Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

EpicurusNB: This is a draft, I’m still adding the final sections.

In the surviving Discourses, Epictetus is shown discussing the rival philosophical school of Epicureanism at considerable length with his Stoic students.  Typically his comments are scathingly critical of Epicureanism.  He even appears to criticize some of his students for failing to attain Stoic virtue by accusing them of being mere “Epicureans”.  Diogenes Laertius, one of our few sources for Epicurean doctrines, begins his chapter on Epicurus in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers with a list of criticisms and allegations made against him by the Stoics.  He adds: “Epictetus calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him”, which is definitely in accord with the tone of criticism we find in the surviving Discourses.

Some of Epictetus’ comments are scattered, and of those some are more direct than others.  However, there are also three Discourses in which he more explicitly and directly critiques the philosophy of Epicurus.  

  1. In answer to Epicurus (1.23)
  2. Against Epicureans and Academics (2.20)
  3. A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean (3.7)

This is probably fairly consistent with Stoic teachings in general, which appear to have become increasingly focused on the criticism of Epicureanism from at least the time of Chrysippus onward.  Diogenes Laertius tells us that, among his numerous books, Chrysippus wrote two entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, which definitely sound like they may have contained systematic critiques of the Epicurean position.

Often criticisms of Epicurean philosophy merge with more general criticisms made against those who treat pleasure as the goal of life.  In the time of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, this probably began with attacks against the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, and later expanded to encompass the teachings of Epicurus.  However, it also extends more generally to non-philosophers who treat pleasure as if it were the most important thing in life.  Some proponents of Epicureanism will object that this is a caricature of his philosophical teachings.  However, the Epicurean teachings were notoriously ambiguous, or even contradictory, and Epicurus and his followers do seem at times to have professed doctrines that sound like those being attacked by the Stoics, including the sort of hedonism Epictetus is so keen to dispute for the sake of his students.

Epictetus’ key criticisms of Epicurus can be summed up as follows:

  1. Like the Academic Skeptics, Epicurus frequently contradicts himself by taking for granted in practice assumptions that he claims to reject in his philosophical doctrines.
  2. If he rejects the concept of fellowship between mankind, or a moral duty to others, then what’s motive for writing so many books and teaching his philosophy to others?
  3. If he really wanted to obtain “security” for his own tranquillity from other men then, paradoxically, he’d actually be better to teach them Stoicism rather than Epicureanism, because that would better serve his own self-interest.

Typically he employs a method that’s modelled on Socratic questioning, seeking to expose internal contradictions in his opponents’ views, especially between their words and actions. Hence, this isn’t an abstract or nit-picking debate. Epictetus is very much focused on the day-to-day practical implications of following one philosophy over another. Likewise, it’s sometimes said that he’s misinterpreting the Epicureans or being unfair to them. However, it’s likely that he was more familiar with Epicurean doctrines, and their practical way of life, than we are today. He probably had many Epicureans visit his school. Indeed, in one of the Discourses described below, we can actually see the record of a Socratic exchange between Epictetus and an Epicurean philosopher, which apparently took place in public before his students.

In answer to Epicurus

In this Discourse (1.23), Epictetus begins by claiming that Epicurus has “set our good in the husk which we wear”, the physical body, and that by doing so he’s led into contradiction when he also tries to profess the view that humans are by nature social beings.  We’re told Epicurus taught that “we should neither admire nor accept anything that is detached from the nature of the good”, something the Stoics would emphatically agree with.  However, we’re also told that Epicurus rejected the view that affection for our own children is a natural instinct, which the Stoics argue forms the basis of our social nature, and the virtue of justice.  For Epicureans, although friendship is important, it’s typically portrayed as being of only instrumental value, i.e., a means to the end of preserving one’s own mind in pleasant tranquillity.  Sometimes love or friendship may cause more turmoil than calm, and in these cases Epicureans seem to shun relationships.  For that reason, incidentally, Seneca also accuses Epicureanism of encouraging superficial or “fair-weather” friendships.

Epicurus actually taught that the wise man will not raise a family and that his followers should emulate this way of life, which he apparently followed himself in practice.  He apparently argued that by marrying and having children, one makes oneself particularly vulnerable to disturbance and emotional suffering on their behalf, so it is better to avoid this if you want to live a life of tranquillity.  Compare this to Socrates, the Stoics’ supreme role-model, who reputedly told his friends that he remained married to his notoriously shrewish wife, Xanthippe because she offered him the opportunity to strengthen his character through patience and self-discipline in the face of provocation.  Epictetus ridicules the obvious inconsistency of Epicurus in this regard because he was understood to be very fond of his favourite house-slave, nicknamed “Mouse” and concerned for his welfare.  If he really believed that we should avoid marrying and having children to minimise potential for emotional disturbance, then to be truly consistent Epicurus should have also avoided becoming emotionally attached to his friends and slaves.  Epictetus says, strikingly, here that “once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love it or to care for it.”  He’s talking about the normal state of affairs of course, and I’m sure he’d admit that there are some exceptions to this natural inclination.

He goes on to say that Epicurus, for the same reasons that he gives against marrying and having children, also advises his followers not to engage in politics.  By this he means generally being involved in public life, the affairs of the city, for the sake of one’s community, and not just what we mean by professional politics today.  Epicurus, of course, withdrew to a private garden outside the city walls of Athens where he enjoyed the company of a small circle of friends, who discussed philosophy among themselves in seclusion.  One of the mottoes of the Epicurean garden, according to Plutarch, was actually “live in obscurity” (lathe biōsas).  We might say: “keep your head down and stay out of trouble.”  By contrast, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down the public colonnade known as the Stoa Poekile, on the edge of the Athenian marketplace.  He probably did this, partly, in emulation of Socrates who also taught philosophy in the agora.  Members of the public, philosophers of other schools, and politicians, could approach them there and engage them in debate over the nature of philosophical questions, particularly ethical questions of a practical nature.  Epictetus appears to imply that Epicurus’ advice was rather than to marry and have children or to engage in public life, as the Stoics advised their students, one should “live among men as though you were a fly among flies”, meaning in a detached manner, lacking any sense of natural affection or affiliation toward other people.

Epictetus attacks Epicurus quite ferociously for hypocrisy in this regard, partly because he ignores the fact that affection for own children is completely natural, and therefore the basis of social ethics, according to Stoicism.  Even domestic animals like sheep, or wild animals like wolves, do not feel indifference to their own offspring.  (The Stoics, incidentally, classified people as having lost their essential humanity and degenerating to the level of either domestic or wild animals if they’d succumbed to the vices of hedonism or aggression, respectively.)  In ancient Greece, as in the tale of Oedipus, unwanted or sickly infants were sometimes left outdoors by their parents to die of exposure.  So Epictetus concludes his Socratic charge of contradiction and hypocrisy, against Epicurus, as follows:

Come now, who follows your advice when he sees his child fallen on the ground and crying?  Why, in my opinion, your mother and your father, even if they had divined that you were going to say such things, would not have left you to die of exposure!

Against Epicureans and Academics

In this Discourse (2.20), Epictetus begins by reminding his students of several well-established criticisms made against Academic Skepticism.  His main objection is that the Skeptics contradict themselves by forwarding arguments that take for granted some of the assumptions they’re trying to undermine.  He soon shifts his focus onto Epicurus, though, whom he accuses of essentially the same philosophical error.  

His first target is the claim, which he attributes to the Epicurean school, that there is no “natural fellowship” among mankind.  Epictetus claims that Epicurus  necessarily contradicts himself by making use of precisely that assumption in practice.  Some modern proponents of Epicureanism seem to question whether this was indeed part of the ancient creed.  However, ancient commentators on Epicureanism generally take it for granted that this was one of their best-known doctrines.  Epictetus actually quotes Epicurus as saying:

Be not deceived, men, nor led astray, nor mistaken; there is no natural fellowship with one another among rational beings; believe me.  Those who say the contrary are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasons.

“Why do you care then?”, asks Epictetus.  Why do you teach?  Why did you labour day and night to write so many books of philosophy for others to read?  If we are deceived in this way, how does it harm your ability to enjoy peace of mind, Epicurus?  There seems to be a conflict here between the values being taught and the very act of teaching them to others.  In fact, Epicurus would attain more “security” for his pleasant way of life from other men, if he allows them to be “deceived”, as he puts it.  The goal of Epicureanism is supposed to be to preserve one’s lasting pleasure, or peace of mind, at all costs.  Epictetus is really rolling two criticisms into one here.  Epicurus’ actions seem hypocritical.  However, paradoxically, it also seems like anyone sincerely embracing Epicureanism would be better off to teach Stoicism to others, and the doctrine of natural affection toward mankind, because that would ultimately be more in their self-interest.

Why do you care, then?  Allow us to be deceived.  Will you far any the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded that we do have a natural fellowship with one another, and that we ought by all means to guard it?  Nay, your position will be much better and safer.  […] What do you care how the rest of mankind will think about these matters, or whether their ideas be sound or not?  For what have you to do with us?  Come, do you interest yourself in sheep because they allow themselves to be shorn by us, and milked, and finally to be butchered and cut up?  Would it not be desirable if men could be charmed and bewitched into slumber by the Stoics and wlos themselves to be shorn and milked by you and your kind?  Is not this something that you ought to have said to your fellow Epicureans only and to have concealed your views from outsiders, taking special pains to persuade them, of all people, that we are by nature born with a sense of fellowship, and that self-control is a good thing, so that everything may be kept for you?

The Stoics believed that all men deserve our consideration, as brothers, and we should view ourselves as all citizens of a single state, consisting of the whole cosmos.  Epicurus at times appears to completely reject any fellowship among mankind or mutual obligation to benefit others.  However, even if he qualifies that by arguing that fellowship should be maintained selectively, for pragmatic reasons, it seems to cause further difficulties.

Or ought we to maintain this fellowship with some, but not others?  With whom, then, ought we to maintain it?  With those who reciprocate by maintaining it with us, or with those who are transgressors of it?  And who are greater transgressors of it than you Epicureans who have set up such doctrines?

In much the same way that the Skeptics try to defy nature by denying the reliability of our eyes and ears, Epicurus defies nature by denying our natural affections, and drive to benefit other humans.

A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean

In this Discourse (3.7), an actual conversation between Epictetus and a follower of Epicurus is reported. That’s important to note because sometimes, due to the notorious ambiguity of Epicurean teachings, people sometimes want to question whether Epictetus really understood Epicureanism.  It’s likely, however, that he had access to more Epicurean teachings than we do today.  Scholars believe Epictetus possessed rare copies of early Greek Stoic texts, which he read to students and was discussing with them in the surviving Discourses.  These may have been the books of Zeno, and more likely some of those by Chrysippus.  These quite probably contained references to early Epicurean teachings.  However, Epictetus would also have known many late Roman Epicureans personally.  As this Discourse proves, Epicureans visited him and apparently discussed philosophy in his school, in the presence of students like Arrian, who recorded this conversation.  So it’s probably unfairly dismissive to question his familiarity with the philosophy.  Epictetus probably knew a great deal more about the teachings and way of life endorsed by Epicureans than we ever will.

We’re told from the outset that the Imperial Bailiff or “Corrector”, a high-ranking government official, “who was an Epicurean”, came to visit Epictetus.  Epictetus welcomed the Epicurean by presenting himself as a relative laymen with regard to the teachings of Epicurus, in the presence of an expert, and seeking to learn more by questioning him.  That’s striking because it obviously resembles “Socratic irony”, the way Socrates would act as if he were ignorant, rather than play the part of a guru himself, and instead question his visitors in depth about their philosophical and ethical beliefs.  Epicurus himself did the opposite of Socrates and happily claimed to be an enlightened sage, which arguably led his followers to treat him as a guru figure.  (They celebrated his birthday every year, kept pictures of him, and memorised his teachings verbatim, etc.)  By contrast, the Stoics believed that the wise man is “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix”, a mythical bird supposedly born every five hundred years.  Neither Zeno nor any of the founders of the Stoa apparently claimed to be wise themselves.  Instead they seem to have classed themselves as fools, who were merely helping other fools to approach wisdom.  Seneca described himself as like a patient in one bed describing how his therapy is going to the patient in the bed beside him.  That attitude toward experts, or wise men, was a major practical difference between the Stoic and Epicurean schools, which shaped their respective discourses about philosophy.  Epictetus refers to himself here as a “layman” in philosophy, whereas Epicurus called himself a sage.  By contrast, although we may read an account of him explicitly denying that he is wise, after his death it appears that Epictetus may have been considered sage-like by his followers.

Once again, Epictetus then engages in what’s obviously a Socratic-style questioning, this time of his Epicurean guest.  He proceeds to ask him about his assumptions concerning the good, and then to expose apparent contradictions in his position.  He leads the Epicurean into a position where he appears to admit that pleasure must have some object, and for it to be good, its object must also be good.  The goodness of pleasure depends upon the goodness of the thing we take pleasure in.  For example, to take pleasure in atrocities would be bad.  They agree the highest good must be the moral purpose (prohairesis) of the soul, i.e., the seat of wisdom and virtue, which most people agree is what we find most praiseworthy in man.  However, Epictetus points out that this stands in direct contradiction to the Epicurean doctrine, which he describes as saying that: “pleasure of soul is pleasure in the things of the body” because “then they become matters of prime importance, and the true nature of the good.”

Epictetus also mentions another well-established criticism of Epicureanism, one also discussed by Cicero and others.  Epicurus, he says, does not condemn theft as wicked but says that it only becomes so because of the pain, or displeasure, caused by actually being caught, or worry about being caught.  It’s the pleasure that comes from avoidance of pain that’s the supreme goal of life, and avoiding theft and other vicious acts is merely a means to this end.  So Epictetus poses the obvious question: what if “the stealing be done secretly, safely, without anybody’s knowledge”?  There are many instances where we have the opportunity to act unethically without any risk whatsoever of detection.  Epictetus mentions also that if he happens to have “influential friends in Rome”, powerful friends, then an Epicurean may have very little motive to behave himself, being placed above fear of reprisals by his social status and connections in society.  If he sincerely believes that pleasure is his own highest good, for the sake of which he would be willing to sacrifice everything else, then there are bound to be many situations where this can be pursued without the fear of being caught that Epicurus claims should be sufficient to keep us from acting antisocially.

Epictetus goes on to mention another familiar response to the Epicureans: that they aspire to act virtuously but doing so is in conflict with the problematic ethical doctrines that they claim to follow.  He jokes that whereas the Stoics aspire to noble doctrines, although they sometimes fall short of them and lapse into base actions, the Epicureans aspire to base doctrines even when they engage in noble deeds.  He’s basically saying to his Epicurean guest: “You’re better than this.”  Your actions are good, but your philosophy isn’t fit for purpose because if you followed it consistently you should potentially be doing things that go against your own moral conscience.  There’s a contradiction between your philosophy and your way of life.

He then proceeds to discuss yet another familiar criticism of Epicureanism by posing the question very bluntly: “In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean state?”  Epicureanism often appeals to individuals, it’s self-interested in a particular way, but it’s far less appealing to imagine being surrounded by people adopting the same values, e.g., that your life and wellbeing would only be of value to them as long as it was consistent with their goal of preserving their own lasting pleasure and peace of mind.  Epictetus says the Epicureans say: “people ought not to marry”, nor have children, nor “perform the duties of a citizen”, i.e., participate in society.  If everyone embraced this philosophy, Epictetus says, society would simply collapse.  There could be no genuinely Epicurean state.  “Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the state, destructive to the family…  Drop these doctrines, man!”  We should look for philosophical doctrines that are consistent with our way of life, and help us to flourish and become good citizens.  That’s what we would want from other people around us.

The persuasive power of vice is so strong already – it’s the biggest challenge we face in life.  Why then, says Epictetus, embrace philosophical doctrines that potentially make this temptations seem even more powerful by judging our supreme good to reside in pleasure?  Pleasure, he says, should be subordinate to virtue, and not the other way around.  The Epicurean bailiff apparently claims he has power over other man, and influence at the Emperor’s court.  However, Epictetus concludes by saying this is not true leadership but that comes from the authority of someone like Socrates, whose wisdom and virtue make men want to emulate him as a role-model.

Scattered remarks by Epictetus

Elsewhere in the surviving DiscoursesEpictetus uses Epicureanism as a kind of insult against some of his students:

Do you not realize the kind of men they are whose language you have just uttered?  That they are Epicureans and blackguards?  And yet, while doing their deeds and holding their opinions, you recite to us the words of Zeno and Socrates? (3.24)

Elsewhere he makes a similar remark:

Why did you call yourself a Stoic?  Observe yourselves thus in your actions and you will find out to what sect of the philosophers you belong.  You will find that most of you are Epicureans, some few Peripatetics, but these without any backbone; fore wherein do you in fact show that you consider virtue equal to all things else, or even superior?  But as for a Stoic, show me one if you can!  (2.19)

In one of the surviving fragments (14), he seems to be saying that in contrast to the Epicureans, the Stoics hold that “pleasure is not something natural, but a sequel of things that are natural, as justice, self-control, and freedom.”  Epictetus asks why the soul doesn’t take pleasure in its own goods  but rather in the inferior goods of the body.  He says, though, that nature has given us a sense of shame, which causes us to blush at vice, and this prevents him from “laying down pleasure as the good and end of life.”

But if I put what is mine in one scale, and what is honourable in the other, then the statement of Epicurus assumes strength, in which he declares that “the honourable is either nothing at all, or at best only what people hold in esteem.” (2.22)

He claims in another Discourse (2.23) that Epicurus has said that the flesh is the  most excellent part of man.  Epictetus claims that when Epicurus was dying and wrote “We are spending what is our last and at the same time a happy day?”, and when he wrote so many books to benefit his followers, it was not his flesh that prompted him to do so but his moral purpose (prohairesis).  We would have to act like we were blind to ignore the presence of a higher faculty within us than that of physical sensation.

If Epicurus should come and say that the good ought to be in the flesh, again the explanation becomes lengthy, and you must be told what is the principal faculty within us, and what our substantial, and what our essential, nature is.  Since it is not probable that the good of a snail lies in its flesh?  But take our own case, Epicurus: what more masterful faculty do you yourself possess?  What is that thing within you which takes counsel, which examines into all things severally, which after examining the flesh itself, decides that it is the principal matter?  And why do you light a lamp and toil in our behalf, and write such quantities of books?  Is it that we may not fail to know the truth?  Who are we?  And what are we to you?  And so the argument becomes lengthy.  (1.21)

3 thoughts on “Epictetus: Stoicism versus Epicureanism

  1. In the end, though, do you not believe that the early Stoics and Epicureans had more in common than not and that, in Greece, their differences were more political than philosophical?

    1. No. Definitely not. They recommended very different ways of life and were identifiable, to a large extent, by their opposing habits. Their fundamental doctrines are opposed. I think today many people read the Stoics and Epicureans just as an assortment of ideas or strategies for self-help. However, that’s not really “philosophy” -they each espoused a world-view and set of values which they both claimed could only be properly understood in relation to their central doctrine, which was universally acknowledged to be the definition of the nature of the supreme good, or the goal of life. They certainly do have many things in common, especially from our modern perspective, but they also have very important and fundamental differences: like the differences between Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, or between Conservatism and Marxism. They remained opposing schools for over half a millennium for a reason, and you can clearly see how strongly they felt that the distinction had to be made clear. It’s not about “politics” but about how we conceive the meaning of life, and how we actually live our lives from moment to moment – that’s where the fundamental difference lies.

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