Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Aristotle and Epicurus.


Here is an essay that I wrote in the Summer Semester. It was very difficult to keep to the word count because I found the topic really interesting.


The Fulfilled Life - Ataraxia and Eudaimonia
By Andrew Bloyce.

Few questions are as poignant and timeless as 'What does living well consist of?' So central is this question to human life that many people will passionately defend one or another conception of the good. Despite this passionate debate, however, modern philosophers have come no closer to a consensus on what defines a good life any more than the great Greek thinkers did several millennia ago.

Two enduring theories of the good come from Aristotle and Epicurus. For Aristotle the best life is the fulfilled life and is found in those who practice virtuous deeds. Aristotle uses the word eudaimonia to describe the fulfilled life. Epicurus's conception of the good life is hedonistic; he supports the idea that pleasure is intrinsically good and that pain is intrinsically bad. For Epicurus the good life consists in a state in which there is an absence of pain in the body and an absence of trouble in the soul.[1]  This state of tranquility and freedom from anxiety Epicurus calls ataraxia. [2]  The purpose of this essay is to conduct a comparative philosophical analysis of both eudaimonia and ataraxia as conceptions of the good life in modern times. The structure of this essay will be to accurately define eudaimonia and ataraxia, discuss the affordances and constraints of both conceptions of the good life and to finally determine which theory (on balance) provides a better conception of the good life for the modern age.

Aristotle reaches his idea that fulfillment comes through virtue by methodologically rejecting the competing conceptions of the good; these being the pursuit of pleasure, fame and money.[3]  Money is quickly dismissed as a candidate for the good because it is desired instrumentally - for what it can purchase. Fame is equally easily dismissed because the fulfillment achieved through being well thought of is rather shallow. What people really want is not just to be well thought of, but to actually be good. Pleasure is given a rather superficial account in Chapters 4-6 in the Nicomachean ethics where it is dismissed as a life only fit for animals. It has been stated before[4] that Aristotle may have had in mind something similar to John Stuart Mill's "lower pleasures" when he argues that experiencing pleasures cannot be what makes life fulfilling.  Aristotle explicitly supports this conjecture when he states:

                Concerning the bodily pleasures, one must examine the arguments to the effect that some          pleasures, such as the beautiful ones, are most certainly worthy of choice, but not the bodily            pleasures with which a dissipated person is concerned.[5]

Aristotle's so-called beautiful pleasures can safely be assumed to be the pleasures that one experiences when fulfilling one's ergon. Ergon translates to 'function' in english and it is the satisfying of one's ergon that leads to fulfillment (and as a byproduct pleasure) according to Aristotle. Aristotle decided that the function of a human must be to fully realize our characteristically human capabilities.[6] Whilst there are many capabilities that uniquely characterize us as human beings the most important of these to Aristotle is our capacity for rational thought (or 'theoria') .

Once one has embraced that their ergon is to foster the development of their reason it follows that through that reason they will also realise that the best courses of action lie in a mean between deficiency and excess.[7] This theory of the mean provides the basic skeleton on which Aristotle's virtue ethics is based, however there is one final attribute that the virtuous person must possess.  To be able to put the theory of the mean into practice one must also possess a certain amount of practical wisdom (phronesis) and have had a satisfactory upbringing. Practical wisdom is described far more cryptically than theoria in the Nichomacean ethics but can be colloquially understood as 'street smarts' or the ability to correctly judge which virtue is appropriate in each situation.

From the writings of Epicurus it is hard to assume that Epicurus had any interest in virtues like courage or justice; he was, however, very interested in moderation and temperance. Epicurus embraced an unusual hedonistic stance that is sometimes referred to as 'negative hedonism'. Negative hedonism (like regular hedonism) promotes pleasure as the only intrinsic good however instead of advocating the pursuit of  this pleasure proponents of negative hedonism argue that we should instead aim at eliminating pain. Once all pain is eliminated one will be in a state of tranquility that Epicurus calls ataraxia. 

Epicurus realised that many of the pains that we experience come from unfulfilled desires. In order to alleviate this type of pain there are two obvious solutions: 1) To attain the object of desire, OR 2) To eliminate the desire itself. Epicurus chose the latter solution and justified his choice by distinguishing between desires that are 'natural and necessary', 'natural and not necessary', and 'neither natural nor necessary'.[8] It is best if one can learn to be satisfied with the fulfilment of only the natural and necessary desires because 'what is good is easy to get'[9] says Epicurus. In practise Epicurus advocates a simple life in of moderation, a life that involves friendship, simple foods, and not much more. 

Both Aristotle and Epicurus agree that the pursuit of money will not bring one any closer to the fulfilled life. They also both agree that fame is not important to achieving fulfilment. These claims, however, run in opposition to the data found in the WDH that shows a correlation between subjective ratings of happiness with social rank and income.[10]  Epicurus would probably rebut the importance of such data by saying that the people who gave themselves lower subjective ratings because of comparative status or income deficiencies only did so because they had unnecessary desires for such things in the first place. Aristotle could probably also recover from this data by pointing out that the virtuous person would likely not be troubled by a lack of fame or wealth, so what the data points out is not a problem with his theory but an excess of virtue-lacking citizens. In fact both Aristotle and Epicurus provide solutions to the stresses one may feel in an life devoid of fame or wealth.
Perhaps a large benefit of Aristotle's ethics is that it focuses on an active life, rather than the arguably passive existence expounded in Epicurus' writings.[11] It is part of Aristotle's moral training that we engage in actions that may not necessarily be at once pleasurable in order to become more rational or virtuous.[12] [13] In contrast Epicurus' conception of fulfillment as ataraxia naturally leads to a life secluded from society whereby unnecessary desires can be more easily avoided.[14] If we return to the empirical facts (a move that Aristotle and Epicurus would probably both approve of) it can be observed that an active life consisting of a variety of activities results in increased health and longevity, sociability, effective conflict resolution skills, original thinking, and altruism.[15] These aforementioned perks can (on my interpretation of the texts) only be secured through the active life that Aristotle describes. Nevertheless there are points of convergence between the two thinkers in regards to the importance of friendship in securing a fulfilled life.

In conclusion both conceptions of the fulfilled life have significant merit, however Aristotle's ethics provides a far more comprehensive framework of how to live than Epicurus.[16] Aristotle teaches us how to live, what to feel and what to do - Epicurus instead focuses on fixing potentially harmful thought patterns. What Epicurus' theory lacks in breadth, however, it compensates for in its accessibility[17] and  it's poignant and relevant advice for dealing with hardships.  If there is a time in one's life to ponder Epicurus it is when one is suffering from the symptoms of our postmodern age. Anxiety about wealth, status and possessions can be alleviated through a perusal of Epicurus' writings and this achievement cannot be overstated.  

 WORKS CITED:

Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.

Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008):  Print.

Boylan, Michael. "Aristotle: Biology [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 02 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-bio/>.

Epicurus. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus." The Information Philosopher - Dedicated to the New Information Philosophy. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/epicurus/letter_to_menoeceus.html>.
 
Hughes, Gerard J. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 72. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. "The Epicureans." A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972. 244-45. Print.

Striker, Gisela. "Ataraxia: Happiness as tranquillity" Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. England: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print. 

Veenhoven, R. (2006). World Database of Happiness: Continuous register of research on subjective appreciation of life. www.eur.nl/fsw/happiness.
 


[1] Epicurus. "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus." The Information Philosopher - Dedicated to the New Information Philosophy. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/epicurus/letter_to_menoeceus.html>.
[2] Striker, Gisela. "Ataraxia: Happiness as tranquillity" Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. England: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
[3] Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. "Book One. Chapters 4,5, and 6." Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.
[4] Hughes, Gerard J. "The Fulfilled Life." Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 25. Print.
[5] Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. (VII, 14, 1154a 8-11)." Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2002. Print.
[6] Boylan, Michael. "Aristotle: Biology [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 02 Oct. 2004. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-bio/>.
[7] For example it is virtuous to have courage because it lies in the mean between being cowardly and acting rashly.
[8] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 402. Print.
[9] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 401. Print.
[10] Veenhoven, R. (2006). World Database of Happiness: Continuous register of research on subjective appreciation of life. www.eur.nl/fsw/happiness
[11] It it easy to imagine that the state of ataraxia is closer to that of sleep than fulfilment.
[12] Hughes, Gerard J. "Moral Virtues and Moral Training." Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge, 2001. 72. Print.
[13] For example one might go bungee jumping despite their initial fears because they realise that such a time calls for the virtue of courage (use of phronesis) and that the risks of harm are low (use of theoria).
[14] Russell, Bertrand. "The Epicureans." A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972. 244-45. Print.
[15] Bergsma, Ad, Germaine Poot, and Aart C. Liefbroer. "Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus." Journal of Happiness Studies 9.3 (2008): 412. Print.
[16] To be fair perhaps Epicurus' ethical ideas were comprehensive too, however very little remains of his (reportedly extensive) writings.
[17]  One does not have to be inclined towards the pursuit of theoretical knowledge (theoria), or even have had the suitable moral upbringing that is a prerequisite for Aristotle's students in order to practise Epicurean philosophy.

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