"Pleasure" Is The Goal Of Life

Questions frequently arise as to the role of “Tranquility” in Epicurean philosophy, and whether in the form of “Ataraxia” or “Aponia” Epicurus was advocating these terms as either some special and highest form of pleasure, or something higher than pleasure itself, to be pursued as the ultimate goal of life. Difficulties arise in defining what these terms mean, how Epicurus was referring to them, and where they stand in relation to “Pleasure” - the term that Epicurus generally employs in describing the guide or goal of life. While there is no doubt that tranquility and concepts such as “Absence of pain” and “absence of disturbance” are important aspects of the best life, it is important to be clear on how these terms relate to each other so that the primary focus remains on “Pleasure” and how best to obtain it.

  1. Cicero: On Ends Book One - [29] IX. “‘First, then,’ said he, ‘I shall plead my case on the lines laid down by the founder of our school himself: I shall define the essence and features of the problem before us, not because I imagine you to be unacquainted with them, but with a view to the methodical progress of my speech. The problem before us then is, what is the climax and standard of things good, and this in the opinion of all philosophers must needs be such that we are bound to test all things by it, but the standard itself by nothing. Epicurus places this standard in pleasure, which he lays down to be the supreme good, while pain is the supreme evil; and he founds his proof of this on the following considerations. [30] Every creature, as soon as it is born, seeks after pleasure and delights therein as in its supreme good, while it recoils from pain as its supreme evil, and banishes that, so far as it can, from its own presence, and this it does while still uncorrupted, and while nature herself prompts unbiased and unaffected decisions. So he says we need no reasoning or debate to shew why pleasure is matter for desire, pain for aversion. These facts he thinks are simply perceived, just as the fact that fire is hot, snow is white, and honey sweet, no one of which facts are we bound to support by elaborate arguments; it is enough merely to draw attention to the fact; and there is a difference between proof and formal argument on the one hand and a slight hint and direction of the attention on the other; the one process reveals to us mysteries and things under a veil, so to speak; the other enables us to pronounce upon patent and evident facts. Moreover, seeing that if you deprive a man of his senses there is nothing left to him, it is inevitable that nature herself should be the arbiter of what is in accord with or opposed to nature. Now what facts does she grasp or with what facts is her decision to seek or avoid any particular thing concerned, unless the facts of pleasure and pain?”
  2. Cicero:: On Ends Book One “Nor indeed can our mind find any other ground whereon to take its stand as though already at the goal; and all its fears and sorrows are comprised under the term pain, nor is there any other thing besides which is able merely by its own character to cause us vexation or pangs In addition to this the germs of desire and aversion and generally of action originate either in pleasure or in pain.” [42] This being so, it is plain that all right and praiseworthy action has the life of pleasure for its aim. Now inasmuch as the climax or goal or limit of things good (which the Greeks term telos) is that object which is not a means to the attainment of any thing else, while all other things are a means to its attainment, we must allow that the climax of things good is to live agreeably.“
  3. Diogenes of Oinoanda, Fragment 32: “I shall discuss folly shortly, the virtues and pleasure now. If, gentlemen, the point at issue between these people and us involved inquiry into «what is the means of happiness?» and they wanted to say «the virtues» (which would actually be true), it would be unnecessary to take any other step than to agree with them about this, without more ado. But since, as I say, the issue is not «what is the means of happiness?» but «what is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?», I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end. Let us therefore now state that this is true, making it our starting-point.”
  1. Common understanding of the terms indicates that “Pleasure” is the wider term: all Tranquility is Pleasure, but all Pleasure is not Tranquility. Epicurus nowhere in any text states that Tranquility is not a pleasure or that Tranquility is something superior to Pleasure. There are no cites under this point because such cites (to “Tranquility” having exactly the same meaning as “Pleasure” or being something other than a type of pleasure) do not exist. The instance used primarily to argue this from the letter to Menoeceus is a small part of a much larger discussion in which the intent is not to identify the two as equal but to explain how to pursue pleasure without encountering pains worse than those pleasures.” (“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. [132] It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.”)
  2. Diogenes Laertius, Biography of Epicurus: Epicurus differs from the Cyrenaics about pleasure. For they do not admit static pleasure, but only that which consists in motion. But Epicurus admits both kinds both in the soul and in the body, as he says in the work on Choice and Avoidance and in the book on The Ends of Life and in the first book On Lives and in the letter to his friends in Mytilene. Similarly, Diogenes in the 17th book of Miscellanies and Metrodorus in the Timocrates speak thus: ‘Pleasure can be thought of both as consisting in motion and as static.’ And Epicurus in the work on Choice speaks as follows: ‘Freedom from trouble in the mind and from pain in the body are static pleasures, but Joy and exultation are considered as active pleasures involving motion. '
  3. Diogenes Laertius, Biography of Epicurus: A further difference from the Cyrenaics: they thought that bodily pains were worse than those of the soul, and pointed out that offenses are visited by bodily punishment. But Epicurus held that the pains of the soul are worse, for the flesh is only troubled for the moment, but the soul for past, present, and future. In the same way the pleasures of the soul are greater. As proof that pleasure is the end, he points out that all living creatures as soon as they are born take delight in pleasure, but resist pain by a natural impulse apart from reason. Therefore we avoid pain by instinct, just as Heracles, when he is being devoured by the shirt of Nessus, cries aloud, With tears and groans: the rocks re-echoed far from Locris' mountain peaks, Euboea’s hills.“
  1. Letter to Menoeceus: “And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.”
  2. Letter to Menoeceus: ”[129] And for this cause we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.“
  3. Diogenes Laertius Biography of Epicurus: ” They say that he wrote to many other women of pleasure and particularly to Leontion, with whom Metrodorus was also in love; and that in the treatise On the End of Life he wrote, ‘I know not how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight.’
  4. Diogenes Laertius Biography of Epicurus: “They hold that faults are not all of equal gravity, that health is a blessing to some, but indifferent to others, that courage does not come by nature, but by a calculation of advantage. That friendship too has practical needs as its motive: one must indeed lay its foundations (for we sow the ground too for the sake of crops), but it is formed and maintained by means of community of life among those who have reached the fullness of pleasure. They say also that there are two ideas of happiness, complete happiness, such as belongs to a god, which admits of no increase, and the happiness which is concerned with the addition and subtraction of pleasures.”
  1. There is no hierarchy of pleasures in Epicurean philosophy which would justify identifying any single type of pleasure as a “best” pleasure. Therefore it would have made no sense for him to say that Tranquility or “Absence of Pain” or “Absence of Disturbance” are a “best” pleasure or “highest” pleasure.
  2. Epicurus listed a number of pleasures “by which he was able to determine the good” but he did not list “Tranquility” among them, nor did he rank his list in order of importance. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, X.6: “It is observed too that in his treatise On the End-Goal, he writes in these terms: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, sexual pleasures, the pleasures of sound, and the pleasures of beautiful form.”
  1. A “best” Pleasure has no necessary connection with a “limit of pleasure” but it is the desire to equate these terms that generates confusion, such as Cicero employed in arguing that “absence of pain” is not the way normal people discuss pleasure.”
  2. Epicurus was a philosopher teaching in Greece and so it is logical to presume that he would have wished to respond not only to the errors of religion but also to the errors of other philosophers.
  3. One of the primary, and perhaps most important, arguments of the Established Philosophy at the time of Epicurus was Plato's “Philebus.” In “Philebus” Plato argues that the nature of a highest good requires that it must have “a limit.” Socrates asks “SOCRATES: Have pleasure and pain a limit, or do they belong to the class which admits of more and less?” Socrates explains that “SOCRATES: … should we not be wise in adopting the other view and maintaining that there is in the universe a mighty infinite and an adequate limit, of which we have often spoken, as well as a presiding cause of no mean power, which orders and arranges years and seasons and months, and may be justly called wisdom and mind?”
  4. This argument is more explicit in the form it is recorded by Seneca in his Letter To Lucilius – 66.45: “What can be added to that which is perfect? Nothing otherwise that was not perfect to which something has been added. Nor can anything be added to virtue, either, for if anything can be added thereto, it must have contained a defect. Honor, also, permits of no addition; for it is honorable because of the very qualities which I have mentioned.[5] What then? Do you think that propriety, justice, lawfulness, do not also belong to the same type, and that they are kept within fixed limits? The ability to increase is proof that a thing is still imperfect.”
  5. Seneca repeats the argument in another form in Book I – Letter XVI: “This also is a saying of Epicurus: “If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.” Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any art has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater. Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping point. The false has no limits.
  6. Epicurus explicitly and near the top of his principle doctrines identified not a “best” pleasure but a “Limit of Quantity” of pleasure: “PD03. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body, nor of mind, nor of both at once.” If Epicurus had wished to say that “Absence of pain is the very best pleasure and is the ultimate goal of life” he could clearly have done so, but he did not.
  1. Cicero, In Defense of Publius Sestius, 10.23: “He {Publius Clodius} praised those most who are said to be above all others the teachers and eulogists of pleasure {the Epicureans}. … He added that these same men were quite right in saying that the wise do everything for their own interests; that no sane man should engage in public affairs; that nothing was preferable to a life of tranquility crammed full of pleasures. But those who said that men should aim at an honorable position, should consult the public interest, should think of duty throughout life not of self-interest, should face danger for their country, receive wounds, welcome death – these he called visionaries and madmen.” Note: Here is a link to Perseus where the Latin and translation of this can be compared. The Latin is: “nihil esse praestabilius otiosa vita, plena et conferta voluptatibus.” See also here for word translations.
  2. Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 3, p. 1088C: “Epicurus has imposed a limit on pleasures that applies to all of them alike: the removal of all pain. For he believes that our nature adds to pleasure only up to the point where pain is abolished and does not allow it any further increase in magnitude (although the pleasure, when the state of painlessness is reached, admits of certain unessential variations). But to proceed to this point, accompanied by desire, is our stint of pleasure, and the journey is indeed short and quick. Hence it is that becoming aware of the poverty here they transfer their final good from the body, as from an unproductive piece of land, to the soul, persuaded that there they will find pastures and meadows lush with pleasures.”
  3. Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 7, p. 1091A: Not only is the basis that they assume for the pleasurable life untrustworthy and insecure, it is quite trivial and paltry as well, inasmuch as their “thing delighted” – their good – is an escape from ills, and they say that they can conceive of no other, and indeed that our nature has no place at all in which to put its good except the place left when its evil is expelled. … Epicurus too makes a similar statement to the effect that the good is a thing that arises out of your very escape from evil and from your memory and reflection and gratitude that this has happened to you. His words are these: “That which produces a jubilation unsurpassed is the nature of good, if you apply your mind rightly and then stand firm and do not stroll about {a jibe at the Peripatetics}, prating meaninglessly about the good.”
  4. Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, XII p. 546E: Not only Aristippus and his followers, but also Epicurus and his welcomed kinetic pleasure; I will mention what follows, to avoid speaking of the “storms” {of passion} and the “delicacies” which Epicurus often cites, and the “stimuli” which he mentions in his On the End-Goal. For he says “For I at least do not even know what I should conceive the good to be, if I eliminate the pleasures of taste, and eliminate the pleasures of sex, and eliminate the pleasures of listening, and eliminate the pleasant motions caused in our vision by a visible form.
  5. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, III.18.41: Why do we shirk the question, Epicurus, and why do we not confess that we mean by pleasure what you habitually say it is, when you have thrown off all sense of shame? Are these your words or not? For instance, in that book which embraces all your teaching (for I shall now play the part of translator, so no one may think I am inventing) you say this: “For my part I find no meaning which I can attach to what is termed good, if I take away from it the pleasures obtained by taste, if I take away the pleasures which come from listening to music, if I take away too the charm derived by the eyes from the sight of figures in movement, or other pleasures by any of the senses in the whole man. Nor indeed is it possible to make such a statement as this – that it is joy of the mind which is alone to be reckoned as a good; for I understand by a mind in a state of joy, that it is so, when it has the hope of all the pleasures I have named – that is to say the hope that nature will be free to enjoy them without any blending of pain.” And this much he says in the words I have quoted, so that anyone you please may realize what Epicurus understands by pleasure.
  6. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, III.20.46: For he has not only used the term pleasure, but stated clearly what he meant by it. “Taste,” he says, “and embraces and spectacles and music and the shapes of objects fitted to give a pleasant impression to the eyes.”
  7. Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II.3.7 (Torquatus to Cicero): “Does not Epicurus recognize pleasure in your sense?” (Cicero): “Not always,” said I, “now and then, I admit, he recognizes it only too fully, for he solemnly avows that he cannot even understand what good there can be or where it can be found, apart form that which is derived from food and drink, the delight of the ears, and the grosser forms of gratification. Do I misrepresent his words?” Ibid., II.7.20: In a number of passages where he is commending that real pleasure which all of us call by the same name, he goes so far as to say that he cannot even imagine any Good that is not connected with pleasure of the kind intended by Aristippus. Such is the language that he uses in the lecture dealing solely with the topic of the Chief Good. II.8.23: Men of taste and refinement, with first-rate chefs… the accompaniment of dramatic performances and their usual sequel – these are pleasures without which Epicurus, as he loudly proclaims, does not know what Good is. II.10.29: But fancy his failing to see how strong a proof it is that the sort of pleasure, without which he declares he has no idea at all what Good means (and he defines it in detail as the pleasure of the palate, of the ears, and subjoins the other kinds of pleasure, which cannot be specified without an apology). I.10.30: the kinetic sort of pleasure … he extols it so much that he tells us he is incapable even of imagining what other good there can be. II.20:64: … Nor did he forgo those other indulgences in the absence of which Epicurus declares that he cannot understand what good is.
  8. Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad: The truth of the position that pleasure is the ultimate good will most readily appear from the following illustration. Let us imagine a man living in the continuous enjoyment of numerous and vivid pleasures alike of body and of mind, undisturbed either by the presence or by the prospect of pain: what possible state of existence could we describe as being more excellent or more desirable? One so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is proof against all fear of death or of pain; he will know that death means complete unconsciousness, and that pain is generally light if long and short if strong, so that its intensity is compensated by brief duration and its continuance by diminishing severity. Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power; let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement.
  9. Plotinus, Dissertations, 30 (Aeneids, II.9), 15: “For there are two schools of thought about attaining the [ethical] end. One which puts forward the pleasure of the body as the end, and another which chooses nobility and virtue … Epicurus, who abolishes providence, exhorts to pursue all that remains: pleasure and its enjoyment.”
  10. Antiochus of Ascalon, by way of Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies II.21 p. 178.43: “For of those that are ruled by pleasure are the Cyrenaics and Epicurus; for these expressly said that to live pleasantly was the chief end, and that pleasure was the only perfect good. Epicurus also says that the removal of pain is pleasure.”
  11. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, III.7.7: “Epicurus thinks that the highest good is in the pleasure of the mind. Aristippus holds that it is in the pleasure of the body.”
  12. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, III.17.38: [Epicurus says, in effect:] “Let us serve pleasure, then, in whatever way we can, for in a short time we will be nothing whatsoever. Let us suffer no day, therefore, no point of time to flow by for us without pleasure, lest, since we ourselves are at sometime to perish, the very fact that we live may perish.” Although he does not say this in so many words, however, he teaches this is fact.”
  13. Porphyry, On Abstinence, I.53: Epicurus rightly surmised that we should beware of food which we want to enjoy and which we pursue, but find disagreeable once we get it. All rich, heavy food is like this, and when people are carried away by wanting it, they land in expense, illness, glut, or worry. For this reason we should guard against excess even of simple things, and in all cases we must examine what happens as a result of enjoyment or possession, how big a thing it is, and whether it relieves any trouble of body or soul. Otherwise, in every case, tension, such as life engenders, will arise from gratification. We must not go beyond the bounds, but keep within the boundary and measure that applies to such things.
  14. Plutarch, On Peace of Mind, 2 p. 465F (Johannes Stobaeus, Anthology, 29.79): For this reason not even Epicurus believes that men who are eager for honor and glory should lead an inactive life, but that they should fulfill their natures by engaging in politics and entering public life, on the ground that, because of their natural dispositions, they are more likely to be disturbed and harmed by inactivity if they do not obtain what they desire.
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