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Epicurus and Epictetus. Clark Wolf Director of Bioethics Iowa State University jwcwolf@iastate.edu. Epicurus:. Epicurianism: In all things, we should pursue pleasure: the life that has in it the most pleasure is the best life for human beings.

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epicurus and epictetus
Epicurus and Epictetus

Clark Wolf

Director of Bioethics

Iowa State University



Epicurianism: In all things, we should pursue pleasure: the life that has in it the most pleasure is the best life for human beings.

Opening of Letter to Menoeceus: Let No One Delay... [Compare to Plato & Aristotle...]

contrast class the cyrenaics
Contrast Class: The Cyrenaics

Aristippus- [435-350 BCE] Reported to have held that owe should pursue as many pleasures, preferably as intense as possible, as we can possibly obtain. Even when intense pleasures lead to subsequent pain, they should still be sought, for a life without pleasure or pain would be boring. [Cyrenaicism]

The Stoics, including Epictetus, spread scandalous rumours about Epicurus: "This is the life of which you pronounce yourself so worthy: eating, drinking, copulating, evacuating, and snoring!" (Epictetus, Discourses) (Did Aristippus really hold the views attributed to him?)

Epicurus recommended an ascetic life of calm and enduring pleasures. Suspicious of intense pleasures in general, since they lead to later pains.

epicurus three kinds of desires
Epicurus: Three Kinds of Desires

1) Natural-Necessary: Natural desires that must be satisfied for one to have a pleasant life (ex: food and shelter).

2) Natural-Unnecessary: Desires that, though natural, need not necessarily be satisfied for a pleastant life (desire for a big house, elegant food (fish, meat, cheese) and perhaps even sexual desires).

[ XXX]- even these we should try to expunge with reason.

3) Unnatural: Desires that are neither natural nor necessary to satisfy (desire for wealth, power, fame).[XXVI.]

epicurus instruction manual for a pleasant life
Epicurus' Instruction Manual for a Pleasant Life:

1) For a pleasant life, we should neglect the third class and focus on the first, though we may also satisfy our desires of the second kind, when doing so will not lead to discomfort or pain.

2) It is NEVER prudent to try to satisfy unnecessary and unnatural desires, because in the long run this will lead to disappointment, dissatisfaction, discomfort, and poor health. Still, "No pleasure is a bad thing in itself" [VIII] but only for the bad effects it may have.

epicurus instruction manual for a pleasant life6
Epicurus' Instruction Manual for a Pleasant Life:

Epicurians on Sex: Sex they found especially problematical. Epicurus writes: " Sexual intercourse has never done anyone any good, and one is lucky if one has not been harmed by it.”

Lucretius, a later Epicurian, argued that sex was OK as long as it was not done with passion. (!!??)

epicurus instruction manual for a pleasant life7
Epicurus' Instruction Manual for a Pleasant Life:

3) "TAKE THE LONG VIEW" and PLAN CAREFULLY Epicurus focuses on the pleasant LIFE, so any pleasure or desire we are considering must be understood in the context of our whole lives. The duration of pleasures, he claimed, is more important than their intensity. [So mental pleasures are superior to physical pleasures]. [XVI]

Wise person will not allow her life to be ruled by chance.

honor and justice
Honor and Justice?

PLEASURE AND HONOR IN EPICURUS: Honor and justice are independent goods, he seems to imply [V] but only those who lead a pleasant life can achieve it.

What is the nature of honor and justice?

Are they good in themselves? [Well, only pleasure is good...]

Epicurus believes that they are INSTRUMENTALLY good, because dishonour and injustice are unpleasant, and lead to problems later. Like some current defenders of naive utilitarianism, Epicurus seems to have been undisturbed by this, since he seems to have thought that Honor and Pleasure never really come in conflict with one another. He doesn't explicitly consider what one would do in such cases, but his position forces him to conclude that pleasure should come first if conflict ever did arise.

alternate conceptions of pleasure
Alternate Conceptions of Pleasure:

Positive v. Negative Conceptions of Pleasure: Epicurus' conception of pleasure is "negative," since he defines pleasure as the lack of pain and frustration. This could be contrasted with the Cyrenaic conception of pleasure as a good thing to be achieved, rather than successful avoidance of what is bad.

epictetus and stoicism

Three Stoics:

Seneca (3 BC-65 AD), Roman SenatorEpictetus, (50-60 to 100-130 AD) SlaveMarcus Aurelius, (121-180 AD) Emperor

virtue = good will = will that things happen as they are going to.

on what is up to us
On what is “up to us”
  • #1: Only care about what is ‘up to you.’
  • #2: Allow yourself to want or to be averse only to those things that are entirely within your control.
  • #28: Don’t turn yourself over to “bad masters” like passion and wrath.
instructions for stoic victory

#3: Don't become attached to what is fragile, things whose fate is not up to you. (In all contexts? What of attachments to friends and family?)

#15: "Don't stretch out your desires toward what is not in your control...

#16 Don't let other people's troubles disturb you. ("Do not groan inwardly...")

#19 The final stoic victory: "You can be invincible if you do not enter any contest in which victory is not ‘up to you.’"

Nota Bene: Guard against the wrong interpretation of this: Epictetus is not literally recommending that we should never enter races we can't win, but that we make sure that the only races we enter with full devotion and conviction are internal and controlable.

epictetus discourses from of the right treatment of tyrants
Epictetus, Discourses, From “Of the Right Treatment of Tyrants"

“When the tyrant says to anyone, "I will chain your leg," he who chiefly values his leg cries out for pity; he who chiefly values his own moral purpose says "If you imagine it for your interest, chain it."

"What! Do you not care?"

"No, I do not care."

"I will show you that I am master.“

"You? How should you? Zeus has set me free. What! Do you think that he would suffer his own son to be enslaved? You are master of my carcass; take it.“

"So that when you come into my presence you pay no attention to me?“

"No, I pay attention only to myself; or if you will have me recognize you also, I will do it, but only as if you were a pot."

what can we care about
What can we care about?
  • Honor and moral integrity?
  • Consequences?
  • Good health?
  • Our friends’ welfare?
  • Our physical freedom?
  • Our mental freedom?
  • …?
epicurus and epictetus15
Epicurus and Epictetus:


3) Epictetus- focus on internal aspect of morality captures something very important, but perhaps this is not all there is to living the good life.

Friendship, Love, true compassion, ... these things REQUIRE that we take risks. The very poor have nothing to risk (Epictetus, you will remember, was a slave...) but in order to live a fully human life, we may need more than Epictetus‘s inward virtue.

Honor is important, as Epictetus recognized. But we can maintain our honor without avoiding attachment and passion and love.

It's important to recognize that there is a part of morality that we can control entirely-- this is especially valuable in hard times. But as a complete picture of The Moral Life, Epictetus' account seems seriously lacking.

epicurus and epictetus16
Epicurus and Epictetus:

“Epicurus claims that pleasure is the only good. But perhaps he should have read Aristotle more carefully- Aristotle is quite convincing in his argument that pleasure is a good thing, but not to be bought at the expense of other goods. Epictetus recognized this error in Epicurus' view, and criticized him soundly for it.” -CW

epicurus and epictetus17

FINAL EVALUATION:Both Epicurus and Epictetus got something right.

Epicurus: Taking the long view about one's life; avoidance of excess; happiness is a precondition of honor, justice, and virtue.

Epictetus: Role of expectation; taking misfortune philosophically; focus on what we can do and do it; Honour- maintain your dignity and Honor at all cost. Even a slave can do this.

skepticism sextus empiricus
SKEPTICISM: Sextus Empiricus
  • Question: What is knowledge?
  • Plato (Theatetus): Knowledge is
    • Belief that is (JTB)
    • Justified and
    • True
skepticism sextus empiricus19
SKEPTICISM: Sextus Empiricus
  • Plato distinguished “knowledge” from “opinion,” urging that we know only things we discover through reason.
  • Aristotle and others call into question Plato’s claim that we know the things Plato thinks we know “through reason.”
  • So what do we know?
skepticism sextus empiricus20
SKEPTICISM: Sextus Empiricus
  • Question: What is knowledge?
  • CLAIM: You don’t know something unless you have good evidence that it is true.
  • Question: Do you know that you are in a philosophy classroom in Ames Iowa on a cold March morning?
skepticism sextus empiricus21
SKEPTICISM: Sextus Empiricus

Thought Experiment:

  • (1) Do you know that the world did not spring into existence four seconds ago.
  • (2) Do you know that you are not a brain in a vat?
an argument for skepticism
An Argument for Skepticism:
  • 1) You have no evidence that you’re not a “brain in a vat.”
  • 2) If you have no evidence for X, then you don’t know X.
  • 3) Therefore, You don’t know you’re not a brain in a vat.
  • 4) If you don’t know that X is false, but your belief Y would be false if X were true, then you don’t know Y.
  • 5) Therefore, you don’t know any of the things that depend on the fact that you’re not a brain in a vat.
  • 6) If you’re a brain in a vat, then everything else you believe is false.
  • 7) Therefore, you don’t know any of those things.
  • 8) Therefore you don’t know anything at all.
  • Skepticism: We do not have knowledge of anything at all.
sextus empiricus
Sextus Empiricus:
  • Skepticism is an ability to place reasons in opposition to one another, so as to achieve a balance that leaves us free of dogmatic beliefs.
  • Is skepticism self-contradictory? The skeptic claims we have no knowledge (?), but isn’t making that claim a violation of the skeptical imperative to avoid making positive claims?
epicurus and epictetus on the fear of death

Epicurus: "Death is nothing to us."(all good and bad is in sensation.No sensations after death.After death, nothing will be good or bad for us.

"When we are here, death is not, and when death is here, we are not."

1) All good and bad is in sense experience. [Substantive claim.]2) Death is the absence of sense experience. [Df.]3) The absence of sense experience cannot be good or bad. (by 1)4) Death can't be good or bad.5) Death can't be bad.6) We shouldn't fear something if it's not bad.7) We shouldn't fear death.

epicurus and epictetus on the fear of death31

1) Fear of death is equivalent to the desire to live forever.2) One would desire to live forever only if one believed that length of life is what makes life good, such that longer lives are better than shorter lives.3) But it is the content of a life, not its length, that makes it good or bad. [If it contains lots of pleasure, it's good; if lots of pain, it's bad.][this contradicts 2]4) So long lives are not necessarily better than short ones.5) So the desire to live forever is not rational. [Epicurus believes that recognition that this desire is irrational will help us to extinguish it.] 6) So the fear of death is not rational.

Why premise 1? To fear death is to want not to die, and to want not to die is to want to live forever.

epicurus and epictetus on the fear of death32

1) When we are here death is not; when death is here, we are not. 2) We'll never meet (encounter) death. 3) It is irrational to fear something you will never encounter.4) It is irrational to fear death.

epicurus and epictetus on the fear of death33


Death is among the things we should be indifferent about. The wise person will keep her or his desires away from immortality, since it is not among the things that are up to us.

Keep your desires away from immortality. To fear death is to allow yourself to indulge in an inappropriate aversion. Brace up and extinguish it!