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Epicurean Illusions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Dominic Scott
Clare College, Cambridge


Illusions play a central part in Epicurean philosophy. One of its fundamental assumptions is that men are the victims of a certain grand illusion and, as long as they remain so, can never aspire to a happy life. This is the illusion that pleasures can be increased in intensity without limit. It is as a result of this that men go to enormous lengths to enlarge their capacity to procure more pleasure, struggling in pursuit of goals that can rarely, if ever, be achieved. But here mankind has made a disastrous mistake: the limit of pleasure is reached with the removal of pain, and after that point it cannot be increased, only varied. The illusion has therefore led to a tragic state of affairs, a sad history of fruitless war, struggle and ambition and it is a vital part of Epicurus’ programme to rid men of this evil by teaching them the true limits of pleasure.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1989

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1 Epicurus, , Ep. Men. 129Google Scholar.

2 Ibid.; Cicero, , Tusc. 5.95Google Scholar.

3 Ep. Men. 128; κ.Δ. 3; Cicero, , Fin. 1.378Google Scholar.

4 Cicero, , Fin. 1.38Google Scholar.

5 Epicurus, , Ep. Men. 128Google Scholar; κ.Δ. 29.

6 Lucretius 2.1–19.

7 Ibid., esp. 14–19; 6.9–42.

8 I should stress that I am concerned here with bodily pleasures not mental ones. For some evidence that mental pain is produced by false beliefs about pleasure see n. 26 below on Lucretius 6.17ff.

9 i.e. Plato, , Philebus 36c44aGoogle Scholar.

10 D. L. 10.34.

11 S. E., M 7.203. Sextus is about to explain the Epicurean thesis ‘All perceptions are true’ and begins by taking the truth of all feelings as the paradigm for perception to follow.

12 This interpretation of 209–10 has been proposed by Taylor, C. C. W., ‘”All Perceptions are True”’, in Barnes, J., Burnyeat, M. & Schofield, M. (eds.), Doubt and Dogmatism (Oxford, 1980), p. 116 with n.5Google Scholar.

13 This limitation upon perception is also alluded to in Diogenes' introductory account of Epicurean epistemology in 10.31. Just before saying that perception cannot add or subtract anything from the information it receives Diogenes calls it ἄλογος and μν⋯μης οὐδεμι⋯ς δεκτικ⋯. The point about denying memory to perception is that again perception can only consider what is before it, it cannot recall past perceptions and use them to interpret present ones.

14 See, for instance, , Ep. Hdt. 48, 52, 82Google Scholar.

15 ‘nee possunt oculi naturam noscere rerum’ (385); cf. Epicurus' description of perception as ἄλογος cited in D. L. 10.31.

16 D. L. 10.33. I am following the punctuation here of Long, & Sedley, , The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), ii. 92–3Google Scholar.

17 Cicero, , Fin. 1.22Google Scholar (trans. Long & Sedley).

18 Anonymous Commentary on Plato's, Theaetetus 22.3947Google Scholar (trans. Long & Sedley).

19 Trans. Long & Sedley. This evidence comes from Erotianus (34.10–20) who is writing the introduction to a lexicon of Hippocratic medical terms. He is saying that in his work he will not be providing explanations of words such as ‘cheek’ which we all know anyway; this would be a pointless exercise. He then provides the above argument in defence of this.

20 S.V. 33.

21 κ.Δ. 30 (trans. Long & Sedley).

22 S.V. 59.

23 Lucretius 5.1113–16.

24 Ibid. 1117–19.

25 Ibid. 1133–4:quandoquidem sapiunt alieno ex ore petuntque res ex auditis potius quam sensibus ipsis.

26 What Lucretius implies in 5.1133–4 is that the feelings are giving their message, but are ignored or overridden. Indeed, there is a constant stream of (potentially) satisfying pleasurable objects impinging on us which is at best ignored, and may even be considered as irksome. This same theme occurs in an even more prominent place later on in the poem, the beginning of Bk. 6. Here we are told that Epicurus' great achievement consisted in pointing out that men's troubles stemmed not from a lack of pleasures but from an internal flaw. Comparing men to leaking and dirty jars, he says the problem is not with what is being poured in, this is all perfectly good in itself (commoda, 19), but with the leaks which prevent the jars ever being filled up (20–1) and the dirt which spoils everything which comes in (22–3).

The fact that people can so easily downgrade potentially satisfying pleasures by comparison with others that are not greater but merely different shows how illusions about bodily pleasures in turn lead to mental pain. Thus although the tournedos produces no more physical pleasure for the gourmet than it does for Epicurus, we should note that in the gourmet's case it does remove more mental pain, as there is more to be removed. This does not imply, however, that the gourmet is consequently in a greater overall state of mental pleasure; indeed the continued presence of his misconceptions about pleasure will sooner or later lead to the recurrence of mental pain.

27 In fact the illusion that the gourmet labours under is not the only hedonic illusion with which Epicurus had to contend. Another one has been accurately described by Gosling, J. C. B. & Taylor, C. C. W. (The Greeks on Pleasure [Oxford, 1982], ch. 20, esp. p. 405)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Feelings are a criterion of choice and avoidance, but that does not mean that they tell us to choose or avoid something – that is the job of the hedonistic calculus. All the feelings tell us is whether something is pleasant. So we should distinguish carefully between the report of our feelings about pleasure and the interpretation of that pleasure as being choiceworthy or not. If we do not, we fall victim to an illusion that confuses between the claims that something is immediately pleasant and that it is choiceworthy, i.e. will lead to long-term pleasure.

Now this is an accurate analysis of one type of hedonic illusion with which Epicurus was concerned. But the illusion under which our gourmet is labouring is rather different, the difference lying in the message that the senses are supposed to be giving in each case. In Gosling & Taylor's illusion the senses say ‘x is choiceworthy’, in the gourmet's case, ‘x gives more bodily pleasure than y’. The gourmet does not say that his feelings are telling him to pursue x: he can readily admit that his mind has a large part to play in choosing or avoiding it. It would, after all, be possible for him, under certain circumstances (e.g. penury), to think that the tournedos was more pleasant than the roll but still think the roll was more choiceworthy. For him at least, there is no confusion between a feeling of pleasure and an opinion about choice.

28 Notice the parallel between Cicero's comment about memoria at the end of the passage and Diogenes' restriction upon perception as μν⋯μης οὐδεμι⋯ς δεκτικ⋯ (10.31). We should remember that in κ.Δ. 24 the importance of distinguishing judgements which await confirmation from the criterion – the παρ⋯ν – was said to apply as much to the feelings as to perception.

29 Lucretius brings out another point of contact between hedonic and theological illusions. When chiding those who succumb to hedonic illusions, he talks of them deriving their wisdom not from their own senses but ‘alieno ex ore’. Thus the dubium does not come from a trustworthy criterial source but from what other people say. Similarly, all the errors that men make about the gods stem merely from a specious cultural tradition which can never rival the purely natural origin of our proplepses (5.1197): quantos turn gemitus ipsi sibi, quantaque nobis volnera, quas lacrimas pepere minoribu' nostris

30 See Gregory, R. L., The Intelligent Eye (London, 1970)Google Scholar.

31 For an excellent discussion of the way in which Epicurus invoked naturalistic arguments in the service of hedonism see Brunschwig, J., ‘The Cradle Argument in Epicureanism and Stoicism’, in Schofield, M. & Striker, G. (eds.), The Norms of Nature (Cambridge, 1986) esp. pp. 115–28Google Scholar.

32 I should like to thank the editors for their help in preparing this paper for publication. An earlier version was read to the Southern Association for Ancient Philosophy in September 1988.