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Philosophy 12: Ethics

Summer 2004

Ernesto Rodriguez

 

Post 2: How does Epicurus define an ethical person? Compare and contrast his moral theory with that of Epictetus’ understanding of ethics.

 

Much like that of the Sophists, Epicurus’ philosophy puts much emphasis on the idea of pleasure as the ultimate good. But unlike the Sophists, Epicurus’ definition of pleasure is a lot more discriminate with regards to the good and bad forms of pleasure. Epicurus looks at the means by which pleasures are attained, and whether or not they are worth the trouble they cause. He places value on mental pleasures over physical pleasures. Though they may not be as instantly gratifying, mental pleasures by far outlast physical pleasure, and so Epicurus favors them.

 

Epicurus defines the ethical person as the person who can discern among all of the pleasures which ones are worth their price, which ones outlast the others, which are “natural and necessary” (37), and ultimately which ones lead to genuine happiness.  Epicurus feels that this is a feat of knowledge, or more accurately of knowledge overcoming instinctive desires.

 

Two main points in the philosophy of Epicurus are that we should not fear death, nor should we fear God as an active force. His theory as to why we should not fear death is simple, “since as long as we exist, death is not with us, but when death comes, then we do not exist” (38). So to Epicurus, to die simply means to cease to exist. As long as we exist, we are not dead, and once we are dead we no longer exist. So pragmatically speaking, there really is nothing to fear. He applies this idea not only to the body but also to the soul. Epicurus argues that the soul is composed of atoms, and when we die those atoms leave our bodies. Without our bodies or souls, there is no way for us to feel pain; and if we cannot feel pain we cannot be dealt retribution by the gods.

 

Another point of Epicurus’ philosophy is that the gods do not take an active role in the physical universe. He sees it impossible to live a blissful and immortal life (such as the gods) and at the same time deal with every frustrating intricacy of our universe.

 

This is where Epicurus’ ideas directly clash with those of Epictetus.