Epicurus On Human Excellence
According to Stephen Rosenbaum, most scholars now recognize that Epicureanism did not advocate a life of sensual delights. Rather, the Epicurean pursues "sober reasoning" to achieve the "pleasures" of aponia (absence of pain in the body) and ataraxia (p. 21). Nonetheless, this does not entail the elimination of desires. When one is in the state of ataraxia, one does not avoid opportunities to enjoy kinetic pleasures, but at the same time one is not bothered by the absence of these opportunities. If one has developed a taste for caviar, for example, one enjoys it when it is available and is not disturbed by its absence.
Epicurus has also been criticized for his notion of excellence. Excellence and pleasure are inseparable for Epicurus. But we do everything for the sake of pleasure (ataraxia in particular) not excellence. Ataraxia, then, is the highest human good. Cicero argues that occasions might arise where pleasure-seeking conflicts with acting virtuously (i.e., for the right reason) (De Finibus II.68–73, 111ff.). He claims that it is not possible to do something for the right reason and at the same time to get pleasure from the act in the way Epicurus claims. Rather, because the Epicurean always seeks what is pleasurable, what is right can always be redefined. In other words, excellence is never stable in the Epicurean scheme because whatever leads to pleasure in a specific instance is always right. So in one instance one may benefit (in terms of pleasure) from acting unjustly while in some other instance one may benefit from acting justly. On Cicero's account, then, both actions would be right actions for the Epicurean because both lead to pleasure. But this understanding rests on a faulty assumption. It assumes that the Epicurean feels no remorse. Thus, he need not act justly if acting unjustly leads to pleasure. However, for the Epicurean the "greatest fruit of justice is freedom from disturbance," or ataraxia (Inwood and Gerson, A120). As such, it seems that, for the Epicureans, the fruits of injustice would be disturbance and not ataraxia. Pleasure, then, can align with justice, and thus with excellent activity.
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