasures in favour of spiritual ends, nor was he an insatiable hedonist, pursuing all pleasures regardless of the cost. For Epicurus, sources of pain are to be minimized. The object is not to get rid of all sources of pleasure or all physical possessions. If getting rid of something brings more pain than it alleviates, it is counter-productive in achieving a good and happy life.  Further, most kinetic pleasure is achieved in the process of satisfying our basic needs. Luxuries, though pleasant, bring little additional value. Moderation relative to oneself is the key.
There is also a limit to simple living, and he who fails to understand this falls into an error as great as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.”
When people think of the practice of moderation it often takes the form of a bossy and prudish moralism, the directive being not to indulge in ‘bad’ things and behaviours.  For Epicurus, moderation cuts both ways, one can have too much of a pleasurable thing too often and one can have too little not often enough. 
Think of someone at a lavish dinner party, they can drink too much wine and eat too much fine food too quickly, get drunk rapidly, get sick, have to leave friends and leave the party early, miss out on a pleasurable, sociable, evening, and the hangover the next morning brings pain. Epicurus would advise this be avoided. 
On the other hand, they can eat and drink too little too slowly, remain hungry, not experience a pleasurable and longer-lasting katastematic buzz of feeling just full enough and merry, and with that miss the loosening of inhibitions that can lead to fun and interesting conversation. The result is similar, minus the hangover. Epicurus would advise this should be avoided.
Dinner Party
Dinner Party
The goal is to reach aponia and ataraxia often enough and to make it last long enough so there is a continuous flow of pleasure without intervals of pain, then we can achieve eudaimonia. For Epicurus, on the physical level, finding the middle-ground relative to oneself is a part of reaching a long-lasting state of ataraxia.  The ideal Epicurean dinner party?  These happen frequently: close friends, free from fear and worry, gather. There is enough good food and drink for all, and all partake of it with moderation relative to themselves. Good times! You will notice that the absence of fear and worry make it the ideal Epicurean dinner party.
Satisfying our natural desires is insufficient to reach ataraxia and have atranquil mind.  The removal of mental anguish and worry is a must.  Therefore, for Epicurus, to attain ataraxia we should not fear death or the gods. Not to fear death because we are not conscious of it when it happens, and the gods because it is unlikely that they pay attention to human affairs. The Roman poet Lucretius quotes Epicurus:
Death is nothing to us.  When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.  All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”

Marcus Aurelius and his Mentors

by November 10, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
Marcus Aurelius was arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors.  He is also the author of one of the primary Stoic texts, the Meditations.  As far as scholars can tell, it was intended as a private journal, in which he recorded his observations about the people around him, as well as advice to himself on how to deal with those people. 
For someone curious about what it means to behave in a Stoical manner, Book One of the Meditations is essential reading. In just a few pages, Marcus tells us what he has learned from the various mentors he has been blessed with in the course of his life.
One of these mentors was Stoic philosopher Maximus, who had mastered, Marcus says, “the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.”  From him, Marcus learned the importance of maintaining “cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.”   So much for the common belief that the Stoics were glum, pessimistic, emotionless individuals!  This was a man, says Marcus,  about whom “everybody believed that in all that he did he never had any bad intention.”
From Catulus, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus learned not just to love his children but to love them “truly.”  He also acquired useful strategies for dealing with other people.  He learned, for example, that when a friend unjustly blamed him of something, he should not get angry but should instead try to restore that friend to “his usual disposition.”  Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Rusticus taught him that when someone insulted him or wronged him, he should “be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.”  If you can’t tolerate the occasional vexatious behavior of friends, you probably don’t have any!
From Diognetus, the philosopher who introduced him to Stoicism, Marcus learned not to busy himself about “trifling things.”
From an unnamed tutor—he refers to this individual as his “governor”—Marcus learned “endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”
Depiction of Sextus of Chaeronea
Depiction of Sextus of Chaeronea, one of Marcus Aurelius’ teachers
From the philosopher Sextus, he learned “to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  Sextus, he tells us, “never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion.”  This makes Sextus sound like a wooden being, but this apparently wasn’t the case, inasmuch as Marcus also describes him as being “most affectionate.”
Although Sextus possessed considerable knowledge, he did not display it in an ostentatious manner, a trait that Marcus thought was admirable.  Along similar lines, Marcus appreciated the subtle but effective manner in which the scholar Alexander corrected the speech of those he encountered.  If they uttered “a barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression,” Alexander would not mock them; he instead attempted “dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used,” so the person could learn the correct usage without having been chided for misusing language.
Marcus’s mentors also taught him that, besides not flaunting his own knowledge, he should not begrudge others their knowledge.  He notes that Antoninus Pius—who was both Marcus’s adoptive father and emperor of Rome just ahead of Marcus—was “most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts
Coin with Antoninus Pius on one side, and Marcus Aurelius on the other
Coin with Antoninus Pius on one side, and Marcus Aurelius on the other
From the philosopher Alexander, who was a Platonist rather than a Stoic, Marcus learned not to form the habit of telling people that he had no time for leisure, or of continually excusing neglect of loved ones by claiming that he had important business to attend to.
One last comment is in order: it was the practice of Stoicism that led Marcus to actively seek out mentors.  A Stoic takes his life to be a work in progress, so he is grateful for any insights other people can provide him.  Most people don’t seek mentors, for the simple reason that they don’t think they have any important lessons left to learn.

What Stoicism Isn’t

by November 9, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
Stoicism has gotten a bad rap.  People think of the Stoics as emotionless beings—as grim, wooden individuals whose goal in life was to stand mutely and take whatever life could throw at them.
This perception, however, is quite mistaken.  When we read about the Stoics or read their works, what we encounter are individuals who can best be described as cheerful.  They were very good at finding life’s sources of delight and savoring them to the fullest.  They had friends and spouses.  They were loved and in turn requited the love they received.
It wasn’t emotion that the Stoics were opposed to; it was negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.  They had nothing against positive emotions such as delight and even joy.  Thus, the phrase joyful Stoic is not the oxymoron many people take it to be.
Although Stoicism was invented by Zeno of Citium, a Greek, the doctrine was subsequently modified by the Romans, including, most prominently, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus.  The writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are not only readily available, but can often be found at the top of Amazon’s ancient philosophy best-seller list.  The writings of Musonius Rufus used to be difficult to obtain, but my colleague Cynthia King and I tried to remedy that by publishing a translation of them.  (Cynthia did the translating; I did the editing and publishing.)  It is the writings of the Roman Stoics that I, as a 21st century Stoic, find most useful.
Another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion.  Although the Stoics routinely make reference to the gods in their writing, theirs was a philosophical rather than religious doctrine.  Religions are primarily concerned with our having a good afterlife.  Stoicism, by way of contrast, is primarily concerned with our having a good life.  What Stoicism offers us is a philosophy of life or, as it is sometimes called, a philosophy for living.
In this philosophy, the Stoics tell us what in life is most worth having and provide us with a strategy to obtain it.  What is most worth having, they tell us, is tranquility, and what they mean by this is an absence of negative emotions in our life.  In their strategy to obtain this tranquility, they provide us with various psychological techniques that I describe in my Guide to the Good Life.
Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions.  It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity.  Thus, consider the “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
     God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
     The courage to change the things I can,
     And wisdom to know the difference.
It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.
It is important to realize that Stoicism is not some kind of cult.  To practice it, you will not have to turn over your worldly goods to a guru.  You will not have to give up your day job.  You will not have to dress in an unorthodox manner—although practicing Stoicism, by making you re-evaluate the way you are living, might affect the way you dress.  All you have to do to practice Stoicism is put Stoic strategies to work in your life.
And even this can be done in an incremental manner.  You can try a strategy and see if it works.  If it does, you can move on to the next strategy.  If it turns out, though, that Stoicism is not to your liking, you can abandon it.  And if you have practiced your Stoicism in a “stealthy” manner—which is what, in my Guide, I recommend that you do—no one need be any the wiser.

Putting the Greek Back into Stoicism

by November 4, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
It was the Greeks who gave us the word “crisis”. It is derived from the Greek krinein, meaning “decide”. Besides giving us our word for crisis, the Greeks also provided us with a splendid strategy for dealing with crises: the philosophy known as Stoicism.
Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism does not advocate that we keep a stiff upper lip – that we stand there mutely and impassively, and take whatever the world throws at us. It instead provides us with a number of specific strategies which, if practised, can make our days go better, in both good times and bad.
One component of the Stoic strategy is to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t. Our life, say the Stoics, will be miserable if we spend our time worrying about things over which we have no control. That time and energy is far better spent thinking about things we can affect. To quote Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”
Marcus Aurelius on horseback
Marcus Aurelius on horseback
One of the things we have no control over is the past. We cannot alter it. We therefore need to decide whether we are going to spend our life filled with regret over choices we have made in the past, or whether we are going to let go of that past and instead focus our attention on the choices that lie ahead. It ought to be an easy decision to make. It is also a decision that many people, tragically, fail to make.
The Stoics have a simple technique for making our days go better: we should think about how they could have been worse. Notice that I didn’t say dwell on how they could have been worse; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence. Instead, we should allow ourselves to entertain flickering thoughts about the loss of our friends, money, lover, job, health – all the things we value.
If we do lose any of these things, we will have been prepared by our negative thinking, and this will likely lessen the blow of our loss; we will, in a sense, have seen it coming. And if we don’t lose these things, we will find ourselves far more appreciative of them than would otherwise have been the case.
A life filled with people and things that we appreciate is easy to enjoy. The Stoics were smart enough to realise that we have it in our power to appreciate the life we find ourselves living if we can just bear in mind that things are a lot better than they could have been.
The Stoics valued self-control, as did most ancient philosophers. If we have self-control, we control ourselves; lack it, and it is someone or something else that controls us. Do we really want to spend the one life we have controlled by someone or something else?
The Stoics thought people could develop self-control by engaging in acts of self-denial. They didn’t advocate anything extreme: it was their philosophical rivals the Cynics who suggested doing such things as hugging statues on cold winter days. The Stoics instead advocate that we periodically go out of our way to make ourselves somewhat uncomfortable. Fail to do this, and we will lose our tolerance for discomfort, meaning that the slightest inconvenience will have the power to ruin our day. Those inured to discomfort, the Stoics realised, are almost always happier than those who lead a pampered existence.
When life throws an obstacle in their way, Stoics do their best to take it in their stride or even to profit from it.
Zeno of Citium was a merchant who found himself in Athens as the result of a shipwreck. While there, he took an interest in philosophy and ended up founding his own school, which became known as the Stoics because he gave his lectures at the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade in the Agora of Athens.
Regarding this turn of events, Zeno subsequently commented that “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.”
Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium
The Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus is another example of a Stoic who profited from what others would take to be misfortune. This occurred after he somehow managed to annoy Emperor Nero (Tacitus says it was because Nero envied his fame as a philosopher) and was banished to the Greek island of Gyaros, in the Aegean Sea. The island was desolate, bleak, and nearly waterless, a miserable place to be put; indeed, even in the 20th Century, the Greek government used Gyaros as a dumping ground for its leftist enemies.
Instead of letting himself be crushed by his circumstances, Musonius took an interest in Gyaros and its inhabitants, mostly impoverished fishermen. He discovered a new spring and thereby made the island more habitable. Those who visited him reported that they never heard him complain or saw him disheartened. He had transformed what could have been a personal tragedy into a personal triumph.
Three Stoical Strategies
• Focus on things you can control – get over things that you cannot control
• Bear in mind that things could have been worse
• Learn self-control through occasional acts of self-denial

Twenty Quotes from Stoic Philosophers

by September 28, 2021

by Bryan Maniotakis, Guest Poster,
One of the best ways to get a quick grasp on Stoicism and the principles it follows is through thousands of years of age-old quotations influenced by its teachings.
Across the centuries, many important people in history have made note of what has led them to success or failure.
Quotes attributed to famous celebrities can often be found dating back into antiquity. These provide guidance on almost every aspect of common human existence such as health, personal relationships, living harmoniously with others and with one’s self, family life, love and death.
Here are 5 of my favourite thoughts from some of the most famous philosophers of the ancient world.
Marcus Aurelius
Give yourself a gift, the present moment.
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Life is long, if you know how to use it.
While we are postponing, life speeds by.
It does not matter how many books you have, but how good are the books which you have.
For many men, the acquisition of wealth does not end their troubles, it only changes them.
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.
A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope.
It is difficulties that show what men are.
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
Reason is not measured by size or height, but by principle.
Zeno of Citium
All the good are friends of one another.
Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue
No evil is honorable; but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.
We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.
Happiness is a good flow of life.

Cicero and the Stoics – the Paradoxa Stoicorum

by September 22, 2021

By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The legacy of Cicero towers over the ancient world: philosopher and politician, enemy of Mark Antony, and the Roman Republic’s great defender. His writings remain some of the most celebrated in Latin literature, and today we look at one of his more overlooked works – the Paradoxa Stoicorum. But first, a little background….
Cicero was quite eclectic in his beliefs, but he mostly embraced the beliefs of Academic Skepticism. As the Skeptics believed that there is no philosophy that can be entirely true, they mostly criticized belief systems. However, Skepticism allowed for embracing certain philosophies, just as long as one makes sure to carefully examine them and leaves oneself open to change in the face of good arguments.
This was suitable for Cicero, as he could advocate for the philosophical systems he found most useful. For Cicero, philosophy was subject to politics, as it served his political beliefs and interests. He believed that the reason that the Republic was weakening was the moral decay of Roman politicians. Therefore, he advocated for Stoicism (among other schools of thought), since the Stoics believed that one must be politically involved, as it is his duty as a Roman citizen. They did not advocate for political involvement due to self-interest, but rather as a moral duty.
Cicero manuscript
14th century manuscript of the Paradoxa Stoicorum (featuring a marginal bracket in the shape of an octopus)
However, Stoic sayings were often difficult to understand so that, as Cicero says, even the Stoics themselves called them ”paradoxes”. For this reason, he decided to perform a little exercise (or even a game) that consisted of exploring and translating six complex Greek Stoic sayings into his contemporary language and style of rhetorical Latin. This was the Paradoxa Stoicorum, today one of Cicero’s most fascinating but overlooked writings. Cicero also says that he is playing this game out of curiosity, to see if these principles can actually be applied in reality….
1. That moral worth is the only good
Have you ever thought about how strange it is that the property is also called ”goods”? In this section, Cicero wonders about this paradox, asking:
By what staircase did Romulus ascend heaven? By the ones that those people call ”goods” or by his deeds and virtues?
Cicero quickly answers this question with Bias of Priena‘s famous sentence: Omnia mecum porto meaEverything mine I carry with me. He concludes that a good and happy life means nothing else but to live honorably.
Apotheosis of Romulus
2.  That virtue is sufficient to live happily
This is another very typical stoic belief that is more or less self-explanatory and more of a follow-up to the first principle. This is his message to those who are ”tortured by day and night by the thought that what they possess is not enough”:
Death is devastating to those whose everything vanishes with their life, not to those whose praise cannot die.
3. That offenses are equal, and good deeds are equal
Cicero explains that the best way to punish, or rather, to prevent crimes is to consider them all equally bad, the same way as we should not measure the greatness of a deed if it is good in any way. When asked (by himself) for a reason, he responds in a quite Socratic manner:
Whatever is not fit, is a crime, and whatever is not permitted, we should consider a sin. ‘’Even in the smallest things?’’ Of course, for if we cannot fix the limit of things, but we can set limits on our souls.
4. That every foolish man is insane
This is a perfect example of Cicero’s use of philosophy for political purposes. It is an attack against his personal enemy whom he does not name, but many speculate that it was Clodius, who was responsible for his exile, 58. B.C.E.
As it is well-known, Cicero revealed the conspiracy of Catilina and prevented it from happening. After this, he was so boastful about it, that he was claiming that he was solely responsible for saving the Republic. This section is, in its essence, a follow-up on this self-praise, highlighted by the fact that the exile was not a misfortune for him because he possessed Stoic virtue.
5. Every wise man is free and every fool is a slave
Cicero gives us his definition of freedom while explaining this principle. For him, freedom is the ability to live as you wish. However, under living as we wish, he considers pursuing the upright things, practicing virtue, and living according to our own judgement and will. On the other hand, a slave is everyone who does the opposite.
6. Only a wise man is rich
Cicero already tackled the question of wealth while explaining the first two principles. In this chapter, he says that a truly rich man is the one who thinks he has enough, regardless of how much he has:
But the bad and the greedy, because they have possessions which are uncertain and depend on chance, always seek more, and by now, none of them has been found to whom what he has is enough, not only that they should not be considered abundant and rich, but even as poor and deprived.
We cannot possibly know how this treatise was received by the Romans, but we can conclude that this work was unjustifiably neglected for centuries. In it, we can see Cicero’s rhetorical skills at their best, read about the famous examples from early Roman history, and dive into well explained Stoic philosophy.