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Could the Stoic and the Epicurean Cohabit?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


There is more to be said of the similarities between Stoicism and Epicureanism than their mere historical coincidence. In their framework (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.82) and enterprise the two schools share a common interest: to devise a way of life (askêsis) that might cure humanity of its inherent sorrow (Nussbaum, M.C. (2009); p.102). These lifestyles were built upon the beliefs and values of their respective schools, and may to some extent be understood in view of them.

This article hopes to illustrate the governing values of Stoic and Epicurean life in deliberating the prospect of interschool cohabitation: Could the men (and women) of these schools live together in concord despite their differences, or is any hope of harmony dashed by their conflicting principles?

I: The Epicurean

The school of Epicurus, founded in Athens around 300 BCE, is fundamentally hedonistic in its outlook. This is to say the Epicurean sees pleasure as the ‘beginning and end of the blessed life,’ that he regards it as the only true and intrinsic good while viewing pain, its reverse, as the only true and intrinsic evil (Lond, A.A. & Sedley, D.N. (1987); p.113). Though any pledge to hedonism is likely to carry with it negative connotations, the Epicurean seems especially associated with gross and careless self-indulgence. This is a misunderstanding, for in truth the Epicurean advocates great moderation in his pursuit of pleasure.

The Epicurean’s ideas on desire are key to understanding his departure from the sybaritic degenerate. Epicurus holds that humans have a natural desire for pleasure, but that not all desire is worth pursuing. Desire is accordingly split into two varieties, natural and unnatural. Our natural desires concern that which we require for survival and comfort—the need for food, shelter, and sex, for instance. We are rewarded for fulfilling these desires with ‘kinetic’ pleasure, that is pleasure associated with replenishment and the relief of discomfort. Our unnatural desires, however, concern that which is based in false belief and irrational fear, such as the coveting of wealth, beauty and political power (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.86). Epicurus insists that to be truly happy one must labour to remove these unnatural desires, for though they might provide us with momentary satisfaction, they wreak also great anxiety and cultivate in us an unhealthy need to become invincible. The Epicurean is instead to focus on the pleasures engendered by his natural desires (Nussbaum, M.C. (2009); p.113).

This exclusive commitment to natural desire might seem curiously timid for a hedonistic theory, but this is explained in the Epicurean belief that the limit of pleasure is to be found in the removal of pain. That is to say the Epicurean does not acknowledge any greater pleasure than the simple freedom from physical discomfort (aponia) and mental anxiety (ataraxia). This state of contentment was referred to by Epicurus as ‘katastematic’ pleasure, and can be understood as the Epicurean eudaimonia, the pinnacle of human bliss. Maintaining this state of pleasure is easy: all the Epicurean need do is pursue his natural desires while ignoring (or rising above) his unnatural ones. This in no way involves elaborate pleasure-seeking or debauchery, for the end to human life can be acquired by the most modest of means.

One would be forgiven for questioning the Epicurean’s apparent neglect of virtue and righteousness in his notion of the good, for unscrupulousness is often assumed in the hedonist. In truth, however, virtue plays a rather important role in Epicurus’s account of the good life, for living in a ‘prudent, honourable, and just’ manner is necessary to achieving the ‘pleasure that is the end of human existence.’ This is not, however, to suggest that any Epicurean honours virtue as good per se, for he sees virtue’s value in purely instrumental terms, firstly as a means of living without fear, and secondly as a way of overcoming unnatural desire (Long, A.A. (2006); p.184). The Epicurean is, therefore, virtuous only so he might avoid the accompanying danger and anxiety of behaving otherwise. Virtue can be understood to enjoy an inseparable relationship with pleasure, and it is for this reason that it is fundamental to the Epicurean life.

We might imagine the Epicurean, then, as someone who is content with a simple life furnished with simple things. He would pursue no wealth, luxury or political power for he would be wholly satisfied in his freedom from physical pain and mental anxiety, a freedom he promotes in his conformity to virtuous activity.

II: The Stoic

Despite their aforementioned coincidence, the Stoic and Epicurean conceptions of pleasure and virtue are remarkably different (Sellars, J. (2014); p.7-14). While the Epicurean believes the only true good and evil to be found in pleasure and pain, the Stoic holds that ‘virtue alone is good’ and ‘wickedness alone evil.’ This is to say that virtue and wisdom (‘the two being equated’) are in themselves necessary and sufficient for happiness (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.100). This idea is based in the Stoic belief that the good life, and therefore the happy life, must be one in accordance with nature. By this it is meant that the good is attainable only in that which is natural to us, for ‘all things in accordance with nature have value and all things contrary to nature have disvalue’ (Long, A.A. & Sedley, D.D. (1987); p.355). For the human being, a naturally rational animal, a life in agreement with nature is to be found in virtue and reason, for to the Stoic there is nothing more fundamental to our nature (Diogenes Laertius: 7.85-6; SVF 3.178). Though all living creatures struggle to resume their natural state, the human alone is concerned with virtue, for it is from his soul that his natural rationality derives. To the Stoic, then, virtue is both an instrumental and final good, and the only means by which he is able to fulfil that which nature accords him (Gerson, L.P. (2008); p.113).

Since the Stoic conceptions of good and evil are concerned only with virtue and wickedness, it follows that they would focus more on intentions than results. The Stoic regards all that does not relate to his virtue—such as wealth and poverty—as neither good nor bad, for something is only worthy of the term ‘good’ or ‘evil’ if it concerns our natural state of fulfilment in reason (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.102). All states or events of this nature are instead to be deemed ‘indifferent.’ This creates an environment in which no remotely consequentialist ethic could survive, since the Stoic believes that as long as one has behaved in accordance with nature one can and should be satisfied regardless of the ensuing results (Seddon, K. (2005); p.16-7). These events are, after all, beyond our control and paying them unnecessary mind would be to falsely attribute to them some sort of good or evil when they are in fact only preferred or unpreferred indifferents.

It is with this indifference that the Stoic would regard pleasure, the Epicurean’s sole intrinsic good. If asked to compare the good of virtue with that of one’s appetite being satisfied, the Stoic would contend that the two things ought not fall into the same calculation. This is, of course, because ‘for one’s own true nature, all that really matters is one’s reason,’ and only in this may the good be found (Baltzly, D. (2014); online). The Stoic would not deny that a full stomach has value (axia) in that it may better equip us for living in accordance with nature, but he would not attribute to it the intrinsic value placed in virtue and reason, nor would he any other form of pleasure (Osler, M. (2005); p.11).

The Stoic should be pictured as the sort of man whose every conscious action is motivated by his desire to live in accordance with his nature. He would be indifferent to all that which does not concern this fulfilment, namely that which does not relate to his virtue, and would under no circumstances regard an indifferent with anything by the way of intrinsic value.

III: Epicureanism & Stoicism – Could They Cohabit?

In contemplating a Stoic-Epicurean cohabitation this article’s foremost consideration ought to be the schools’ abovementioned views regarding virtue and pleasure. It would be fair to assume that their varying ideas on the nature of the good would create an irrevocable breach between the Stoic and the Epicurean; but in truth their differences in this respect would be of little consequence providing their cohabitation required only practical harmony. This surprising congruence is to be seen in the similarity of circumstances under which each would be satisfied.

Both the Stoic and the Epicurean are capable of living virtuously in a lawful society, for the desire to be a good citizen and respect the laws of authority are equally present in each of them. The Stoic’s need to fulfil his rational nature would motivate him to act virtuously in all given situations: he would respect justice, exercise ‘selfless service’ to his fellow man, and remain always prudent, temperate and brave. The Epicurean, in his wish to avoid complication and chaos, would behave likewise: he would make no transgression of the law, embrace something of an egalitarian philosophy, and direct himself with a virtue not unlike that of the Stoic (Long, A.A. & Sedley, D.N. (1987); p.114). There would in neither of them be a desire to commit crime or behave viciously, for the Stoic would reckon such behaviour contrary to his nature, while the Epicurean would be deterred by its accompanying anxiety. To an observer the everyday behaviour of the Stoic and Epicurean would seem remarkably similar, for a commitment to virtuous activity is fundamental to both. Without virtue the Stoic would cease to live in agreement with nature and the Epicurean would become riddled with disturbance; it is in this mutual reliance upon virtue that they share a close affinity.

With regard to the Epicurean’s hedonism there is no doubt that the Stoic would refrain from ‘consort[ing] with pleasure’ or ‘tolerat[ing] hedonism from others’ (Sharples, R.W. (1996); p.121). But given the Epicurean’s serious moderation it is difficult to imagine a situation in which his pleasure-seeking would be made explicit. Epicurus claims the highest pleasure is attainable by modest means, means which would scarcely move beyond the survival aspect of the Stoic’s self-preservation. In truth the Stoic possesses far more freedom of luxury than does the Epicurean: his indifference to all that does not concern virtue would make him invulnerable to the unnatural desires for which the Epicurean has such suspicion. Given this indifference, however, one might suggest the Stoic would appear discontent beside the hedonist, but even this is to overlook the ‘rational elation’ of joy the Stoic receives as a result of his living in accordance with nature (Gerson, L.P. (2008); p.120). His virtuous and reasonable conduct would afford him a state of tranquillity, a state not dissimilar to the Epicurean notion of katastematic pleasure (Becker, L.C. (1998); p.217). Given these parallels in their commitment to virtue and procuring of bliss we might conclude that the Stoic and Epicurean would be comfortable in cohabitation.

This would be to consider practicalities alone, however. Despite the unusual similarities of the Stoic and Epicurean lifestyles, the schools’ reasons for pursuing these regimes are diametrically opposed. Recall that the Stoic pursues virtue for the sake of virtue, for it is in this alone that he is able to live in agreement with nature. The Epicurean, meanwhile, sees virtue as a means to an end, a social contract whose purpose is to maintain a mutual security. Though it is true that the behaviours of the Stoic and Epicurean may appear similar, if one were to press the other for an explanation as to why they behave the way they do, the men would fall immediately into dispute, particularly considering the Stoic’s emphasis on intentions over results.

In analogy, consider two blacksmiths working together in the forging of a sword. While one volunteers his efforts for the sake of beauty, for he appreciates the art of swordcraft, the other acts so that he might sell the sword for a profit. Practically speaking there would be no basis for conflict between them, but any discussion of their intentions would incite disagreement and the desertion of their collaboration. The Stoic and Epicurean are the same: though they might be content in living similar lives, their motives and values differ to such an extent that any possible cohabitation would require limits that would strain the term ‘harmony.’ Considering the importance each of them place in philosophy as a way of life, to suggest these men live together on purely practical terms, without philosophical discussion or polemic, would be to discount the philosopher’s innately inquisitive nature.

IV: Summary

This article has compared the Stoic and Epicurean notions of pleasure and virtue as a means of considering the possibility of agreement between them. It has demonstrated that though the Stoic and Epicurean have the freedom to live almost identical lifestyles, their varying conceptions of nature and the good would allow only for the most pragmatic of cohabitations. The conclusion to be taken from this is that the schools’ ethics can be reconciled only in practical terms and that any attempt to unite their theoretical conceptions would require unacceptable compromise on either side.

Works Cited

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Original Texts

Seneca. Letters. 121.6-15

Diogenes Laertius. 7.85-6 (SVF 3.178)

Sextus Empiricus. Against the professors. 11.64-7 (SVF 1.631)

All original texts taken from: Long, A.A. and Sedley D.N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.