Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

3 thoughts on “Stoic & Epicurean rivalry”

  1. Addendum:
    Posted on Facebook by an Epicurean:
    “’Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.’

    Well if these things cause more pain than the pleasure they produce, I agree with you. However, (and this is more for the general audience because I am sure you know this) the pleasure which comes from these things IS GOOD, a pleasure is NEVER bad but the consequences which follow from it are. (as you said)

    ‘I do not think I could conceive of the good without the joys of taste, of sex, of hearing, and without the pleasing motions caused by the sight of bodies and forms.’

    My response:
    This is an important clarification of Epicurean thought. For Stoics, pleasure is not inherently good. It’s a “preferred indifferent.” Virtue is the good, so for a Stoic the key question is whether pleasure contributes to virtue.

    He also commented:
    “‘Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.’

    An Epicurean would not seek a pleasure that would cause pain to another person as it breaks the terms of justice. http://thelifeofpleasure.blogspot.ie/2018/05/justice-is-agreement-among-people.html”

    My question:
    What would an Epicurean do if forgoing a pleasure that may cause someone pain could mean experiencing pain oneself?

    Like

    1. Hi! To your question: “What would an Epicurean do if forgoing a pleasure that may cause someone pain could mean experiencing pain oneself?”

      This would most likely not be choice-worthy, as the calculus of pleasure must include the pain that the choice generates as well as the loss of trust from others in his or her society, which will isolate the person. The Epicurean doctrine on friendship involved the need for “confident expectation” of being able to secure friends as well as other stability-producing natural goods that are part of the pleasant life.

      Furthermore, Epicurus said that there are times when a sage may die for a friend. This implies the possibility that the love between friends can be so great that life without that friend would be unbearable and not worth living, otherwise it would not pass the sieve of hedonic calculus (in other words, the sage imagines no possibility of pleasure without the friend). Philodemus of Gadara in one of his scrolls also mentioned that sometimes we sometimes make great sacrifices for a friend or a loved one, because the pain of losing that person, or of seeing that person destitute or ill or suffering, is too great (as when a sibling donates a liver or lung or other body part to another sibling to save their life).

      It’s difficult to say more without concrete details, all choices and avoidances rely on specifics, but the general guidelines for choices and avoidances are found in the middle portion of the Epistle to Menoeceus, a pleasure is not deemed choice-worthy if more inconveniences and suffering comes from it than the immediate pleasant experience, and most justice-concerned questions must be answered taking into consideration the principle of mutual advantage/mutual benefit, as per Principal Doctrines 30-40.

      Like

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