Cicero on Epicurus’ Ambiguity

Cicero criticizes Epicurus for ambiguity in his use of the word “pleasure” in defining the goal of life.


In De Finibus, Cicero compares the philosophies of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Platonism in some detail.  It’s one of our main sources today, in fact, both for our understanding of Stoic and Epicurean teachings.

In the text, Cicero focuses on the confusion caused, even in his day, by the ambiguity of some of Epicurus’ key concepts, particularly the way he defines “pleasure” (hedone) as the goal of life.  At different times, Epicurus seems to mean different, and perhaps even conflicting things, by his use of this word.

I would claim that Epicurus himself does not know what pleasure is.  He vacillates, and despite repeatedly saying that we must take care to articulate the underlying meaning of our terms, he sometimes fails to understand what this term “pleasure” signifies, and what the substance is that underlies the word.

Cicero says that rather than overlooking pleasure in the conventional sense, of sensory experience, Epicurus folds this into his definition and sometimes praises it highly:

I am thinking of his statement to the effect that he cannot even understand what is good or where it might be found except for the good obtained by eating, drinking, hearing sweet sounds and indulging in more indecent pleasures.  Do you deny that he says this?

His interlocutor (at least in the dialogue) agrees that Epicurus did indeed say this.  Cicero points out that although other philosophers did distinguish the absence of physical pain (aponia) and mental suffering (ataraxia) from actual physical pleasure, somewhat confusingly, Epicurus uses the same term hedone (“pleasure”) to encompass all of these things.  He then goes on to criticise Epicurus for being unnecessarily obscure: “it is not we who lack understanding of the meaning of the word ‘pleasure’, but Epicurus, who uses language in his own way and has nothing to do with our standard usage.”

Sometimes modern fans of Epicurus appear confused by this double-meaning.  They argue that by “pleasure” Epicurus only meant the absence of pain (ataraxia) and that he did not mean what we ordinarily think of as sensory pleasures, like good food and drink, sexual intercourse, etc.  The older Cyrenaic sect of Aristippus made sensory pleasures of this kind the goal of life and they claim that it’s merely “slander” to suggest Epicurus was referring to these sort of things at all.  However, even in the surviving sayings of Epicurus, today, he does appear, at times, to praise these run-of-the-mill sensory pleasures, much like Aristippus and the Cyrenaics before him.  Ancient commentators on Epicurus appear to be nearly unanimous in their belief that he said this.  Cicero not only takes it for granted that followers of Epicurus in his day would know this but he actually cites one of the surviving Principal Doctrines as evidence.

Thus he very often praises precisely the kind of pleasure that we all agree on calling pleasure, and is bold enough to claim that he cannot imagine any good unconnected with Aristippean pleasure.  That is what he says in his treatise devoted entirely to the supreme good.  Indeed in another work, containing concise distillations of his major views, a revelation, so it is said, of oracular wisdom, he writes the following words: – they are, of course well-known to you, Torquatus, since every Epicurean has learned the great man’s kuriai doxai, these pithy sayings being considered of the utmost importance for a happy life.  Consider carefully, then, whether I am translating this particular saying correctly: “If those things in which the indulgent find pleasure freed them from fear of the gods, and from death and pain, and taught them the limits of desire, then we would have nothing to reproach them for.  They would have their fill of pleasures in every way, with no element of pain or distress, that is, of evil.”

Notice how careful Cicero is here to confirm that he’s quoting Epicurus accurately, citing one of his best-known sayings, and translating it correctly from Greek into Latin.  We know from other sources that he’s correct, and this is indeed one of the Principal Doctrines that Epicureans were supposed to commit to memory.  Also notice that Cicero, one of the most well-read men of his era, who had studied philosophy in Athens, has read other texts by Epicurus, which are lost to us today.  He was probably much more familiar with Epicurean philosophy than we could ever hope to be today: both in terms of his acquaintance with the literature and also his familiarity with how living Epicurean teachers and their students actually interpreted them.




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