Epicurus on Politics: So What?

Epicurus, known as the founder of Hedonism, says a lot about how the meaning of life is to aim for pleasure.  But this isn’t crude pleasure, these are the finest pleasures: music, intellectual creativity, food, friends and family.  When I teach Epicurus, I basically teach this aspect of him but this year, I’m going to give a brief moment about his politics because I find it interesting.

Epicurus says to not get involved in politics or participating in it.  The reason is because it’ll get you into trouble.  Instead, just live a life of secret seclusion.  So what’s his argument for this?

Let’s use the 2008 election as an example:  Suppose that McCain won the election.  What would happen to you personally?  Well, you’d still have your job.  You’d still have your friends and family.  The state of your health would be the same.  Your economic situation would relatively be the same.  Everything that surrounds your life would practically be the same.  In short, your life doesn’t change.  Well, suppose that Obama won the election.  What would happen?  You’d still have your job.  Your friends and family are still there.  You’re health is about the same.  Your economic situation would be the same, and your life about you would be the same.  In short, either way, LIFE IS THE SAME.  Nothing changes!  Sure, things on a global scale might change, but nothing effects you as an individual.  You’re life is the same no matter which candidate is in charge.  Well if nothing changes, why get involved into politics?  That’s the question that Epicurus asks.

Now you might reply: “Ok, well there’s got to be some sort of change.  After all, I have an idea what should be the case politically so there’s must be something going on there.”  Epicurus would just reply back: “but your life individually didn’t change, just your attitude about the who’s in charge.  You either like the person in charge, or you don’t.  THAT’S IT!  It’s your attitude that changed.”  Well, if you have the potential of having a bad attitude toward a movement or a person, that surely isn’t going to make you happy, which is against the hedonistic code.  Thus, the best life is to not get involved in politics at all, don’t even try to gain knowledge about politics.  Instead, focus your life on the finest pleasures in life.

Now on the one hand, I find this argument important.  It’s a nice constribution to philosophy and it presents a picture that’s really against the tradition of how important it is to get involved in politics.  But Epicurus is basically saying “so what?”  Getting involved doesn’t do anything, so why get invovled?

But on the other hand, I feel that getting involved is important, even if it does seem trivial.  It seems that contributing does something that really speaks out your voice.  But Epicurus could easily reply back: “not really.  Your life will still be the same.  So why get involved in the first place?”

So is there any way to reply to Epicurus’ “so what?” answer?

By the way, whenever people reply back in philosophy, the reply is usually “oh, yeah” (with a sarcastic tone), or a “so what?” answer.  It’s the “so what?” answers that I find really hard to reply back with.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
This entry was posted in 2008 Election, Epicurus, Ethics, Government, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Epicurus on Politics: So What?

  1. Killer J says:

    Epicurus assumes quite a bit in suggesting people are miserable during the term of a leader they didn’t vote for. Besides, couldn’t ‘higher pleasure’ be gained through the academic arena of political involvement?
    As far as life ‘being the same regardless,’ what if getting involved gives you the perception of making a difference (or at least trying to make a difference), and some pleasure is reaped from this?

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Killer J says:

    Epicurus assumes quite a bit in suggesting people are miserable during the term of a leader they didn’t vote for.

    I think I misspoke on what he said. I don’t think people are going to be miserable that their candidate didn’t win for the whole term. Even if the candidate loses, the losing candidate won’t sulk and be bitter for the next four years. I think people will be miserable for about an hour after the results are in, disappointed by Thanksgiving, but by Christmas time it’s “back to business” as usual. However, I think Epicurus can fire back, “See, you’re only disappointed for a very brief time and you wasted all of your energy for what? For a little misery at the end? Where’s the pleasure in that? So why get involved in politics in the first place?” But I think Killer J’s second quote could reply back:

    Besides, couldn’t ‘higher pleasure’ be gained through the academic arena of political involvement?
    As far as life ‘being the same regardless,’ what if getting involved gives you the perception of making a difference (or at least trying to make a difference), and some pleasure is reaped from this?

    So even if there’s some pain involved, it’s still worth it because there’s a higher pleasure involved. It’s like going to the dentist. No one likes going to the dentist, but we go through the pain anyways because the higher pleasure is worth that little pain. What about learning something about the world that made you a little depressed because you thought you knew the truth, but it turns out that you didn’t? Still wouldn’t you want to know the truth even if it hurt? The Epicureans would still say yes because the Truth is a higher pleasure and even if there’s some pain involved, it’s still worth knowing the Truth.

    Sadly, I think Epicurus can reply back: “so what? What higher pleasure is there about two people who bicker about issues of the day? Nothing will get done in politics. It’s all about appearances, not reality.” To which, you could reply: “but what about the environment, slavery, human rights, etc.?” Epicurus has an answer: “all that didn’t come from the government. It came from grass roots thinking. Do you think slavery ended because of government? No, the government wanted it there. The Mexican War is a good example. The people who wanted it gone were the abolitionists. That’s not the government. What about natural rights? Those were the founding fathers, they weren’t even a government yet. Women’s rights? It was grass roots. Minority rights? That was mainly through MLK, Jr. Grass roots again. The environment? It’s still through grass roots. Even though Al Gore is pushing a lot for it, notice he’s not really in the political spotlight anymore just to get his message across. To hell with politics, get out. If you want something done, it must be done through the grass roots. But more importantly, we can recognize what is good through contemplating the pleasures of life. If everyone learned that, then no one would get involved in politics and everyone could know what the good is all about.

    “As with getting involved to make a difference, it’s still a perception. It’s still an appearance. And if there’s pleasure involved in making a superficial difference, that’s not a higher pleasure, but a lower or base pleasure. The important feature of life is the higher pleasures.”

    Epicurus can be quite a nuisance when it comes to politics. I still find it amazing that he influenced Thomas Jefferson (where do you think the phrase “pursuit of happiness” comes from?) yet Jefferson didn’t embrace the rest of Epicurus’ political philosophy.

  3. Killer J says:

    Man, politics really is about appearance more so than substance. The idea of making a difference is simply perception, and likely false. I guess he’s right. Fuggit. I’m not voting ever again. Hell, I’ll stop bothering to even study stuff in that realm. I guess that includes this blog!

    He wins, I’m outta here.

    Much love,

    Killer J

  4. ian darling says:

    Epicurus and his seeming indifference to politics raises so many questions.In listening to the political “conversation” offered up to us it is difficult not to agree with Epicurus.Surely,however the situation is different in a situation where the stakes are higher than in the politics of the rich world? Is Epicurianism and its style of thought really possible except in highly favourable situations in regard to political regime,prosperity,climate? Epicurianism in Stalin/Hitler regimes could certainly be lived – but in the desperate terms for which the term “internal emigration” was invented.

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s a good point. In Epicurus’ world, everyone was getting involved in things that were downright confusing and unintellectual: fortune telling, astrology, and other pursuits. Intellectualism was gone and the politicians seemed to follow them.

      In today’s day and age, because everything is so globalized, we can’t avoid politics, or at least their influence. But I wonder if simply ignoring politics could lead one to a happier life since one doesn’t have to pay attention to what my politician is saying or what the opponent is saying.

  5. 2C3 says:

    Very late to the ballgame, but in the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus states, ” …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.”

    I always interpreted this to mean that even certain noble pleasures (and not merely base pleasures such as “one’s perception of his/her making a difference”) had ought to be avoided if greater personal disharmony ensues due to the pursuit of them. For example, becoming a world class violinist and performing with world class orchestras might be a deeply intellectually engaging and emotionally fulfilling experience but requires immense effort and the will to ignore other pleasures for the sake of a single long term one, which ultimately can be easily likened to the “greater annoyance” to which the quote refers.

    One undergraduate’s opinion…

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Catalina, welcome. Any post is fine no matter how late it is.

      I think you’re interpretation is correct. Simply focusing on an exquisite pleasure by forsaking other pleasures doesn’t seem to lead a good life. Balance and harmony is the key and Epicurus always recommended that the simplest pleasures are the best. Not the base, but the simplest. Things like friendship, basic needs, and being happy. Those seem to be easy to obtain, yet we often get distracted by outside sources telling us to go for the extravagant stuff. Things like the best cell phone, a newer car, or a hot tub. We cannot forget the simply being happy is having our basic needs met. You opinion is valid.

  6. dissent says:

    This is a really interesting topic thanks for the post. It inspires me to take a closer look at the fragments that deal with politics

    [quote]
    KD 5) It is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live prudently and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking (when, for instance, one is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly) it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life. [/quote]

    This one is very interesting. Is it possible to work in politics while living prudently and honorably? Politics deals with the world of rhetoric and appearances. What’s more there is a strong element of chance in politics, and a strong possibility of disillusionment and unhappiness even if one is to win. Finally, politics is a world of intemperate opinions, appeals to emotions related to the fear of death, impious religion, and it is closely related to war.

    The criterion of pleasure would seem to encourage us toward a life of moderation or ataraxia, in opposition to a life of glory or war.

    A related principle might be
    [quote]KD 16) Chance has little effect upon the wise man, for his greatest and highest interests are directed by reason throughout the course of life. [/quote]
    so to enter politics is to enter the world of chance.

    [quote]KD 29) Among desires some are natural and necessary, some natural but not necessary, and others neither natural nor necessary, but due to baseless opinion. [/quote]
    Politicians curry favor by appealing ‘unnatural’ desires that exist only in the world of appearances..

    If [quote] KD 31) Natural justice is the advantage conferred by mutual agreements not to inflict nor allow harm. [/quote]

    Maybe the Epicureans had a pacifist streak?

    [quote]KD 33) Absolute justice does not exist. There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm. [/quote] T

    his principle is not apolitical, but is highly pragmatic, and thus likely to be hated by political zealots. As far as politics is the realm of zealots and other imprudent men, it is a realm to be avoided.

    From the Letter
    [quote]130-1) We also regard self-sufficiency as a great virtue – not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have. We are firmly convinced that those who least yearn for luxury enjoy it most, and that while natural desires are easily fulfilled, vain desires are insatiable. [/quote]
    This passage seems to indirectly endorse small self-sufficient communities independent of greater governing bodies.
    I think Epicurus’ disavowal of politics is simultaneously sincere and ironic. To advocate that men life in small communities composed of trusted friends bound by fraternity IS to a political teaching. It’s hardly a surprise that both political and religious authorities would be hostile to it, given that the philosophy of the garden threatens the strength of their myths, which are the key to maintaining domination and the status quo (or to motivate men to go to war). The Epicurean is a man of peace and a bit of an anarchist, so no wonder Epicurean philosophy was persecuted.

    The truth is—if everybody was an Epicurean, we wouldn’t see much war would we? People would think twice about riling others up about this or that injustice. And I wonder how necessary ‘the state’ and ‘politics’ would actually be. Certainly there would still be the need for justice and mutual agreements to prevent injury and harm. However, if ‘everyone’ was free of anxiety and felt ‘secure’, there would be less ‘fear’ all around.

    So maybe the Epicurean’s political action is staying out of politics and being an example of how well life can be lived without paying attention to it? Or is the Epicurean’s virtue itself (pursuit of ataraxia) his political action?

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Dissent. These are fascinating quotes and wonderful interpretations of them. I think any expansion of Epicurus and politics would help contribute to the scholarship of this. I don’t think I can contribute more except for maybe answering your last question.

      I think staying out of politics is the pursuit of ataraxia for Epicurus. Paying attention to politics isn’t necessarily the goal, but more of the means. The goal is ataraxia and not paying attention to it is the means to reach that goal. This is how I interpret Epicurus.

  7. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  8. I read that 49% didn’t vote in this 2016 presidential election. Wonder if they are Epicureans. That was meant to be a joke.

    I hear you say that the better way to fight to protect the environment is to sway public opinion. And when public opinion can be swayed, then the politicians will follow. Is that what you’re saying?

    In Florida, we voted on a couple of Amendments. One was to put into our state constitution that solar innovation couldn’t be subsidized. That amendment was sponsored and promoted by profit motivated utilities. Luckily people voted no. It will be challenging to see how leased or owned solar panels will affect the utilities IF the people also want to be on the grid. It seemed terribly irresponsible to put it in the constitution that we can’t incentivize solar innovation so I’m glad people (that voted) voted no.

    The problem with saying don’t get involved in politics is that IF you’re not going to be informed then you shouldn’t vote. IF you’re not informed, you could vote wrong.

    For example, let’s take that solar amendment. The profit motivated utilities were trying to be very clever and fool people. Right now people can own solar panels. The utilities know people love the idea of solar. So part of the amendment put what already exists in law (people can own solar) into the constitution. People will read that and think GREAT and vote yes IF they don’t read on to notice the other part. The other part is the meat of the profit motivated utilities. They wanted to put into our state constitution that solar couldn’t be subsidized. Maybe we don’t want to subsidize it. Maybe we do. BUT the decision shouldn’t be in the state constitution.

    So I read that 49% didn’t vote. About 25% voted for Donald. About 25% voted for Hillary. And about 1% voted for Gary Johnson. Will you claim that the outcome won’t make a difference in our lives? Were the voters informed?

    There is a big movement to destroy the public schools. The libertarians want to end public school funding. Some Christians and Jews want to end funding public schools. Unfortunately (and I wonder if unknowingly) people are voting people into our Florida state government that want to fund private schools. And Donald put that in his 100 day agenda. He wants to fund private schools with our tax dollars..

    excerpt from your post:
    Sadly, I think Epicurus can reply back: “so what? What higher pleasure is there about two people who bicker about issues of the day? Nothing will get done in politics. It’s all about appearances, not reality.” To which, you could reply: “but what about the environment, slavery, human rights, etc.?” Epicurus has an answer: “all that didn’t come from the government. It came from grass roots thinking. Do you think slavery ended because of government? No, the government wanted it there. The Mexican War is a good example. The people who wanted it gone were the abolitionists. That’s not the government. What about natural rights? Those were the founding fathers, they weren’t even a government yet. Women’s rights? It was grass roots. Minority rights? That was mainly through MLK, Jr. Grass roots again. The environment? It’s still through grass roots. Even though Al Gore is pushing a lot for it, notice he’s not really in the political spotlight anymore just to get his message across. To hell with politics, get out. If you want something done, it must be done through the grass roots. But more importantly, we can recognize what is good through contemplating the pleasures of life. If everyone learned that, then no one would get involved in politics and everyone could know what the good is all about.

  9. Here is an article about people not voting in the 2016 election. My book group is going to be discussing Epicurus in January. If you know any Epicureans in Jacksonville, Florida area …certainly would love for them to attend our book group.

    https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2014/11/06/100627/why-young-minority-and-low-income-citizens-dont-vote/

  10. Simon Condon says:

    I’ve just started PHIX132 at Macquarie and the topic of epicureanism and political engagement came up today. Perhaps political engagement in the form of voting won’t make any difference and the epicurean ought to abstain, but if some kind direct action were required, and likely to secure a natural and necessary pleasure such as a fresh water supply – then an epicuruean would consider this the right course of action?

    • shaunmiller says:

      This is interesting. I’m not exactly sure how to answer this, but I lean toward that voting would be good because it leads to a direct pleasure. Maybe it’s the grand scale politics that Epircurus was against.

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