Today I had lunch with my friends, Florence, Lucy and Suzie, at the Abbey Inn at Kirkstall.
Here are Florence and I at the pub.
Seeing my friends put me in mind of the human philosopher Epicurus, who lived in ancient Greece around 341 – 270 BCE. Epicurus was pretty keen on friendship. While not usually prone to poetic language, Epicurus says that ‘Friendship goes dancing round the world, announcing to all of us to wake up to happiness’. That’s certainly true of my experience of friendship: I’m very, very happy when I see Florence, and like to dance around and bounce at everyone to show it.
Epicurus is perhaps best-known today for his ethical theory, hedonism. Hedonism is the idea that pleasure is the highest good and the proper aim of a good life. When we think of hedonism we often think of sayings like ‘eat, drink and be merry’. We might also think of activities like driving fast cars, going to lots of parties, or taking lots of drugs. But Epicurus’ hedonism was very different – he wouldn’t have thought it a good idea to eat a lot, or take drugs, or go to parties at all. In fact, Epicurus’ hedonism is more likely to involve quite calm activities like catching up with old friends.
Why is this? The pleasures Epicurus most valued were long-term ones: he thought it was better to cultivate strong, loyal friendships and to spend time with one’s friends than to experience short-term pleasures but have the pain of regret later. He also thought that a lot of the things we desire are in fact unnecessary. The best thing to do with these unnecessary desires is to train oneself to stop desiring them. That way, thought Epicurus, we can have a greater degree of self-sufficiency, which leads to freedom from want and pain. So Epicurus would approve of me seeing my friends, but he probably wouldn’t approve of me desiring to eat a delicious kebab that someone had dropped on the pavement on the way home.
Lots of people have thought happiness is the highest good, but Epicurus is slightly unusual in identifying the highest good with pleasure. Given that he wasn’t a hedonist in the usual sense, what was behind Epicurus’ high evaluation of pleasure? Epicurus observed that everything we do, from puppyhood onwards, involves seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Even acts that seem altruistic, thinks Epicurus, are ultimately things we do for our pleasure. For example, we might give to charity or recycle bottles or go on a protest ultimately because these give us a certain kind of pleasure. This observation, he thinks, shows that this is what it’s natural and good to seek. In arguing this, Epicurus moves from a descriptive claim (about what people do) to a normative claim (a claim about what they should do, or what it’s good for them to do).
I agree with Epicurus that pleasures such as seeing friends (and, I would add, sharing their lunch) are good. I also agree that, all things being equal, we should try to avoid pain. But are these really the only or highest goods? I’m not convinced about this. I’m not even convinced by his descriptive claim that everything people do does come down to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. What are we to make of cases where people give up their lives for a cause they believe in? Or even give up their lives for their friends? If someone gives up their life they die, so they’re not around to get pleasure from having given up their life in the first place.
Interestingly, Epicurus does talk about these kinds of cases: he says a wise person would die for their friend rather than betray them. How does he square this with the claim that one’s own pleasure is the highest good? It’s not totally clear, though some people have pointed to a few things he does say that might be relevant to the question. He says that if a wise person betrayed their friend rather than dying for them, they ‘would be confounded’. He also says that friendship begins with utility or usefulness, but is a virtue ‘for its own sake’. Perhaps Epicurus felt that the good of friendships is so great that even if I initially make friends for my own sake, ultimately I come to value my friends for their sakes or for the sake of the friendship instead. I’m not sure this is really consistent with Epicurus’ hedonism, but I like him the better for thinking it.
On the way back from the pub we had a walk in Bramley Fall Woods and along the canal. Here I am running across the Locks and playing with a very squeaky ball. I wonder what Epicurus would have made of pleasures like these.
Mental walkies with Lola,