Epicurus and Aristotle:
What is Good for Humans?
by Brian Jaeger
Epicurus and Aristotle take a different view of what is good for humans. Each of them present some valid arguments, but there exists much difficulty in proving what they say. The best one can do is try to prove what they say to be wrong, which is why the skeptics always had so much fun. Even if an argument appears sound, we will ask ourselves how anyone can really know these things. Epicurus has views that seem to be easier to understand, and he takes a very popular view about pleasure a little further than other philosophers. Aristotle feels that happiness is the key, like Epicurus, but he finds a different way of finding happiness. Neither of these two have exactly what I believe in, but Aristotle tends to agree with me more often than Epicurus.
Epicurus has a view of the good that involves pleasure. He does not, however, identify pleasure completely as the good. Epicurus more or less states that "pleasure is that which is perceived when all pain is removed." This would seem likely to lead to his thoughts about death, since death would certainly remove any pain we were having in life. Unfortunately, our sense-perception, according to Epicurus, is lost in death, so we could no longer experience pleasure, even if we are without pain. He believes that the acknowledgment of death should cause us contentment because it would remove the longing for immortality. People will still long for what is more pleasurable than what is not, and since we lose our perception of pleasure as well as pain, many will desire immortality. Epicurus can assume that "unlimited time and limited time contain equal pleasure, if one measures its limits by reasoning," but we cannot be certain unless we could actually live forever. If we accept that we should not fear death, we would then not have to fear anything in life, according to Epicurus. People do, though, fear that they will no longer be able to feel, as we fear things that are painful in life, and avoid them.
Epicurus mentions avoiding what is painful in life when he writes about desires. He says that of the natural desires, there exist those which are necessary for happiness, life, and freeing the body from troubles. Although these desires seem very basic, especially the last two, they are in fact the desires that lead to pleasure, since they relieve pain. The fulfillment of the desires leads to what is pleasurable, and therefore good. Epicurus is not altogether clear as to whether we should have a large quantity of these desires or not, but he does encourage self-sufficiency. He wants us to avoid extravagances in our lifestyle so that we may live well without them and be happy when they come about. He can say this because he does not believe that extravagances bring about pleasure. We might wonder if we should simply avoid extravagances completely, since an extravagance is beyond fulfillment of a desire to avoid pain, which is all the pleasure we need.
Epicurus calls prudence the greatest good. What he means by prudence is "the flawless use of reason to guide life." According to Epicurus, this would make prudence better than philosophy because prudence is the virtue used in teaching other virtues like honor and justice. He thinks that the virtues are closely tied with a pleasant life, in that we must be virtuous to have a pleasant life. In fact, he states that it is "impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honorably, and justly." We can argue, though, that we do not feel pain when we do not act prudently, honorably, and justly. This is definitely true if we talk about physical pain, while having no knowledge that an action was not virtuous is a way we do not feel pain psychologically, too. The question what standards one must follow would pop up. We must decide as to whether we want to live by our own, societies, or divine standards. Epicurus seems to lean towards divine, but these are the hardest to know.
Epicurus presents an argument about pleasure. He calls pleasure both the" starting point and the goal of living blessedly." He goes on to add that we do not choose every pleasure, but ignore some to get more in the long run. This would be like working out instead of eating in order to become physically fit. We will endure pain in order to receive more pleasure, but we must wonder how far we should take it, and in what order. For example, a man may take steroids to help him become physically fit, along with the pain of working out. This man will become more fit than he could have without drugs. He may become impotent, however, as a result of steroid use, but he may not have any side-effects. One would have a very difficult time deciding, even if he knew that side-effect would occur, because the better body might seem to be pleasure enough. Another example might be a teenage couple who decide to have sex, even though pregnancy or diseases could result. They could have waited, but most people would argue "Why wait, I could be dead tomorrow!" Pleasure is not always the goal for the future, but is many times the goal for the present, with no thought about the future.
Epicurus seems to have been a bit of an anti-social person. He states "The purest security is that which comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many." He tells us that friends exist to help us in safety and wealth. This tends to be contrary to what most people would say about their friends. This is an easily defendable position, since we cannot prove that we seek friends for any other reason than to become more secure ourselves. The part about wealth is a little questionable, since we do not always look for the wealthiest friends, and still keep those down on their luck. We can say that these friends help protect against enemies, though, so it leads back to a favorable argument for Epicurus.
Aristotle believes that happiness is the highest good and that it is an end, like all the goods, only the most complete end. The product, or end, is better than the activity used to get to the end. This reasoning would make happiness better than the pleasure that might lead to it, and it would place knowledge ahead of the learning we need to get it. We must acknowledge the fact that these activities are required to reach the ends, though.
Aristotle states the political science is the ruling science that studies the highest good. Studying the highest good seems rather important to Aristotle. He thinks that "while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for a people and for cities." He does not wish to classify the good as simply happiness by any means, but wants to study by which means. He wants a good judge of ethics to be well educated in ethics. Those who are educated are limited, however, as "a youth is not a suitable student of political science; for he lacks experience of actions in life which political science argues from and about." This would mean that children cannot know what is good for them, so they must be told. Children, along with animals, can decide what is good for them and strive for it, even if they are wrong. An adult human can also strive for things that they believe are good for them, despite also being wrong sometimes. Animals survive and can feel pleasure, so they must have some knowledge as to what is good, albeit instinct.
Aristotle must explain what the nature of happiness is. He identifies three conceptions of what happiness is. Pleasure is the first and least in his mind. Aristotle calls this conception of happiness slavish, like grazing animals. A life with honor also may lead to happiness, but Aristotle feels states that honor depends too much on others. He also says that people just use it to convince themselves of how good they are. Aristotle thinks that a life of virtue is not too bad, but we will not always use the virtue, so it gets shot down, too. Finally, Aristotle informs us that a life of study is it, as long as we study political science, I would assume. The reader must forgive me if I am utterly confused, but this seems to lead back to where we started. Maybe Aristotle clears thing up later when he tells us that the greatest good does require using virtues, not just possessing them, although he did not really think that virtue alone was good before.
We can at least decipher what Aristotle means when he talks about pleasure. He says that "a person derives pleasure from whatever he is called a lover of ." A person who derives pleasure from fine actions would be considered a good person, by this reasoning. A bad person could still derive pleasure, but not from what is virtuous, which is better, I guess. Aristotle wrote about the three types of goods on page 19. He said that there are goods for the soul, goods for the body, and external goods. We need all three for complete happiness, but the goods of the soul are the ones we strive for in the end and are goods to the fullest extent and most of all. Aristotle does acknowledge that a person with many deformities or with no money cannot be totally happy.
Aristotle thinks that friendship is a necessary part of happiness. We can have good, useful, and pleasant friendships. The good would be considered a complete friendship. He even writes that " no one would choose to live without friendship even if he had all the other goods." We cannot find total happiness in friendship, but a part of it. This is certainly contrary to what Epicurus' idea of solitude being good.
Were Epicurus and Aristotle to argue about their views, no doubt neither would agree with the other and we would get nowhere. Essentially they agree that happiness is what is good for us. Epicurus takes a stand that animals and children can experience the good, and I wish Aristotle could have explained this aspect better. Aristotle believes in learning the virtues, and using them, to be happy. This is the part that I must agree with, though abstract, since without virtue we would be only animals, which is very hard to accept. Aristotle has a more believable opinion about friendship, too. We really do seem to need friends in more than just a useful sense, though he would have a great deal of trouble proving this to Epicurus. Essentially, I feel that Aristotle appeals more to what we believe in about life, while Epicurus appeals to how we usually end up acting, regardless of belief.
Inwood and Gerson, "Ethics," Hellinistic Philosophy, (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), p. 45 A20 1.37.
Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 23 A4 124.
Hellinistic Philosophy, p. 27 XIX
Hellinistic Philosophy, p. 24 127-128.
Hellinistic Philosophy, p. 24-25 130-132.
Hellinistic Philosophy, p. 25 132.
Hellenistic Philosophy , p. 245.
Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 25 132.
Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 24 128.
Hellenistic Philosophy, p.27 XIV
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), p. 1 1-1.1.
Aristotle p. 2 1.2.
Aristotle p. 3 1.2 (10)
Aristotle p. 4 1.3 1095a (1-3)
Aristotle p. 7 1.43.
Aristotle p. 20 1.73.
Aristotle p. 20 1099a (8-9)
Aristotle p. 21 1099b
Aristotle p. 207 9.11.