Cicero on Epicureanism

Cicero’s “On Ends”, his narrative on key aspects of Epicurean philosophy:

– Pleasurable living is the goal of life. Epicurus held that this is established by observation that all young animals pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and that these matters are so clear to us that no logical argument is needed to prove them.

– The error of praising pain and condemning pleasure arises because people do not pursue pleasure intelligently.

– The wise man chooses all his actions so as to produce the greatest and most lasting pleasure.

– This principle of action justifies and explains why we sometimes choose even the most dangerous of physical dangers.

– By pleasure we mean both physical and mental pleasure.

– The Stoics were wrong to condemn pleasure on the grounds that it is only active and physical, because they ignored the fact that pleasure also comes from mental contemplation.

– Compare the nature and life of the happiest man of pleasure with the most miserable man, and you will see that pleasurable living is the object of life.

– The error of believing that the goal of life is to live virtuously.

– Only the wise man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that wisdom is valued.

– Only the courageous, patient, diligent, watchful, and industrious man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that these virtues are valued.

– Only the just man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that justice is valued.

– In short, all virtues are praise-able and desirable only because they secure pleasurable living.

– The pleasures of the mind may be more intense than the pleasures of the body, but the body and mind are inseparable and thus all pleasures are connected with the body.

– It is a pleasure to remove pain, but the removal of a pleasure does not necessarily lead to pain, because our minds have a ready store of past pleasures to reflect on.

– The Stoics are foolish in their characterization of virtue as the only good, and their divorce of virtue from pleasure.

– Fortune has but little power over the wise man.

– The philosophers of Logic and Dialectic, who ignore pleasure and the study of nature are of no help in living happily.

– Friendship is essential for living happily.

– The philosophy of Epicurus is more clear and plain than the sun itself in establishing that pleasurable living is the goal of life, and how to achieve it.


You can see why some people objected to Epicureanismas as being self-indulgent, if you read the above superficially. What Cicero left out is what gives a human being pleasure. It is giving of oneself to friends and loved ones; consciously trying to get on with everyone, however difficult and obnoxious; being polite, courteous and thoughful; avoiding stressful relationships; enjoying nature and the simple things of life; eschewing politics, avoiding the rudeness and vulgarity of modern life, and setting an example of tolerance and civility; thinking for yourself; and simply getting along with your fellow human beings

One Comment

  1. One of the many faults with those on the political Left is that they assume that political discourse will inevitably become increasingly civil, pluralistic and rational. If nothing else, history- both ancient and modern- has taught us that this simply isn’t the case.
    As a result, the Epicurean philosophy retains a universal and eternal relevance. By pursuing a life a pleasure in the private realm only, the Epicurean avoids falling into the enticing trap the naïve liberal does- the belief that a moral revival in any given polity can be permanent. The Ancient Greeks never fell for such delusions. Plato, the Stoics and the Epicureans all understood the persistent appeal of demagoguery, and the shallow thinking of the masses. For Plato, the solution was a class of enlightened philosopher kings. For Aristotle, the solution was to create a pseudo-gerontocracy. Epicurus famously preferred to abstain from politics altogether.
    In the modern world, all of these solutions are hopelessly utopian. Plato and Aristotle are not commonly taught in schools anyone, and if they were, they would be dismissed by the egalitarianism-loving middle class as elitist and snobby. Epicurean non-participation is also a form of elitism. If you are wealthy, you can afford to create a garden, and shield yourself from the most detrimental abuses of state power. But if you are poor, no such luxury is available to you. The effects of inflation, debt and taxes are all too real.
    Perhaps of all the classical philosophers, it is the Stoics who have the most attainable solution to our current woes. The Stoics were not political theorists as such. They never proposed grand policy prescriptions to wealth inequality or social oppression. They simply proposed that your status in society should be totally inconsequential to how you should be treated. Although we are currently a very long way off this ideal, it is certainly a state of affairs we ought to adopt. If our policymakers stopped factoring arbitrary means of classifying people- class, race, gender etc- into their decisions, we would all be better off. This includes cynical statesmen who appeal to our worst prejudices in order to win votes. If as a society, we made a real dedication to social equality, the government would dramatically improve. In this way, Epicureans can make a difference without actively participating. If we all adhered to the cosmopolitism of Epicurus, Xeno and indeed Kant, the world would be a fine place to live.

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