On Five Schools: The Garden of Epicurus

PhilosoPhactor: Epicurus
practical katastematics

This is the first in a five part series in which I have selected five ancient schools of philosophy. Within these five I see a patternwork still in evidence in the world directly. These are five schools whose maxims are well known. You may not know the source, and the maxim may have evolved into many forms, or just an idea, but the principles are well soaked into so called western cultures. These schools characterize western thinking, but occur perpendicular to a gradient that runs from sensualism to intellectualism itself. While hedonism is mentioned and in general not embraced by these three schools, any given individual subscribing to one of these schools might be, more or less indulgent in sensual pleasures and still be a member of that school. I would propose as a more modern understanding we adopt a situational understanding of these schools by which our modern philosophies can be interpreted as being composed of these ancient schools in various proportions, applied in particular life contexts. When lost at sea, certain philosophies are called for, when spending time in a garden, another.

(by pyrrho for publishing jointly at MLW and DocuDharma)

As with most of these schools I’ll cover, the name of the school has come to have a common modern meaning. Also, as with most, the modern understanding of the term “epicurean” misrepresents the school. I will leave it to the historians of philosophy to gather why misunderstandings stand in common language about these schools, but I will also add that there are also relations in a warped way to the original.

I will be using the print version of the Oxford “Dictionary of Philosophy” to refresh myself for this series. Links offered below may or may not have been referenced to research this post. I may or may not believe their assertions or have been exposed to them, but they are given to ease further your direct research should you like. I give my own impressions of the topics within, please form your own impressions if you are at all interested in the topics, mine include my own simplifications and interpretations. I try to present them fairly, clearly, but I am a skeptic myself, a relativist with opinions on all these schools, and a tendency to eschew the doctrinaire side of each of these schools, myself, and tend to seek and emphasize the reusable tools each has to offer.

A not particularly common but still well established understanding of “Epicurean” is one who likes fine foods and luxuries of that sort, good hosting, good service, the attendances of wealth, and which is, by that taste, indulgent. But Epicurus advocated the the opposite: personal restraint and intentional simplicity of pleasures. The relation by which the indulgent term comes is that the simple pleasures of life are, indeed, things like a pleasant meal.

Epicurus advocated an idea by which the more extreme the pleasures you sought, the more extreme the displeasure will also be, the greater your misery. Simple pleasures enjoyed well, like an afternoon at the ocean, can give exquisite pleasure, the reasoning goes, to make for an excellent and enjoyable life. But they are also mild enough according to Epicurus to lead to only mild displeasures (eating sand? salt rashes?). The combination, according to Epicurus, is the way to live well and have a good life.

These ancient schools generally take their goal as seeking a well lived life. Perhaps that means a tranquil life, but by whatever criteria, to be “satisfied” or, at least, “proper”, they seek good living. They offer principles and usually also a set of interpretations of life drawn from those principles. Note for example that the Epicurean approach does not strictly require seeking mild pleasures.  It is also in accord with Epicurus’ principles to live extremely, if one realized this mean putting up with extreme misery, or at least, risk of that. However, one might, and some do, argue that is worth it in order to obtain extreme pleasure. And in this interpretation of Epicurus we reach a hedonistic philosophy for those willing to accept extreme risks, and therein a philosophical explanation for the extreme sports..

We all know modern Epicureans, I hope, for they make excellent friends.  They are great to dine with, they care about subtlety in food, music, art and relaxation with the simple pleasures of life. They are able to enjoy pleasures with modest costs, so not only the best, most rare, wines, but also those of the common, reasonably priced wines. Your Epicurean friend knows which of these modest pleasures is still crafted with care and craft. I think an element of this philosophy is essential to a good life, and I side with the ancients that the purpose of a good philosophy is a good life.  Epicurean sentiments, with a taste for high quality in the modest pursuits allows us to live without a lot of materialist anxiety on the one hand, but also without the life denying depravity of eschewing material pleasures on the other. Epicureanism provides a modest avenue for acknowledging and within reason embracing, the carnal pleasures.

Below, I will share some of the interesting points Oxford’s Dictionary of Philosophy shared.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has some harsh words for the mischaracterization of Epicurus’ philosophy as indulgent “epicureanism”, but I have covered that above myself, so let us move on and into an idyllic picture of Epicurus among the olives and grapes of ancient Greece…

Epicurus philosophized at an abode called “The Garden”, and one imagines wine at sunset was on the agenda. The Garden was, it is said, a secluded community. Epicurus was practical and in some ways modern in his perspective. For example, he had a doctrine of the survival of the fittest which accounted for the evolution of the species without appeal to the “final causes” of Aristotle.  “Final causes”  in Aristotelean logic are the purpose for which a thing was created. The final cause of a chair is “to be sat on”, the purpose for which it was made to existed. Applying such causes to nature yield a “teleology”, and presents a frame in which things exist not for themselves but to fulfill external purposes for something else. But Epicureanism relates a notion that the purpose of life is to survive, and survival is about the perpetuation of the self, as a purpose.  Such a view is open to a relativism with respect to all life, in which all agents exist to survive, and beyond that, to define it’s own existence in its own right. The purpose of a horse is to live as a horse, not “to be ridden”, as a more teleological, “final cause” driven analysis might yield.

Epicurus allowed for free will through his belief in mechanistic atomism which attributed free will to subtleties in the possible courses of atoms. Rather than extremes, Epicurus himself advocated practical wisdom, attained through philosophy, and as with many of the Greek schools of ethics, assumed the goal of attaining a pleasant life. As with other Hellenic philosophies, ataraxia, a satisfaction and tranquility of self, was considered the ultimate state of mind. Ataraxia is, Epicurus reasoned, to be obtained by katastematic pleasures. These are the enduring pleasures which when had at all, gives an equal pleasure, pleasures that, to have had in life, raise the quality of it. These are in contrast to kinematic pleasures, which are more temporary sensory pleasures, the pleasures which come and go, when gone, leave us no better nor worse in the long run.

The pleasure of a good friendship, for example, is katastematic. To have had a good friend and live a short life is an equal height of pleasure, an equal “amount” of pleasure, as to have had a good friendship and a long life… according to the theory, the friendship itself has an enduring value to ones life and quality of life that the quick thrills of kinematic pleasure do not bring. This is not to take away from the value of kinematic pleasures in themselves, as such, but it means to direct us to the thought that a truly happy life, and an ataraxic state of mind, follow from a mastery of katastematics.


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    • Armando on October 9, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Wish I could engage you with something other than platitudes, but good post.

  1. to all 5 essays. I’ve been thinking a lot about  the ancient Greeks these days and this is perfect. Thanks, pryrro.

  2. Bastardizing a perfectly good ataraxia teleology for their own selfish, kinematic purposes.

    Only one way to restore the katastematic balance: crack open a really fine Pinot Noir.

  3. This is nonsense. Please.

    Why bother with this pretentious gibber jabber?

    Isn’t this a “philopsophy” for the well to do? Isn’t this a philosphy born out of a class of people whose SLAVES allowed them to contemplate pleasure and to wonder about the “purpose of a chair”. Anybody who sits around wondering what the purpose of a chair is…is a weak, purposeless fool.

    Pyrrho quotes:

    “The final cause of a chair is to be sat on”….

    Now doesn’t this sound stupid?
    I think that’s called mental masturbation and that is what philophers do today and what they did back then. Then later you quote “The purpose of a horse is to live as a horse, not “to be ridden”.

    Oh, man! You guys again are simply mystified by what you were taught in school. You believe the Greek Philosophers really understood something because you were taught this kind of gibberish in school. In the same way you cannot focus on anything but MSM. Anything source that isn’t “famous” is ignored. That’s why the candidates  making sense…who are saying “Get out of Iraq” are ignored.

    Instead…the “bonafide” MSM candidates Hilliary, Edwards and Obombah are looked on as “viable”, “professional”…though you “may” disagree with their throughouly suicidal views on which cliff it would be better to drive off of.

    Then there is this:

      “But Epicureanism relates a notion that the purpose of life is to survive, and survival is about the perpetuation of the self, as a purpose. “

    This is BULLSHIT TALK. You don’t have to be a philospher to know that beings try to survive…at some point …or most points. I mean what is this shit?

    And it’s wrong anyway.

  4. I am busy fomenting revolution (I wish!) and will be back to read later.


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