Epicurean Ethics & Philosophy of ‘Pleasure’

Epicurus (341-270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism, thinks that all animal including human beings are the pleasure seekers and it is a natural instinct to the animals to pursue the pleasure. It is said that searching pleasure and avoiding pain is the fundamental instinct of human nature. The aim of human being is to attain the pleasure and man ought to seek the pleasure because men desire the pleasure. Thus every pleasure is good for man. However he said that we have to accept pain in order to attain pleasure. Again we have to reject the pleasure which lead us into the hole of sufferings. Morality is an activity which offers the pleasure. And pleasure alone is the end of human life and only good for man. Virtue has no value if it cannot bring the pleasure. It is the pleasure who makes valuable to the virtue. The value of the virtue derived from the pleasure.[i]

The object of life or knowledge is to enable man to gain the pleasure. After death all the atoms will be destroyed. So there is no scope for rebirth or there are no chances of survival. Life is one; there is no reason to afraid the future punishment or fear of god or death. After death nothing will be remaining, everything will be finished.[ii] That is why Epicurus said that we need the knowledge which frees us from the fear of death, god and other natural phenomena. And also free from the worry about the past, present and future. What is the way to overcome from these fear Epicurus told that the study of philosophy. Mental peace, serenity and painless will come through the apathy.[iii] There is no limitation of desire so it is better to check the desire. Pleasure is possible only by staying indifferent. In Geeta it is also mention that one can attain pleasure not by fulfilling desire but by the sacrificing the desire.

Epicurus did not distinguish between the higher and lower pleasure. Sometimes it is think that mental pleasure is the higher pleasure than the bodily pleasure. Though Epicurus did not say about higher and lower pleasure but he preferred pleasure of mind than the pleasure of body. Why he prefer mental pleasure because the duration of mental pleasure is last long than the bodily pleasure. Bodily pleasure is just for the moment, we get this pleasure when our desire is satisfy, and it is inferior one because this bodily pleasure is encircled by the pain.[iv] But in the case of mental pleasure or pleasure of mind we can increase the duration of pleasure by remembering the past experience and also by the imagination of future events. He also told that without the mental pleasure bodily pleasure cannot be fully enjoyed. That is why Epicurus prefers mental pleasure.[v] A man should not depend on external things for pleasure. External things are always changing and unreliable. For pleasure man must have rely on his own self, again we know that bodily pleasure is temporary and transient. So it is our duty to search such kind of pleasure which is last long. Epicurus said that a wise man can be happy even he is in bodily stress, because in his mind he is possess the inner tranquility, serenity and calmness.[vi]

The Epicurean view is that, eat and drink and enjoy the life. They said, eat little for fear of digestions, and drink little for fear of next morning, shirk politics and love and other passionate activities.[vii] Because these things excite our mind and do not let the mind stay calm. The calmness and serenity of the mind is very much necessary for attaining the pleasure. In addition to this they also think that to follow the negative principles to attain the pleasure is much easier than to follow the positive one. Because the negative way is more useful, the negative principal viz. to controlling the desire, don’t desire much, don’t expect high, fewer want etc. we can practice easily these things than to positive pursuit of pleasure. Their ideal is to live the life with tension-free; they don’t want pleasure which is overwrought. Since the positive pleasure is beyond the reach of mortals, so they told about the negative absence of pain. Although their ideal is pleasure, but their world view is connected with luxurious pessimism as suggested by the WT Stace.[viii]

For Epicurus, all the pleasure is good; it is the main thing or criterion to choice or avoids of any object in our life. It is the pleasure by which we judge every good things and it is the pleasure which directs our aims our all activities which we want to do. Even our wish is also depend upon pleasure. We wish those things which give us the pleasure.  

Pleasure is not a thing which we can get after the satisfaction of desire. Pleasure does not consist in the contentment of the needs. When the need increases pleasure moves away. Without bringing the pleasure into the life, the needs, the desires, the wanting, the longing etc. are the things which complicated and intricate our life. Epicurus said that the best means to becoming a happier person is to live simple life with simplicity, moderation, cheerfulness, temperance etc.[ix]


[i] W T Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, p. 358

[ii]Y Masih, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p. 129

[iii] Y Masih, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p. 129

[iv] See Anthony Kenny, Ancient Philosophy, p. 95

[v] Y Masih, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, pp. 128-29

[vi] W T Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, p. 359

[vii] Y Masih, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.131

[viii] W T Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, p. 359

[ix] W T Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, p. 360


Shantaraj Debbarma (E-mail: shantarajdebbarma@gmail.com;)

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