Stoics and Epicureans on Facing Pain and Death Positively by Katharine O’Reilly and Chris Gill

Introduction 

This post is based on a joint workshop we offered at the Stoicon-X in London on October 13 2019, on ideas about facing pain and death offered by the ancient Stoics and their main contemporary rivals, the Epicureans. The core idea shared by both these theories is that, if you achieve wisdom, you will be well-placed to deal with things generally regarded as among the worst dimensions of human life – enduring extreme physical pain and facing the prospect of your own death. Katharine focused on a letter supposedly written by Epicurus shortly before his death and at a time of intense physical pain. Chris discussed the Stoic version of a  well-known ancient philosophical ideal, that of the wise person happy on the rack of torture. We give here the text of these talks, which were followed by a vigorous debate on these ideas and their value as a basis for life-guidance under modern conditions. 

Epicurus on Facing the Pain of Death Positively

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Epicurean view on facing pain and death positively via a puzzle about the day of Epicurus’ own death.

First, to understand why there is a puzzle, you need to know a few things about Epicurean philosophy, founded by Epicurus. The first is that they are hedonists, which means that they took pleasure to be the ultimate good and pain the ultimate evil. Pain, whether physical pain or mental anguish, is certainly to be avoided. But it’s not to be ignored – they call pleasure and pain a ‘criterion’ – these feelings give us important information about ourselves and our bodies, so they’re taken very seriously. The second thing to know about the Epicureans is that they didn’t consider death to be an evil. They conceived of death as the end of sensation, and where you don’t feel, you can’t feel pain. You can’t feel pleasure either, but they’re not bothered about that, because you aren’t there to be aware of any deprivation.

With that as background, let me introduce you to this puzzle. It comes from this fascinating letter we have which was apparently written, from Epicurus to his friend Menoeceus, while Epicurus was on his deathbed. He died aged 71 from kidney stones, which, even with the resources of modern medicine, is a very painful affliction, and with only ancient pain relief this would be a slow and excruciating way to die. Here is what he says:

Here is the letter to Idomeneus which he [Epicurus] wrote on his deathbed: ‘I wrote this to you on that blessed day of my life which was also the last. Strangury and dysentery had set in, with all the extreme intensity of which they are capable. But the joy in my soul at the memory of our past discussions was enough to counterbalance all this.’’

Excerpt from Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 10.22 [Usener 138], trans. Long & Sedley, 1987.

The reason this testimony is so puzzling is that it seems to put a contradiction in Epicurus’ mouth: he at once says that he is in extremely intense pain, and yet, at the same time, feels a joy of the soul, which, on his view, amounts to a pleasure. Since part of the Epicurean conception of pleasure is an absence of pain, the claim that he is living painlessly and therefore joyfully and yet, at the same time, experiencing the greatest physical pain of his life is extraordinary.

Now you might think that what Epicurus means to convey in the letter is that even though he’s in physical pain, he’s not suffering mentally, which is why he refers to a joy ‘in his soul’. This might be something like Haruki Murakami’s running mantra: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2009). But even a story about Epicurus being free of mental pain while in physical pain would not straightforwardly solve the puzzle, since our best evidence suggests that the painlessness which constitutes Epicurean pleasure requires freedom from both types of pain. It’s also not the case that well-trained Epicureans are immune to pain. The Epicurean sage is still subject to pain, as Diogenes Laertius’ report tells us:

… the wise man… will be more affected by feelings – for they would not hinder his progress towards wisdom… even if the wise man is tortured on the rack, he is happy… when he is tortured on the rack he will moan and groan… the wise man will feel pain…

Diogenes Laertius, ‘Report of Epicurus’ Ethical Views’ 10.117-119, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

In the deathbed letter, Epicurus credits this joyful state to the memory of past discussions with his friend and fellow Epicurean. He says that these memories ‘counterbalance’ the physical pain. But there’s a big question about what this means, how it would work, and whether it would work.

There are two main ways scholars suggest it could work: the first is a kind of distraction model. This is where Epicurus is conceived of as using memories to distract himself from the pain, in the way we might when we’re in the dentist’s chair and start going through our ‘to do’ list, or thinking about our holiday, or doing any mental work we can to take our minds off the physical pain. There’s some evidence that Epicurus wasn’t immune to the idea of finding an analgesic solution which would help him ignore his pain. Another report from Diogenes Laertius tells us that he warded off pain, at the very end of his life, with a warm bath and a stiff drink:

He died of kidney stones, as Hermarchus too says in his letters, after an illness of fourteen days. At that point, as Hermippus also says, he got into a bronze bathtub filled with warm water, asked for unmixed wine, and tossed it back. He then bade his friends to remember his teachings and died thus.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.15-16, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

There’s an alternative reading of what happens on Epicurus’ deathbed that I want to suggest to you. This is that rather than distracting himself with these memories, Epicurus could instead be thought of as deeply engaging with memories of past pleasures which he has gratefully and consistently recollected throughout his life. As an Epicurean sage, there is evidence that Epicurus would have engaged in a therapeutic practice which involved training his memory to vividly recollect and almost re-live past pleasures.

Some fragments tell us that the sage is distinguished most by this ability, and that remembering pleasures is crucial to living a pleasant life (Plutarch, Non Posse 1089c; 1099d [Usener 436]). The idea of this deep engagement is that rather than merely distracting oneself from pain, one is engaging with past pleasure in such an intense way that it’s tantamount to re-living it. Indeed, since Epicurus cites the recollection of conversations with a fellow Epicurean philosopher, we might imagine that the content of their conversation would also have a calming effect. This might have included arguments against the fear of pain and death, such that there is some philosophical and therapeutic content to re-engage with. On this model, we are still aware of the present pain, but the re-living of past pleasure somehow tips the scales and counterbalances it such that, overall, it is joy that is experienced. 

While distraction versus deep engagement may seem a subtle difference, I think it’s an important one in terms of explaining how memories could counterbalance such extreme pain. On the face of it, if I’m in excruciating pain, the mere memory of a pleasurable time won’t do me much good. It might even heighten my experience of pain by comparison, as when I experience hunger pains, and recall a wonderful meal from the day before. So we need to be clear about exactly what Epicurus describes in his letter, and how the Epicurean practice differs from what us non-sages might do while in pain, in order to gauge whether it is a story we should take seriously. I therefore opened the Q&A period in our workshop by asking the audience the following questions, which I invite you to consider, too:

  • What might it mean to be in extreme pain, yet for that pain to be ‘offset’ by a joy of the soul from remembered pleasures?
  • Is it plausible that the memory of past pleasures, if engaged with in a certain way, could be effective against present pain? 
  • Is the stance shown by Epicurus one that we can imagine adopting ourselves in such a situation?

The Stoic wise person happy on the rack of torture

The idea that the wise person (the ideal person), is happy even on the rack of torture is not a uniquely Stoic one (there are Platonic and Epicurean versions) but it is a well-known theme in Stoicism and one that can help to open up their thinking on facing pain and death. What is the idea based on? On the face of it, being happy while being tortured is just weird. I’ll look at three relevant features of Stoic thought: about happiness, ethical and emotional development, and social commitment. 

First happiness. The term  ‘happiness’ tends to be used in modern English to describe short-term moods (‘I’m feeling happy today’, symbolised by the smiley face). In fact, there is an emotional dimension in the Stoic idea of happiness, as I’ll explain shortly. But being happy (eudaimon in Greek) is, primarily, in Stoicism, to live the best possible human life, to live the life ‘according to nature’, as they often put it. What is that life? It’s sometimes defined by Stoics as fulfilling the best possible qualities of being human, that is, being rational and sociable (the distinctive features of the human animal).

Happiness is also based on achieving a completely unified and coherent character and understanding, and being able to take care of yourself and others of your kind (that is, other human beings) in the best possible way. Happiness also depends on developing the virtues, typically seen as the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice, regarded as an interdependent set of virtues. The happy person is the one who has developed these qualities and made them fundamental to her character and understanding. So why is this kind of person happy even on the rack of torture? She is happy in this situation because she is happy in any situation, including extremely painful or life-threatening ones.

These are qualities – having the virtues, being unified, caring for oneself and others – that go to the core of someone’s identity or character, and they are not lost because the person experiences extreme pain and pressure or compulsion. They are also qualities (notably the virtue of courage) which enable someone to resist the effects of extreme pain and pressure. So it’s natural that the wise person (the ideal human being) retains these qualities even under torture.

So far, it may seem, from a modern standpoint, that the Stoics produce the desired result (showing the wise person is happy on the rack) by redefining what ‘happiness’ means, namely as being virtuous, psychologically unified and so on. So modern people may feel that the ‘mood’ or ‘emotion’ aspect of happiness has just been left out. Actually, that’s not the case. But the force of the Stoic view depends on the belief that ethical development, that is, becoming virtuous, changes the quality of your emotional life and responses. Specifically, it means that you stop experiencing what the Stoics regard as bad or misguided emotions (sometimes called passions) and start to experience what they call ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai).

There are two main differences between these two kinds of emotions. The passions are based on what the Stoic see as false beliefs about what is good and bad, and about happiness and its basis. One such false belief is that what is really good in life is sensual pleasure, or wealth or celebrity, as opposed to happiness based on virtue. Secondly, bad emotions are typically intense, sometimes also internally conflicted or painful, and overwhelming in their effect; good emotions are calm, in line with the person’s judgements and reasoning, and do not generate internal conflict or overwhelm the person involved. Typical bad emotions are fear, anger, and hatred: typical good ones are joy, wish, and caution.

So the happy person (the ideal Stoic wise person) has a positive and a congenial emotional state (she feels happy in a modern sense) and does so under any circumstances, however extreme. The difference comes out in the likely reactions to torture of the two types of people – the wise and the defective or foolish person. The defective person is likely to experience intense and conflicted emotions in this situation, such as fear, anger, hatred, regret at having put herself in this situation, as well as being acutely aware of the physical pain. The wise person will also feel the pain (the Stoic wise person is not immune to physical pain).

But she will put the pain in perspective: pain is not the worst thing in the world, compared with becoming a corrupt and morally defective person. She will also bear in mind her reasons for being in this situation at all (I’ll come to this point shortly) and the importance of these reasons. So, altogether, she will experience a calm, coherent and positive emotional state – she will be at one with herself even in this situation, even though feeling this kind of pain is not something any normal human being would want to experience. In this respect, the wise person is also ‘happy’ on the rack in a modern sense.

There is a third dimension of this idea, in the Stoic version. It is worth asking the question: why is the wise person on the rack of torture at all? Typically, in these cases, people are being tortured for a reason: to force them to disclose information or as punishment for a past action. In the Stoic version of this idea, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise person is being tortured because of his commitment to a social, political or military role. Stoic ethics, in sharp contrast to Epicurean ethics, presents involvement in family and political life as a normal part of a full human life. So, implied in the Stoic version of this ideal is the thought that the wise person undergoes torture as a consequence of his social commitment (I’ll give a Stoic example shortly).

This gives an added level to the happiness of the wise person, even in these extreme circumstances. He is happy because his actions in this situation express commitment to a role or obligation that he sees as being crucially important in his life. This role provides a proper context in which to exercise the virtues, including the virtue of courage or what the Stoics call ‘magnanimity’ – that is, rising above current difficulties with the aim of performing a genuinely worthwhile act, which benefits other people or the community as a whole. Some of the other marks of happiness, such as psychological cohesion or unity, and freedom from misguided emotions or passions, are also naturally linked with his single-minded commitment to fulfilling one’s social role, and thus not disclosing information wanted by the torturer or accepting the torturer’s dominance. This social dimension helps to make sense of the Stoic ideal and to bring out the rationale for the idea that the wise person is happy even in this situation. 

I’ll end by discussing some possible ancient and modern examples of the Stoic ideal. The Roman general Regulus is taken by Cicero, in On Duties 3, as an example of this kind of ideal. Regulus voluntarily went back to Carthage to likely torture and death for two reasons. He had acted in line with his public duty in not arranging an exchange of prisoners (several young Carthaginian prisoners in return for himself), which he saw as disadvantageous to Rome. And he returned because he had sworn an oath to his enemies that, if he did not arrange this exchange of prisoners, he would go back to Carthage. The depictions by Cicero, and Horace (quoted at the end), bring out many of the key features of this ideal: Regulus’ act is presented as an expression of ‘magnanimity’ or courage; his single-minded commitment enables him to be free of emotions running counter to this ethical choice. He is thus ‘happy’, in a number of senses, on the rack of torture or in preparing to face torture.

It is worth thinking about other possible examples of this ideal: for instance, the modern example of Admiral James Stockdale who drew on the principles of the Stoic Epictetus (especially his distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’) to maintain his sense of integrity and resistance during repeated torture when a prisoner in the Vietnam war. There are also other possible Stoic-style modern examples, including Nelson Mandela in his long imprisonment in South Africa under the apartheid system, and the Indian political activist Gandhi, who endured voluntary starvation and other physical privations in his long and eventually successful opposition to British rule in India.

I think what these examples bring out is that the Stoic ideal, while initially seeming rather extreme and unrealistic, captures recognisable features of courageous response to extreme physical pain and hardship  and ones that are by no means confined to these examples of well-known male public heroism. We moderns too, I think, can make sense of the ideal of the wise person happy on the rack and can aspire to live this ideal out in our lives, if need be.

Regulus passages:

Entering the senate, he revealed his instructions … he claimed that it was not beneficial to restore the captives; they were young men and leaders while he was worn out by old age. His authority prevailed, and the captives were kept there. He himself returned to Carthage, held back neither by love for his country nor for his family and friends. Moreover, he knew well that he was going to a very cruel enemy and most sophisticated torture.

Cicero, On Duties, 1.100: Trans. Griffin and Atkins, 1991

It is said that he kept himself apart from the kisses of his faithful wife and small children as if he was no longer a citizen and sternly lowered his manly face to the ground. Then he swayed the senate, who were in doubt about what to do, offering his unparalleled advice [to send him back to Carthage], and in the midst of his sorrowing friends he hurried away, an exile of distinction. Even so he knew what the barbarian torturer was getting ready for him.

Horace, Odes 3.5.41-50. My trans

Relevant reading on Epicurus:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 21 (pleasure), 24 (death), and 15 (sensation, imagination, memory)
  • L. P. Gerson and B. Inwood, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, 1994).
  • J. Warren, Facing death: Epicurus and his critics (Oxford, 2004).
  • J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness. Oxford, 1993), ch. 16.
  • V. Tsouna, (2009) ‘Epicurean therapeutic strategies’, pp. 249-65 in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Ed. J. Warren (Cambridge, 2009). 

Relevant reading on the Stoic ideal: 

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 63 (the end and happiness), 65 (emotions), and 57 (on ethical development).
  • J. Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley 2006), ch. 5.
  • Cicero, Tusculan Disputations Book 5 (on ancient ideas about how to gain peace of mind, including Stoic and Epicurean ideas).
  • R. Sorabji, Gandhi and the Stoics (Oxford, 2012)
  • J. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, 1995). 
  • C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), ch. 2.

Katharine O’Reilly is lecturer in ancient philosophy at King’s College, London.

Chris Gill is emeritus professor of ancient thought at the University of Exeter.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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