All pleasures are good – Epicurus says as much in Principal Doctrine 8. So why can’t we have as much pleasure as we like? The Epicurean response is that there are natural limits, and to go beyond those limits is to court unhappiness and disaster.*
A living organism naturally likes what is pleasant and dislikes what is unpleasant and painful. This recognition of the natural order of things gives a starting-point for the Epicurean theory of ethics, with pleasure acknowledged as the main goal in life. But how do we reach that goal in the best possible way?
Whereas Principal Doctrine 8 says that pleasure is good, Principal Doctrine 10 says that pain is bad. In a sense, as living organisms we already know this: what is favourable to our well-being is good for us, what is inimical to our well-being is bad for us. This is re-stating the basis for the theory of ethics. Ethics concerns behaviour, and behaviour involves choice: on top of the basis in nature we can build a theory of how we ought to behave and what choices we ought to make.
Again we are guided by nature, which sets limits. For example, we can eat until we are satisfied or we can eat until we feel that we have had too much. The pleasure in eating and satisfying our hunger is good; the pain in over-eating is bad. This principle of a natural limit can be applied widely, and gives us a key criterion for making choices.
Pleasure calls for constant decision-making to determine how things stand in relation to pleasure and how to achieve the best outcomes. The analytical and evaluative aspect requires practical wisdom. Personal and social dimensions involve friendship and justice. Principal Doctrine 5 weaves these themes together by saying that wisdom, goodness and justice are inseparable from pleasure, and pleasure from them.
Throughout these ethical challenges we are considering what it means to be human. Pleasure and pain affect us at the bodily level and at the level of thinking and feeling. In both respects we speak of well-being. In the latter respect especially we speak of happiness, which is impaired not only by circumstantial factors but by the way we think and feel about them. Tragically, we can impair our happiness by worrying about things that need cause us no concern – for example, the gods (they will not hurt us) and death (it is nothing). Fear is a part of our pain, and worrying about pain is a part of our fears. In fact, observation tells us that what is good and what is bad in life occur within natural limits: hence we need not worry as to whether we will have enough of the good things we desire, so long as we keep desires within appropriate limits; and we need not worry about suffering too much of the bad, as the bad also has natural limits.
In the light of these and related considerations, it is within our power as human beings to address challenges, to promote well-being and to increase happiness. Two of the most foolish things we can do are to feed our fears and to over-feed our desires – as reckless people do who think that living without limits will bring them happiness. Their focus on pleasure is understandable but their approach to pleasure is misguided. Pleasure is a part of nature, and nature sets limits. If they were on the right track as far as pleasure and happiness are concerned, we would have no reason to find fault with their ill-disciplined behaviour. But by misinterpreting pleasure they are giving themselves pain – and that is bad.
Thoughts for the Day, July 5: ‘If the things that give pleasure to reckless people rescued their minds from fears about celestial and terrestrial phenomena and death and painful suffering, and in addition taught them the natural limit of desires, we would never have reason to criticize them, because from every direction they would be filled up with pleasures, and from no direction would they be experiencing bodily pain or mental distress – which is in fact what ‘bad’ means’ (Principal Doctrines 10). Interpreting ἄσωτος as signifying careless in matters of money or morals or both, I translate the word here as ‘reckless’ with special reference to the moral aspect.
* 6/7/12. See also ‘Radical and conservative’ on the need for selectivity and ‘Condensed pleasure’ on the need for balance.
7/7/12. In the translation of Principal Doctrine 10, I have changed ‘astronomical phenomena’ to ‘celestial and terrestrial phenomena’; see ‘Our need to know’ for discussion of the term.