Epicurus' Ethical Theory

Epicurus' Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability

Volume: 48
Copyright Date: 1988
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 194
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Epicurus' Ethical Theory
    Book Description:

    The ethical theory of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 B.C.) is commonly taken to be narrowly egoistic, and there is ample evidence in his writings to support this view-for example, in his maxims on friendship, his emphasis on the utility of friends, and his continual effort to link friendship and pleasure. By means of a comprehensive and penetrating examination of the main elements of Epicurean ethics, Phillip Mitsis forces us to reevaluate this widely misunderstood figure in the history of philosophy.

    Measuring Epicurean doctrines against both their ancient and modern alternatives, Mitsis argues that Epicurus' hedonism, when properly understood in its original philosophical context, is a nuanced and significant ethical option. He shows that Epicurus perceived, and brought forward in his writings, a series of conflicts between rival, though individually well founded, claims. Epicurus was ultimately unable to resolve these conflicts, Mitsis says, and therefore the Epicurean "system" cannot be regarded as a consistent whole.

    Looking closely at the surviving ancient evidence, Mitsis reconstructs the wider theoretical framework underpinning particular Epicurean arguments and proposes new interpretations of Epicurus' accounts of pleasure, human action and responsibility, the virtues, and altruism. Woven through the exposition and criticism of Epicurean positions are illuminating references to later moral philosophers, from Hobbes and Mill to contemporary thinkers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6688-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Perhaps the most characteristic, albeit problematic, element of Hellenistic ethical thought is a deeply held conviction that individuals can banish all contingency from their lives and, with the help of reason alone, aspire to a condition of divine invulnerability, self-sufficiency, and happiness. This theme or ambition is by no means completely new among Greek moral philosophers. At various times in Plato’s dialogues, for instance, Socrates and his interlocutors had inquired into the conditions and requirements of such a godlike state and rigorously examined whether attempting to lead a completely self-sufficient life would be desirable, even if it were possible. Sometimes...

  5. 1 Pleasure, Happiness, and Desire
    (pp. 11-58)

    Like most other Greek moralists,¹ Epicurus thinks that the central aims of an ethical theory are to describe the nature of happiness (eudaimonia) and to delineate the methods by which one achieves it (ta poiounta tēn eudaimonian; Ad Menoeceum 122). Perhaps the most important and certainly the most controversial feature of his ethical theory is his identification of pleasure (hēdonē) with our ultimate and final goal (telos), happiness (eudaimonia). By equating pleasure with happiness, Epicurus places his discussion of pleasure not only at the very center of his ethics but also squarely within the tradition of Greek ethical eudaemonism.² Many...

  6. 2 Justice and the Virtues
    (pp. 59-97)

    We often are reminded that in making moral evaluations we must take into account not only the things that people do but also the intentions, motives, and desires governing their actions. Indeed, many contemporary ethical theorists have argued that until we develop an adequately grounded moral psychology capable of explaining the psychological and motivational background of our actions, we cannot begin to approach moral questions with any reasonable assurance or prospects of success.¹ This concern with moral psychology has led, on the whole, to a renewed appreciation of the methods and conclusions of Greek ethical thought. Greek ethics commonly placed...

  7. 3 Friendship and Altruism
    (pp. 98-128)

    Discussions of altruistic friendship figure prominently in Epicurean ethical theory. At first glance, this is rather surprising. In view of the strength of Epicurus’ commitments to hedonism and egoism, we might expect the Epicurean to be a kind of Hobbesian egoist. Lucretius, for instance, adopts a harsh, almost neurotically bitter view of man’s social condition. The world of De rerum natura V is populated by solitary and brutish individuals who, acting from purely selfish motives, inevitably collide and inflict mutual harm. Under the best of circumstances, it can be hoped that agents, schooled by their suffering, will grudgingly restrain their...

  8. 4 Reason, Responsibility, and the Mechanisms of Freedom
    (pp. 129-166)

    In a famous passage, Lucretius admits to being seized by a divine pleasure and dread (divina voluptas ac horror; DRN III.28–29) when contemplating the discoveries of Epicurean natural philosophy. Not least among these discoveries is the possibility that everything in the world of our ordinary experience might be stripped away¹ to reveal the mute, impassive workings of atoms in the void. For a wide variety of thinkers, the implications of such an atomistic reduction have been more an unmixed source of dread than of pleasure or consolation.² Indeed, ethical philosophers of many denominational loyalties have found it chilling to...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-176)
  10. Index Locorum
    (pp. 177-181)
  11. Index of Modern Scholars
    (pp. 182-184)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 185-187)