1 minute read


Epicurus On Pleasure

While Epicureanism is not strictly an ethical theory, it has been most influential in the field of ethics. Epicurus emphasized empiricism, and his theories were foundationalist in the sense that he believed all sense perceptions were true (Inwood and Gerson, A53.63). In keeping with this, he denied that a theory of meaning was possible. Rather, we come to a "basic grasp" (prolepsis) of what people say based on our memories of "what has often appeared in the external world" (Inwood and Gerson, A7.33). As such, the Epicurean notion of areté (human excellence) involves pleasure, and we do have some sensible experience with pleasure. It should be very easy to attain human excellence in this sense, but Epicurus believed that many people were not excellent. To address this problem, Epicurus developed a psychological theory, which argued that most people suffer from neurotic beliefs that inhibit the pursuit of the pleasant life. He identified the neurotic beliefs as a fear of death and a misunderstanding of the gods. He claimed that neither death nor the gods concerned humans and thus they should not fear them. We must overcome these fears in order to live a pleasant life.

Epicurus conceived of pleasure in two ways. "Kinetic" pleasure is that pleasure felt while performing an activity, such as eating or drinking. "Katastematic" pleasure is that pleasure felt while being in a state. This is the pleasure of not being disturbed, of being free from pain. Both types of pleasure occur in the body and the soul. The absence of pain (katastematic pleasure) in the soul (ataraxia), though, is the highest good for Epicurus.

Epicurus has often been misunderstood as a "sensualist." Cicero, an avowed Stoic, seemed to think that kinetic pleasure was also an end for Epicurus (De Finibus II.31–32). But this does not seem to be correct. While kinetic pleasures are desirable for Epicurus, they are not always to be pursued. In fact, it seems that they should be pursued only when they contribute to ataraxia (untroubledness). In some cases it might even be necessary to endure pain in order to preserve or contribute to ataraxia.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEpicureanism - Epicurus On Pleasure, Epicurus On Human Excellence, Epicureans And Stoics Compared, Other Aspects Of Epicureanism