Epicurus and Ancient Hedonism

Of all history’s great philosophers, Epicurus is the one who you might expect to be keenest on sex. He was a hedonist. His basic premiss is that pleasure is the greatest human good, and that we should devote ourselves to pursuing it. Sex produces an awful lot of pleasure. Therefore we should have a lot of sex… right?

Not so fast, unfortunately.

Epicurus was born in 341 BCE, only a few years after Plato died, and he studied at the academy that Plato founded. He ultimately broke away, however, and founded his own school, which was based out of his secluded garden in Athens. He was supposedly inspired to do philosophy by Democritus, and was later accused of simply plagiarising his predecessor, although this is certainly not true. While Epicurus may have subscribed to a Democritean materialism in the realm of metaphysics, he extended this materialism into the moral realm. His philosophy is sometimes referred to, unimaginatively, as Epicureanism, and sometimes as hedonism. Hedonism means simply the pursuit of pleasure (hedon is the Greek word for pleasure), and nowadays we use the term hedonist to mean someone who tries to maximize her sensual satisfaction, and who devotes herself to doing so. If this is what Epicurus meant when he said, as he did, that pleasure is life’s highest good, his view of sex would be straightforward: if we enjoy it, as most of us do, we should try to have as much of it as possible – consistent of course with our pursuit of other, equivalent or greater, pleasures. This is not quite what Epicurus meant however. For Epicurus, we should strive after the highest form of pleasure – which he thought was not sensual enjoyment at all, but ataraxia, which is a state of satiety or inner peace, where all our desires have been satisfied.

For Epicurus, we experience desire as a kind of pain. Pleasure is a release from desire. He thinks that to achieve ataraxia – to be at peace – we must satisfy those desires we have, in order to eliminate this pain, but we should not seek out stimulation for its own sake, and we should not put ourselves in situations that cause our desires to be generated or increased. A sage or wise man is someone who knows how to regulate his pleasures in order to maintain a fairly steady state of ataraxia.

We don’t have any writing by Epicurus on the topic of sex. Diogenes Laertius, who in the third century AD wrote biographies of the ancient philosophers and who is generally fairly reliable on their views – he had access to many works now lost – says: “The Epicureans do not suffer the wise man to fall in love . . . [According to them] no one was ever the better for sexual indulgence, and it is well if he be not the worse.” This is fairly cryptic, but we have some  more expansive comments in a poem written by a Roman during the first century BCE, The Nature of Things by Lucretius. Lucretius generally follows Epicurus on ethical matters, and his passages on sex ring true as an expression of Epicurean views. Lucretius gives us a description of what happens when we are roused to lust – when, as he puts it

someone is hit by bolts from Venus—
whether a boy with girlish limbs strikes him,
or some woman exudes sensual passion
from her whole body…

We experience our desire as a kind of pain – a sudden desire to discharge the fluid we feel that has built up inside of us. For an Epicurean, we would be better off never to have felt such desire. It disturbs the inner peace we are constantly trying to achieve. Once it has happened, we have no choice but to seek release. Epicureans have no problem with the actual act of sex. It releases a tension, and so it may help us return to a state of inner piece. But the problem is, it does not always do this. Often, having sex with the person we lust after, far from liberating us from the desire caused by the sight of their hot body, often causes us to want more of them.

For if the one you love
is absent, those images are still present,
and that sweet name still hovers at your ears.

For Lucretius, this sort of intense, recurring lust for a single person poses a serious threat to our inner peace. First of all, he comments perceptively on the way in which this sort of lust is not even satisfied by actual sex with the person we desire. We seem to want to unite with them in some weird way, which obviously can’t happen. Second, we have hardly finished having sex with them than we go right back to desiring them. It’s a recipe for constant upheaval – and, he says, total exhaustion. We want sex all the time, and that’s really tiring. In the grip of such lust we do stupid things, like spending all of our money buying stuff for the other person, and we neglect our other duties. We end up feeling remorse at our own debauchery. And we end up consumed with worries: does she still desire us the way we desire her? Is she sleeping with someone else? It’s a mess.

For Lucretius, the solution to this sort of enduring lust is obvious: we should get away from the person at all costs. We should have sex with someone else, or do whatever it takes to stop thinking about them:

you must flee such images,
scare away what nourishes your passion,
turn your mind to something else, and discharge
your collected fluid into bodies
anywhere—you must not hang onto it,
once you have changed to loving only one,
and thus reserving trouble for yourself
and certain pain. For the festering sore
comes alive and settles in with feeding.

For an Epicurean, casual sex is okay – it provides us with an outlet for our natural lusts than does not bring with it all the unpleasantness of sexual longing:

A man who avoids love is not without
delights of Venus, but rather chooses
those whose benefits bring no penalty.
For there is no doubt that for healthy men
sexual pleasure is purer than for those
sick with love.

Marriage also can be an acceptable state, if we approach it coolly, as a source of companionship and as a vehicle to sate our natural sexual appetite. The important thing is not to feel the kind of intense, recurring lust for a single person that Catullus, who lived at the same time as Lucretius, celebrated in his poetry.

Even if we are not convinced by the Epicurean suspicion of enduring lust – it is after all what most married couples work very hard to maintain – the section of Lucretius’s poem on love and sex is well worth reading. When he describes the turmoil brought on by desire, Lucretius writes with the sort of conviction that can only come with first-hand experience. He has a poet’s eye for detail, and despite his ostensible distaste for sexual passion – readers will notice the recurring, and often graphic, comparison of lust to physical illness – his writing rises at various points to the level of genuine eroticism.

Incidentally, there is a new book out about Lucretius by the distinguished Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt. It’s called The Swerve. I haven’t read it, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has.

Image: Statue of Dionysius (source needed)

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One Comment

  1. Clive

    Fascinating Freudian slip! Inner piece?

    Posted February 26, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink | Reply

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