The Gospel of Pleasure

Reading from Cicero’s “De Finibus” Book 1

Written by: Michael Lucana

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman politician, lawyer, and philosopher who wrote most of his well known works around 45 BC. De Finibus is a work written in dialogue form in which Cicero discusses various philosophical views that were popular during his time. In Book 1 of De Finibus, Cicero has a conversation with a fellow Roman named Lucius Torquatus who is an avid Epicurean. Here is an online translation if you are so inclined to read through yourself. I’m using a translation by Quintus Curtius. This reading is by no means exhaustive, but is meant to give a view of the ideas presented in a broad and accessible manner.

Sometimes I think the Epicureans get a bad rap. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with all of their ideas, but I can appreciate any honest attempt at trying to figure out this whole “living” thing. Like many of their fellow philosophers in the Ancient World, the Epicureans were trying to figure out how to live the best life that one could live. Of course, as the Epicureans, and many of their contemporaries saw it, knowing how to live your best life is going to also require you knowing what it is that that makes a good life, or another way to put it, what it is that makes life worth even living at all. The Epicureans settled on pleasure as that which made life worth living. So, if pleasure was it, the end all be all that made life worth living, then, the Epicureans reasoned, all of our pursuits should be driven towards that goal.

This, along with their other views, kind of made the Epicureans, at least as far as I’ve seen, the philosophical punching bag of the Ancient World. In fact, that’s exactly how Cicero’s De Finibus begins, with him taking jabs at everything from their theory of atoms, theory of how we form beliefs, the exaggerated importance they attach to pleasure, and so on. It’s always the final jab that gets me though. Cicero points out that the founder of the Epicurean school of thought, Epicurus himself, just didn’t seem that well-educated. In fact, Cicero thinks Epicurus was kind of willfully ignorant.

To be fair, if we really deep dived into their entire philosophical system, some of the Epicurean beliefs would leave us amused as well. For example, one of the beliefs that Cicero criticizes is that Epicureans think the sun is about a foot in diameter. Ok. Sure thing. But those sorts of beliefs aren’t really our concern here, and neither are they Torquatus’ main concern as he steps up to defend his philosophical views. Now, Torquatus, as Cicero has written him in this dialogue, is is one of the reasons why I’m willing to even consider Epicureanism as a compelling ethical system. Torquatus is just kind of really into this philosophy. He comes across as very excited to talk about Epicurus, all things Epicureanism-related, and he wants you to be excited as well. In some places he calls Epicurus the “discoverer of truth,” or the “architect of the fulfilling life.” This guy is preaching the Gospel of Pleasure any way you look at it.

The Dichotomy of Pain & Pleasure

Torquatus begins his defense of Epicureanism by boldly asserting what I’ve already said, that the Epicureans believed the goal of life to be the pursuit of pleasure. He also adds that since pleasure is the greatest good, then pain must be the greatest evil. Torquatus doesn’t actually think that he needs to construct any sort of argument for this claim by the way. He is pretty adamant that this is an obvious truth of life, and that even when we observe animals, it is undeniable that their behaviors are guided by the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As he says:

“As soon as it is born every animal seeks out pleasure and cherishes it as the ultimate good thing; it loathes pain as the greatest evil and pushes it away as much as possible.”

But, Torquatus continues; even if we don’t buy that this is an obvious rule of life, we can’t deny that pleasure is a desirable thing, and that pain is something that we are naturally predisposed to avoid. It’s “naturally imprinted on our minds,” as he puts it. Really, what more evidence do you need other than your own instinctual gut level reaction to things? You don’t need me to convince you that pleasure is a good thing because you’re naturally going to chase those things that make you feel good. And similarly, pain of any sort is going to elicit an immediate aversion from anyone aware enough to notice that they are in pain. Since we already have this deep seated instinct, and we already seem to live our lives based on it, doesn’t it make sense to just acknowledge it and get on with using said instinct?

I’ll be honest, on the face of it, this sets up a pretty simple dichotomy by which we can navigate most situations. Am I enjoying this, am I deriving pleasure from it? If not, then I better make changes to get me going in the other direction, because, as the Epicureans see it, if it’s not pleasure, it’s some sort of pain. But maybe it’s too simple of a dichotomy, after all, there are many situations where simply chasing pleasure is going to lead to a real bad time. If I say to myself that I’m going to only pursue pleasure and then get completely drunk every hour of every day, sure I may have a good time while drunk, but eventually all that drinking is going to catch up to me and then my liver and I are going to be in a whole lot of pain. Similarly, if I choose to just eat cheeseburgers every day, sure I’m going to get some immediate sensory pleasure every time I eat a cheeseburger, but I’m going to pay for it with a whole bunch of health issues down the line.

And Torquatus also follows this line of reasoning. Pleasure can’t be chased after in such a straight line, it must be approached “in a rational way.” Torquatus actually uses the example of physical exercise to illustrate what he means about chasing pleasure rationally. When we do any sort of workout routine, like lifting weights for example, what we’re doing is we’re subjecting our body to pain. In fact, anyone that’s familiar with weight lifting will tell you, specifically what you’re doing when you’re lifting weights is, you’re creating tiny tears in your muscle fibers. Given some time, your body heals those small tears, and in the process, your muscles get bigger, you look better in the mirror, and you feel great. What you just did there was you rationally weighed pain and pleasure and found the pleasurable outcome outweighed the painful process.

So, the Epicureans understand that as rational beings, humans have this ability to weigh the pros and cons of a situation, and because of this, it completely makes sense to hold off on pleasure in one way if it means a more fulfilling pleasure down the line. Torquatus explains this general rule in this way:

…some pleasures are given up for the sake of getting greater pleasures, and […] some sufferings are accepted for the sake of avoiding even greater sufferings.”

This general rule does seem to make the idea of living for pleasure more acceptable, I think. We aren’t reduced to mere animals, running from one pleasurable thing to another without regard for consequences of any sort. We’re rational, and because of this, we better put that rationality to good use and maximize pleasure, in an appropriate and responsible way. In fact, Torquatus is going to eventually argue that every facet of our interactions with other human beings can be successfully practiced with this general rule. But before he does that, he is going to try to show that pleasure itself is a lot more complicated than we think it is.

Not All Pleasures are Created Equal

Usually when we think of pleasure, we tend to think of it exclusively as something that we must be aware of as pleasure when it is happening. Think of it this way, when you’re eating a delicious and decadent chocolate cake and it’s hitting your taste receptors in your mouth, and you’re telling yourself, “wow, this is great,” that is obviously pleasure. Why? Because it’s obvious that it is, it couldn’t be anything else and you recognize it as such. Similarly, if you’re having to eat a terribly cooked dish that’s over salted and undercooked, you’re probably going to have very obvious averse physical reactions to it along with telling yourself, “this is awful, I should have gone to another restaurant.” It might not be extremely painful like if you smashed your toe on the end of a table, but it sure ain’t pleasurable.

But what about the the space in between these two obvious cases? What about when you’re eating, say, a plain old bowl of oatmeal? It’s somewhat healthy and relatively mild in flavor. It’s not the worst thing to eat in the world, and it’s not really making your taste receptors jump all over the place. In fact, you’re not even really thinking about it while you’re eating it. Does this experience fall under the category of pain or pleasure? Or what about that terrible dish you were eating? What about the moment of relief when it gets taken away or you are able to stop eating it?

Torquatus argues, as do all the Epicureans, that, because it’s not necessarily painful or uncomfortable, even this is a sort of pleasure. In fact, it’s an even better definition of pleasure to aim towards. As he puts it:

“we are aiming at the highest form of pleasure, which we consider to be the removal of all pain […] the very liberation and absence of discomfort is something we celebrate.”

So the Epicureans can distinguish between two sorts of pleasure, the everyday sort of sensory based pleasure, and this other much broader sort which is defined as merely the absence of pain. And it is this second sort of pleasure that the Epicureans are really placing their bets on as the better and, in many ways, more reliable conception of pleasure. Why is that though?

Well, now that pleasure can be thought of as merely the absence of pain, we can start incorporating even mental elements into our definition of things we want to rationally avoid or go after. Remember that dichotomy of pleasure and pain that Torquatus offered as a guide to life in conjunction with rational thinking? Well now, we can include even sometimes subtle and pernicious mental discomforts , like anxiety or depression, into that framework. We can build a more robust and ultimately more fulfilling conception of a well-lived life because we are sensitive to the variety of ways that pain and pleasure manifests in our experiences. Not only that, because we are more aware of these subtle forms of pleasure and pain, we can start doing something about them, where in the past we might have even been aware enough to notice.

So, Torquatus, and the Epicureans, are sensitive to this fact, that “…all fears and anxieties have their origin in pain…” Not only that, they claim to have a basic framework by which to navigate through life with pain and pleasure providing the criterion of decision-making. It doesn’t sound like rocket science to us when we think about it. In a more modern way of thinking we can say something like, “well of course mental well-being is something we should try to shoot for. Certainly it makes sense to live our lives with a sensitivity to our personal well-being. And approaching it rationally seems obvious as well.” But for myself at least, I can appreciate that this sort of philosophical system was constructed in a world with no concept of “mental health” or “personal well-being” like the sort we have today.

Virtue is (Not) it’s own Reward

But a life in which my sole focus is my own personal happiness seems kind of selfish doesn’t it? I mean, yes, if I am following the Epicurean model and being somewhat reasonable about how I pursue my own pleasure (mental or physical), then I probably won’t turn into some sort of purely selfish monster, but I also won’t necessarily have the best interests of others at heart. It’s too much of a me me me system, right? In the language of the Ancient Philosophers, I won’t be truly virtuous. And that, seems like a problem. Some might be alright with this, others might not. How to resolve this?

The way Torquatus spells it out, for the Epicureans, being virtuous is only rewarding if there is an actual reward distinct from it, because really, there’s no benefit i.e. pleasure involved in simply being virtuous. It’s got to have a payoff to it:

“who would think these extraordinary and noble virtues […] either praiseworthy or enticing, unless they generated pleasure?”

Torquatus offers the analogy of medical knowledge to help illustrate what he’s getting at. According to Torquatus, we don’t really think much of medical knowledge, or value it, unless there’s something beneficial that we can derive from it. If a doctor prescribes me medicine it better bring me back to good health right? An appreciation of the facts of human physiology has no practical value aside from how it will help ease suffering. Same with the exercise example we used earlier. Working out better improve my physique or increase my quality of life, or else there’s no point to it.

In much the same way, Torquatus wants us to believe that this applies to virtue as well. There’s nothing beneficial to, say, being a fair-minded or kind person in my dealings with others if something pleasurable isn’t coming out of the whole activity. Now pleasure doesn’t have to be merely sensory as we’ve seen Torquatus point out. It can even be something as simple as the good feeling of pride at being a contributing member of society, or knowing that, because I help others in my community, they will be there for me as well if something happens to me in the future.

I’ll admit, that argument doesn’t really do it for me. It still makes it sound like self-interest is key and dammit, I want a reason to care about others and to be a good member of society in a way that seems like I authentically care about them, and not just in an instrumental sense. Really, it’s when Torquatus starts to talk about the value of friendship that this authentic sense of caring for others starts to pop up.

Friendship, as Torquatus puts it, is responsible for, “a solid and continuous joy in life.” The relations that we have with others which we call friends are good for us and our well-being. There is a material component to this of course. If we look out for our friends, they’ll look out for us too, at least if they are real friends. Having a friend to talk to can alleviate loneliness and anxiety as well. But, friendship can only be called friendship if, “we value our friends to the same degree that we value ourselves.” That’s essential for Torquatus. Another way to put this is, that the pleasure we get from friendship isn’t possible unless we care about our friends in a truly genuine way, in a way that involves us prioritizing their needs in much the same way that we prioritize ours.

This valuation of others has to be authentic too, because the moment we treat it as a means to an ends, what is generated by it will never really be quite as fulfilling. I think Torquatus, and the Epicureans are on to something very basic about human nature here. Of course we can rationalize treating others kindly on the grounds that we get rewarded with good feelings for doing so. Of course we can establish that positive relationships with other people have obvious benefits for us materially and psychologically. But when it comes down to it, true friendship, truly authentic friendship with another person, just feels good. And that’s exactly the point of life, according to the Epicureans. Why would anyone want true caring to feel any different?

The Ideal Life

There is much more to Epicureanism than what I’ve outlined above of course. But, for the Epicureans, what follows from their teachings, what ends up amounting to the ideal Epicurean life is one that is kind of quiet and simple. Some have even described it as monastic. It is one that prioritizes increasing our own mental and physical well-being through the rational use of our inborn intuitive sense of pleasure and pain. We can do this by being kind and generous to others, and by cultivating healthy and honest friendships with other human beings. Only then will we attain any sort of peace in life, any sort of tranquility. These are the things Epicurus thought were important, truly worth aiming for, and this is the same ideal that Torquatus is preaching.

To end his gospel of pleasure and circle back and counter Cicero’s original jab, that Epicurus was willfully ignorant and that he didn’t really care for education, Torquatus has this final thing to say:

“[Epicurus] believed nothing could be called ‘education’ unless it actually helped in teaching us how to live a happy life […] the real uneducated people are those who think a man should study, until his senility, those subjects that he should be ashamed not to have learned as a youth.”

To be honest, what really appeals to me about the Epicurean life, at least as Torquatus is selling it, is that it just sounds so…pleasantly pleasant. It’s a very no-worries approach to the question of how to live your life, but not in any way that immediately seems intellectually dishonest. The Epicureans aren’t telling us to not think about the bigger picture, or to ignore things that might be unpleasant. Far from it. They’re very much sensitive to the reality of what it is to be a human being, and that is, to unavoidably be acquainted with pleasure and a whole variety of pain throughout your life. Not only that, they are attempting to formulate some sort of way to navigate life with this reality in mind. If that’s not admirable I don’t know what is.

That’s the best way I can put it at least. I leave it up to you if this is a way of life that seems agreeable to you, or, if like me, you don’t want to completely put all your eggs in this basket. There are many other aspects of Epicureanism that Torquatus explains which I’ve glossed over in the interests of accessibility. Furthermore, Torquatus’ interlocuter in this dialogue, Cicero, is going to spend Book 2 of De Finibus picking apart the Epicurean viewpoint even further. But that is a post for another time.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

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