How to Argue that God Exists

Written by: Michael Lucana

This is an exploration of Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s Ontological Argument, an argument which aims to prove the existence of God. The goal of this article isn’t to prove whether or not Anselm got it right, but to get a better understanding of what it means to have a philosophical dialogue about faith by breaking down how Anselm tries to get us to agree with him. I will try to stay away from using overly technical philosophical vocabulary where I can, but there are many aspects of Anselm’s argument that will require more than just broad and sweeping generalizations.

I have to admit, I’ve always found Saint Anselm’s Ontological Argument quite compelling. Not necessarily because I buy into it, mind you, but more because of how much it aspires to. Here is an argument that tells you without reservation that not only does God exist, but that it can be proven. Any way you slice it, that’s a pretty damn bold claim to make right there. Even if I don’t agree with the argument right away (more on that later), I just gotta know, how did you come to that conclusion? Let me in on the secret of your headspace Anselm, enlighten me.

And I’m not the only one who’s found the Ontological Argument compelling either. Ever since Anselm came up with it, back in the 11th Century, it has resurfaced again and again, taking on different forms, but ultimately amounting to the same thing, proof that God necessarily exists. In fact, even today you can find numerous videos online that will show you, using some version of the Ontological Argument, that yes God exists. By that same token, you will also find many videos that will argue the opposite and that there’s something just not right with Anselm’s argument.

So what am I going to do here? Am I going to show you that actually yes, Anselm’s reasoning is super bulletproof against any objections? No. Am I going to show you that Anselm was wrong? Not really. I’m just going to show how Anselm thought he was right, how he argued for the claim, “God exists.” And showing this really involves trying to understand the reasoning that Anselm used to get to his conclusion.

You Gotta Have Faith?

Anselm’s Ontological Argument can be found in a short work entitled Proslogion. The way Anselm presents it at the start of this work, he already believes in God, he’s already got faith. But now he’s trying to use his understanding to rationally work out his beliefs.

This…seems circular at first sight. After all, if I already have faith, that is, if I already believe that God exists, then can you really trust the conclusion I come to, that God exists? We would rightly be suspicious of someone’s conclusion that x was the case if they had started their argument with “I believe that x is the case.”

But when we actually get to inspecting Anselm’s Ontological Argument, we are going to find that, he doesn’t argue from the premise that he believes that God exists. Actually, he starts by arguing from the premise that God does not exist. Basically, he’s going to try to argue for the existence of God from what he believes to be an atheistic vantage point.

The Passage in Question

Alright well, let’s take a look at the passage in question, the one that all the hubbub is about. It’s the second chapter of the Proslogion. It’s an incredibly short chapter, so short that I included the whole thing below:

Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, There is no God.

AND so, Lord, do you, who do give understanding to faith, give me, so far as you knowest it to be profitable, to understand that you are as we believe; and that you are that which we believe. And indeed, we believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiv. 1). But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak –a being than which nothing greater can be conceived –understands what be hears, and what he understands is in his understanding; although he does not understand it to exist.

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, but be does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, be both has it in his understanding, and he understands that it exists, because he has made it.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Okay, well…there’s a lot to unpack there. Even I’ll admit that. If you read all that and instantly understood every aspect of it, that’s great. If that wall of text is just screaming to you “Go no further!” don’t, worry about it. I first read this argument over ten years ago and even I still have to tread carefully when I rehearse it, but there is a way to to get through it.

To begin with, we won’t immediately worry about the content of the argument, what the argument is trying to say. We’re not gonna worry about how to wrap our heads around “that which nothing greater can be conceived” just yet. If we don’t buy into theism, we’re not gonna get offended that we’re being called “fools” for doubting the existence of God. No, what we want to get clear about first of all is the structure of the argument, how it thinks that it’s going to show us that the conclusion it’s trying to get at is true.

Reductio ad Absurdem

The Ontological Argument is fundamentally a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument. What this means is that Anselm isn’t really going to try to convince us that the claim (God exists) he’s arguing for is correct straight away. What he’s going to do first is show us that holding the opposite view (God doesn’t exist) leads to a conclusion that is self-contradictory.

Typically a Reductio Ad Absurdem doesn’t need to much to get going. If I’m going to show that someone’s belief leads to a self-contradictory conclusion I really just need the following:

(P) The belief that is to be refuted. This is the claim that my opponent is holding and I’m going to show leads to a ridiculous conclusion.

(Q) Another belief that my opponent also holds that is true, or that we both agree is true at least. There doesn’t just need to be one of these, there can be a whole bunch of them, but at minimum at least one is sufficient to get us to where we want.

Conclusion: (P & not-P) A conclusion that is inferred from P & Q that is obviously absurd because it involves the belief that P is both true and not true.

Let’s take a look at a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument that has slightly lower stakes than the existence of a cosmic creator to get a firm grasp of it:

(1′) David believes that it’s not raining right now.

(2′) David also believes that when the grass is wet, it is because it is raining. This is something David and I can agree on at least.

(3′) Well, you know what, the grass is wet when I look out the window. David looks out the window and notices that yes the grass is in fact wet.

(4′) David then comes to the conclusion that it is both not raining (from 1) and it is also raining (from 2 ‘& 3’).

Okay, there’s something obviously wrong with that, right? I mean, it can’t be both raining and not raining at the same time. We both agree that wet grass is a sign of rain and there is currently wet grass so it must be raining. Clearly David is wrong in believing that it’s not raining. But he chooses to conclude that it is both raining and not raining. Most of us would immediately see it as absurd if anyone continued to insist that there was nothing wrong with maintaining the conclusion (4′) David had come to. Foolish would probably be one of the nicer things they would get called.

In the same way that David would get called a fool for sticking to his guns that it is both raining and not raining at the same time, Anselm thinks that the atheist who says to himself that “there is no God,” is bound for a similar sort of absurd conclusion. Now let’s take that wall of text that confronted us earlier and see how it it fits within the structure of a Reductio Ad Absurdem argument.

Breaking down the Argument

To begin with there are three premises that Anselm supposes can be agreed upon by everyone. They are the following:

(1) A definition of God: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. For brevity, let’s just say that God is Q. There is a lot to be said about why Anselm thinks this is a good way to define God, but for now let’s just take it for granted that when we’re talking about God, whether or not we think He exists, we’re usually thinking of an ultimate sort of being, one which surpasses any other being in power, knowledge, etc. Therefore, if it’s the ultimate being, it’s going to be greater than any other being we can conceive of.

(2) God’s existence in reality is conceivable. This just means that if we’re talking about God, we can imagine the idea of an ultimate being existing. Really, if we’re having a conversation about God, even a hypothetical God, we’re kind of already doing this.

(3) To exist in reality is better than existing in thought only. There’s two ways we can take this claim which Anselm thinks is also something that everyone can agree on.

The first way is, we can look at it as saying something like “It’s better to exist than to not exist,” which, I think most of us translate to, “a delicious beer is nice to think about, it’s much better if that beer is actually existing in reality and is here physically in my hands!”

That’s not quite what Anselm is getting at here. There’s another way of looking at this and it is through the lens of Platonic Metaphysics. Without going into too much detail we can spell it out this way:

“If something exists in my thinking only, like an idea of what social justice is, then it has some reality but of a very minimal sort because it’s only in my thoughts. But if I see justice being enacted in my society, then it not only has more reality but is better than if it had stayed in my thinking. But even further, Justice must be a real objective thing that exists everywhere and for all time, otherwise what standard of justice am I comparing the justice being enacted in my society to? So, the existence of Justice, this universal sense of it, must be superior to it merely existing in my thoughts. That must be real existence, and better even, because it never changes, because it is true Justice.”

That’s kind of Platonic Metaphysics in an incredibly compressed nutshell. It assigns a higher degree of existence to things which are universal in nature, like Justice, Equality, Goodness. They don’t have to be something we can see and touch either, because, as this mini-argument shows, to be truly real, to really matter, things don’t need to meet that requirement. In fact, according to Platonic Metaphysics, being real in the physical sense is actually kind of a step down. But that is a longer story. Now, with this in mind, we can kind of see in what sense Anselm thinks it’s better to exist than to not exist. We’ll have more to say about this particular premise later but for now let’s just accept it at face value.

(4) The Atheist’s Claim: God does not exist. Alright, so this is the claim that Anselm is going to try to show leads to an absurd conclusion. Even though it look like one claim, it’s actually a combination of sorts of two different claims:

(4A) God exists in the mind. The atheist is thinking about about God, or at least thinking about the concept of God. So the atheist is already kind of conceding that God, defined as Q, is something we can think about, make hypotheses about, etc.

(4B) God does not exist in reality. But, the atheist also claims, existing in the mind is as far as God gets to being real.

Alright, these are Anselm’s main premises. Next, let’s take a look at how he uses these to show that the atheist is self-contradictory in their belief.

Inferring to Absurd Conclusions

(5) If God existed in reality, He would be greater than if he only existed in the mind. This inference follows from (3) and (4). It’s merely saying “Hey, of course it would be better to exist in reality than to exist in thinking only. But I don’t think God exists in reality, only in my mind, so I guess if He really did exist in reality, he’d probably be greater than I thought.”

(6) It is conceivable that there is a being greater than God. This inference follows from our newly created claim (5) and (2) from our original list of premises. This is where we start to get a sense of where Anselm is intending to trip up the atheist. Why? Because the atheist has already claimed not only that it would be better to exist in reality, but that God, being just limited to being thought about, doesn’t fit into the category of things which exist in reality. In fact, God is one step below reality. But this means of course, if we’re sticking to Platonic Metaphysics, that there’s now gotta be something else, something which has more reality than God since we just brought God down a notch. Platonic Metaphysics is a pyramid of sorts, and something’s got to be on top.

(7). It is conceivable that there is a being greater than that which has been defined as Q. Back in (1) we had defined God as Q, but apart from that claim we had also come to infer in (6) that if God wasn’t at the top of the metaphysical pyramid, something else must be. From (1) and (6) we end up with the conclusion that there must be something greater than that which we have already defined as that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is absurd.

The chart I created above roughly conveys the atheist’s alleged absurd line of thinking that Anselm is trying to map out. Green items are our original unchallenged premises (1-3), the yellow item (4) is the premise that is also assumed but we want to challenge. The grayish items are the new inferences (5-6) that are made from the unchallenged premises. The red item (7) is the absurd conclusion that is derived from what came before it. When we trace our way backwards, we find that the only premise that could have caused the absurd conclusion is the one we marked as yellow (4) , the claim that “there is no God.”

Since we had broken down (4) into two smaller claims, we can take a look them individually and see very quickly that it is (4b) that led us to the absurd conclusion. Right away, we’re supposed to conclude, along with Anselm that (4b) must be false if we are to avoid absurdity, and just like that, (4b) is transformed into it’s opposite, “God does exist in reality.” And this is how Anselm concludes that yep, God exists.

So That’s it God Exists?

Well, that’s completely up to you really. After all, even Saint Thomas Aquinas (no theological lightweight), who lived around a hundred years after Anselm had a problem with Anselm’s attempt here. And, I’ve always found Aquinas’ counter-objection to kind of line up with my own thinking on the matter even though I have to admit, I still have much work to do in understanding the nuances of it.

On the one hand, Aquinas didn’t think human beings could work out the existence of God from concepts alone, which is pretty much what Anselm is doing. Aquinas was also an empiricist of sorts, and it is this empiricist way of looking at things that roughly (very roughly) lines up with how most of us think about what existing means in our day and age. For most of us, you have to demonstrate that something exists by appealing to empirical evidence, evidence gathered from your senses. For Aquinas, something like God can’t be reasoned into existence merely from analyzing our concepts about God, because it isn’t really clear straight away (to humans anyways) that those concepts do have greater reality than the ordinary things we experience in the world. For Aquinas, we have to take a look at what facts we have about the world, about what we immediately take to be “real” things and build up a theory of God in that way. So, the search for the existence of God takes on a character that seems more like scientific research as we think about it nowadays.

So right away we can see how those Platonic Metaphysics that undergird Anselm’s argument aren’t a given. Not everyone intuitively buys into the reality of abstract things like Justice and Goodness, or even God, because, if we can’t see it or touch it, or sense it in any way, what justification do we have for saying it has more reality than our thoughts? And if we don’t buy into the existence of abstract things, then we never really fall into the atheist’s alleged predicament, as Anselm presents it.

But this doesn’t mean that Aquinas rejected the existence of God either. Faith was just as important to him as to Anselm. But, he had his own ways of getting to the same conclusion without strictly resorting to Platonic Metaphysics.

I’m not going to run down all of the other counter-arguments against Anselm. Honestly there are far too many, and that would require far more philosophical analysis than I’m willing to write about in this article. Not to say that they’re not worth studying and appreciating either. But what I want to be clear about is that you don’t need to buy into Anselm’s argument, I certainly don’t. I’ve already said that Aquinas, a Christian, who philosophized about a hundred years after Anselm, had problems with this argument too. In fact, not even all of Anselm’s contemporary fellow Christians bought into it. There’s a very famous letter by an Italian monk by the name of Gaunilo where he makes a very intuitively compelling argument against Anselm’s reasoning. And Anselm even wrote back to Gaunilo where he attempted to clarify some of the finer points of his argument.

And this is honestly one of the biggest takeaways for me, that even though Anselm is up front at the beginning of the Proslogion that he believes in God, that doesn’t stop him from letting rationality also have it’s say about the coherence of his beliefs. After all, if he wasn’t open to rationality, to thinking about his beliefs through the lens of what he takes to be logical reasoning, why would he bother to respond to Gaunilo the way that he did? He could have simply said, “Well, God exists so your argument against my proof means nothing.” No, he tries to clarify his thinking about the matter, and explain his reasoning. In short, he attempts to have a rational dialogue.

In fact, even though he uses the pejorative term “fool” for the atheist in his argument, notice that he doesn’t merely say “The atheist is wrong.” Well, that’s his conclusion, but still. He tries to wrap his head around (whether successfully or not) how an atheist would conceive of that claim that “God does not exist.” Then he still doesn’t just say, “The way the atheist is conceiving of that claim is wrong.” He still tries showing how, rationally, the atheist’s belief just doesn’t work out. And this takes the form of an incredibly dense argument, as we’ve just seen. The atheist isn’t just going to believe that God exists like Anselm, so Anselm has to use a different method, he has to speak to the atheist in a language that circumvents dogmatic authority. And that language, within the Proslogion, is rational in nature.

And this is what is ultimately most important to me and, I think, should be important to everyone (whether atheist, theist, or somewhere in between). If we’re gonna get by in this world together, in any attempts at talking about faith or God or anything else, we have to make an honest attempt at rational dialogue coupled with a genuine understanding for one another. Anselm’s argument might be shaky in many respects, but the spirit in which he attempts it is not, at least the way I see it.

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.

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.

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