Epicurean Pleasure and the Objectivist Good

by Peter Saint-Andre (1997)

This essay was written in response to Ray Shelton's paper "Epicurus and Rand", published in Volume 2, Number 3 of the journal Objectivity.

First, I would like to thank Ray Shelton for his thoughtful comparison of Epicurus and Rand. The all-too-rare combination of scholarship and humanism he brought to his analysis was much appreciated by this reader. In the spirit of the philia held so dear by the Epicureans, I must say that Mr. Shelton sounds like the kind of person I'd want to have as a friend.

That said, some issues deserve comment. The most fundamental of these is the viability of Mr. Shelton's central claim that Ayn Rand's ethics is deeply similar to that of Epicurus. While Mr. Shelton disputes the Aristotelian leanings of many interpreters of Rand's ethics, I am not sure that his argument for Epicurus has won the day. Let us look at some of the textual evidence to determine if the Objectivist ethics is indeed Epicurean at heart.

First, there are several similarities between the world-views of Rand and Epicurus that go unnoticed by Mr. Shelton. To choose a prominent example, both thinkers profess a belief in what Rand called "the benevolence of the universe", which Epicurus describes as a "confidence that dreadful things are not everlasting" (Principal Doctrines 28, translation mine). And both hold that philosophy is essential to successful human living. However, despite the similarities noted here and in Mr. Shelton's essay, there are important -- and, I would argue, essential -- differences between the two philosophies.

To concretize the matter, consider the following passage from Ayn Rand's early novel Anthem, in which the hero contemplates his future course (Rand 1946, 104):

Here, on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort .... And the day will come when I shall break all the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved, and my home will become the capital of a world where each man will be free to exist for his own sake. For the coming of that day shall I fight, I and my sons and my chosen friends.

This thought is striking in its contrast to what, presumably, an Epicurean would think of doing with his "chosen friends" -- philosophizing, conversing, enjoying the tranquil pleasures of life in a secluded garden. Ayn Rand's hero envisions working with his friends to liberate the world (a theme that is echoed in Rand's last novel, Atlas Shrugged). This quote, then, gives us a hint regarding the activist nature of the Objectivist ethics and one of the cardinal differences between Rand's moral vision and that of Epicurus. While Mr. Shelton recognizes these differences, for example by noting the markedly opposing appraisals that Rand and Epicurus have of "active" pursuits such as work and sex, he does not delve into the deeper reasons for these differences.

I believe these deeper reasons are tied to Epicurus' view of pleasure -- specifically, his view that tranquil pleasures are superior to active pleasures.

As Mr. Shelton points out, Epicurus draws a distinction between hedone en kinesei kata kinesin and katastematike hedone. In Greek, the adjective katastematikos means primarily "sedate" or "tranquil", although it can also mean "of an established state". Even in the latter, more technical, sense, the idea of tranquility would come quickly to mind for a speaker or reader of ancient Greek. Thus the contrast between what Fred Miller calls process pleasures and state pleasures (Miller 1976, 169) can be understood less technically as a contrast between active or lively ("kinetic") pleasures and sedate or tranquil pleasures.

The word hedone in Greek (as the word pleasure in English) has two senses: it can refer to a certain kind of well-liked activity (as in "hiking is one of my great pleasures") or to a certain kind of feeling ("hiking gives me great pleasure"). This is the meaning of Aristotle's distinction between pleasure as energeia and pleasure as pathos (cf. Owen 1971). Yet, even though this distinction could not have been lost on Epicurus, it is difficult to see that he is cognizant of it. Specifically, it seems that Epicurus conflates these two senses of hedone, or at least sees a close identification between them. To set the issue in relief, consider the following questions one could raise about the position of Epicurus:

  1. Is it the feeling that is tranquil/lively or is it the activity that is tranquil/lively -- or is it always both?
  2. Can a lively activity produce a tranquil feeling, and can a tranquil activity produce a lively pleasure?

I think that Epicurus would answer the second question in the negative; for he seems to hold that lively, "kinetic" activities (e.g., work, sex) produce lively feelings (e.g., joy, ecstasy, fun=euphrosune) and are therefore bad, while tranquil activities (e.g., communing with friends, philosophizing) produce tranquil feelings (aponia=lack of pain, ataraxia=lack of confusion) and are therefore good. Thus Mr. Shelton's claim that "kinetic hedone is the means to the end of katastematic hedone" (Shelton 1995, 10) cannot be right. If it were, "kinetic" pleasures like work and sex would be instrumentally good and therefore of great value in leading one to aponia and ataraxia. But this is not the assessment that Epicurus renders regarding "kinetic" activities and feelings, for he counsels against them. (The underlying rationale seems to be that longer-lasting pleasures are deemed better than shorter ones; since a pleasure lasts only so long as the cause of the pleasure and since established states last longer than activities, the "static" pleasures associated with established states are better than the "kinetic" pleasures associated with activities.)

Therefore, despite the ethical naturalism that can be found in Epicurean ethics, it appears that Epicurus relies on a purely formal distinction between tranquil, "state" pleasures and active, "process" pleasures to determine which values are best to pursue in life. This is in strong contrast to Ayn Rand, who derives a consistent, objective system of values, not from the nature of pleasure, but from the fundamental characteristics or essential powers of human beings (on my interpretation, these powers are thought, choice, action, and feeling -- see my essay A Philosophy for Living on Earth for argument and textual evidence). Thus the fact that Rand holds happiness to be the goal or individual purpose of living does not imply that she agrees with the full sense of Epicurus' idea that "pleasure is the beginning and end of a happy life", which Epicurus explicates as follows: "for we recognize pleasure as the primary and in-born good, and because of it we begin every choice and avoidance, and we return to it, using the feeling as a ruler to evaluate every good" (Letter to Menoeceus 128, Long and Sedley 1987, I 114, II 116).

For Rand, the human individual is a conceptual being whose life is marked by long-term self-direction, the pursuit of chosen values, the active creation of value in the world, and a passionate dedication to what one finds important. In pursuing happiness, according to Rand, one must build upon the essential human powers by using one's particular talents, skills, excellences, and interests to create unique value in the world (through, broadly speaking, projects and relationships) and thus translate one's inner values into objective reality. Objectivism holds that there is a continuum or hierarchy of value from the value-standard of life, through cardinal values that are rooted in the essential human powers, through one's individual life-purpose (happiness), through one's goals and commitments and habits, to the level of daily living. It is this continuum that both individualizes the Objectivist formulation that "life is the standard of value" and grounds the individual's pursuit of happiness in the metaphysical nature of man.

For Epicurus, the human individual is beset by irrational fears, disturbances of soul, and the temptations and false pleasures of unnecessary, unnatural, and "kinetic" desires. But the wise Epicurean can rise above these obstacles on the path to painlessness and tranquility -- and find "unsurpassable joy" through "the removal of a great evil" (Fragment 61, Shelton 1995, 13-14) -- by focusing on pleasure that is not subjectively but objectively good.

Now, Epicurean pleasure is objective to the extent that it results from the state of having satisfied the "natural and necessary desires". And Mr. Shelton explicates these desires as the "minimal necessary and sufficient elements required for the condition of hygieia" or health (Shelton 1995, 9). Yet this last formulation gives short shrift to those desires that even Epicurus terms "necessary for happiness" (Letter to Menoeceus 127, Long and Sedley 1987, I 113, II 115-116 -- although Mr. Shelton implies that eudaimonia is nothing more than the unified health of body and soul -- cf. Shelton 1995, 13, 14). For most human beings, satisfying the minimal requirements for health is rather thin gruel (even including psychological health, if indeed that is part of Epicurean hygieia). On the Objectivist view, the point of human existence is not to live minimally but to live maximally -- to pursue the actualization of one's highest potential, to honor "the fire of self-assertiveness" (Rand 1969, 115; cf. 121), to fight "the battle for [one's] right to individuality" (ibid., 105), to create and experience "the incomparable glory which is your existence" (Rand 1957, 1021), to pursue "unclouded exaltation" as the "highest experience possible to man" (Rand 1965, 152). It is this sense of human glory and unbounded joy in living that so attracted Rand to the quite different yet similarly activist philosophies of Aristotle and Nietzsche, to the productive power of modern capitalism, to the exaltation of romantic love, and to the creative freedom of art -- all the while seeing these glories as grounded in the natural powers of the human individual.

Despite or perhaps because of this exalted vision, Rand's project in ethics is, like Aristotle's, at root metaphysical -- it deals with "what is possible" to the human individual (Rand 1966, 51; Rand 1963, 168, 170; Rand 1962, 155). It is ironic that Mr. Shelton quotes Rand to the effect that Aristotle's approach was strictly dialectical (in the ancient sense -- i.e., based on finding wisdom by sifting through what the noble and the wise say and do -- cf. Owen 1966), because therein Rand misunderstands what Aristotle does in ethics, as opposed to what he sometimes says he does (for details, see my essay Our Man in Greece). Could anything in ethics be less dialectical and more metaphysical than Book I, Chapters 6-7 of the Nicomachean Ethics, wherein Aristotle investigates the ontological status of the Good and derives the nature of happiness from the ergon or "characteristic work" of man qua man? Objectivism is much closer to this approach, and to the resulting vision of eudaimonia as "an active life in accordance with reason" (though modern existence has changed the specific character of that "active life"), than it is to the Epicurean ideal of a "simple life" (Shelton 1995, 16) characterized by the negative concepts of lack of pain and lack of confusion (in Greek, the privatives aponia and ataraxia).

It may be that some ingredients of the Objectivist ethics have an Epicurean flavor to them. But we could just as easily find a whiff of Stoicism in Rand's ethical thought (especially in her novels), a strong Nietzschean undertone, and a dash of deontology. Despite the presence of these seasonings, I hold that the textual evidence shows the basic stock of the Randian ethical stew to be Aristotelian.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

Epicurus, Fragments. As translated in O'Connor and quoted in Shelton 1995.
--. Letter to Menoeceus. Greek text as contained in Long and Sedley 1987. Translations mine.
--. Principal Doctrines. Greek text as contained in Long and Sedley 1987. Translations mine.

Long, A.A. and Sedley, D.N. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers. Volume I, Translations of the Principal Sources; Volume II, Greek and Latin Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, F.D. 1976. Epicurus on the Art of Dying. Southern Journal of Philosophy 14(2):169-177.

O'Connor, E., translator, The Essential Epicurus. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.

Owen, G.E.L. 1966. The Platonism of Aristotle. In Owen 1986.
--. 1971. Aristotelian Pleasures. In Owen 1986.
--. 1986. Logic, Science, and Dialectic. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Rand, A. [1937] 1946. Anthem. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers.
--. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
--. 1962. Introduction to Ninety-Three. Edited version reprinted in Rand 1975.
--. 1963. The Goal of My Writing. Address delivered at Lewis and Clark College, October 1, 1963. Originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter 2 (10-11). Reprinted in Rand 1975.
--. 1965. Art and Moral Treason. The Objectivist Newsletter 4(3). Reprinted in Rand 1975.
--. 1966. Our Cultural Value-Deprivation. The Objectivist 5(4-5).
--. 1969. What is Romanticism? The Objectivist 7(5-7). Reprinted in Rand 1975.
--. [1969] 1975. The Romantic Manifesto. Revised edition. New York: New American Library.

Saint-Andre, P. 1993. A Philosophy for Living on Earth. Objectivity 1(6):133-173.
--. 2009. "Our Man in Greece: On the Use and Abuse of Aristotle in the Works of Ayn Rand". Unpublished essay. <https://stpeter.im/writings/rand/aristotle-rand.html.

Shelton, R. 1995. Epicurus and Rand. Objectivity 2(3):1-47.

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