What Seneca Really Said about Epicureanism

Survey of Seneca’s remarks about Epicurus in the Letters to Lucilius, and elsewhere.

EpicurusPeople often notice that, despite being a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus favourably at the start of the Letters to Lucilius.  That’s hard to miss.  He mentions him in about the first thirty letters, and periodically thereafter.  Seneca also refers to Epicurus and Epicureanism, albeit sometimes more indirectly, throughout his other writings.

From that evidence people occasionally leap to the conclusion that Seneca was espousing a hybrid of Epicureanism and Stoicism, or at least that he had assimilated significant Epicurean ideas into his version of Stoicism.  This would be surprising, of course, because the Stoics were generally known for their ardent criticism of Epicureanism.  They traditionally saw it as fundamentally opposed not only to their own philosophy but to most schools of Hellenistic philosophy derived from Socratic ethics.  The Discourses of Epictetus, for example, contain very blunt and hostile criticism of Epicureanism.  The same criticisms are made by Seneca, typically with greater diplomacy but, as we’ll see he was also sometimes extremely hostile toward Epicureanism.  These appear to be well-established Stoic lines of argument, that probably derive from much earlier sources.  The main bone of contention was that most schools of philosophy viewed the doctrine that virtue is an end-in-itself (“virtue is its own reward”) as fundamental.  The Epicureans were one of the few schools to reject this view, and to propose instead that virtue in itself is of merely instrumental value, as a means to attaining pleasure (hedone) or tranquility (ataraxia).

At the beginning of the Letters to Lucilius, Seneca actually seems quite positive about Epicureanism.  Although, as we’ll see, his compliments are carefully qualified.  As he proceeds, in the later letters, he begins to intersperse more serious criticisms.  Likewise, elsewhere in his writings, such as On Benefits, Seneca is scathingly critical of Epicurean ethics.  One interpretation that scholars have offered is that Seneca wrote the Letters to Lucilius precisely in order to persuade Epicureans to “convert” to the Stoic philosophy.  He goes out of his way here to open with references to Epicurus and to emphasise areas of apparent common ground, leaving his criticisms until later.

He sometimes praises Epicurus’ character, while nevertheless attacking his philosophy.  Indeed, it was a common strategy among other Hellenistic authors to argue that certain philosophers are more praiseworthy than their teachings, i.e., that their own character and way of life was inconsistent with their philosophy.  Even within the Letters to Lucilius, therefore, Seneca makes it clear right from the outset that Epicureanism is to be viewed as the enemy camp:

The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp – not as a deserter but as a scout. (Letters, 2)

Note that here as elsewhere, such as in On Leisure, Seneca stresses that he is merely scouting out Epicureanism and not deserting Stoicism, in any sense.  He later explains,

It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’ noble words instead of words taken from our own school.  But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? (Letters, 8)

He says several times that the quotes he draws from Epicurus typically articulate very commonplace ideas found in the writings of many earlier philosophers, poets, and playwrights.  There are many ideas expressed by the Stoic school which we should not be surprised to find echoed elsewhere.  However, that does not mean that the Stoics or Seneca agree with everything, or even the main things, said by these other authors.  Indeed, Seneca is implicitly criticising Epicurus by pointing out that what is good in Epicureanism is not unique, and what is unique in it is not good.

By the ninth letter, Seneca is openly criticising Epicureanism, however.  He rejects the Epicurean doctrine that the wise man needs friends to achieve the goal of living a truly pleasant life, free from fear and pain.  The Stoic position is that the wise man is self-sufficient but that he prefers to have friends, fate permitting.  Seneca quotes a letter of Epicurus as saying that the wise man needs friends for the reason:

That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want.

Seneca, like other Stoics, criticises Epicurus for teaching his followers to develop what we call today “fairweather friendships”.  Friends are valued by the Epicureans only as a means to the end of protecting their own peace of mind, comfort, and tranquillity.  This is something Seneca, like other Stoics, sees as morally reprehensible.  Seneca writes:

He who regards himself only [i.e., his own self-interest], and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.  The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chains such a friend will desert him.  These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. […] He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.  (Letter, 8)

The Stoics believe that genuine friendship is based on love of another person’s character, because they are good (virtuous), and share our values, not merely because having them as our friend is expedient.  (What happens when their company ceases to be calming?  Do we ditch them?)

In Letter thirteen, Seneca opens by praising the philosophy of Epicurus:

I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern: for this much talked of pleasure is reduced to a very narrow compass, and he bids pleasure submit to the same law which we bid virtue do – I mean, to obey nature. (Letters, 13)

However, he immediately qualifies this by saying that Epicureanism lends itself to abuse and misinterpretation by contemporary adherents looking for an excuse to justify their own bad habits

Luxury, however, is not satisfied with what is enough for nature.  What is the consequence?  Whoever thinks that happiness consists in lazy sloth, and alternations of gluttony and profligacy, requires a good patron for a bad action, and when he has become an Epicurean, having been led to do so by the attractive name of that school, he follows, not the pleasure which he there hears spoken of, but that which he brought thither with him, and, having learned to think that his vices coincide with the maxims of that philosophy, he indulged in them no longer timidly and in dark corners, but boldly in the face of day.  I will not, therefore, like most of our school, say that the sect of Epicurus is the teacher of crime, but what I say is: it is ill spoken of, it has a bad reputation, and yet it does not deserve it.

Once again, Seneca begins by apparently praising the virtue of the Epicurean school, and defending it against critics, but then subtly shifts toward criticism as the letter proceeds.  He does this by blaming Epicurus himself for fostering this popular misinterpretation of his philosophy.  He portrays the Epicurean schools as a brave man dressed in effeminate clothing, noisily banging a drum to draw attention.  Apparently in reference to the motto above the door to the Garden (“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”) Seneca writes:

Choose, then, some honorable superscription for your school, some writing which shall in itself arouse the mind: that which at present stands over your door has been invented by the vices.

Clearly, this no longer sounds like praise of Epicureanism, the tone has shifted dramatically toward criticism.  He immediately proceeds to argue that making pleasure the supreme goal of life, as Epicurus did, is problematic unless it is subordinated to reason.

He who ranges himself on the side of virtue [i.e., the Stoics] gives thereby a proof of a noble disposition: he who follows pleasure [i.e., the Epicureans] appears to be weakly, worn out, degrading his manhood, likely to fall into infamous vices unless someone discriminates his pleasures for him, so that he may know which remain within the bounds of natural desire, which are frantic and boundless, and become all the more insatiable the more they are satisfied.  But come!

However, whereas Stoics make reason (wisdom) the supreme goal and subordinate pleasure to it, the Epicureans inverted this and made reason or virtue of merely instrumental or subordinate value to their goal of pleasure (or absence of pain, ataraxia).

Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe.  Too much pleasure is hurtful: but with virtue we need fear no excess of any kind, because moderation is contained in virtue herself.  That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing: besides what better guide can there be than reason [as opposed to pleasure] for beings endowed with a reasoning nature?  So if this combination pleases you, if you are willing to proceed to a happy life thus accompanied, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure follow and hang about the body like a shadow: it is the part of a mind incapable of great things to hand over virtue, the highest of all qualities, as a handmaid to pleasure.

So from fulsome praise of Epicurus, Seneca has very rapidly proceeded into scathing criticism, and ends up apparently selling the advantages of Stoicism over Epicureanism as a  guide to the best way of life.

In letter thirty-three, Seneca, as he has done several times already, stresses that Epicurus’ valuable sayings are common to poetry, plays, and philosophy in general.

Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, and so is history.  For this reason I would not have you think that these utterances belong to Epicurus.  They are common property and are emphatically our won.  They are, however, more noteworthy in Epicurus, because they appear at infrequent intervals and when you do not expect them, and because it is surprising that brave words should be spoken at any time by a man who made a practice of being effeminate.  For that is what most persons maintain.  In my opinion, Epicurus is really a brave man, even though he did wear long sleeves.  (Letters, 33)

Again, Epicurus’ character is praised, although his philosophy is being criticised.  This may have generally been considered courteous, although it also serves as a rhetorical strategy for softening the blow of criticisms made against Epicureanism.

For example, Seneca elsewhere rejects as absurd, in two letters, the teaching of Epicurus that the wise man even experiences pleasure while being tortured.  In letter sixty-six, his theme is to show that virtue, the supreme good, can flourish even in a frail, sickly, ugly, or impoverished body.  He opens by declaring the Stoic doctrine that virtue needs nothing else to set it off – it lacks no extrinsic goods, in other words.  Seneca compares this to what Epicurus said:

Epicurus also maintains that the wise man, though he is being burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out: “Tis pleasant, and concerns me not at all!”  (Letters, 66)

Here as elsewhere, Seneca notes that it is hard to believe, or implausible, that the Epicurean wise man finds it “pleasant to be roasted in this way”.

We find mentioned in the works of Epicurus two goods, of which his Supreme Good, or blessedness, is composed, namely, a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.  These goods, if they are complete, do not increase; for how can that which is complete increase?  The body is, let us suppose, free from pain; what increase can there be to this absence of pain?  The soul is composed and calm; what increase can there be to this tranquillity?  […] Whatever delights fall to his lot over and above these two things do not increase his Supreme Good; they merely season it, so to speak, and add spice to it.  For the absolute good of man’s nature is satisfied with peace in the body and peace in the soul.

Seneca goes on to say that Epicurus’ writings contain “a graded list of goods just like that of our own [Stoic] school”, by which he presumably means the Stoic list of virtues and also the hierarchy of things considered to be of secondary value (axia), which are not “good” in the strict sense.  (The Stoics sometimes use the word “good” loosely to describe “indifferent” things, which are merely “preferred”.)

For there are some things, he declares, which he prefers should fall to his lot, such as bodily rest free from all inconvenience, and relaxation of the soul as it takes delight in the contemplation of its own goods.  And there are other things which, though he would prefer that they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves, for example, the kind of resignation, in times of ill-health and serious suffering, to which I alluded a moment ago, and which Epicurus displayed on the last and most blessed day of his life.  For he tells uss that he had to endure excruciating agony from a diseased bladder and from an ulcerated stomach, so acute that it permitted no increase of pain;” and yet, “he says, “that day was none the less happy.”

Seneca appears to be alluding to the Epicurean definition of the Supreme Good, mentioned earlier by him, and defined as “a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.”  However, the “resignation, in times of ill-health” he mentions is the virtue of fortitude or endurance, which Epicurus reputedly valued only as a means to the end of maintaining pleasure and tranquillity.

Seneca began this letter by praising goods such as rational pleasure and tranquillity in agreement with Epicurus, he then argued at length contrary to Epicurus that virtue must be equal to other goods.  Now, however, he qualifies that position by concluding that reason or virtue maintained in the face of adversity is obviously more praiseworthy and admirable than the peaceful tranquillity of someone living a pleasant and contented life.

Allow me, excellent Lucilius, to utter a still bolder word: if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater.

He suggests that though all uses of reason and virtue are equal, greater “I should bestow greater praise on those goods that have stood trial and show courage, and have fought it out with fortune.”  He follows this with the celebrated example of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who burned his own hand to defy the Romans’ enemies.

Why should I not reckon this good among the primary goods, and deem it in so far greater than those other goods which are unattended by danger and have made no trial of fortune, as it is a rare thing to have overcome a foe with a hand lost than with a hand armed?

He even goes so far as now to say that he should desire adversity himself, as an opportunity to exercise virtue.  Somehow, what started off as praise of Epicureanism, by the end of the letter, has turned into a very different stance, where Mucius is held up as a Stoic exemplar that seems obviously at odds with the Epicurean ideal.  Once again, Epicurus is praised for his personal virtue of endurance in the face of physical pain, which is presented as being at odds with his own teaching that virtue is of merely instrumental value and the absence of physical pain is part of the Supreme Good.

In letter ninety-eight, Seneca criticises Epicurus more openly, although pairing that with a (fairly commonplace, once again) point of agreement:

Let us disagree with Epicurus on the one point, when he declares that there is no natural justice, and that crime should be avoided because one cannot escape the fear which results therefrom; let us agree with him on the other – that bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drive and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the guarantors of its own peace of mind. (Letters, 88)

The Stoics were appalled by the Epicurean doctrine that the main reason to avoid committing a crime or injustice is basically fear of being caught.  They typically point out that in many situations there is absolutely no risk of being found out, so Epicureanism provides no rationale for acting in the manner we’d normally consider ethical.  They agree that vice tends to lead to inner turmoil, but for the Stoics a good man refrains from immoral deeds because they are immoral, not just because they cause him anxiety.

In his other writings, Seneca is more openly critical of the Epicureans.  For example, Book IV of On Benefits, deals with the Socratic and Stoic contention that virtue is its own reward.  Seneca contrasts this with the Epicurean doctrine that virtue is merely of instrumental value, as a means of procuring pleasure or the absence of suffering (ataraxia):

In this part of the subject we oppose the Epicureans, an effeminate and dreamy sect who philosophise in their own paradise, amongst whom virtue is the handmaid of pleasures, obeys them, is subject to them, and regards them as superior to itself.  You say, “there is no pleasure without virtue.”  But wherefore is it superior to virtue?  Do you imagine that the matter in dispute between them is merely one of precedence?  Nay, it is virtue itself and its powers which are in question.  It cannot be virtue if it can follow; the place of virtue is first, she ought to lead, to command, to stand in the highest rank; you bid her look for a cue to follow.

This is really the fundamental Stoic criticism of Epicureanism.  It constitutes a complete difference of opinion of their respective definitions of the supreme goal of life.  Seneca continues:

“What,” asks our [Epicurean] opponent, “does that matter to you?  I also declare that happiness is impossible without virtue.  Without virtue I disapprove of and condemn the very pleasures which I pursue, and to which I have surrendered myself.  The only matter in dispute is this, whether virtue be the cause of the highest good, or whether it be itself the highest good.”  Do you suppose, though this be the only point in question, that it is a mere matter of precedence?  It is a confusion and obvious blindness to prefer the last to the first.  I am not angry at virtue being placed below pleasure, but at her being mixed up at all with pleasure, which she despises, whose enemy she is, and from which she separates herself as far as possible, being more at home with labour and sorrow, which are manly troubles, than with your womanish good things.

Compare this to Seneca’s slightly more opaque version of essentially the same argument, in Letter 66 above.  He continues to criticise his Epicurean “opponents” throughout On Benefits.  For example, later in Book IV, he presents criticisms of Epicurus’ negatively-defined goal of life, absence of suffering, as being akin to sleep (or death), which were first made many centuries earlier by the Cyrenaic school:

You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others. (On Benefits, 4.13)

Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

Article outlining the criticisms of Epicureanism made by the Stoic Epictetus.

EpicurusNB: This is a draft, I’m still adding the final sections.

In the surviving Discourses, Epictetus is shown discussing the rival philosophical school of Epicureanism at considerable length with his Stoic students.  Typically his comments are scathingly critical of Epicureanism.  He even appears to criticize some of his students for failing to attain Stoic virtue by accusing them of being mere “Epicureans”.  Diogenes Laertius, one of our few sources for Epicurean doctrines, begins his chapter on Epicurus in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers with a list of criticisms and allegations made against him by the Stoics.  He adds: “Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him”, which is definitely in accord with the tone of criticism we find in the surviving Discourses.

Some of Epictetus’ comments are scattered, and of those some are more direct than others.  However, there are also three Discourses in which he more explicitly and directly critiques the philosophy of Epicurus.  

  1. In answer to Epicurus (1.23)
  2. Against Epicureans and Academics (2.20)
  3. A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean (3.7)

This is probably fairly consistent with Stoic teachings in general, which appear to have become increasingly focused on the criticism of Epicureanism from at least the time of Chrysippus onward.  Diogenes Laertius tells us that, among his numerous books, Chrysippus wrote two entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, which definitely sound like they may have contained systematic critiques of the Epicurean position.

Often criticisms of Epicurean philosophy merge with more general criticisms made against those who treat pleasure as the goal of life.  In the time of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, this probably began with attacks against the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and later expanded to encompass the teachings of Epicurus.  However, it also extends more generally to non-philosophers who treat pleasure as if it were the most important thing in life.  Some proponents of Epicureanism will object that this is a caricature of his philosophical teachings.  However, the Epicurean teachings were notoriously ambiguous, or even contradictory, and Epicurus and his followers do seem at times to have professed doctrines that sound like those being attacked by the Stoics, including the sort of hedonism Epictetus is so keen to dispute for the sake of his students.

Epictetus’ key criticisms of Epicurus can be summed up as follows:

  1. Like the Academic Skeptics, Epicurus frequently contradicts himself by taking for granted in practice assumptions that he claims to reject in his philosophical doctrines.
  2. If he rejects the concept of fellowship between mankind, or a moral duty to others, then what’s motive for writing so many books and teaching his philosophy to others?
  3. If he really wanted to obtain “security” for his own tranquillity from other men then, paradoxically, he’d actually be better to teach them Stoicism rather than Epicureanism, because that would better serve his own self-interest.

Typically he employs a method that’s modelled on Socratic questioning, seeking to expose internal contradictions in his opponents’ views, especially between their words and actions. Hence, this isn’t an abstract or nit-picking debate. Epictetus is very much focused on the day-to-day practical implications of following one philosophy over another. Likewise, it’s sometimes said that he’s misinterpreting the Epicureans or being unfair to them. However, it’s likely that he was more familiar with Epicurean doctrines, and their practical way of life, than we are today. He probably had many Epicureans visit his school. Indeed, in one of the Discourses described below, we can actually see the record of a Socratic exchange between Epictetus and an Epicurean philosopher, which apparently took place in public before his students.

In answer to Epicurus

In this Discourse (1.23), Epictetus begins by claiming that Epicurus has “set our good in the husk which we wear”, the physical body, and that by doing so he’s led into contradiction when he also tries to profess the view that humans are by nature social beings.  We’re told Epicurus taught that “we should neither admire nor accept anything that is detached from the nature of the good”, something the Stoics would emphatically agree with.  However, we’re also told that Epicurus rejected the view that affection for our own children is a natural instinct, which the Stoics argue forms the basis of our social nature, and the virtue of justice.  For Epicureans, although friendship is important, it’s typically portrayed as being of only instrumental value, i.e., a means to the end of preserving one’s own mind in pleasant tranquillity.  Sometimes love or friendship may cause more turmoil than calm, and in these cases Epicureans seem to shun relationships.  For that reason, incidentally, Seneca also accuses Epicureanism of encouraging superficial or “fair-weather” friendships.

Epicurus actually taught that the wise man will not raise a family and that his followers should emulate this way of life, which he apparently followed himself in practice.  He apparently argued that by marrying and having children, one makes oneself particularly vulnerable to disturbance and emotional suffering on their behalf, so it is better to avoid this if you want to live a life of tranquillity.  Compare this to Socrates, the Stoics’ supreme role-model, who reputedly told his friends that he remained married to his notoriously shrewish wife, Xanthippe because she offered him the opportunity to strengthen his character through patience and self-discipline in the face of provocation.  Epictetus ridicules the obvious inconsistency of Epicurus in this regard because he was understood to be very fond of his favourite house-slave, nicknamed “Mouse” and concerned for his welfare.  If he really believed that we should avoid marrying and having children to minimise potential for emotional disturbance, then to be truly consistent Epicurus should have also avoided becoming emotionally attached to his friends and slaves.  Epictetus says, strikingly, here that “once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love it or to care for it.”  He’s talking about the normal state of affairs of course, and I’m sure he’d admit that there are some exceptions to this natural inclination.

He goes on to say that Epicurus, for the same reasons that he gives against marrying and having children, also advises his followers not to engage in politics.  By this he means generally being involved in public life, the affairs of the city, for the sake of one’s community, and not just what we mean by professional politics today.  Epicurus, of course, withdrew to a private garden outside the city walls of Athens where he enjoyed the company of a small circle of friends, who discussed philosophy among themselves in seclusion.  One of the mottoes of the Epicurean garden, according to Plutarch, was actually “live in obscurity” (lathe biōsas).  We might say: “keep your head down and stay out of trouble.”  By contrast, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down the public colonnade known as the Stoa Poekile, on the edge of the Athenian marketplace.  He probably did this, partly, in emulation of Socrates who also taught philosophy in the agora.  Members of the public, philosophers of other schools, and politicians, could approach them there and engage them in debate over the nature of philosophical questions, particularly ethical questions of a practical nature.  Epictetus appears to imply that Epicurus’ advice was rather than to marry and have children or to engage in public life, as the Stoics advised their students, one should “live among men as though you were a fly among flies”, meaning in a detached manner, lacking any sense of natural affection or affiliation toward other people.

Epictetus attacks Epicurus quite ferociously for hypocrisy in this regard, partly because he ignores the fact that affection for own children is completely natural, and therefore the basis of social ethics, according to Stoicism.  Even domestic animals like sheep, or wild animals like wolves, do not feel indifference to their own offspring.  (The Stoics, incidentally, classified people as having lost their essential humanity and degenerating to the level of either domestic or wild animals if they’d succumbed to the vices of hedonism or aggression, respectively.)  In ancient Greece, as in the tale of Oedipus, unwanted or sickly infants were sometimes left outdoors by their parents to die of exposure.  So Epictetus concludes his Socratic charge of contradiction and hypocrisy, against Epicurus, as follows:

Come now, who follows your advice when he sees his child fallen on the ground and crying?  Why, in my opinion, your mother and your father, even if they had divined that you were going to say such things, would not have left you to die of exposure!

Against Epicureans and Academics

In this Discourse (2.20), Epictetus begins by reminding his students of several well-established criticisms made against Academic Skepticism.  His main objection is that the Skeptics contradict themselves by forwarding arguments that take for granted some of the assumptions they’re trying to undermine.  He soon shifts his focus onto Epicurus, though, whom he accuses of essentially the same philosophical error.  

His first target is the claim, which he attributes to the Epicurean school, that there is no “natural fellowship” among mankind.  Epictetus claims that Epicurus  necessarily contradicts himself by making use of precisely that assumption in practice.  Some modern proponents of Epicureanism seem to question whether this was indeed part of the ancient creed.  However, ancient commentators on Epicureanism generally take it for granted that this was one of their best-known doctrines.  Epictetus actually quotes Epicurus as saying:

Be not deceived, men, nor led astray, nor mistaken; there is no natural fellowship with one another among rational beings; believe me.  Those who say the contrary are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasons.

“Why do you care then?”, asks Epictetus.  Why do you teach?  Why did you labour day and night to write so many books of philosophy for others to read?  If we are deceived in this way, how does it harm your ability to enjoy peace of mind, Epicurus?  There seems to be a conflict here between the values being taught and the very act of teaching them to others.  In fact, Epicurus would attain more “security” for his pleasant way of life from other men, if he allows them to be “deceived”, as he puts it.  The goal of Epicureanism is supposed to be to preserve one’s lasting pleasure, or peace of mind, at all costs.  Epictetus is really rolling two criticisms into one here.  Epicurus’ actions seem hypocritical.  However, paradoxically, it also seems like anyone sincerely embracing Epicureanism would be better off to teach Stoicism to others, and the doctrine of natural affection toward mankind, because that would ultimately be more in their self-interest.

Why do you care, then?  Allow us to be deceived.  Will you far any the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that we do have a natural fellowship with one another, and that we ought by all means to guard it?  Nay, your position will be much better and safer.  […] What do you care how the rest of mankind will think about these matters, or whether their ideas be sound or not?  For what have you to do with us?  Come, do you interest yourself in sheep because they allow themselves to be shorn by us, and milked, and finally to be butchered and cut up?  Would it not be desirable if men could be charmed and bewitched into slumber by the Stoics and wlos themselves to be shorn and milked by you and your kind?  Is not this something that you ought to have said to your fellow Epicureans only and to have concealed your views from outsiders, taking special pains to persuade them, of all people, that we are by nature born with a sense of fellowship, and that self-control is a good thing, so that everything may be kept for you?

The Stoics believed that all men deserve our consideration, as brothers, and we should view ourselves as all citizens of a single state, consisting of the whole cosmos.  Epicurus at times appears to completely reject any fellowship among mankind or mutual obligation to benefit others.  However, even if he qualifies that by arguing that fellowship should be maintained selectively, for pragmatic reasons, it seems to cause further difficulties.

Or ought we to maintain this fellowship with some, but not others?  With whom, then, ought we to maintain it?  With those who reciprocate by maintaining it with us, or with those who are transgressors of it?  And who are greater transgressors of it than you Epicureans who have set up such doctrines?

In much the same way that the Skeptics try to defy nature by denying the reliability of our eyes and ears, Epicurus defies nature by denying our natural affections, and drive to benefit other humans.

A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean

In this Discourse (3.7), an actual conversation between Epictetus and a follower of Epicurus is reported. That’s important to note because sometimes, due to the notorious ambiguity of Epicurean teachings, people sometimes want to question whether Epictetus really understood Epicureanism.  It’s likely, however, that he had access to more Epicurean teachings than we do today.  Scholars believe Epictetus possessed rare copies of early Greek Stoic texts, which he read to students and was discussing with them in the surviving Discourses.  These may have been the books of Zeno, and more likely some of those by Chrysippus.  These quite probably contained references to early Epicurean teachings.  However, Epictetus would also have known many late Roman Epicureans personally.  As this Discourse proves, Epicureans visited him and apparently discussed philosophy in his school, in the presence of students like Arrian, who recorded this conversation.  So it’s probably unfairly dismissive to question his familiarity with the philosophy.  Epictetus probably knew a great deal more about the teachings and way of life endorsed by Epicureans than we ever will.

We’re told from the outset that the Imperial Bailiff or “Corrector”, a high-ranking government official, “who was an Epicurean”, came to visit Epictetus.  Epictetus welcomed the Epicurean by presenting himself as a relative laymen with regard to the teachings of Epicurus, in the presence of an expert, and seeking to learn more by questioning him.  That’s striking because it obviously resembles “Socratic irony”, the way Socrates would act as if he were ignorant, rather than play the part of a guru himself, and instead question his visitors in depth about their philosophical and ethical beliefs.  Epicurus himself did the opposite of Socrates and happily claimed to be an enlightened sage, which arguably led his followers to treat him as a guru figure.  (They celebrated his birthday every year, kept pictures of him, and memorised his teachings verbatim, etc.)  By contrast, the Stoics believed that the wise man is “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix”, a mythical bird supposedly born every five hundred years.  Neither Zeno nor any of the founders of the Stoa apparently claimed to be wise themselves.  Instead they seem to have classed themselves as fools, who were merely helping other fools to approach wisdom.  Seneca described himself as like a patient in one bed describing how his therapy is going to the patient in the bed beside him.  That attitude toward experts, or wise men, was a major practical difference between the Stoic and Epicurean schools, which shaped their respective discourses about philosophy.  Epictetus refers to himself here as a “layman” in philosophy, whereas Epicurus called himself a sage.  By contrast, although we may read an account of him explicitly denying that he is wise, after his death it appears that Epictetus may have been considered sage-like by his followers.

Once again, Epictetus then engages in what’s obviously a Socratic-style questioning, this time of his Epicurean guest.  He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.  However, Epictetus points out that this stands in direct contradiction to the Epicurean doctrine, which he describes as saying that: “pleasure of soul is pleasure in the things of the body” because “then they become matters of prime importance, and the true nature of the good.”

Epictetus also mentions another well-established criticism of Epicureanism, one also discussed by Cicero and others.  Epicurus, he says, does not condemn theft as wicked but says that it only becomes so because of the pain, or displeasure, caused by actually being caught, or worry about being caught.  It’s the pleasure that comes from avoidance of pain that’s the supreme goal of life, and avoiding theft and other vicious acts is merely a means to this end.  So Epictetus poses the obvious question: what if “the stealing be done secretly, safely, without anybody’s knowledge”?  There are many instances where we have the opportunity to act unethically without any risk whatsoever of detection.  Epictetus mentions also that if he happens to have “influential friends in Rome”, powerful friends, then an Epicurean may have very little motive to behave himself, being placed above fear of reprisals by his social status and connections in society.  If he sincerely believes that pleasure is his own highest good, for the sake of which he would be willing to sacrifice everything else, then there are bound to be many situations where this can be pursued without the fear of being caught that Epicurus claims should be sufficient to keep us from acting antisocially.

Epictetus goes on to mention another familiar response to the Epicureans: that they aspire to act virtuously but doing so is in conflict with the problematic ethical doctrines that they claim to follow.  He jokes that whereas the Stoics aspire to noble doctrines, although they sometimes fall short of them and lapse into base actions, the Epicureans aspire to base doctrines even when they engage in noble deeds.  He’s basically saying to his Epicurean guest: “You’re better than this.”  Your actions are good, but your philosophy isn’t fit for purpose because if you followed it consistently you should potentially be doing things that go against your own moral conscience.  There’s a contradiction between your philosophy and your way of life.

He then proceeds to discuss yet another familiar criticism of Epicureanism by posing the question very bluntly: “In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean state?”  Epicureanism often appeals to individuals, it’s self-interested in a particular way, but it’s far less appealing to imagine being surrounded by people adopting the same values, e.g., that your life and wellbeing would only be of value to them as long as it was consistent with their goal of preserving their own lasting pleasure and peace of mind.  Epictetus says the Epicureans say: “people ought not to marry”, nor have children, nor “perform the duties of a citizen”, i.e., participate in society.  If everyone embraced this philosophy, Epictetus says, society would simply collapse.  There could be no genuinely Epicurean state.  “Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the state, destructive to the family…  Drop these doctrines, man!”  We should look for philosophical doctrines that are consistent with our way of life, and help us to flourish and become good citizens.  That’s what we would want from other people around us.

The persuasive power of vice is so strong already – it’s the biggest challenge we face in life.  Why then, says Epictetus, embrace philosophical doctrines that potentially make this temptations seem even more powerful by judging our supreme good to reside in pleasure?  Pleasure, he says, should be subordinate to virtue, and not the other way around.  The Epicurean bailiff apparently claims he has power over other man, and influence at the Emperor’s court.  However, Epictetus concludes by saying this is not true leadership but that comes from the authority of someone like Socrates, whose wisdom and virtue make men want to emulate him as a role-model.

Scattered remarks by Epictetus

Elsewhere in the surviving DiscoursesEpictetus uses Epicureanism as a kind of insult against some of his students:

Do you not realize the kind of men they are whose language you have just uttered?  That they are Epicureans and blackguards?  And yet, while doing their deeds and holding their opinions, you recite to us the words of Zeno and Socrates? (3.24)

Elsewhere he makes a similar remark:

Why did you call yourself a Stoic?  Observe yourselves thus in your actions and you will find out to what sect of the philosophers you belong.  You will find that most of you are Epicureans, some few Peripatetics, but these without any backbone; fore wherein do you in fact show that you consider virtue equal to all things else, or even superior?  But as for a Stoic, show me one if you can!  (2.19)

In one of the surviving fragments (14), he seems to be saying that in contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics hold that “pleasure is not something natural, but a sequel of things that are natural, as justice, self-control, and freedom.”  Epictetus asks why the soul doesn’t take pleasure in its own goods  but rather in the inferior goods of the body.  He says, though, that nature has given us a sense of shame, which causes us to blush at vice, and this prevents him from “laying down pleasure as the good and end of life.”

But if I put what is mine in one scale, and what is honourable in the other, then the statement of Epicurus assumes strength, in which he declares that “the honourable is either nothing at all, or at best only what people hold in esteem.” (2.22)

He claims in another Discourse (2.23) that Epicurus has said that the flesh is the  most excellent part of man.  Epictetus claims that when Epicurus was dying and wrote “We are spending what is our last and at the same time a happy day?”, and when he wrote so many books to benefit his followers, it was not his flesh that prompted him to do so but his moral purpose (prohairesis).  We would have to act like we were blind to ignore the presence of a higher faculty within us than that of physical sensation.

If Epicurus should come and say that the good ought to be in the flesh, again the explanation becomes lengthy, and you must be told what is the principal faculty within us, and what our substantial, and what our essential, nature is.  Since it is not probable that the good of a snail lies in its flesh?  But take our own case, Epicurus: what more masterful faculty do you yourself possess?  What is that thing within you which takes counsel, which examines into all things severally, which after examining the flesh itself, decides that it is the principal matter?  And why do you light a lamp and toil in our behalf, and write such quantities of books?  Is it that we may not fail to know the truth?  Who are we?  And what are we to you?  And so the argument becomes lengthy.  (1.21)