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)

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