Epicureanism vs. Stoicism

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Epicureanism and Stoicism are two schools of philosophy that flourished during the Hellenistic period.  One of the reasons for this flourishing can be attributed to the way the two philosophies spoke to the common person unlike Platonism or Aristotle’s theories before them.  A large part of their ideas focused around knowledge of nature as being crucial to living and being adapted to one’s proper role within the cosmos.  This provided people with realistic and practically applicable ideals instead of flamboyant theories.  Epicureans thoroughly believed that understanding nature involved understanding that the entire universe is made of atoms and that everything within it dealt with interactions of these atoms, while the Stoics were pantheists that believed the entire universe is God with each part of the universe being an extension of the overall being or animal called God.   In this paper I will discuss Epicurean atomism encouraging people to live in ataraxia, or lack of physical pain and mental disturbance, as part of understanding their role in the cosmos, as well as the Stoics encouraging people to live with apatheia, or passionlessness, in order to function in one’s role in the cosmos.  I will compare both views and their reasoning, and at last argue that the Epicurean worldview is more reasonable because it is more rational.

The fundamental aspects of Epicurean philosophy are founded on the idea of atomism.  Epicurus strongly believes or suggests that human beings should understand nature so that they do not live with false beliefs which lead to false fears, which in the end lead to a life of turmoil.   The reason atomism is so important to this theory is because Epicurus believes that human beings live with two of the most important false fears, that is the fear of the gods and of death.  By positing his theory of atomism, he firmly believes that human beings will be more readily able to achieve ataraxia by limiting their desires and eliminating unnecessary fears; thereby, becoming self-sufficient, free, and able “to attain pleasure (conceived of as tranquility) for oneself” (Freeland).

Epicurus explanation of how all of this works is extremely interconnected between his ideas on atomism, attainment of knowledge through sense-perception, and the goal of human life as ataraxia.  Epicurus claims that we can understand the imperceptible existence and nature of the atoms through the knowledge we gain through our senses regarding bodies (LH 39).  Once Epicurus proves that atoms can be ascertained to exist, he claims that everything in the universe including souls consist of atoms, such that the soul is comprised of atoms that are finely dispersed throughout the body, and that the soul is capable of experiencing sensation dependent upon the body (LH 64, Pg. 13).

Having established this material existence of the world and the soul, Epicurus is able to then establish that without the soul and its atoms, the body is simply an empty, inert vessel, and also that when the body’s atoms are arranged in a manner that no longer supports life the soul’s atoms will also scatter (LH 65, Pg. 13).  This is immensely important because it destroys any possibility of the immortality of the soul and therefore the fear of punishment from the gods of whom, by Aristotle, we were claimed to be the slaves.  From all of this we gain the understanding that everything is made of atoms, that the arrangement of atoms affects the state of human beings, and that it is through the ensouled body with the capacity of sensation that we are able to gain knowledge of the world.

While we gain knowledge through the senses, it is through the rational, higher intellectual aspect of the human soul, that we are able to discern when and which pleasures to choose or pursue through “comparative measurement and an examination of the advantages and disadvantages” (LM 130, Pg. 30).   This provides us with the understanding of Epicurean philosophy that through the rational decision making about the world with the knowledge that is attained through sense-perception, human beings are able to discard false fears like that of the gods and death as well as choose those things that maintain a good state of the souls (VS 33, Pg. 37); thereby, live a life pursuing pleasure that we are naturally physically or mentally inclined towards.

Epicureanism provides an entirely materialistic conception and reasoning regarding the world, whereas Stoicism explains material phenomenon and reasons about human existence through a pantheist worldview.   A basic understanding of Stoicism can be understood through the following points from the notes by Professor Freeland:

1.)    [Stoics] were pantheists who identified all of nature with God or Zeus. In their cosmology, we humans are actually and literally a part of God, and we have a sort of divine spark of the soul or life-force, or “pneuma” of Zeus, within each of us.

2.)    Zeus is a good, benevolent, and wise God whose decisions are all for the best, even though from our limited perspective sometimes they seem painful and make us unhappy. Epictetus, a later Roman Stoic, described our relationship to Zeus by using the analogy of an appendage: We are like a little appendage of Zeus, and who is an appendage to question the plans of the whole body?

3.)    Knowledge begins from sense-perception. Sense-perception is a natural process of our bodies being affected by other bodies around us in the cosmos. This is explained in a very physicalist fashion, as you can see with the examples of vision and hearing in sects. 157-8 (p. 139).

4.)    Physical bodies are held together by varying degrees of tenor or “tightness” and the best-constituted bodies are, like the cosmos itself, bodies permeated and led by an intelligent soul–our own human bodies. The intelligent soul which is the guiding principle of both the cosmos and of each of us is called the “hegemonikon“.

5.)    A key point of Stoic ethics is that one should strive to achieve the goal of willing things to happen as they do happen. This means withholding desire from things that are beyond our power or control. To do so requires us to have a very good, clear picture of the things that are in our control, versus those that are not.

These points allow us to postulate about the Stoic worldview such that knowledge of nature is constituted in understanding that everything in the cosmos is a part or extension of the overall God or Zeus; therefore, in order to adapt to the proper role within the cosmos one must will for what is natural to occur to happen.  A prime example of this sort of reasoning can be found in Epictetus’s Handbook[1] when states, “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well” (Epictetus 8). Considering points 1 and 3 from above it follows that people are able to adapt to their role within the cosmos very naturally just by the fact that they are part of the overall body of God.  Just as the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the eyes, the legs, the feet all play their own part naturally in maintaining their natural function to the human body as well as preserving the whole body, so do human beings and other things within the universe naturally function within the universe.  The fact that human bodies contain an intelligent soul allows them to use reason to choose things and live happily in accordance to how they believe things are naturally and according to what is truly within their control.  This is evident in the opening of the guide by Epictetus where he says that “some things are in our control and others not”, and that “the things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered” (Epictetus 1).  According to the Stoics then, knowledge of the cosmos is important because it allows us to understand that everything plays a certain role, and given that we have the faculty of reason we are able to then adapt to our role in the cosmos by choosing a life of apatheia, by the elimination of desire for things that are not within our control, while using reason to choose those within our control that would lead to natural consequences.

Stoics are similar to Epicureans in that they believe knowledge is gained in an empiricist fashion, while they greatly differ about what makes up the Universe. For the Epicureans it is atoms and for Stoics it is a pantheist conception of God.  Epicureans believe that people are adapted to their proper role in the cosmos by using reason to distinguish between false opinions and true knowledge to live a life ataraxia, pursuing those things that naturally produce physical or mental pleasure.  Stoics meanwhile wish to eliminate the desire for most pleasures by understanding that they are simply a part of the larger universe and there are only a limited set of things within their control.  I argued in the Epictetus paper earlier that I cannot agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly because its pursuit of ataraxia seeks to eliminate emotions and desires, which is contradictory to human nature.

While I am attracted to the Stoic philosophy partially because my own faith incorporates pantheism in its theology, I find Epicureanism to be more reasonable because it appeals more strongly to the reasoning of human beings in choosing what they believe.  There is no blind faith in superstitions in Epicureanism, although with the lack of scientific evidence in the time of Epicurus it could be argued that his philosophy was blindly purporting a firm belief in atomism, and possibly a superstition.  Regardless, I still find Epicureanism to be more reasonable for it seeks to understand the world at a more fundamental level, while Stoicism seems to just say “well accept and love things just as they are because that’s how they are naturally constituted and functional.”

Through this paper I have discussed the relevant aspects of both Epicureanism and Stoicism in how they establish views that attempt to explain why it is crucial to have knowledge of the cosmos and how human beings can be adapted to their respective roles in the cosmos.  Both philosophies contain similar elements such as the appeal to empiricism in attaining knowledge, and the role of a rational aspect of the soul or a rational soul in human beings adapting to their roles in the cosmos.  I also argued that Epicureanism is more reasonable because of its greater appeal to reason and curiosity of human beings than Stoicism, which suggests a more apathetic stance.



[1] ** Note: I used the translation of The Enchiridion by Elizabeth Carter from the following website: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html **

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