EPICURUS: PHILOSOPHY AS PAIN AVOIDANCE

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The purpose of philosophy is not to pursue knowledge for its own sake, but to bring about peace of mind and body.

2. Happiness is peace of mind and body. It is tranquillity or undisturbedness (ataraxia), the quiet of a mind free from fear and a body content with natural satisfactions.

3. The soul and the body are composed of indivisible small particles called atoms. All that exists is either atoms, bodies compounded of atoms, or void (pure empty space within which atoms move). The human body is composed of coarser atoms that tend to hold together. The human soul is composed of very fine and smooth atoms that are dispersed, if they are not held in by the body.

4. The universe is eternal: atoms are eternal and indestructible and infinite in number. The void is infinite in extent (the void has no limits).

5. Atoms are constantly moving through the universe forming compounds. They generally move in a straight line, but they sometimes swerve, bumping into other atoms, vibrating back and forth and forming compounds. We cannot see atoms because they are very small and move at atomic speed. We can see things made of atoms because they organize into compounds large enough to see.

6. The health of the body and the peace of the mind are the result of a regulated and balanced commotion of atoms. If atoms in body or soul move excessively or uncontrollably, mental or physical disturbance results. Disturbance is pain; undisturbance is pleasure. When there is too much disturbance, the body comes apart, releasing soul atoms.

7. The gods too are made of atoms, very fine like human soul atoms, but holding together forever. The gods are created by collisions of atoms, but they do not come apart, as humans do. Not only are their atoms superior, but the gods are free from the fears and the excesses and practical concerns that cause human beings disturbance. The gods exist happily together in friendship, blissfully carefree and completely unconcerned about human affairs. The gods are not political (they do not govern) and they are not productive (things are made by the collision of atoms). They are free of worries. The best human life imitates the carefree and unpolitical life of the gods.

8. Bad opinions cause mental disturbance, and bad (imprudent) conduct causes mental and bodily disturbance. True philosophy replaces false and disturbing opinions with true and pacifying ones and it teaches prudence -- the practical wisdom of calculating what pleasures ought to be pursued, when they ought to be pursued, and how much of them. Bodily and mental peace result from the enjoyment of simple pleasures in moderation. Lacking what we naturally need causes pain. Having or seeking what we do not really need or more than we really need also causes pain.

9. Two bad opinions that cause suffering of the mind (fear and anxiety) are:

(1) Superstitious belief that the gods meddle in human affairs, hurl thunderbolts, punish after death, etc. This fear is unreasonable. It is impious to believe that the gods would lower themselves and diminish their happiness with involvement in human affairs.

(2) Belief that death is painful. Life is sensation and feeling. Since we stop feeling when we die, death is nothing except the release of soul atoms from the body. Death is the end of sensation, the absence of life. It is not painful and not to be feared. It may even be welcomed as the end of bodily pain. Good = pleasure and bad = pain. Both come to an end with death. Contemplation of our mortality brings peace -- as the irrational craving for immortality causes pain. The anticipation of death is painful; the reality is not.

Peace of the mind requires that one possess true opinions about the gods and death, and be free from fear of them.

10. Calm acceptance and simple living are the way of the Epicurean -- who prudently manages those affairs over which he has some control and resigns himself to those things beyond his control.

11. Pleasure is the absence of pain; it is undisturbance in body and mind. Pleasure is the calming down of atomic collisions; pain is the speeding up of such movements of the atoms. The faster atoms move, the more they tend to break away. Happiness is pleasure (the chief good) which means bodily and mental calm.

12. Things we desire fall into three categories:

(1) natural and necessary -- such as food, clothing, shelter, friendship, reason.

(2) natural and unnecessary -- more than we need.

(3) vain (artificial and unnecessary) -- things we think we need and that others have fooled us into believing we need, but do not really need.

13. The enjoyment of the natural and unnecessary or the vain may itself result in pain. But, more often than not, the difficulty of pursuing and obtaining unnecessary pleasures can be extremely painful, even deadly. For example, the pursuit of political power is accompanied by all kinds of hazards and tribulations. It is just not worth it. We cause ourselves great pain and disturbance by seeking things we have no business seeking in the first place. For one thing, we compete with others who seek the same goods. Much pain is self-created because we value the wrong things. Philosophy teaches us to value what is natural and necessary.

14. Among vain pursuits is the pursuit of extravagant philosophical opinions. True philosophy is Epicurean philosophy, not Platonism or Aristotelianism.

15. Prudence is even more precious than philosophy; in fact, prudence is philosophy, for prudence rids the mind of anxiety and the body of needless suffering.

16. The pleasures of the mind are superior to pleasures of the body. If one has mental peace and friendship, one can be happy despite illness or other physical suffering. (Epicurus was physically ill for much of his life.)

17. Quality of pleasure is more important than quantity. The enjoyment of simple pleasure, such as conversation with a friend, is much more tranquilizing than continuous "drinkings and revelling." Self-control and moderation, not endless satisfaction without moderation, is the key. The word satisfaction comes from the Latin word satis which means "enough." For the true Epicurean, enough is enough. For the profligate, enough is never enough.

18. In order to be free from pain in the body and trouble in the mind, one must be safe from one's neighbors. There are three ways to obtain this safety:

(1) Withdrawal from others (forming a community apart from the city, such as Epicurus' "Garden").

(2) Making laws or social contracts with others not to harm or be harmed by them. Justice is not "natural." It is not a structure of the universe, etc. Justice is their prudent agreement to leave each other alone. See XXXI-XXXVI (Principal Doctrines).

(3) Having friends. Every friend we have is one less enemy. Besides that, friendship has positive benefits. Life in community with friends imitates the blessed life of the gods. See XXVII, XXVIII.

19. The essence of Epicurean life can best be summarized in XIV.

20. Additional quotations from Epicurus' Vatican Sayings. See XIV, XXIII, XXV, XXXI, XXXIV, XLI, XLV, XLVIII, LII, LVIII, LXVII, LXIX, LXXVII, LXXVIII, LXXIX, LXXXI.


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Copyright © 1995 - 1997 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.