Jean-Marie Guyau 1878

The Morality of Epicurus and its Relation to Contemporary Doctrines

Source: La Morale d’Epicure et ses rapports avec les doctrines contemporaines. Libraire Felix Alcan, Paris 1927, 7th edition;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

There is no doctrine that has been the object of more attacks and criticism than ancient and modern Epicureanism. What is more, there has never been one that went more strongly against received opinion on the subject of two things that are dear to the human heart: morality and religion.

The Epicureans of antiquity, as we know, had the Stoics as their principle adversaries, violent adversaries who disfigured their doctrine and organized resistance against it. The ancients, and especially the Romans, knew nothing about sincere and courteous discussion, the common and unbiased search for truth. And so Epicureanism came to us travestied by Stoicism or by Ciceronian emphasis. Despite defenders like Gassendi the majority of historians only saw Epicurus through Cicero’s eyes and weren’t able to appreciate his doctrine at its true value. One of the most esteemed historians of ancient philosophy, Ritter, made this unjust judgment of Epicurus: “We don’t see in the totality of Epicurus’ doctrines a whole whose parts fit together. It is evident that the canonic and physics of Epicurus are nothing but a clumsy appendix to his morality. But who could praise Epicurus’ morality, either the virtues it contains or its originality, or finally the logical series that reigns there? In the first place, we don’t find it in the least original... We can’t say that it is a well tied together doctrine...This doctrine appears to us to be of little scientific value.” [1] We hope that we have justified Epicurus against some of these reproaches. M. Zeller himself, the most comprehensive of historians of ancient philosophy, is quite severe concerning Epicurus. He gives an exact, though incomplete, summary of his doctrine. But he is too hostile to the fundamental ideas of Epicureanism to understand their true value and flow of the system. Kant, whose authority cannot be underestimated, even in the history of philosophy, nevertheless said that if Plato is the greatest philosopher of intelligible things, Epicurus is, par excellence, the philosopher of sensible things.

All the modern Epicureans have suffered the same fate as their master. First there was Hobbes, whose pitiless honesty and logic exasperated his century. “One could hardly cite a writer,” says Lange, “who was as insulted as Hobbes was by men of all schools at the very moment when, by his extraordinary clarity, he forced all of them to think with more clarity and precision.” Later, La Mettrie excited against himself all the writers of his century. As has been noted, his doctrine was less immoral than others, for example that of Mandeville; nevertheless, it was attacked even more. This was even more the case because we know that La Mettrie had, in the eyes of his adversaries, the enormous fault of dying of indigestion. Helvetius was condemned by the parlement of the Sorbonne for his book “De l’Esprit,” and he had to publicly recant. D’Holbach’s “Système de la Nature” caused a storm. Everywhere the affirmation of Epicurean ideas excited the most violent reactions against its authors, and Epicureanism has, till today, more often had adversaries than judges.

Nevertheless, for the last few years, especially in other countries, a philosophical movement in favor of Epicurus has risen up. While in France we too much remained within our old traditions of classical philosophy, in Germany Lange elaborated on materialist doctrines, showed the important role they played in the development of our modern ideas, and placed Epicurus among the most influential materialist thinkers.

The moment appears to have arrived when we can more fairly appreciate the Epicurean doctrine and seek the portion of truth it contains. In truth, it is impossible to write a complete appreciation of a system as long as it has not completed its development. There is a kind of internal criticism that works within every system and which forces it to continuously perfect itself, to reappear in ever new forms at the very moment when it was thought to be overturned. Such was the Epicurean system in history, and even in our time its development is not completed. It still lives and continues, but in a new form in the contemporary English school. We cannot judge Epicureanism if we don’t take account of the English doctrines, and so we proposed in another work [2] to particularly study these doctrines. For the moment, instead of a still premature appreciation, we will limit ourselves to showing the points where Epicurean thought has developed among the current successors of Epicurus. The history of the progress of a doctrine is nothing but a kind of living critique, often more interesting and useful than a judgment that is never definitive.

All Epicureans, and this is the fundamental idea of their doctrine, are in agreement in affirming that pleasure and pain are the sole forces that set being in motion, the sole levers with whose aid we can produce any kind of action.

This principle posed, Epicurus and his continuators conclude from it that pleasure being the sole end of beings, morality for each individual must be the art of procuring for oneself the greatest amount of personal pleasure. As a Utilitarian said, morality thus understood is nothing but the regularization of egoism. Hobbes before Spinoza attempted to construct a geometry of morals, Helvetius constructed a physics of morals, d’Holbach a physiology of morals. But under various names, Epicurean morality is, in summary, nothing but the search for personal interest; it rests on the confusion between fact and duty. In fact, it believes, the individual pursues only his own pleasure. By right it is also his pleasure he should pursue, whether this pleasure finds itself by chance in opposition with that of others or if it finds itself in harmony with it. But even so, all the Epicureans, even La Mettrie, are in agreement in committing the individual to not retreating into a foolish egoism. According to them, there is harmony in most cases between the pleasure of the individual and that of others. But let us understand each other, this is not a fundamental and primitive harmony: egoisms work together like pendulums, without mixing and without uniting, and the goal of morality is not the producing of this union, since it would be impossible. On this point Epicureanism has again advanced very little in France: D’Alembert, d’Holbach, and Volney at moments give us a presentiment of the contemporary English school, but they never fail to return to personal interest as a principle of all morality. In this there is a notable divergence between the Epicureans and the contemporary English school. This divergence grows from Bentham to Stuart Mill and especially to Mr. Spencer, with whose principles we can for the first time construct a nearly complete physics or physiology of morals. The English moralists still preserve personal pleasure as the sole lever capable of setting a being in motion. It is only that instead of positing this pleasure as the legitimate end of the moral being, they work with all their might at having it pursue the pleasure of others. Expressed in this way, their Utilitarianism seems at first glance to be of a manifest inconsistency, and we will elsewhere examine if it doesn’t contain, in fact, any inconsistency. [3] Nevertheless, there is in this doctrine something profound that we must now bring to light.

What would a purely personal and egoist pleasure be? Are there any of this kind, and what part do they have in life? When in thought we descend the scale of beings, we see that the sphere in which each of them moves is narrow and virtually closed. When, on the contrary, we climb towards superior beings we see their sphere of action open up, expand, and increasingly mix with the sphere of action of other beings. The self is less and less distinguished from other selves; or rather it has greater need of them in order to constitute itself and to survive. This scale that thought just traveled, humankind has already traveled in part in its evolution. Its departure point was egoism, but egoism, by virtue of the very fecundity of each life, was led to grow, to create outside itself new centers for its own action. At the same time, sentiments correlative to this centrifugal tendency were slowly born and covered over the egoist principles that served as their principle. We are marching towards an era where egoism will retreat further and further within us, will be less and less recognizable. When that ideal era arrives, beings will no longer, so to speak, be able to enjoy in solitude: their pleasure will be like a concert where the pleasure of others will enter in as a necessary element. And is this not already so in most cases? In common life let us compare the part left to pure egoism and that of “altruism;” we’ll see how relatively small the former is. Even the most selfish pleasures, because they are entirely physical, like the pleasure of drinking or eating, only acquire their true charm when we share them with others. The predominant part played by sociable sentiments must be taken note of by every doctrine and in whatever way we may conceive the principles of morality. No doctrine can close the human heart. We cannot mutilate ourselves, and pure egoism would be meaningless, an impossibility. In the same way that the ego is considered an illusion by contemporary psychology, that there is no personality, that we are composed of an infinite number of beings and tiny consciousnesses, in the same way we might say that egoist pleasure is an illusion: my pleasure does not exist without the pleasure of others. All of society must more or less collaborate in it, from the small society that surrounds me, from my family to the great society in which I live. My pleasure, in order to lose nothing of its intensity, must maintain all of its extension. [4]

Evolutionist morality, which can in a way be considered a development of Epicureanism, is also its best criticism. It demonstrates the insufficiency of the principle of pure egoism, an insufficiency that already appears in Epicurus and the Roman Epicureans. On other points, as it traversed history the Epicurean system received notable improvements. Thus, when it was a matter of investigating the nature of pleasure, which it posited as the goal of life, Epicurus defined this pleasure as a state of repose for the body and the soul, a state of physical equilibrium and intellectual “ataraxia.” Given such a concept of pleasure, Epicurus soon deduced from it that the ideal for every being is the retreat into the self, seeking within oneself and without any external aid, repose and peace. This doctrine, which on first glance doesn’t lack in grandeur, in practice arrives at the most deplorable consequences. Hobbes brings a happy change to the Epicurean system on this point by returning to the ideas of Aristippus, and maintains that pleasure is in its essence movement, action, energy, and consequently, progress. To enjoy means to act, and acting means advancing. Doubtless we can maintain with Epicurus that pleasure is accompanied by an internal equilibrium, by a harmony of all our faculties. But this is nothing but the condition of pleasure, and if we examine it more closely in itself we will recognize that precisely this internal equilibrium allows us a more expansive action in all directions. In our time the English school goes even further; it will show that sensibility accompanies our activity in its progressive development. Pleasure is not something immobile, as Epicurus believed: it constantly varies. Habit and heredity attach it to new acts; it is thus subject to the law of universal evolution: in itself it is evolution and development of being.

In the problem of liberty we find the ancient and modern Epicureans in total disagreement with each other. We know that Epicurus accepts free will and places, not only in man, but in nature and atoms a spontaneity, drawing from itself the principle of its action. On the contrary, Hobbes, Helvetius, d’Holbach, in a word, all the modern Epicureans without exception, reject this freedom and show themselves to be determinists, and at times, as is the case with Hobbes and La Mettrie, even excessively fatalist. We’re not going to examine here the absolute truth of these contrary doctrines, but we can ask which is most in conformity with Epicurean principles. One must recognize that belief in freedom is an anomaly in Epicurus’ system. The latter, after having posed happiness as the goal, recognizes that tranquility of the soul is the necessary condition of this happiness, and he believes that the idea of a universal necessity dominating nature would be incompatible with the tranquility of the soul. According to him, as we know, there is something dark and troubling in the sentiment of fatalism; it is for this reason that he rejects it. And once he begins to reject it, with a remarkably logical spirit he casts it out from everywhere and places spontaneity in everything. What he hasn’t proved is that this spontaneity exists; he doesn’t even try to prove it. For him moral freedom is an obvious fact of consciousness. And man’s freedom being given, he deduces from it the spontaneity of nature. But he doesn’t think that only one of the following is true: either moral liberty is doubtful, and his system is enveloped in the same uncertainty, or it is certain and it is a new principle that must be taken into account. If I am free I can found a morality on this and ignore the principle of interest. Duty can be deduced from the same idea of liberty without having to appeal to pleasure. It is understandable that a determinist could be a Utilitarian; but that a partisan of free will, who believes he feels in himself a certain amount of the absolute, a cause living and acting by itself, possessing intrinsic value and dignity should submit this to an external rule of action, turn it toward a foreign end and make of it an instrument of pleasure, this is a contradiction from which we were right to defend the modern Epicureans. On this point, in our time the Epicurean system has acquired new strength and homogeneity. Epicurus complained that the idea of universal determinism weighs on the human soul, for man suffers when he sacrifices to nature his full and complete independence. He forgot that morality, as much as any other science, can enter into this question of individual preferences. Science seeks, not what pleases intelligence or sensibility, but what is. It pursues not absolute happiness, that utopia of ancient Epicureanism, but relative happiness, compatible with reality, and it retreats before no truth, however difficult it might be.

It is also for the same reason that modern Epicureanism has generally renounced the consolations that the Epicurean theory of death claimed to offer. Modern Utilitarians generally are more concerned with life than with death. According to them, morality has as its goal the regulating of our conduct while we are alive; its goal is not to modify our ideas on the subject of death: this is more a question for metaphysics or religion.

In social theories the relation is much closer between ancient and modern Epicureanism. We first find in Hobbes and then other later in the 18th Century Epicurus’ ingenious theory which bases society on a contract. The Epicurean, considering men to be basically selfish and consequently enemies were forever led to seek an artificial means for bringing them together and uniting them. The idea of a contract immediately presented itself to the spirit as the connection most likely to bind men together. But Epicurus had conceived the contract as a sort of primitive entente between men, more spontaneous than thought out. In his theory human animals gather together, and even before knowing how to speak agree by signs to live in peace and friendship. This is not the idea of the social contract for Hobbes and his successors. The primitive agreement between men seems to have become for them a true contract, passed before witnesses, with defined and precise clauses. Such an imagination, half scholastic and half fantastic, loses all historical value. On the contrary, the original characteristic of Epicurean sociology, as it is laid out in Lucretius, is that it claims to rest on facts and to be deduced from history. It is also on history that the most faithful continuators of the Epicurean tradition rely. For them, human societies are not born in one blow, by a sudden act of human wills; they are slowly constructed by an accumulation of habits and customs, by the gradual accommodation of individuals to each other. The ideas of justice, right, charity and philanthropy, from having produced society, flow from society. Far from explaining it, they are explained by it.

Because Epicurean social morality is essentially historical, it presupposes the idea of evolution, of progress. It is in Lucretius that we found the idea of human progress expressed for the first time. Helvetius reproduces the same idea by applying it particularly to law and legislation, an idea that is found in d’Holbach and most thinkers, Epicurean or not in the 18th Century. The idea of progress is the very heart of liberalism, and this is why it was to be affirmed with so much energy in the 18th Century, on the eve of the great demand for freedom. We saw the enormous part played by representatives of Epicureanism in the movement that swept along the spirits of the time. The Epicureans of the 18th Century reason better in political and social morality than in pure morality. Helvetius is frankly liberal, and d’Holbach in particular is radical, and virulently attacks royalty and its inevitable drawbacks.

The Epicureans are also innovators in religion. It is even curious to see, in the history of the Epicurean doctrine, its representatives in direct or indirect hostility with received religion. Hobbes’ system is essentially irreligious; had it not been for the will of the prince who sustained it, religion was at great risk. Hobbes attacked miracles and what is more, he gave religion no other “natural seed” (semen naturale) than fear, ignorance, and, in a word, “man’s innate penchant for hasty conclusions.”[5] Did not the venerable Gassendi himself, who never abandoned the great respect he had for the religion in which he was a priest say, in speaking of Epicurus: “If Epicurus attended a few religious ceremonies of his country, while disapproving them in his heart, his conduct was to certain extent excusable. And in fact he did attend them, since civil law and public order demanded it of him. He disapproved of them, because nothing obliges the soul of the wise man to think in the same way as the common people...The role of the philosopher at the time was to think like the few and to speak and act with the multitude.” One can’t help but think that in writing these lines Gassendi was reflecting on himself and thought of his century as much as of Epicurus’.

As for the Epicureans of the 18th Century, they completely remove the veil. La Mettrie, Helvetius, and d’Holbach openly attack religion. In fourteen long chapters of the “Système de la nature” d’Holbach, with a daring that few philosophers until then had had, strives to overthrow the idea of God in all its forms. It was in large part on Epicureanism that the 18th Century rested its disbelief. As we have seen, the disciples went further than the master, too far perhaps, for they didn’t see that the religious sentiment, existing in fact, had to be taken into account; that it represented a tendency, legitimate or not, of human nature, and that philosophy had to seek to satisfy it to a certain extent.

In summary, the Epicurean doctrines exercised an unquestionable influence on the development of human thought. In the natural sciences Democritus’ and Epicurus’ cosmological system appears to have triumphed in our time. In the moral and social sciences the doctrines derived from Epicureanism are also more powerful than they ever were. At this very moment the English school has brought forth, in the face of the Stoicism restored by Kant, an Epicureanism renewed by the facts of modern science. How many old ideas and rooted customs Epicureanism has contributed to ridding the moral domain of! In the same vein, we have seen that in the religious sphere Epicurus has labored, more than any other philosopher of antiquity, to liberate human thought from belief in the marvelous, the miraculous, and the providential. Well before the arrival of Christianity he had already attacked pagan religion and reduced it to impotence. Still today still it is the sprit of old Epicurus who, combined with new doctrines, works away at and undermines Christianity. Among the free-thinkers of today, how many merit the name of “Epicureans” in which the church and Jews included the free-thinkers of yesterday.”

1. Histoire de la Philosophie Ancienne, III, 412. We showed, at least in Epicurus’ morality, a rigorous series of ideas and a veritable scientific system, already offering the characteristics of modern Utilitarianism. As for its canonic and its physics, we have also shown its close connection with the morality of happiness.

2. See our “Morale anglaise contemoporaine”

3. See La Morale Anglaise Contemporarine,: Part two.

4. See our “Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction,” p.29

5. Leviathan c.Vi, 45, c XII, etc