Introduction: Philosophy as a Way of Life
Since both Stoicism and the teachings of Epicurus are among of the most prominent philosophical movements of the Hellenistic period, many have had an interested in comparing the two. Both movements should be seen as a way of life or as a guide to happiness (Gr. eudaimonia).
For Epicurus, philosophy essentially concerns “the health of the soul […] [and hereby] happiness” (Diogenes Laertes X, 122). Similarly, Marcus Aurelius clearly states that only philosophy can guide us through the constant changing and demanding human existence (Meditations II, 17)—while Cicero writes that “[p]hilosophy is the art of life” (On The Ends, III, 4).
This short post offers an overview of important similarities and differences between the two movements and their view of how to live well. The first section of the paper compares the Stoic and Epicurean view on pleasure and virtue. Hereafter, the second section discusses how death and the god-like human are important themes in both traditions. At last, the third section aims to clarify how Stoicism and the thoughts of Epicurus both contain ‘pro-social’ and ‘non-social’ elements in their judgements on how one should relate to other human beings. The paper is only thought of as an introduction to the similarities and differences between the two philosophical traditions.
1. Pleasure and Virtue
If Epicurus and the Stoics converge in their attitude that philosophy is a way of life, they diverge in the further specification on what a happy life consists in. Epicurus notoriously claimed that essentially only pleasure (Gr. hēdonē) is the standard of the good life: the healthy soul and the happy life are the soul and the life that experience and contain the greatest pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 129). But Epicurus’s hedonistic view is more complex than it may appear at first.
Importantly, he stresses that we must be prudent and only choose pleasures that do not involve the return of pain (additionally, we must sometimes choose pains because they can give us greater pleasure further down the line). Activities such as luxurious eating, drinking, and living involve such pleasures that return with pain: such habits cultivate an infinite desire for superfluous extravagance, which leaves the soul in unbalance and disturbed[i] (Diogenes Laertes X, 128-133).
Having this in mind, pleasure is a complex notion for Epicurus. Negatively, pleasure is to be understood as the absence of pain; positively, pleasure is to be understood as the satisfaction of basic desires and furthermore also the peace of mind. This is important in relation to Epicurus’s view of the happy human. For Epicurus, the happy human has prudence (Gr. phronēsis), which basically means that she is capable of judging truly right what will bring her (true) pleasure and what will bring her disturbance and unnecessary pain. To be happy is to be prudent, and to be prudent is to know this nature of pleasure.
These above considerations are important to keep in mind if we are to understand Epicurus’s view of virtue. Famously, Epicurus defines the value of virtue in relation to pleasure. In short, he is known for establishing what we could call a ‘hedonistic conditional of virtue’. This conditional says: if virtue does not bring us pleasure, then we should not act in accordance with it. Hereby, Epicurus sees virtue as only of instrumental value: in principle, acting virtuously is rational only in so far it brings us pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 138). Nonetheless, following Epicurus, virtue does in fact bring us pleasure. According to him, virtues are “by nature bound up with the pleasant life” and to live virtuously is, hereby, a necessary condition for living pleasantly (Diogenes Laertes X, 133; X, 140).
Jumping to the Stoics, to understand their take on pleasure and virtue, we must understand their distinction between (1) the level of good and evil, and (2) the level of the indifferent (Cicero, On The Ends III, 20).
(1) The level of good and evil can be understood by the following Stoic-style reasoning:
i. something can only be good if it contributes to constituting happiness,
ii. the only thing that constitutes happiness is virtue,
iii. therefore, the only things that are good are those which involve virtue.
Moreover, following this reasoning, something can only be evil if it concerns the hindrance of your happiness and hereby exercise of virtue (i.e., something can only be evil if it concerns vice). Further, and most importantly, the Stoic tradition defines virtue as exclusively depending on the mind (Epictetus Enchiridion 1; Diogenes Laertes VII, 89).
As Seneca writes: “happiness has its abode in one place only, namely, in the mind itself” (Letter LXXIV). In other words, the virtue of an individual is not located in how her actions materialise themselves in the world; what concrete consequences they, in connection on to the particular circumstances, bring about. Instead, virtue is exclusively located in the very quality of her mind initiating those actions.
(2) The level of the indifferent is to be understood directly in relation to the level of good and evil. That is, everything that neither involves virtue or vice (both dispositions that are solely defined by the mind) is indifferent. This means that things such as health, wealth, friendship, sickness, and death should not be labelled as either good or evil—all these things are not under the control of us, they are external to our minds and our virtue, and therefore they are indifferent for living a good life[ii].
To sum up, by the above reasoning it is (hopefully) clear that for the Stoics only events or phenomena that concerns the virtue of a given individual, meaning the qualities of her mind, can carry the qualities of good and evil. Nothing else, nothing external to the mind of the individual, can earn the status of such qualities.
Considering this short introduction of the ethics of Epicurus and Stoicism, it is clear how different they are. From the perspective of the radical virtue ethics of Stoicism, virtue is not at all instrumental such as Epicurus’s hedonistic conditional claims—instead, virtue is of clear intrinsic worth. In addition, Stoic ethics has clear non-hedonistic elements. Going beyond the introduction above, the Stoics often explicitly define joy (i.e. “rational elation”) as the opposite of pleasure, and wish (“rational appetency”) as the opposite of desire (Diogenes Laertes VII, 116).
Following this, pleasure and desire are defined as non-good emotional states (Meditations VIII, 10; Seneca, Letter LXI). The difference between Epicurus and Stoicism become clear when Marcus Aurelius rhetorically asks: “[w]here you born to please yourself[?]”. This is a question which the Epicurus would answer with a clear ‘yes’, and Stoicism with an equally clear ‘no’ (Meditations V, 1).
To conclude, both Epicurus and Stoicism aim at the healthy and peaceful soul: Epicurus through the absence of pain and disturbance from unnecessary fear and craving, the Stoics through a harmonious ordered soul ruled by reason and acting in virtue. One crucial difference underlying this divergence seems to be that Epicurus, since he takes pleasure to be the only thing of intrinsic worth, places good and evil on the level of sensations: “all good and evil consists in sensation” (Diogenes Laertes X, 124). Opposite, the Stoics place good and evil on the level of virtue as found in our minds: good and evil consist solely in what attitude we take to sensations. This is a crucial important difference.
2. Death and the God-like Human
Both Epicurus and the Stoics find death to be an essential topic for philosophy. Epicurus famously writes that “death is deprivation of sensation” which means that death is not something of great pain to us—death is simply nothing to us (Diogenes Laertes X, 124-125). Additionally, Seneca writes that “[d]eath is a release from all suffering”, while Aurelius states that no matter whether there is gods or not, death is not to be feared by the virtuous (Seneca, Consolation to Marcia xix.4; Meditations II, 11).
In an Epicurean perspective, when we stop to fear death and understand that it is nothing to us the disturbing anticipation of death’s pain and the disturbing craving for immortality disappears. In a Stoic perspective, death is not an evil because it is not a vice—contrary, it is a part of nature’s work and the wise person will not give into the irrationality of fearing it. This acceptance of death is a liberation in both perspectives. It cuts away the sickness of fearing and offers an opportunity to live in the present with full pleasure or virtue. To learn to live well is to learn to die well (Diogenes Laertes X, 126).
In both Epicurean and Stoic thought, understanding the nature of death is a true mark of the sage. By considering her own death in the ways sketched above, the sage becomes superior to destiny and fortune. While still living, the Epicurean sage is prudent and knows that pleasure is easy accomplished through the simple life and that death is nothing to fear. Complementary, in anticipation of “any evil before it actually arrives”, the Stoic sage endures all injuring attacks from fortune and keeps her soul ordered with her detached mind ruled by reason (Diogenes Laertes X, 133; Seneca, Consolation to Marcia, ix. 4). In this superiority—in this self-sufficiency (Gr. autarkēia)—the happiness of the sage appears to be god-like, both for Epicurus (Fragments, XXXIII) and the Stoics (Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, 5)[iii]. The sage welcomes death—but while still waiting for it, she lives competently in accordance with the prescriptions of philosophy.
3. The Social Being
At last, we will briefly touch upon on one more important theme in both traditions: namely, the theme of human beings as social beings. Both Epicurus and the Stoics develop what we could call (with a bit modern and perhaps anachronistic terms) ‘pro-social’ and ‘non-social’ elements in their description of human beings as social creatures.
In Stoicism, we find significant pro-social elements in the doctrine that all human beings share a community due to the fact that all human beings are beings of reason—a doctrine very central to Stoicism (Cicero, On The Ends III, 64). More precisely, by nature, human beings are meant to collaborate and work together—they fulfill their function in cosmos when they outlive this pro-social disposition (Meditations II, 1).
As a quick remark of general philosophical interest and in relation to this universal human community, the Stoics appear to view justice in the light of a natural law. According to them, justice is found in nature, “the Whole is social”, and it is our task and work to live in accordance with this natural justice (Meditations V. 30). Contrast this pro-social ‘universalism’ with the following non-social elements in Stoics thought.
Genuine friendship—as Aristotle for example thought of it—is not something that the reserved Stoic can allow herself. This element is clearly expressed in Seneca’s writings: here, friendship is never of substantial value because the Stoic should be capable of living easily without the friend and she should be capable of making friends with any human being (Seneca, Letter IX). The Stoic is non-social in this sense that she will never dare to invest herself emotionally in another person. For her, by rational consideration with regards to her own virtue and the shared reason of every human, every individual is fundamentally the same to her.
Contrary to this, in a clear pro-social way, Epicurus describes friendship as of highest desirability—the intimacy of this relation is of great pleasure (Diogenes Laertes X, 154). Yet, according to Epicurus, friendship (normally) starts as relation of utility and mutual advantage (as an ‘exchange relationship’ in social psychological terms), but if it is successful it will end in a much deeper connection (as a ‘communal relationship’) (Fragments XXIII).
In other words, humans usually begin friendships because they want ‘to get something out of it’, but if the friendship develops in healthy way the parts uphold this relation because it is of deep value to them in itself. In addition to this and completely opposite to the Stoics, Epicurus describes justice as a social contract and not as a natural law. That is, justice is the result of a contract—it is a social phenomena, not a basic natural phenomena (Diogenes Laertes X, 150).
However, a non-social element arises in Epicurus when he states that “[w]e must release ourselves from the prison of affairs and politics” since this will disturb the peace of our soul (Fragments LVIII). In contrast to the Stoics (who hold that it is in our nature, and in Nature in general, to be political), Epicurus only view the intimate friendship as truly beneficial for the good life—and the good social bond rely on the particularities of this intimacy. Contrary, the Stoics’ cosmopolitan ideals give friendship the character of impersonal construction: friendship is not emotional investment but reserved creation (Gr. poiēsis).
To sum up, the Stoics find humans to be social in the way that they share a cosmopolitan and universal (political) bond—no human is a stranger to another. Contrary, Epicurus advised people to withhold from politics and instead develop intimate and particular friendships. The core difference between the two schools seems to rely on their views on whether humans are to develop ‘special relations’ between each other (Epicurus thinks so, the Stoics do not). In other words, the question seems to be: are we to outlive our sociality to particular individuals, or to the community of the entire human species?
We have now seen how Stoicism and the thoughts of Epicurus converge and differ in relation to aspects of pleasure, virtue, death, the god-like human, and sociality. This comparison has hopefully highlighted some of the distinctive traits of the two traditions and clarified the characteristics of each line of thought. Personally, I find it astonishing how differently the two schools lay out their guidelines for living well, and how convincing arguments they made for each of their guidelines. Their psychological teachings of the good life do not at all seem out-dated today—neither do the discussions on whether ‘to live well’ is to be understood hedonically (as Epicurus prescribes) or non-hedonically (as the Stoics prescribe), or by being a global citizen of the world (as of the opinion of the Stoics) or by being a local person with particular bonds (as of the opinion of Epicurus).
[i] Epicurus systematically divides desires into natural, necessary, and vain desires. We do not have the time to elaborate on this here but the central point is that reach to pleasure, a healthy soul, and the peace of mind (Gr. ataraxia) we must only aim at the natural desires that are also necessary; these can be satisfied and will bring soul to the greatest pleasure and happiness.
[ii] However, indifferent things can be further divided into preferable things (which should be selected) and non-preferable things (which should be rejected). Among the first category we find things such as health and friendship and furthermore what the Stoics call ’appropriate actions’ (Gr. kathēkonta). Appropriate actions are actions that are to be chosen because of nature, one’s position, and one’s duties—still, these actions do not directly concern virtue or happiness.
[iii] Of course, much more could be said on pleasure, virtue, death, and the god-like sphere of the sage. For example, many Stoic themes are untouched in this paper such as discussions on the function of the hēgemonikon and the ideal of living virtuously which is the same as living in accordance with nature. However, we cannot touch upon these themes here— but we can briefly mention that both the ethics of Epicurus and the Stoics is naturalistic in the sense that importantly stresses that happiness can only be achieved in accordance with and on the conditions of nature (Diogenes Laertes VII, 87; Cicero, On The Ends, III, 61; Fragments, XXI).
Victor Lange is a masters student and assistant of the research project “Convergent ethics and ethics of controversy” at the Section for Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. He is particularly interested in understanding aspects of Buddhism and Stoicism through the perspective of cognitive science.