On Happiness: Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics

pursuit-of-happiness2Etched into the Declaration of Independence is the famous phrase that we are all endowed with inalienable rights, that of life, liberty….

…..and the pursuit of happiness.

In particular, the idea of happiness is something all humans for every century have discussed.

It is perhaps the most fundamental thing that all men have in common.  We all want to become happy. In the opening lines of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Naturally, the question arises: If all human action seeks some good, then what is this good? After a brief digression, Aristotle observes the common sense notion that all men through their actions seek to live well and do well; they verbally express this as a desire for happiness. However, while all agree verbally that this is the object of desire, there is ample disagreement as to what “happiness” actually is.

Two ancient philosophical schools of thought, Epicureanism and Stoicism, seek to understand the idea of happiness, though (in my opinion) unsuccessfully.

Epicureanism, as the name indicates, is a naturalistic philosophical worldview developed by Epicurus in the late 4th century B.C. Much of our knowledge about Epicurus comes from the last book of Diogenes Laertius’ third-century A.D. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes preserves three letters written by Epicurus one being a letter to a friend, Menoeceus. At the outset, Epicurus connects seeking wisdom or philosophy with pursuing happiness saying, “to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more.”

What is this philosophy or wisdom needed for happiness?

Epicurus believed that the summum bonum of (the highest good or that which makes man truly happy) is pleasure.

Epicurus, later in his letter to Menoeceus says, “…we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good.” However, for Epicurus this idea of pleasure is not defined as the reckless obsession for all sensual delights, as is often our modern conception. He says, “And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.”

The idea behind his thinking is that of moderation in all things. There is a ‘just right’ that the person can achieve that sustains pleasure yet prevents pain. Happiness is therefore defined as peace of mind, and freedom of anxiety achieved through moderation and proper understanding of the nature of things. Epicurus philosophy was thus fundamentally ethical, and his view of the world or “nature” was established in order to reduce anxiety in others. For example, he denounced religion because he thought that fear of the gods and of an afterlife created anxiety and prevented people from achieving real pleasure.

Like many pre-Socratic philosophers, Epicurus argued that the universe was all material composed of matter called atoms and void. The devoted Epicurean, Lucretius, elucidates Epicurus’ naturalistic philosophy through the teaching of the maxim, “things cannot be created out of nothing and that things cannot be reduced to nothing.” In other words, the gods do not intervene in human life, and the matter is eternal, making death nothing but a dissolution of the assemblage of atoms.  It is vital to emphasize that the overall structure of Epicureanism was designed to hang together and to serve its principal ethical goals.  Epicurus’ naturalistic scientific theory is subservient to his understanding of happiness as the attainment of pleasure, properly understood.

Stoicism, like Epicureanism, had its origin in Athens during the Hellenistic period with Zeno as its founder. The name Stoicism is derived from meeting in a large stoa (meeting hall with a covered colonnade) in Athens. Since we do not actually possess a single complete work from any of the original stoics (Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus) our knowledge of Stoicism is derived from followers in Roman Imperial times, one of which is Seneca the Younger.

Sencea the Younger describes the promise of philosophy as giving guidance for life.  This guidance of life will make a man happy by giving him calmness, rationality, and self-discipline. While the Stoic idea of the nature of happiness is similar to Epicureans in that both held to a view of happiness as being free from anxiety and pain, the method of achieving happiness differed drastically as well as their worldview behind their ethical theories.

The Stoics, like the Epicureans, make God material. But while the Epicureans think the gods are too busy being blessed and happy to be bothered with the governance of the universe, the Stoic God is immanent throughout the whole of creation and directs its development down to the smallest detail.

The Epicureans believed that a person’s life was random and caused by chance, whereas the Stoics believed “Nature” directed all things. Nature is rational and in fact is Reason, itself. God is equal with Nature, thus God is identified with eternal reason.

What does this have to do with happiness? Seneca says, “The Stoics maintain that happiness is living in accordance with Nature…Only that which is perfectly in accordance with nature as whole is truly perfect. And Nature as a whole is rational.”

Thus, to be happy or free from anxiety or distress is to be in perfect harmony with Reason. Whereas the Epicurean emphasizes the mere acting in moderation to achieve a pleasurable feeling free from anxiety or pain, the Stoic relies on Reason because it is for them what enables one to actually achieve the governing capacity to control their emotions and actions through moderation and thus bring about the state of a painless, anxiety free reality. For the Stoics self-discipline, perseverance, as well as proper thinking achieved through logic and physics became vital to achieve this goal of actually attaining happiness.

Whether or not one of these paths seems to be fulfilling depends on the degree of the actual truth of the theory. Happiness is achieved, naturally, through knowing what happiness is- that is to say, it is achieved, first, through understanding the truth of it. If one does not understand the nature of happiness, how will they know when they have achieved it?

So the question must be asked: What is happiness? Both Epicureans and the Stoics agree that happiness is some sort of painless existence evidenced by an anxiety free reality, which is called pleasure. But is this happiness?

To say that you have achieved happiness merely because you have achieved this pleasurable existence is to beg the question; it is to assume, without demonstration, that the good that you have arrived is itself the highest good. What if there is yet a higher good, that is itself so good it exceeds our present ability to desire that good?

As said at the beginning, happiness is the highest of all goods; it is that which all men strive to achieve. If this is the case, then happiness is achieved by actually living in continual relation to the purpose of existence. In order to achieve happiness one must actually live properly and in accordance to the nature of things.

These ideas, of course, put me at odds with Epicureanism, for it argues that things are random and lack purpose. It’s interesting that Epicurus actually advocates any sort highest good or ethical theory since his worldview of a purposeless universe actually contradicts his idea that humans can have something to achieve. Humans cannot have a purpose if the universe is itself purposeless. And although I do not agree with everything the Stoics advocate, their idea of the nature of things being equal with reason is more plausible, and thus more fulfilling.

Richard Kraut summarizes the nature of reasons involvement in the attainment of happiness,
“The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.” (emphasis mine).

Reason is necessary for happiness because it is what enables us to live a life of virtue. However, happiness is not merely virtue, rather happiness consists in doing virtuous activity. In order to experience the highest good, one must be actually becoming good themselves.


3 responses to “On Happiness: Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics

  1. Great post!
    Just started studying Epicurus, but like his teachings of simple life and lots of friendships. Enjoyed your thoughts on his general philosophy though.
    Keep it up!

  2. Would you be so kind as to present primary-source evidence that the Stoic notion of happiness includes freedom from pain?

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