The law of gravity has its own way of putting all things of the earth into a stable rest. If one were to throw a ball into the air, for instance, one should expect it to fall back and eventually roll to a place where it would finally stop. In the same way, all things on the surface of the earth are using the law of gravity to establish their respective states of rest to properly function – buildings to their bases, rocks to their beds, water to its basins.
Analogously, Epicurus’ theory on pleasure – a category determining the primordial motives for ethical actions – takes on the structure of how things are pushed by gravity towards equilibrium or rest. At the onset, it is imperative to note that, rightly as the book puts it, Epicurus is no “hedonist” (Cooper, ed. , 1998, p. 47). Instead, his whole doctrine on pleasure is derived from an understanding that even life itself is drawn towards a state of equilibrium, stability and peacefulness (p. 48).
Epicurus on pleasure In his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus clearly explicates the manner by which he understands the true value of pleasure in human life. His position may prove to be a little opposed to the dominant streams of thought of both Plato and Aristotle; since they have placed pleasure not as the primary determinant of, but only a constitutive element of true happiness (p. 47). The central thesis of Epicurus’ belief on the place of pleasure in human life is certainly best captured in his very own words.
He contends, “we speak of pleasure as the starting point and the goal of the happy life because we realize that it is our primary native good, because every act of choice and aversion originates with it, and because we come back to it when we judge every good by using the pleasure feeling as our criterion” (p. 51). His words truly speak volumes. But it can be susceptible to misunderstanding as well.
It must be noted that Epicurus’ teaching is largely influenced by the atomism of Democritus – a theory that maintains that all things of the world are constituted by tiny substructures of atom-like substances pushed to take certain forms in a given a stable state. As a result therefore, human body is a structure drawn towards a state of equilibrium as well (p. 48). This may explain why Epicurus defines pleasure not as a feeling arrived at an indulgent behavior to elicit a certain peak of enjoyment, as most people would regard it.
Instead, consistent with his view about human structure, he maintains that pleasure “consists in freedom from bodily pain and mental agitation” (p. 52). To put the idea in other words, he seems to imply that pleasure is more of a state of equilibrium or stillness (peacefulness, if one may call it) as against an enjoyment derived from what is commonly taken as a pleasurable experience. Epicurus moreover believes that the chief goal of life lies in the pursuit of happiness marked by stability in bodily and mental health.
He thinks that this is the reason why people seek to do what they do. As the motive from where all actions spring, Epicurus therefore understands the rule of pleasure as human beings’ primary native good – all actions are determined by the desire to achieve a state of peacefulness, inasmuch as all actions are to be judged according to the state of peacefulness they are able to achieve. It would be therefore wrong to regard Epricurus as someone who promotes an incontinent or a permissive lifestyle.
On the contrary, because he regards pleasure as a state and not as an enjoyment, Epicurus maintains that not all instances of pleasure must be pursued; especially if the succeeding consequences would spell suffering or pain for man. One for instance cannot indulge in too much sex, alcohol or food, if in the process, it will amount to an existence marked by an unfortunately disturbed peacefulness due to diseases or sickness (pp. 51-52).
In the end, Epicurus teaches that a life lived happily is a life that is measured by the sound judgment one makes in his life. No person in his right mind, one can suppose, will ever want to live an extravagantly lavish life and hope to find a fruitful meaning in it. “It is impossible to live pleasantly,” he continues, if one were not “to live sensibly, nobly and justly” (p. 52). The will to live a pleasant existence and the need to decide on what would amount to a peaceful life go hand in hand.
The key here is to understand the proper nuance of Epicurean pleasure, and to follow the ethical life that it consequentially demands. By Way of Conclusion For most part, I could no less agree with Epicurus. A meaningful life neither consists in a life lived without rules, nor is it marked by an excessive indulgence to pleasurable experiences of many kinds, day in and day out. A meaningful life instead consists being able to figure what makes us happy with our right choices and conduct.
Happiness indeed is a pleasurable existence; but it is something that we know because we find ourselves at peace with who we are, and where we are at a particular point in our life. For instance, I am happy with my life right now. As a student, I am able to appreciate the way I am balancing my academic pursuit with friendship, my independence with a sense of responsibility, even the demands of school with taking some time off to hang out. I do find myself in times when I had to sit down and discipline my self because I wanted to achieve something.
But even when it is difficult, I know I had to make a choice to study my lessons since indulging with too much night outs will compromise my defining goal in life. With this in mind, I would definitely say that Epicurus doctrine on pleasure speaks of a very important truth about the way we people should conscientiously live out lives.
The Philosophy of Epicurus. Translated by Strodach, G. in Cooper, D. (1998). Ethics: The Classic Readings. Oxford, Blackwell