How Cogent is Epicurean Teaching About Happiness?

Epicurus (341–271 B.C.), born seven years after Plato’s death, came from Samos, an Ionian island off the south-west coast of Asia Minor.  His philosophy was a complete and independent system, which included the view that the goal of human life was happiness[1].  He was an atomic materialist and believed the whole world was made up of atoms, and that these atoms move around in “the void”.  Everything around the void was just conglomerations of these atoms.  Lucretius, a Latin poet in the first century B.C., hailed Epicurus as a ‘‘divine saviour’’, and two centuries later Diogenes of Oenoanida inscribed an entire colonnade with some of Epicurus’ writings[2].

Epicureanism did become one of the major philosophies, and a number of communities were set up based on Epicurean teachings.  Epicurus himself set up a school called “the Garden” where he taught until his death.  The Garden was not a research centre like those of Plato and Aristotle, but was a “doctrinally focused community, and was frequently visited by children, men and women”[3].  However, the Garden and Epicurus himself became victims to some hostile gossip.  It is reported that one former member of the commune sold his story and claimed that Epicurus vomited twice a day from over-eating[4].  Such rumours stuck, and, in the end, the name of Epicurus simply became synonymous with the excessive enjoyment of foods, as in the words of a British wit, the reverend Sydney Smith (1771–1845): “Serenely full, the epicure would say, Fate cannot harm me; I have dined to-day”[5].

Epicurus wrote many books, of which only four have survived: ‘’The Principal Doctrines’’, ‘’Letter to Herodotus’’, ‘’Letter to Pythocles’’, and ‘’Letter to Menoeceus’’.  For the purposes of this discussion the latter is the one that will be referred to since it is a letter discussing happiness and pleasure.

I will attempt to show in my discussion that rumours such as those described above were uncalled for—in fact the commune that Epicurus established was devoted to the simple life which stressed: “an unadorned diet and condemned all forms of over-indulgence”[6]—and that while, on the surface, Epicurus’ philosophical theory on happiness may make sense, when we start looking at the finer details, his theory does not quite satisfy the complicated aspects of the human mind.  I shall start by looking at the beginning of the letter to Menoeceus, where Epicurus discusses the gods and the unnecessary fear of death, which stops us from being happy.  I shall then move on to the main part of the discussion, which is what Epicurus defines as pleasure, that is, the absence of pain.  I shall also make a brief comparison with Aristotle and his theory on happiness.

Lastly I will briefly look at the issue of friendship and justice, as even though Epicurus does not say much on the matter of justice, if everyone was able to obtain ultimate pleasure, then justice in society would also be achieved.

Epicurus starts his letter to Menoeceus with a greeting, which introduces the idea that it is never too late to study philosophy and that it is to be encouraged for the securing of well-being of the mind.  The old are encouraged to study philosophy so that they can recollect happy memories, and the young are to study philosophy so that they do not fear things to come[7].  “So we must then meditate on the things that make our happiness, seeing that when that is with us we have all, but when it is absent, we do all to win it”[8].

Epicurus then states that what follows in the letter are the principles attributes of the good life.

One cultural issue that stopped people finding ultimate pleasure was their fear of the gods—the fear of judgement in the afterlife—and they believed that signs such as thunder and lightening were the gods showing their anger.  Since Epicurus was an atomic materialist, he explained in a letter to Pythocles, recorded by Diogenes Laertius, that thunder and lightning were a natural phenomenon[9].  Epicurus was accused of being godless, but he objected, saying that gods were wonderful beings, but that in order to be wonderfully happy, they had nothing to do with the world.  Since the gods have nothing to do with us, we have no reason to fear them.  He held that even though there were gods, they did not interfere in the lives of people on earth because the gods themselves were happy[10].

There was also no need to fear death, “as all good and evil lies in sensation and death is the end of all sensation … the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in ceasing to live, has nothing terrible to fear in life”[11].  Likewise, there was no need to fear that the gods would punish you in the afterlife, as there is no afterlife.  Epicurus disagreed with Plato on the issue of an immortal soul.  “The fact of interaction between mind and body shows that our minds really are just an aspect of our bodies”[12].

To pursue pleasure rationally, we must first know something about the nature of pleasure[13].  Epicurus believed that pleasure is a pain-free body and a tranquil mind, and that in order to achieve ultimate pleasure, we must first look at the nature of our desires: those that are necessary and natural, which are related to good health and well being, those that are unnecessary but natural, such as good-tasting food, and those that are unnecessary and unnatural, which are often unattainable, such as immortality, “which cannot exist for human beings and not correspond to any genuine object of desire … [as] such desires can never be satisfied”[14].  Epicurus believed that if we have an understanding of the nature of desires, then we can direct our choices to achieve a pain-free body and a tranquil mind.  Such desires as wealth and fame are painful desires, ones that should be eliminated.  That is, if pleasure comes from having your desires fulfilled and pain comes from not having them fulfilled, there are two strategies you can take—fulfil or eliminate the desire.  Epicurus maintained that such empty desires are the main “source for perturbation and pain in civilized life, where more, elementary dangers have been brought under control, since they are the reason why people are forever driven to strive for limitless wealth and power, subjecting themselves to the very dangers they imagine they are avoiding”[15].

But just as there are limits on desires, there are also limits on pain.  Epicurus’ thoughts on the limits of pain are interesting.  “Continuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time [because if it endures it causes death], and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together”[16].  That is, if the pain is unbearable, then death will follow shortly, thus the pain is eliminated.  If the pain has a long duration, then it can be endured as it must be comparatively mild.

Epicurus believed that we could all find a way to experience pleasure, but that we are all looking in the wrong places.  However, attaining pleasure is difficult. There are many varieties and degrees of both pleasure and pain, and it may be that you have to experience pain to gain pleasure[17].  For example, to gain the Masters of Arts in Philosophy qualification, I must go through the pain of writing such assignments as this to feel the pleasure of achieving my goal of attaining the M.A. degree.  Epicurus also maintained that we may recognize that not all pleasures are to be chosen every time they are presented before us, as some may lead to long term pain or harm[18].  He also believed, like Plato, that “every positive pleasure pre-supposes a want, i.e. a pain which it proposes to remove, and… that the real aim and object of all pleasure consists in obtaining freedom from pain, and that the good is nothing else but emancipation from evil”[19].

In other words, for Epicurus pleasure is not about fleeting moments of pleasurable sensation, but more about the comfortable balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction, in life as a whole.  This belief of Epicurus stems from personal conviction based upon nature itself.  Epicurus appealed to the fact that as soon as any living creature comes into being, it pursues pleasure and tries to avoid pain, hence, pleasure must be the natural good; pleasure must be the object of life[20].

Aristotle had a slightly different view.  Instead of pleasure being about sensations, Aristotle believed that happiness was more about activity.  He believed that natural organisms and man-made objects had a particular form and function, that is, humans by nature are designed to perform a particular function, just like the chair is made for sitting on.  “Aristotle claims that the particular function that humans are naturally designed to perform is to reason and to think”[21].  For Aristotle, this particular function of the human race is essential to his ethics, as ethics is about achieving ‘eudaimonia’, which is normally translated as happiness, but is more than a fleeting moment—’eudaimonia’ is long lasting[22].  “Eudaimonia is activity deriving from perfect philosophical understanding … [and the] understanding of the world and its most basic principals”[23].  To achieve this long-lasting happiness, Aristotle stated that we must perfect the art of reasoning and thinking, since that is the particular function that humans were ‘’designed’’ for.  This is similar to Epicurus’ view that old and young must study philosophy so that they can make the right choices in attempting to achieve ultimate pleasure.  Aristotle also believed that “activity and life itself are bound up with enjoyment (pleasure); there is no enjoyment without the activity enjoyed”[24].

Aristotle’s view of what happiness is and how to achieve it is different from Epicurus’ view, but did Aristotle’s idea initialize Epicurus’ thoughts?  Perhaps it did, since Epicurus also starts out by looking at what is natural, but rather what came naturally to humans, rather than what we were designed to perform naturally.  Even though for Epicurus pleasure is about sensations, and for Aristotle activity, as Morel states, sensation “is a criterion that is at once cognitive and practical: it teaches us what is suitable to us and what is not, and it motivates our choice and avoidance.  As such, it establishes a direct connection between knowledge and action”[25].  It is not inconceivable that Epicurus took Aristotle’s philosophy of the “good life” as his starting point for his own philosophy of pleasure.

Epicurus defined two kinds of ‘pleasure’: kinetic pleasure (pleasure in movement), which involves satisfying natural bodily wants, such as eating and drinking, which once fulfilled do give us great pleasure once we no longer feel hungry or thirsty, and katastematic pleasure, which is what we seek once we have satisfied moving pleasure.  For Epicurus, this latter is the best type of pleasure, as it is the highest type of pleasure that one can achieve[26].  It is at this point that Epicurus has been misunderstood, when he says “the beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach”[27] and thus many rumours have spread.  For example, as just pointed out, we need to have food in order to lead a happy life, and with his focus on ‘pleasure’, it is not surprising that Epicurus’ teaching was not seen as being very virtuous[28].  In fact what Epicurus did say in his letter to Menoeceus was:

“when we say that pleasure is the objective, we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misinterpretation.  By ‘pleasure’ we mean the absence of pain in the body and of turmoil in the mind.  The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; nor the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table.  It is sober reasoning which searches out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and rejects those beliefs which lay open the mind to the greatest disturbance”[29].

What he means is that simple bodily desires must first be satisfied in order to be able to fulfil mental pleasures: as Rist puts it “… the pleasures of the stomach being the basis of the pleasure of wisdom and other sophisticated pleasures are best taken in conjunction with the theme that the cry of the soul is not to be hungry and not to be thirsty”[30].  In other words, the beginning of all good starts with the body not being hungry or thirsty.  If the body is hungry and/or thirsty, then we have to endure the pain of not having this desire and need fulfilled.  If bodily needs and desires are satisfied, and the individual “has the right attitude to his desires, hopes and fears, he is in the best position to secure the supreme pleasure of the mind which the Epicureans call untroubledness”[31].

Even though Epicurus believed that the ultimate pleasure is the complete absence of pain, from both body and mind, he did state that all pleasures and pains need clearly defined limits.  Rist[32] summarizes: “The ‘flesh’ is liable to produce the false opinion that its pleasures are unlimited in intensity and in duration, but the trained mind knows that such an opinion is false’’ In other words, our minds can tell us that our stomachs need constant filling, but this is a false opinion.  This leads me to my next point.

Epicurus’ approach to the meaning of pleasure and to the two kinds of pleasure, kinetic and katastematic, does make sense.  How can one move on to fulfil desires of the mind when our bodies are hungry or thirsty?  Unless these basic needs are fulfilled, we will no longer exist to worry about achieving katastematic pleasure, since hunger and thirst can lead to death.  However, I have contemplated what Epicurus would say about someone who is suffering from an eating disorder.  Before someone becomes anorexic or bulimic, they are satisfying the kinetic pleasure of eating, but for some reason, whatever that may be, they suffer pain, whether you prefer to call it emotional or mental.  This then has a consequence on their eating, that is, they are not fulfilling the body’s need for food.  To be honest, I am unsure what Epicurus would say to this.  Would he say that it is about the katastematic pleasure of being thin?  If so then this desire needs to be either eliminated or curbed.  But an eating disorder is about much more than just being thin: it is about the concept of self, a suppression of emotional feelings, a voice that is not being heard.  It seems to me that kinetic and katastematic pleasures are much more intrinsically linked than Epicurus may have thought.  If kinetic pleasures are satisfied, then katastematic pleasure becomes attainable.  However, if someone does experience pain at a katastematic level, it can have a devastating effect on kinetic pleasures, and so the vicious cycle goes on.  How does one get out of this cycle?  It seems to me that the answer is to eliminate the pain caused at the katastematic level, which then in turn will eliminate the pain being caused to the body at the kinetic level of pleasure.

Diogenes of Oenoanda (c. second century A.D.), a Greek philosopher and follower of Epicurus, may have developed an answer to this.  Diogenes argued that “despite our widely recognised difficulties of evaluating our feelings, the pleasures and pains of the mind must be recognized as greater than the pleasures and pains of the body”[33].  Without going into the technical aspects of atoms, anyone who feels great mental pleasure is on his way to becoming wise, and can prevent pains by avoiding unnecessary amounts of desires.  Anyone who is not wise is likely to feel mental pain because he is unable to control his reactions to physical events, which in turn can cause more physical pain and worry.  In other words, the “state of mind can determine the state of the body, and therefore mental pleasures and pains are in a sense both more severe in themselves and more serious in their effects”[34].  Even though this is a step closer towards gaining an answer, it still does not completely my question.  Even though the wise may be able to control their desire, how do we explain an eating disorder that came about not because of the desire of being thin (and this is rarely the case, as the desire to be thin is masking the real issues), but because of the cruel things that life has thrown in an individual’s path.  For example, in 2005 we lost my 16 year old cousin to anorexia, and we all know that her problem stemmed from the fact that her father committed suicide when she was 8 years old; she was very much a ‘’daddy’s girl’’.  Sometimes, even the wise do not deal with grief from a tragic loss very well, as it is too overwhelming.  This case is not about avoiding unnecessary desires, as Diogenes suggests, it is just a reaction to what life throws our way.

The loss of a good friend can be very painful, and this is something that Epicurus discusses, and is my next point.

According to Epicurus, justice is an agreement ‘’neither to harm nor be harmed’’.  One of the reasons people join communities is because of justice: communities offer protection, as community members agree to the laws established in order for the communities to function[35].  People obey the laws so that they do not have to fear the consequences of being caught if they do break the laws; hence, living in a society with laws and justice can bring about happiness.  As Epicurus states, “it is impossible to live pleasurably without also living prudently, honestly, and justly; [nor is it possible to lead a life of prudence, honour and justice] and not live pleasantly.  For the virtues are closely associated with the pleasant life, and the pleasant life cannot be separated from them”[36].  Thus the Epicurean sage would have no motive to violate the rights of others, but would ‘’live peacefully with desires that are natural and necessary’’[37].

Death and fear of the gods are not the only obstacles to overcome on the path to achieving ultimate happiness.  There is, for example insecurity: Epicurus believed that “we must defend ourselves from ‘them’ – those who are not like us … we must make friends with those who are amenable to discussion … Friendship makes a far greater contribution to our security than walls or armies”[38].  Thus friendship was very important to Epicurus for a life of pleasure.  “Friendship goes dancing round the world, proclaiming to us all to awake to the praises of a happy life”[39].  A wise Epicurean will want to cultivate the art of friendship.  “This ‘immortal’ blessing, he argued, provides steady and lasting joys which can counterbalance some of the inevitable sorrows of life”[40].  Friendship provides security, as a life without friends is “solitary and beset with perils”[41].  Epicurus also felt that a true friend would feel the pain of torture no less that the friend experiencing it, and that he would die rather than betray a friend[42].  These are quite strong opinions for somebody who set out with the view that the ultimate pleasure in life is freedom from bodily and mental pain.  As O’Keefe states, Epicurus could justify such an attitude “by the same prudential calculus that he uses to argue in favour of living justly: only by living in such a way that loyalty to friends is perceived to be a consummate value will one be able to feel secure in one’s friends, and thus maximise one’s felicity”[43].

Friendship for Epicurus “brings such benefits to those who enjoy it, we seek it out for the sake of the advantages it brings”[44].  As long as such benefits are returned in kind, then a friendship can begin, which helps bring about the tranquillity of the mind and body, which is the ultimate pleasure[45].

In summary, Epicurean philosophy believes that happiness is pleasure and that the ultimate pleasure is complete absence of pain from body and mind.  It is natural for us to want to pursue pleasure; it is something we instinctively do as soon as we come into existence.  However, in some ways Epicurus does issue the warning that we are only able to achieve pleasure as long as we do not delude ourselves with unsatisfiable wants and desires.

Epicurus believed that one important obstacle that got in the way of people’s pleasure was their fear of the future.  At that time, thunder and earthquakes were not understood scientifically, so they were seen as the gods’ divine intervention.  Epicurus felt that this view of the gods led to fear, and if you had fear you couldn’t be happy.  For Epicurus, happiness was the central concern, therefore Epicurus eradicated the fear of the gods, and judgment in the afterlife, by explaining earthquakes and thunder as movements of atoms—a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Epicurus believed that pleasure is the absence of pain, but we are constantly in a state of flux between pleasure and pain.  That is, we are either satisfied, which amounts to pleasure, or we are dissatisfied, which amounts to a form of pain.  We can experience pain unnecessarily, as sometimes we may try too hard to pursue a life of pleasure.  This is because we do not always know the route to happiness, and we may experience the pain of unsatisfiable desire when our appetites become greedy.  Going back to my cousin, yes, she did not know the route to happiness, as much as we tried as a family to guide her, but her pain was not only to do with unsatisfiable desire—amongst other complicated issues, it was caused by overwhelming grief.

However, Epicurus believed that in fighting off pain, anxiety and fear, one will find oneself living a virtuous life.  In other words, “pleasant living is the tranquillity we experience in the absence of pain or mental anxiety.  This condition of tranquillity or ataraxia is the best that life can get.”[46]  This does not necessarily involve sumptuous meals and fine wines, in fact Epicurus believed that such indulgence “could vary the pleasure of a tranquil life, but it could in no way improve upon it”[47].

Epicurus’ views on justice and friendship intertwine with his theory on pleasure, as they do contribute towards the goal of ultimate pleasure.  Justice plays a part, in that laws are established within communities, which community members must abide by so that they don’t experience the pain of being caught, or the worry of being caught.  But to live in such communities, you develop friendships, which is pleasant in itself, as well as bringing many benefits, including tranquillity of the mind.

In essence, the life-style preached by Epicureans is a simple one, with only occasional feasting and indulgences.  As pointed out by many authors, the modern-day term ‘’epicure’’ for a person indulging in good living is very misleading and unjustified.  On the surface, this lifestyle of simple living, tranquillity of mind and body, is very appealing to many people, but life is complicated, and katastematic and kinetic pleasures are more intrinsically linked than perhaps Epicurus realised.  I am uncertain whether Epicurean philosophy on pleasure can deal with the more complex interrelationships.  However, Epicurus did show that such pleasures as wealth and fame, most of the time, will not bring about ultimate pleasure, as they are unsatisfiable desires, ones that are not natural and not necessary in order to live a long and happy life.


BAILEY, C. 1926.  Epicurus: The Extant Remains.  Oxford: Clarendon Press

BALTZLY, D. 2005.  Epicurus.  In: O’GRADY, P. F. ed.  Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece.  Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 167–69

BRUNSCHWIG, J. and SEDLEY, D. 2003.  Hellenistic Philosophy.  In: SEDLEY, J. ed.
The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 151–183

COOPER, J. M. 2003.  Aristotle.  In: SEDLEY, J. ed.  The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 125–150

GASKIN, J. C. A. 1995.  The Epicurean Philosophers.  London: Everyman

GOTTLIEB, A. 2001.  The Dream of Reason.  London: Penguin Books.

MAY, H. 2005.  Aristotle.  In: O’GRADY, P. F. ed.  Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece.  Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 151–154

MOREL, Pierre-Marie. 2006.  Epicureanism.  In: GILL, M. L., PELLEGRIN, P. eds.
A Companion to Ancient Philosophy.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 486–504

RIST, J. M. 1972.  Epicurus.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

URMSON, J. O. 1968.  Aristotle on Pleasure.  In: MORAVCSIK, J. M. E. ed.  Modern Studies in Philosophy.  London: Macmillan, pp. 323–333

KONSTAN, D. 1995.  Epicurus. [www] (12 March 2008)

O’KEEFE, T. 2006.  Epicurus. [www] (23 February 2008)

[1] Konstan, 2005, p. 1 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[2] Brunschwig & Sedley, 2003, p. 155

[3] Brunschwig & Sedley, 2003, p. 155

[4] Gottlieb, 2001, p. 291

[5] Gottlieb, 2001, p. 291

[6] Gottlieb, 2001, p. 292

[7] Epicurus to Menoeceus, edited by Gaskin, 1995, p. 42

[8] Epicurus to Menoeceus, translated by Bailey, 1926, p. 83

[9] Inwood & Gerson, 1997, pp. 19–28 & Letter to Pythocles, edited by Gaskin, 1995, pp. 36–37

[10] Epicurus to Menoeceus, edited by Gaskin, 1995, p. 43

[11] Epicurus to Menoeceus, edited by Gaskin, 1995, p. 43

[12] Baltzly, 2005, p. 168

[13] Konston, D. 1995, p. 10 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[14] Konston, D. 2005, p. 12 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[15] Konston, D. 2005, p. 12 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[16] Principal Doctrine IV, edited by Gaskin, 1995, p. 5

[17] Zeller, E. 1880, p. 474

[18] Epicurus to Menoeceus, edited by Gaskin, pp. 44–45

[19] Zeller, E. 1880, pp. 474–475

[20] Zeller, E. 1880, pp. 473–474

[21] May, 2005, p. 154

[22] May, 2006, p. 154

[23] Cooper, 2003, p. 146

[24] Urmson, 1968, p. 324

[25] Morel, 2006, p. 501

[26] Rist, 1972, p. 102

[27] Gaskin, 1995, p. 61

[28] Gottlieb, 2001, p. 292

[29] Epicurus to Menoeceus, edited by Gaskin, 1995, p. 45

[30] Rist, 1972, pp. 104–105

[31] Rist, 1972, p. 105

[32] ibid

[33] Rist, 1972, p. 113

[34] Rist, 1972, p. 113

[35] O’Keefe, 2006, p. 11 (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[36] Letter to Menoeceus, in Gaskin, 1995, p. 46

[37] Konston, D. 2005, p. 14 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[38] Baltzly, 2005, p. 168

[39] Vatican Saying 52, in Gaskin, 1995, p. 51

[40] Gottlieb, 2001, p. 294

[41] O’Keefe, 2006, p. 12 (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[42] Vatican Saying 56-57, in Gaskin, 1995, p. 51

[43] Konston, D. 2005, p. 15 (online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[44] Rist, 1972, p. 129

[45] Rist,1972, p. 129

[46] Baltzly, 2005, p. 168

[47] Baltzly, 2005, p. 168

Posted on January 1, 2013, in ethical/political, philosophical and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great piece!

    I’m actually an avowed Epicurean (literally took the oath) and am even considering post-graduate studies in Philo, it’s good to see so much interest waxing in these simple teachings … I administer a forum on the practice of Epicureanism, if this interests you:


    • Thank you! Am very glad my piece interested you, although more of an aristotlian myself I do enjoy looking at all of the anicent Greek schools of philosophy as they hold some very valuable lessons for today’s world 🙂

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