Epic Battles in Practical Ethics: Stoicism vs Epicureanism
Comparing Two Ancient Philosophies
It is no secret, I guess, that a few years ago I adopted Stoicism as my chosen philosophy of life. It is also not a secret that the Stoics engaged in a number of robust debates with several other Hellenistic schools, from the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle) to the Academic Skeptics (like Cicero), to — and perhaps most of all — the Epicureans.
Even when the Stoics agreed with the Epicureans (which they did, on a number of issues, as we shall see), they were cautious to distance themselves from their chief rivals. Consider what Seneca says here:
The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout. (Letters to Lucilius, II.5)
Epictetus, on his part, devotes the entire section 20 of book II of the Discourses to a diatribe against the Epicureans (and the Academics, for good measure). Here is a taste of it, where Epictetus is making fun of Epicurus himself for teaching certain things (that there is no natural fellowship among human beings, as the Stoics maintained) while at the same time behaving as he didn’t believe his own teachings (why, then, does he care enough about human beings to write books aimed at convincing them?):
‘Don’t be deceived, man, don’t allow yourself to be led astray, or be mistaken; there is no natural sense of fellowship that binds rational beings together. Believe me. Those who say otherwise are deceiving you and misleading you with false arguments.’ Why is it that you care, then? Let us be deceived. Will you be any worse off if all the rest of us remain convinced that we do have a natural sense of fellowship with one another, and that we ought to preserve it by every possible means? No, your own position will be all the better, and more secure. (II.20.7–8)
This is all fun, if you are a nerd who’s into ancient history and philosophy, but, really, who cares? How is this going to change our lives, here and now? I think we can learn useful lessons from studying these ancient philosophies because both Stoicism and Epicureanism arrived at certain insights into the human condition, and more broadly into how the world works, that are still very much applicable today. The rest of this essay is a topic-by-topic comparison of the two schools, largely based on a wonderfully clear scholarly article by Tim O’Keefe (available in full here) and on checking some of the references he mentions therein. My source for the major Stoic views is the excellent Cambridge Companions to the Stoics.
One more thing: my goal is not to declare a “winner,” but rather to highlight both commonalities and differences, so that readers may decide whether Stoicism, Epicureanism, an eclectic combination of both, or in fact neither may be useful for their own quest to live a better and more meaningful life. Ready? Set, go!
Let’s start with various aspects of Epicurean and Stoic metaphysics. Metaphysics, broadly speaking, is an account of how the world works. Of course nowadays we get most of it from natural science, and both Epicurean and Stoic metaphysics are superseded by 21st century knowledge. Nonetheless, it will be instructive to compare them, as well as how they do when pitted against our modern broad conception of the world, because one’s view of how the world hangs together influences the really important part of this comparative exercise: the ethics, or how to live our lives.
Epicurus’ metaphysics was based on two basic assumptions: (i) our senses tell us that there are bodies in motion; and (ii) nothing comes into existence from what does not exist. The first is an empiricist claim, the second is an axiom, sometimes referred to as the principle of sufficient reason. Since bodies move, there must be empty space between them, the void. Moreover, the bodies we see are compound, meaning made of other, smaller bodies. But this process of subdivision cannot go on forever, or bodies would dissolve into nothing (which, ironically, is one of the cutting edge notions of modern physics and metaphysics). Hence the famous idea (which Epicurus got from the Presocratic philosopher Democritus) that there are ultimately indivisible particles of reality, atoms.
The universe, meaning all that exists, is infinite according to Epicurus, never had a beginning, and will never end. But in fact what we call the universe is actually just one of an infinite number of cosmi, each of which does come into existence and dissipate at some point. Epicurean metaphysics was mechanistic and physicalist in nature, as Epicurus sought to replace mythological explanations of natural phenomena with what we would today call scientific ones.
The Stoics were not atomists per se, but were certainly materialists as well. They thought that the cosmos does have a beginning and will have an end, but this final conflagration will simply reset things, and the cycle will start over again. A major difference between the two philosophies was that the Stoics thought of the universe as a living being, a view that held sway until the rise of Christianity, and was made obsolete by modern mechanistic philosophy. Count one for the Epicureans.
Interestingly, there are similarities between both cosmologies and modern theory. It was only a few decades ago that physicists seriously considered a steady state theory of the universe, in which there was no beginning or end. The prevalent current model is one of cycles, though not necessarily exactly recurring ones (because of initial quantum fluctuations). And of course some modern cosmologists do speculate about the existence of multiple universes, though this is controversial to say the least.
When it comes to philosophy of mind, again Epicurus was a materialist: since the mind affects the body and vice versa, the mind is a type of body, made of stuff. Nevertheless, an important aspect of Epicurus’ metaphysics — and a major difference with Democritus — is his introduction of the “swerve,” a phenomenon that causes random motions into otherwise perfectly deterministic atomic movements. This swerve is important not just in terms of physics, but of ethics: it is what allows human beings to have free will (well, technically, random will).
This is another partial, but crucial difference with the Stoics, who also thought the mind (or the “soul”) is made of matter and, like in the Epicurean account, does not survive death (more on this later). However, the Stoics rejected the notion of the swerve, and instead articulated the idea of a universal web of cause and effect. Human agency, or volition (not “free will,” since there is nothing, technically, “free” about it) is derived from the fact that human beings are themselves part and parcel of the web of cause-effect. Our character, then, is an internal causal mechanism, which responds to, and can be altered by, external causes. Chrysippus explained this concept beautifully with his metaphor of the rolling cylinder. Modern philosophy and science, by and large, support the Stoic view on this.
Epicurus was not an atheist, but he thought that god does not concern himself with earthly matters, because that would be painful, and gods surely don’t cause pain to themselves. Indeed, he was one of the first philosophers to articulate the problem of evil that has vexed Christianity for two millennia. For obvious reasons, the Christians didn’t like the Epicureans, and much of the bad reputation the latter school has still today is due to Christian slander along the notion that Epicureanism was the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. That title, in fact, is far more appropriate for the Cyrenaic school, the true hedonists of the ancient world.
The Stoics also were not atheists, but rather pantheists: for them god is the universe, and we are bits and pieces of it. The cosmos is endowed with the Logos, the ability to be rational, of which we are obviously participants (well, some of us more than others…). This is one of the reasons why the Christians liked the Stoics — and took a lot of Stoic philosophy on board — more than the Epicureans. It wasn’t too difficult to think of the Logos as God himself, hence the famous opening lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
This counts as a tie between the two philosophies, as today neither the sort of deism espoused by the Epicureans nor certainly Stoic pantheism seem very valuable options. However, a modern interpretation of the Logos as the principle responsible for the (rationally constructed) laws of nature, what is sometimes referred to as “Einstein’s god,” is perfectly reasonable.
Epistemology, the study of how we know things, ought to be closely coupled with metaphysics, meaning that if we go around making metaphysical claims, we better be prepared to back them up with tight arguments and as much empirical evidence as possible (which is not always the case).
This is another area where Epicurus distances himself from Democritus: the latter was rather skeptical of the possibility of human knowledge, given that our senses can betray us. Epicurus, by contrast, was an empiricist, claiming that the senses do not lie, it is our judgments of what the senses report that induces error.
Even though the details of Epicurean epistemology differ from those of its Stoic counterpart, they share a fundamental similarity in terms of their anti-skeptical stance, their empirical approach, and their insistence that human knowledge is possible. An interesting difference, and where I think the Stoic approach is more sensible, is in the Stoic emphasis that our first impressions from the senses can be mistaken, and it is up to our reasoning faculty to interrogate such impressions and correct them if need be. The Epicurean position, as mentioned above, seems to be almost the opposite, favoring the senses over human judgment. The reality, as we know today, is that there is some truth to both stances: human senses do make mistakes, and human judgment can be negatively affected by biases and prejudices. But it is the combination of sensorial experience and reasoning that is the only source of all human knowledge, as fallible as it is.
And here we come to the big one: the similarities and differences between the two philosophies when it comes to the major topic that is still very relevant today, the ethics. Since this is a delicate and contentious issue, I’m going to quote O’Keefe’s own summary of the Epicurean approach:
Epicurus’ ethics is a form of egoistic hedonism; i.e., he says that the only thing that is intrinsically valuable is one’s own pleasure; anything else that has value is valuable merely as a means to securing pleasure for oneself. However, Epicurus has a sophisticated and idiosyncratic view of the nature of pleasure, which leads him to recommend a virtuous, moderately ascetic life as the best means to securing pleasure. This contrasts Epicurus strongly with the Cyrenaics, a group of ancient hedonists who better fit the stereotype of hedonists as recommending a policy of ‘eat, drink, and be merry.’
It also contrasts him sharply with the Stoics, who did not elevate pleasure (however ascetic) or lack of pain (arguably the more relevant Epicurean criterion) to the forefront of their ethics. For them, pleasure was a preferred indifferent and pain a dispreferred indifferent, both of them coming a distant second to the only true good, the exercise of virtue for the betterment of oneself and of humanity at large.
One thing to understand about the Epicurean emphasis on pleasure is that the ethics is informed by a kind of psychological hedonism. Epicureans insisted that human beings, ever since we are infants, naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure. This prompted the Stoics to point out that actually children often naturally endure pain for the sake of something valuable, like learning how to walk. The counter-objection cannot be that infants do it because they understand — as an adult would — that there is a long term gain to be achieved here. They act instinctively, not by reason, so it is not true that human beings always naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain.
That said, the Epicurean position was sophisticated, in that they acknowledged that — even though in principle all pleasure is good and all pain is bad — some pleasures are not choiceworthy for an adult rational being, and some pains are rationally endurable. Still, as O’Keefe again remarks:
The Epicureans spent a great deal of energy trying to make plausible the contention that all activity, even apparently self-sacrificing activity or activity done solely for the sake of virtue or what is noble, is in fact directed toward obtaining pleasure for oneself.
This is another major difference with the Stoics, for whom virtue was fundamental, not instrumental. Another way to appreciate the difference is that for the Stoics the state of ataraxia (tranquility of mind) is a byproduct of a life of virtue (because we arrive at the point of not being disturbed by external events), while for the Epicureans it was the goal. Which is why O’Keefe says that Epicureanism is better understood as a “tranquilist” rather than a hedonist philosophy.
Epicurus famously classified pleasures into natural and necessary (for food, shelter, and so on), natural but not necessary (e.g., luxury foods), and vain and empty (e.g., fame, power, etc.). It’s the focus on the first class that leads to the advice of living a rather simple life. Here some of the Stoics (e.g., Epictetus) would agree, while others (e.g., Seneca) would consider all desires as preferred indifferents, meaning that they can be pursued so long as they don’t get in the way of virtue.
And speaking of virtue. This is another contentious aspect of the comparison between the two philosophies, so I will let again O’Keefe speak in no uncertain terms:
Epicurus insists that courage, moderation, and the other virtues are needed in order to attain happiness. However, the virtues for Epicurus are all purely instrumental goods — that is, they are valuable solely for the sake of the happiness that they can bring oneself, not for their own sake. Epicurus says that all of the virtues are ultimately forms of prudence, of calculating what is in one’s own best interest. In this, Epicurus goes against the majority of Greek ethical theorists, such as the Stoics.
The combination of seeking ataraxia as one’s major goal and the instrumentality of the virtues makes for a clear contrast with the Stoics, and has one important implication, which ultimately led me — after briefly flirting with Epicureanism — to embrace Stoicism: Epicureans by and large counseled withdrawal from social and political life, as well as a focus on friendship and the small pleasures of life. After all, Epicurus’ school, the Garden, was isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city, on purpose. By contrast, the Stoics, equally on purpose, taught in the middle of the Athenian market, and argued that a main source of meaning in life is to be useful to other people. Many of them very much engaged in politics, often to the cost of their lives.
There are, however, two more topics where the Epicureans and the Stoics converged: the importance of friendship and the irrelevance of death.
As just mentioned, Epicurus thought that life ought to be spent with one’s friends in pursuit of small pleasures and avoidance of pain. Here is what Seneca, for instance, has to say about friendship from the Stoic perspective:
Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. (Letters III.2)
As for death, Epicurus thought — rightly — that fear of death, and especially of the punishment in the afterlife, was a major cause of human suffering, and needed to be extirpated. His famous argument for being unafraid of death is that where she is we are not, and vice versa, meaning that we can suffer only if there is a “we” that can experience pain. And for Epicurus the materialist when we are dead we cannot, in fact, experience anything. Again, Seneca agrees:
Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause. (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)
Conclusion: Epicurean or Stoic?
I strove to make the above summary is both fair and informative. I think there is much to be admired in Epicurean philosophy, but for me the deal breaker is the instrumental value of virtue and the withdrawal from socio-political action. I far prefer the Stoic idea that doing the right thing is valuable in and of itself, and that we have a duty to the entire human cosmopolis.
That said, the argument often goes, couldn’t we mix and match, developing an eclectic philosophy which draws from both traditions (and more)? Of course, and plenty of people do. But it’s not my cup of tea, for three reasons. First, individual philosophies do borrow elements from each other already (remember Seneca wandering into “enemy camp” as a “scout”). Second, a major danger with eclecticism is that it simply becomes a shopping list of things we agree with, with no rhyme or reason to back it up. That’s not really a philosophy, it’s just a list of preferences. Lastly, as my friend Don Robertson often argues, at some point you will have to face a choice: avoidance of pain, or virtue? Up to that point you may have been able to mix traditions, but if you find yourself on the rack, you are either an Epicurean or a Stoic.