How to Understand The Epicureans on Emotion, Part II of II

As I explained in the last post, Epicureans believe that we all have a fundamental desire to pursue pleasure, and that to fulfill this desire, we’ll actually sometimes have to avoid some pleasures. Specifically, we need to avoid pain-creating pleasures (e.g. doing hard drugs) and even pursue pleasure-creating pains (e.g. taking awful-tasting medicine).

That’s certainly a tough lesson for many to learn, but it has the ring of truth to it, and, at least in my case, experience says it’s often true. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who think all this is rather obvious and that there’s not much to see here. Either way, lets look a little deeper because there’s plenty more to see.

Do we really ALWAYS act to avoid pain and fear / to get pleasure?

Taking the claim that we always act to seek pleasure / avoid pain at face value may seem at times brilliantly simply and at other times a cliché or an uninformative tautology.

Consider the following:

1. Pleasure is the avoidance of pain

2. All action is to avoid pain

3. If its true that when our desires are eliminated, we do not act, then when we eliminate pain, we do not act until there is another possibility of removing pain.

That is, it appears what we’re agreeing to is that when we succeed in eliminating pain, we cease to have desires, and so we cease to have any reason to act, so we don’t act.

Does that have the ring of truth or sound like a tautology? Hardly. It’s actually a strange thing to consider. I mean, I can imagine you could argue that someone in a drunk stupor, high on drugs, having just achieved orgasm or having completed a delicious meal could be ‘sated’ in such a way as to have no desire to do anything.

Homer, having achieved the absence of pain, ceases to act

For a time. Specifically, until some other ‘pain’ interferes with our state of repose.  But then all we really seem to have learned is that we’ll always be hungry and that the effort to satisfy certain hungers will pay off longer or better than others. But Plato and Aristotle already made that very clear.

So what in the world are we really saying in agreeing with the ‘obvious’ truths that pleasure is the absence of pain and all action is to avoid pain?

What’s really happening here?

Ask yourself this – what actually happens when you, by luck or by careful planning, act in a way that truly maximizes your pleasure?

The first thing that occurs to me in asking myself that is that in such cases its highly likely that it involved a lot more than a stroke of luck, my brain – more or less consciously – was deeply involved. And the more such ‘maximized pleasure’ moments one has, the more likely it is that more than just luck was involved.

So the first thing I’d feel good about concluding is that some of the times that I really maximize my pleasure require a bit of thought. But I also have to accept that other times its more the case that I fell back on some training – which may have required thought in the past, but little now.

For example, the goal of having a tasty snack is a simple, good goal. It doesn’t require a whole lot of thinking. But in fulfilling it you do have to have the implicit awareness that not everything that looks tasty is tasty.

So when reaching into the cookie jar for some Oreos, you might recall the time you accidentally got some nasty off-brand cookie and so double check what you pulled out this time. That would be ‘goal awareness’ plus ‘realizing’ or ‘knowing’ that looks can be deceiving.

The epicurean maxims we’ve been discussing can handle this. And actually, that’s nice – in a way they are saying we can judge without deliberating. That’s a good thing, and its in agreement with P-A-L. But there’s going to be a few problems.

Let’s quickly note that Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius and Epicurus all basically agree on some key points:

1. Every action is done for the sake of getting to some ultimate end. Depending on who you ask, that the ultimate goal could be said to be accumulating wealth, political power, sexual conquests, or perhaps a life of the mind.

2. But as far as the philosophers I noted above, they’re all pretty much in agreement that the ultimate end isn’t really any one of those things but rather happiness. A major caveat – each one of the philosophers mentioned has subtle and interesting differences in just what happiness is.

3. They do, however, stand in agreement that achieving happiness is mostly up to us and requires us to be virtuous. But that means that they also agree that being happy requires some level of control over our desires.

The issue, as I tried to make plain at the beginning of this project, is that its going to take a solid understanding of human psychology to determine  what makes humans happy in general, and what will make you happy.

Not a rhetorical question: Just how far does ‘all action is for the avoidance of pain’ go in that direction?

Identifying the Problems Epicureanism has with Emotion

Epicurus strikes out from this basic agreement with P-A-L do to his thoughts on how to deal with the fact that we sometimes choose to act in ways that do not give us what we seek, pleasure, but instead give us the opposite.

Epicurus thinks that when we act so that we end up in real pain, it’s caused by both chosen/conscious actions and by reflexive actions,including emotion-driven actions, even though we never intend for this to happen.

Remember, we always seek pleasure, we always act to get pleasure. When the emotions sometimes lead you to pain, they make you wrong about the outcome your actions will lead to.

That is, emotions cause you to think improperly, to be mistaken about the facts of the matter, and so to incorrectly choose what will bring you pleasure. Not only that, acting emotionally is sometimes choosing to act in ways that do not give us what we seek, but instead give us the opposite.

As such, emotions need to be eliminated. They’re just too dangerous. And they, on the surface at least, contradict a major Epicurean tenet – that we always act to pursue pleasure.

Rhetorical question: Is happiness an emotion or isn’t it?

Let’s be clear – Epicurus thinks that when we fail to achieve pleasure, we chose to act for pleasure but were wrong about what we thought we’d achieve. After all, we to some extent  always chose to act.  Similarly, Epicurus also believes that even more or less unchosen acts that lead to real pain (not pleasure-creating pains) are the opposite of what we ‘wanted’ to achieve.

That is, whether or not we are acting in ‘full choice’, or acting ‘instinctively’ or ‘reflexively’, act that induce real pain are errors. And we definitely want to be conscious of what motivates our chosen actions, as this will help avoid future errors. So he counsels that we hone our abilities to control ‘instinctual’ or ‘reflexive’ acts taken to avoid pain.

But are we ever going to consistently get what we want – no pain or fear – by listening to Epicurus’ advice that only the proper pursuit of necessary desires will ensure our desires are truly fulfilled?  That is, can we and should we act exclusively and correctly for the repose of the mind and body and nothing more? That’s certainly the prescription.He encapsulates all this when he says “the pleasant life comes from searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions (like many emotions), to which are due the greatest disturbances of the spirit”.


Alright, I’ve been slow-playing my criticisms of Epicurus’ take on the emotions and how they influence his moral philosophy but its time to play my hand.

The emotions are real trouble for Epicurus’ theory for the simple reason that a person’s success at understanding and controlling the emotions will determine how good an epicurean she will be.

Epicurus agrees with Plato and Aristotle that in some situations, certain emotions will prove exceedingly difficult to avoid. At its core Epicureanism is advising us that only a small subset of our desires – the natural and necessary – is at all necessary for and conducive to happiness. That’s why Epicurus insists we understand the types of desires. Knowing what’s what will allow you to act in a way so as to have and maintain a healthy body and a mind free of disturbance. And because of the fact unmodulated or ungoverned emotions can work powerfully against this goal, he wants to throw the baby out with the bath water and eliminate emotions.

The problem for Epicureanism as a guiding moral philosophy, what leads it to this conclusion, stems from the fact that for most people who might try to be Epicureans precious little of what we do is a result of conscious deliberation. And thus to make it work we’re going to have to find some way to train ourselves to act appropriately in cases where we’re not consciously considering the true nature of the desire we’re dealing with. But how is this training supposed to work? How do you raise a child this way and how do you reverse-engineer it in a mature adult?

I’ll remind you one last time that according to Epicureanism, young or old, educated or ignorant, we always act to achieve happiness or pleasure, to avoid pain or fear. But just what does that mean when we in fact do not often consciously think about our actions and what is really motivating our desires?

It means that we often get tricked. It means that in order for most of us to really be happy, somehow we must both consciously and non-consciously avoid errors in determining what is actually best for us, what we really need to do and what only seems necessary.  We need some mechanism or mechanisms to make sure we only pursue the absolutely necessary desires, no matter our level of conscious attention. Unfortunately, Epicurus refuses to accept what Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius did – the emotions can be just such mechanisms.

In order for normal people like us to succeed as Epicureans given our limitations in concentration, we need to be trained. This is not news, and in fact, as you no doubt have noticed society does do a lot of training through the mores it passes along. So does organized religion. For example, until quite recently, society trained homosexuals to repress their sexuality, at the cost of tremendous stress and unhappiness. Many religions still do.  And more positively, traditional sexual expectations for heterosexuals, though also stressful, perhaps worked to lower infidelity in marriage and by extension lowered the rate of divorce, arguably providing better homes for young children.

But how do such mores work? The way they are passed on, usually in childhood, makes it pretty clear they are not appealing to our rational faculty. We don’t get logical or philosophical arguments for the rules of society or religion. Instead it seems clear that the emotions, including pride, fear, shame, anger and the need for love are deeply involved. Much more than involved.

In reality, we know it to be true from experience – it just makes sense – that properly calibrated emotional responses to situations are exactly the efficient, practical, successful mechanisms by which we can increase the likelihood that we can have the well-trained character that would help us approach the goal of desiring only what is truly going to make us happy.

However, Epicureanism not only discourages this, it flatly claims that strong emotions are to be completely eliminated and generally speaking, all emotions should be eradicated. Even though Epicurus had the benefit of studying Aristotle’s thinking on the matter which fleshes out convincingly the idea that in some cases its highly desirable,correct even, for you to strongly feel specific emotions.

As I think Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius made plain, and as I’ll explain in greater detail later, the emotions are exactly the sort of thing to strongly influence you to act quickly and assertively to achieve a desire you’re body thinks is necessary. Its unquestionable that to perform this service they need a significant level of monitoring. I argued that this insight is at the core of Plato’s psychology. Epicurus, to his discredit, misses this point.

For him, the emotions are so powerful and damaging that they simply offer too much of a chance for error and so simply offer too much likelihood for pain. And the successful ’emotion-controller’ would have to be already nearly perfect in character not to succumb to negative impulses. Thus Epicurus says we need to eliminate them.

But this is an unrealistic goal, and given the tremendous force for good education and action that the emotions in fact can be, its an unworthy goal.

The emotions are not a problem to be avoided, or a rough patch to be smoothed. They are an integral part of our organism that needs to be enhanced.


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