Epicurus versus the Cyrenaics

Some comments about Epicurean philosophy found among Diogenes Laertius’ discussion of the Cyrenaic sect.

AristippusIn the chapter on Epicurus in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius provides one of our most important ancient sources for information about Epicureanism.  However, in addition to this he also discusses Epicureanism in an earlier chapter on Aristippus, the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and a member of Socrates’ circle of friends.  Diogenes Laertius elsewhere mentions that critics had accused Epicurus of putting forward as his own doctrines developed by Aristippus regarding pleasure.

The Cyrenaics believed that there two fundamental states of mind: pleasure and pain, a smooth motion of the soul and a rough one.  They believed that all pleasures are essentially the same sensation, and that one pleasure is not inherently more pleasant than another.  All creatures seek pleasure and avoid pain.

In explaining their doctrines, Diogenes Laertius proceeds to quote from a lost work by the Stoic Panaetius, which compared the Cyrenaic and Epicurean philosophies in terms of their theories of pleasure.

However, the bodily pleasure which is the end is, according to Panaetius in his work On the Sects, not the settled pleasure following the removal of pains, or the sort of freedom from discomfort which Epicurus accepts and maintains to be the end. They also hold that there is a difference between “end” and “happiness.” Our end is particular pleasure, whereas happiness is the sum total of all particular pleasures, in which are included both past and future pleasures.

Whereas the Cyrenaics made bodily pleasure the goal of life, therefore, the Epicureans rejected this aim and instead sought a stable sense of pleasure, of a more specific sort, which they identified with freedom from discomfort and the removal of pains.  The Cyrenaic position is described as follows:

Particular pleasure is desirable for its own sake, whereas happiness is desirable not for its own sake but for the sake of particular pleasures. That pleasure is the end is proved by the fact that from our youth up we are instinctively attracted to it, and, when we obtain it, seek for nothing more, and shun nothing so much as its opposite, pain. Pleasure is good even if it proceed from the most unseemly conduct, as Hippobotus says in his work On the Sects. For even if the action be irregular, still, at any rate, the resultant pleasure is desirable for its own sake and is good.

The Cyrenaics appear to have criticised Epicurus’ definition of pleasure.

The removal of pain, however, which is put forward in Epicurus, seems to them not to be pleasure at all, any more than the absence of pleasure is pain. For both pleasure and pain they hold to consist in motion, whereas absence of pleasure like absence of pain is not motion, since painlessness is the condition of one who is, as it were, asleep.

A similar criticism was raised by Cicero in De Finibus, and may have been a well-known response to Epicureanism.

They assert that some people may fail to choose pleasure because their minds are perverted; not all mental pleasures and pains, however, are derived from bodily counterparts. For instance, we take disinterested delight in the prosperity of our country which is as real as our delight in our own prosperity. Nor again do they admit that pleasure is derived from the memory or expectation of good, which was a doctrine of Epicurus. For they assert that the movement affecting the mind is exhausted in course of time.

This may have been a criticism of the Epicurean notion that pleasures are somehow grounded in bodily sensations.  Epicurus apparently recommended that his followers mentally rehearse past pleasures and anticipate future ones.  However, the Cyrenaics are right that this is problematic because of the phenomenon of habituation.  Our emotional responses often weaken or are “exhausted” if we expose ourselves to exactly the same stimuli over and over again, either in reality or even in imagination.

Again they hold that pleasure is not derived from sight or from hearing alone. At all events, we listen with pleasure to imitation of mourning, while the reality causes pain. They gave the names of absence of pleasure and absence of pain to the intermediate conditions. However, they insist that bodily pleasures are far better than mental pleasures, and bodily pains far worse than mental pains, and that this is the reason why offenders are punished with the former. For they assumed pain to be more repellent, pleasure more congenial. For these reasons they paid more attention to the body than to the mind. Hence, although pleasure is in itself desirable, yet they hold that the things which are productive of certain pleasures are often of a painful nature, the very opposite of pleasure; so that to accumulate the pleasures which are productive of happiness appears to them a most irksome business.

The next doctrine – that every wise man lives pleasantly, etc. – is known to be Epicurean.  So this provides another example of the difference of opinions between the two schools.

They do not accept the doctrine that every wise man lives pleasantly and every fool painfully, but regard it as true for the most part only. It is sufficient even if we enjoy but each single pleasure as it comes. They say that prudence is a good, though desirable not in itself but on account of its consequences; that we make friends from interested motives, just as we cherish any part of the body so long as we have it; that some of the virtues are found even in the foolish; that bodily training contributes to the acquisition of virtue; that the sage will not give way to envy or love or superstition, since these weaknesses are due to mere empty opinion; he will, however, feel pain and fear, these being natural affections; and that wealth too is productive of pleasure, though not desirable for its own sake.

Whereas the Epicureans placed considerable emphasis on natural philosophy, the Cyrenaics appear to have argued that it’s a waste of time because we can never find any conclusive answers about the ultimate nature of the universe.

They affirm that mental affections can be known, but not the objects from which they come; and they abandoned the study of nature because of its apparent uncertainty, but fastened on logical inquiries because of their utility. But Meleager in his second book On Philosophical Opinions, and Clitomachus in his first book On the Sects, affirm that they maintain Dialectic as well as Physics to be useless, since, when one has learnt the theory of good and evil, it is possible to speak with propriety, to be free from superstition, and to escape the fear of death.  They also held that nothing is just or honourable or base by nature, but only by convention and custom. Nevertheless the good man will be deterred from wrong-doing by the penalties imposed and the prejudices that it would arouse. Further that the wise man really exists. They allow progress to be attainable in philosophy as well as in other matters. They maintain that the pain of one man exceeds that of another, and that the senses are not always true and trustworthy.

Their argument that a good man will be deterred from wrong actions by the fear of punishment, resembles the position adopted by Epicurus.  However, the unreliability of the senses seems to be an area where they would have disagreed with the Epicureans, who placed emphasis on sensory experience as the basis of knowledge.

Moreover, he mentions a book entitled Of the Gods written by a later Cyrenaic called Theodorus the Atheist.  He adds: “From that book, they say, Epicurus borrowed most of what he wrote on the subject.”

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