Epicurus—Getting Away from It All
Today, we are going to think about something that may not, at first glance, seem to have much to do with wisdom, and that is pleasure. Pleasure and pain are central parts of our experience of being human. Perhaps as you are reading this, you are experiencing both pleasure (you have a cup of hot coffee) and discomfort (you are cold but too lazy to get up and close the window).
Epicurus was a philosopher who set up a distinctive school of philosophy in Athens in the 4th century BCE. Epicurus’s school was called “the Garden” and was set just outside the city gates as a refuge from the endless political turmoil of the city. The Garden was famous for admitting both women and slaves—something that caused a scandal at the time. Epicurus’s philosophy is often called “hedonistic,” or pleasure seeking, after the Greek hedone, or “pleasure.” But what was pleasure and what was its connection with wisdom?
Taking Pleasure Seriously
Epicurus’s philosophical opponents throughout history have sometimes claimed that his Garden was nothing more than a place of endless drunken orgies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Epicurus’s distinctive contribution to the question of how we are to live wisely was that he took pleasure seriously. For Epicurus, pleasure is the only thing that is worth seeking for its own sake. So, his philosophy explored how we might live wisely in a fashion that might maximize our pleasure. In fact, Epicurus wrote that it was impossible to live wisely without living pleasurably, and it was impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely.
It is not that some pleasures are good and that some are bad. Insofar as something is pleasurable, the pleasure involved is good. But some pleasures lead to further pain, whilst others do not. Our job is to choose between the 2.
Being Wise about Pleasure
For Epicurus, the trouble with pleasure is that we’re not very good at it. He claimed that all pleasure was good, but much of it brought all kinds of trouble in its wake. This could be called the “hangover effect”: It may be pleasurable to drink a bottle of wine, but the hangover can be punishing. So for Epicurus, there are 2 kinds of pleasures: kinetic pleasures and static (or katastematic) pleasures. Kinetic pleasures are pleasures that cause us further disturbance down the line, that unsettle and unbalance us. Static pleasures are pleasures that do not have any hangover effect: for example, the pleasures of friendship, simple eating, or just sitting and watching the sky. We need to learn to distinguish between kinetic and static pleasures and cultivate the latter. If we do this, we will, Epicurus claims, live wisely.
Epicurus and the Wider World
What this means in practical terms is that Epicurean philosophers tend to withdraw from public life to live peacefully, cultivating their gardens with small groups of friends. But what about the wider world? Epicurus’s approach to living wisely was hugely influential in both Greece and Rome, but it was often criticized for not contributing much to public life. In other words, you may be having a nice time in your garden, but what about me? And what about all the other people out there? Tomorrow, we will look at 1 of the major rivals of the Epicurean school: Stoicism.
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