The Ethics of Epicurus and its Relation to Contemporary Doctrines
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The Ethics of Epicurus and its Relation to Contemporary Doctrines

Jean-Marie Guyau, Keith Ansell Pearson, Federico Testa, Federico Testa

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Epicurus and its Relation to Contemporary Doctrines

Jean-Marie Guyau, Keith Ansell Pearson, Federico Testa, Federico Testa

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This is the first English translation of a compelling and highly original reading of Epicurus by Jean-Marie Guyau. This book has long been recognized as one of the best and most concerted attempts to explore one of the most important, yet controversial ancient philosophers whose thought, Guyau claims, remains vital to modern and contemporary culture. Throughout the text we are introduced to the origins of the philosophy of pleasure in Ancient Greece, with Guyau clearly demonstrating how this idea persists through the history of philosophy and how it is an essential trait in the Western tradition. With an introduction by Keith Ansell-Pearson and Federico Testa, which contextualizes the work of Guyau within the canon of French thought, and notes on both further reading and on Epicurean scholarship more generally, this translation also acts as a critical introduction to the philosophy of Guyau and Epicurus.

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Pleasure: The End of Life and the Principle of All Ethics

The positive and utilitarian character of Epicureanism:1
I.How Epicurus poses the moral problem: the search for the end [of life]. – Epicurus’ solution: First, in all beings, nature pursues pleasure independently from reason and before reason. Force and subtlety of this naturalist argument. That Epicurus searches infallibility not in reason but rather in nature. – Second, reason, by virtue of its constitution, cannot conceive an abstract good without a sensible2 element. The value of this argument against ancient idealism. That pleasure and pain,3 according to Epicurus, are the only forces capable of moving beings and making them act.
II.The search for the means to achieve the desired end, namely pleasure. Virtue has no value except for the pleasure it procures [us]. Virtue is identical to science; how Epicurus arrives at this identity [of virtue and science]. The praise of philosophy, not in itself, but as a means to pleasure. Definition of philosophy. Thought subordinated to sensibility.4 – A remark on ancient philosophies by Kant.
What first strikes us in Epicurus, the true founder of utilitarian ethics, is the positive and practical character of his doctrine. Aristotle said: ‘Science, especially its highest forms, is the least useful.’5 Epicurus counters this maxim. One intuits that, dedicating himself to philosophy he first asked: ‘What is it for?’
This is not how we typically see the human spirit proceeding in history. As we know, peoples who begin to philosophize almost always begin with pure speculation, a confused mixture of physics and metaphysics. They think for the sake of thinking and searching.6 It is only later, when philosophers realize that they have searched for too long and discovered too little, and when they find themselves disagreeing with one another, that they become troubled and begin to fear that they have laboured in vain.
Pyrrho and the Sceptics laughed and mocked when they grasped the contradictions and the impotence of other philosophers. The utilitarians, however, were more serious, and instead of condemning the human mind, they condemned speculation and turned their thoughts towards the self,7 asserting that before pursuing absolute truth, one must search for and find relative truth and utility. This is precisely what Epicurus did in Greece. We can consider his system as an attempt to tear the human mind away from the inconsistencies of Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; in a word, as an attempt to focus human thought on utility.8 Plato searched for the truth in order to deduce the good from it. Epicurus first searched for what is good for us before searching for the truth itself. Like our modern positivists he rejects every abstract speculation and every vain subtlety. He breaks with the Aristotelian distinction between contemplative and active virtue, between the goal of thought and that of action. [Epicurus admits] No more detours in the march towards the good: he demands a unified, easy and straight path,9 one of clarity and precision in words. He seems to loathe what our philosophers call ‘metaphysics’. Nevertheless, he will be forced to do metaphysics himself, sometimes even getting carried away by it. Loyally following the development of his own system and the necessity of things, he eventually elevates himself to pure metaphysical considerations and ends up welcoming [as a friend] this kind of disinterested speculation that he began by repelling as the enemy.
I. – The first problem posed by Epicurus is the practical problem par excellence: What should we do? What is the end of our actions? What is the end of life?10
In order to solve this problem one can take two different paths: that of experience and that of rationality. According to experience, what is the end that we pursue and that all living beings around us also pursue? – According to Aristippus, the well-known predecessor of Epicurus, the end of life is said to be pleasure.11 Epicurus repeats this, telling us: ‘Pleasure (ton hēdonēn) is the end (telos) of all beings. As soon as they are born, by nature and independently of reason, they take delight in enjoyment12 and they revolt against pain.’13,14 This Epicurean argument contains a very subtle idea. It should not be said that in pursuing pleasure [living] beings do something evil. By what right is one entitled to blame them? It could only be done in the name of reason. But does reason have any authority here? – Reason would only have a hold on these beings if they had chosen reason in advance as their master and judge. [We could only blame living beings] if, while acting irrationally, they thought of themselves as acting rationally, or if they only took pleasure after according to a [given] reason. One could then oppose to it a better reason. Epicurus, however, anticipated this objection: he puts intelligence on trial, instead of letting it judge pleasure. He claims that one naturally pursues enjoyment from the moment one is born, without reason (phusikōs kai chōris logou). ‘The animal,’ Epicurus says, ‘is inclined towards pleasure before every alteration of its nature: it is nature itself in its purity and integrity that judges within it [the animal].’15 Relying on th...


  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Contents
  6. Note on the Translation
  7. Editors’ Introduction: Jean-Marie Guyau on Epicurus and the Art of Living: A Novel Approach to the History of Philosophy
  8. Foreword: On the Method Used for the Exposition of Systems
  9. Introduction: Epicureanism in Antiquity and Modernity
  10. Book One: The Pleasures of the Flesh
  11. 1 Pleasure: The End of Life and the Principle of All Ethics
  12. 2 Fundamental Pleasure: The Stomach
  13. 3 The Rule of Pleasure: Utility. – Happiness, The Sovereign Good
  14. 4 Desire – The Ultimate End of Desire: Rest, Enjoyment of Self
  15. Book Two: The Pleasures of the Soul
  16. 1 Intellectual and Moral Serenity – Science, Opposed by Epicurus to the Idea of Miracle
  17. 2 Freedom – Contingency in Nature, the Condition of Human Freedom
  18. 3 Tranquillity in the Face of Death. – Epicurean Theory of Death, and its Relation to Contemporary Theories
  19. Book Three: Private and Public Virtues
  20. 1 Courage and Temperance. Love and Friendship. The Genesis of Friendship. The Conduct of the Sage in Human Society
  21. 2 Justice and Social Contract
  22. 3 Progress in Humanity
  23. 4 Epicurean Piety. The Struggle against Divinity understood as Efficient Cause
  24. Conclusion: Epicureanism and its Analogies with Modern Positivism. The Success of Epicureanism in Antiquity
  25. Book Four: The Modern Successors of Epicurus
  26. 1 The Epoch of Transition Between Ancient Epicureanism and Modern Epicureanism – Gassendi and Hobbes
  27. 2 La Rochefoucauld – The Psychology of Epicureanism
  28. 3 Spinoza – Synthesis of Epicureanism and Stoicism
  29. 4 Helvétius
  30. 5 The Spirit of Epicureanism in Eighteenth-Century France
  31. Conclusion: Contemporary Epicureanism
  32. Bibliography
  33. Index of Names
  34. Index of Subjects
  35. Copyright