A Platonist Assessment of the Epicurean’s view of the Good Life Epicurus developed a philosophy with human happiness as its goal. In his view, all humans desire to be happy. Sadly, humans are not very proficient at determining what will make them genuinely happy. Epicurus thought that all one really needs to be happy is to live a self-sufficient life without pain, surrounded by loving friends while not fearing God and/or death, in a peaceful society. Plato, on the other hand, believed that a person’s morality determined his or her level of happiness. A truly moral person would be happy and fulfilled.
The central argument to the Epicurean view of the Good Life is their belief that the fundamental obstacle to happiness is fear. If we fear death than how can we live, “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time but by removing the longing for immortality” (The Epicurean Reader 29)? A comparison of the beliefs of Epicurus and Plato serves to influence the human to either make the best of their lives while they are able or offers hope for an afterlife if a moral life has been achieved. To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space.
Epicurus deduced that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, scattered throughout the body. At the time of death, the soul would just disintegrate. This, of course would end consciousness. Because we would be not feel any pain or experience any emotion, there would be no occasion to fear death. Fear is an inhibitor that prevents human beings from achieving happiness or experiencing the Good Life. If this were actually true, it would be a huge relief to those of us who adhere to a more Platonist view. Plato on the other hand would say that a human being contains both a body and a soul. He believed that the soul was immortal both before and after death. Once the body died, it just ended yet the soul would continue on. “All soul is immortal; for what is always in motion is immortal.” (Phaedrus) Plato believed that your soul has always existed and always will, thus true death doesn’t exist
The life you live in the body is just a small part of your existence. True happiness is achieved when the soul ascends. If this view of the soul is to be believed than fear as an obstacle to happiness wouldn’t be an issue because there is no time limit or due date to achieve the Good Life. To expand on the central argument of fear being the fundamental obstacle to happiness, another argument would be that both the Epicurean and Platonist views on happiness are not mutually exclusive. If the Epicurean view allows people the freedom to live the way they need to in order to be happy without the restrictions or constraints of religion and fear of condemnation from an unhappy god and fear of death, than there poses a danger of a “free for all” attitude existing.
If a good understanding of basic human needs such as food and shelter should be incorporated with enjoyment of friendship and following the path of small pleasures than the Epicurean view of living the good life is basically to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain, knowing your limits (when enough is enough), ignore all desires that are not necessary, and make inner happiness the main goal in your life, “For we do everything for the sake of being neither in pain nor in terror. As soon as we achieve this state every storm in the soul is dispelled, since the animal is not in a position to go after some need nor to seek something else to complete the good of the body and the soul. For we are in need of pleasure only when we are in pain because of the absence of pleasure, and when we are not in pain, then we no longer need pleasure” (The Epicurus Reader 30). The Platonist would say that happiness occurs when the soul is in balance (Reason, will, and desire).
Platonists also held the position that pleasure could not exist without pain. Thus leads to a discussion that everything has an opposite: in order to recognize good, we must also recognize evil; health verses illness, sadness verses happiness, etc. The Epicurean and Platonic views on happiness and fulfillment are not mutually exclusive, in that both views held that happiness was an achievable goal for humankind, the difference lies in how each chose to pursue it. The final argument to the Epicurean view of fear as the main obstacle to happiness is in the absence of fear; our senses will guide us to happiness and fulfillment. If the Epicurean would have us believe that in order to live fully and have true happiness, that we must have faith in the five senses and if they strongly believe that the senses are our guide to what is real and true: Than they must feel that there is nothing to replace the senses and that opponents of this line of thought cannot come up with any standard of their own.
The thought is if there is no standard to guide them, there is a danger of failing to distinguish what is real or unreal. They will become confused about what they can trust as real. The Platonist would argue that the senses limit a person because in order to have access to a higher truth, you must be open to logic which is based on ideal concepts that are beyond the reach of our senses, “Hence, one must attend to one’s present feelings and sense perceptions, to the common sense-perceptions for common properties and to the individual sense-perceptions for individual properties, and to every immediately clear fact as revealed by each of the criteria” (The Epicurus Reader pg. 18). Take for example hearing a foreign language. According to the Epicurean theory, we should be able to hear it and understand it as it is perceived by our sense of hearing. Reasoning by using our senses is unreliable because the senses are not able to perceive the truth of ideal concepts. The senses are based upon perception. It is the mind that determines that a sight and a sound are two perceptions and it is the mind that determines that a perception exists.
Again the Epicurean would caution us not to be swayed by lack of evidence, but have the courage to trust in the senses. In his “Phaedrus”, Plato taught that true reason must be based on ideal concepts and if we give up reliance on the senses, “For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses, though not by that is wisdom seen” (Phaedrus 23) , than we will find both truth and happiness. We live our lives now, by arranging our days in terms of employment, family needs, and community involvement. Epicurus would suggest we schedule at least one third of our day to do nothing but meditate (relax and think). He would insist that we be employed in a position that would make use of our talents and that we live within our means (income). He would like us to live within a stable, loving family and have many friends. We would be loving and stable for them in return.
For followers of Plato, the search for pleasure is not worth the sacrifice of one’s character, because when we sacrifice our character we sacrifice our ability to be truly and deeply happy. Fearing death as an obstacle to achieving a state of happiness is not a sound argument as human beings have a natural tendency to worry about their demise. No one wants to experience pain or suffering. It’s unrealistic to try and ignore something that is very prevalent in a person’s life. Epicurean’s would insist that death does not matter in the long run because it is finite and there is nothing anyone can do to avoid it. How not fearing death, would contribute to a state of happiness or fulfillment is a mystery. It is simply not achievable.
It’s just not the fear of death, but fear itself that lessens a human’s ability to experience life at its fullest. Happiness being the goal that both doctrines aspire to reach is achievable according to both philosophies. The Epicurean idea of living life to its fullest within the context of ignoring unnecessary desires, and appreciating the simple pleasures in life while we are on this earth is too simple. We are complex humans and we need to be stimulated intellectually as well as spiritually. The Epicurean lifestyle is much too secular in its design or too simple. The Platonist ideal gives human beings more options and is much more realistic.
If a person lives a good, moral life and is just, then its stands to follow that there will be some sort of reward whether it is the soul’s ascension, an afterlife, or whatever one aspires to. The third point of existing in the absence of fear by relying on the senses is not a sound philosophy in that the senses can be fooled or mislead. An illusionist may perform an act in which an object may seem to disappear, yet the object is still there. The sense of sight cannot be trusted as it has been fooled. The mind has the ability to perceive that the sense of sight has been fooled therefore the mind has a better understanding of what is needed in order to achieve happiness and fulfillment and this achieve the “Goodlife”.