- Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus


When the Roman empire came to power it inherited Greek culture and continued its philosophies. The ethical and social question of coexistence posed by Socrates received differing philosophical solutions when Roman intellectuals adopted them from the Greek tradition.

Philosophy opted for two traditions of reflection: the politics of coexistence and knowledge itself. Thus the ethical systems expanded: Stoicism and Epicureanism, together with the traditions of abstract reflection: Scepticism and Neoplatonism.

Scepticism was a response to Plato's question on knowing. The sceptics represented doubt, even about sensory input, while still using logic to think about politics. Neoplatonism branched into different systems though they share the monistic belief that all reality can be derived from a single principle > the One.

In political thought, Stoicism continued the Socratic search for virtue and order. It tended towards a synthesis of vertical and horizontal thinking. The Cosmos, world order, is governed by a divine logos. Seneca embraced it in Rome as did Cato the younger.

Epicureanism concentrated more on the here and now thinking that the gods were distant and uninterested in humanity.  It is based on the idea that simple pleasures and living like a hermit are the basis of happiness.

From Epicurus we have only three letters: Letter to Herodotus with a presentation of his metaphysics, Letter to Pythocles which discusses weather, Letter to Menoeceus introducing his ethics.

Introductory text

"Those things which Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it."


Pleasure as the primary good.

"When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul. Of all this the d is prudence. For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for ad a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honour, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honour, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them."

The implication of this concept is that what we find pleasurable is also good.  Pleasure is definable in his writings not as excitement and sensory stimulation but well-being which is a state of tranquillity without fear or pain. The epicurean looks beyond the present moment to lasting personal harmony and so pleasure means something which lays the conditions for that, not a passing sensual moment. Pleasure is part of a general outlook and refers to mental and physical health. The good life to which Epicurus aspires is balanced and serene. Pleasure is the motivator and guide to achieving this good life.

Seeking pleasure is seeking good

"We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live. He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid; seeing that the living creature has no need to go in search of something that is lacking, nor to look anything else by which the good of the soul and of the body will be fulfilled. When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing. And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure. While therefore all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure is worthy of choice, just as all pain is an evil and yet not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged."

Epicurus' definition of pleasure excludes some experiences such as senseless revelry, gastronomy or cheap thrills. He explains that they are enjoyable for the time being but are more harmful than good in the long term. For example to be able to enjoy bread and water you have to condition yourself by not pampering yourself in excessive wining and dining. Sensual excess results in an incapacity to experience more ordinary pleasures. However these are more available most of the time and so it is wise to condition yourself to experience these. This is achieved through moderation.

Virtue and pleasure

Epicurus makes no distinction between the virtuous and the pleasurable. Quite the opposite when we strive for pleasure we are seeking virtue. 

"It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly and conversely it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly and justly without living pleasantly”.  

Hence the author is equating those cherished virtues of sensibility, nobility and justice to the concept of pleasure.  This assertion can be extended to mean that only that which is sensible which brings greater pleasure; only that which is just is informed by a sense of pleasure; only that is noble which is based on our primary instinctive good. To support this doctrine, Epicurus asks the reader a few rhetoric questions of the style “Can you think of anyone more moral than the person who has devout beliefs about the gods, who is consistently without fears about death, and who has pondered man’s natural end?”

"We must remember that the future is neither wholly ours nor wholly not ours, so that neither must we count upon it as quite certain to come nor despair of it as quite certain not to come."


Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time people shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. And he who admonishes the young to live well and the old to make a good end speaks foolishly, not merely because of the desirability of life, but because the same exercise at once teaches to live well and to die well. Much worse is he who says that it were good not to be born, but when once one is born to pass with all speed through the gates of Hades. For if he truly believes this, why does he not depart from life? It were easy for him to do so, if once he were firmly convinced. If he speaks only in mockery, his words are foolishness, for those who hear believe him not."

He begins his analysis stating the conclusion that death means nothing. He then argues that it does not involve pain or pleasure and so can't be bad for us. 

Epicurus' definition of death was not the moment or the process of dying but being dead. Taken in this sense his ideas are unshakeable. Being dead means not experiencing life or pain or pleasure. So fear of death makes no sense and is an irrational fear according to Epicurus.

The divinities

First believe that God is a living being immortal and happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of humankind; and so of him anything that is at agrees not with about him whatever may uphold both his happiness and his immortality. For truly there are gods, and knowledge of them is evident; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that people do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them. Not the person who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favourable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in people like to themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.

Epicurus certainly affirms that the gods exist. However he also believes that they are not concerned about humanity and indeed are not aware of us. Were they to involve themselves with our menial world their perfect happiness would be disturbed. This in turn would make them less perfect. He suggests that we should not fear the gods or expect anything from them but rather imitate their perfect state of bliss.

Translated into the modern idiom epicureanism advises us not to fear fate or chance because neither of them take interest in us. In the true spirit of the Aristotelian horizontal vision of the Cosmos it is up to each of us to create order in our own lives since the gods or destiny will not perform the job for us.

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