The Seeds of Epicureanism and Stoicism

This post began as a comment I wrote on a Reddit post discussing the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism. The post and other comments on it (including my own) were focused primarily on differences in specific doctrines and beliefs, but I felt like these were missing something important, something fundamental. It is possible to know all the details of something without actually “getting it.” This was my attempt at getting “it” across.

Although inspired by some elements of the biographies of Zeno of Citium and Epicurus, the “proto-Stoic” and “proto-Epicurean” of this post are not intended to represent any actual people, but rather my guess at generic perspectives of those who might go on to develop philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Let’s compare a proto-Epicurean with a proto-Stoic. The proto-Stoic might be said to begin with inspiring examples: heroes (fictional, mythological, historical, or contemporary) he or she admires for whatever reason: handling adversity, doing great things, being reliable, anything that inspires admiration. (Zeno was inspired to study philosophy by a parable about Hercules told by Prodicus.) The proto-Stoic looks around, sees who he or she is inspired to be like, and asks “How can I be like that?” This, of course, leads to further exploration: what is keeping from being like that? I obviously don’t want to be a clone of any particular hero, nor do I want to replicate aspects of my hero I don’t admire, so what particular features to I want to emulate? Do the different features I admire have a common theme? Ultimately, this leads to the pursuit of virtue (and enumeration of specific virtues), and theorizing about where virtues come from (e.g. oikeiosis), etc.

The proto-Epicurean, on the other hand, begins by noticing something that is causing distress (to him or herself, or others), and realizing “hay, this is complete bullshit”, the way an atheist or universalist views fear of going to hell. Looking around more, the proto-Epicurean realizes that just about everything that stresses people out, from loss of property to disease, is complete bullshit, and so ultimately arrives at a philosophy centered keeping ones-self free of such bullshit. (The pursuit of pleasure for the Epicureanism is a rather peculiar one, in that they thought pleasure “greater” than freedom from distress from bullshit was… bullshit: beyond freedom from distress, there is only variation, not more or less.)

These two pursuits lead to rather different approaches to life, particularly society. To the Epicurean, interacting too much with society was a great way to get ones-self mired in bullshit. To the Stoic, hanging out in a garden away from society doesn’t really seem worthy of emulation.

The two approaches would also lead to rather different intellectual infrastructures, and philosophical excuses justifications for their approaches. To the Epicurean, the only goal of humans is pleasure, the highest limit of which is freedom from bullshit. To the Stoics, the goal was to mature from being children driven by a variety of impulses into fully mature, morally beautiful adults. (See the comparison in Cicero’s On Ends.)

Imagine interrogating both the proto-Stoic and the proto-Epicurean with the child’s repetition of “but why?” For any philosophy, you will ultimately end up either going in circles, or an end point justified as being good for its own sake, not for the sake of anything else. Once disagreement over the endpoints is reached, endpoints for which each side thinks their own is so obvious and self-evident that it doesn’t warrant justification, no further discussion is productive. The best that can be done is “Well, that’s not my goal.” or maybe “That isn’t a normal goal for a person to have.” or even “If you really understood yourself, you would realize that it isn’t even your goal either!” The proto-Stoic and the proto-Epicurean reach such an impasse. For the proto-Stoic, this would be something like “to be the best person possible”. For the proto-Epicurean, this would be “to enjoy life.”

I have a great deal of sympathy for both. I agree with the Epicurean, in that an awful lot of life would be better if we didn’t worry about bullshit. I also agree with the Stoic, though, that there is more to life than just avoiding bullshit. Personally, I find reading and thinking about Stoicism more useful and interesting. Many of the particular sources of distress the Epicureans put a lot of effort into addressing are not ones that bother me. For example, I rarely even think about what will happen to me when I die, and I’m never stressed out about omens and horoscopes. Furthermore, the Epicureans seem to completely miss the fact that there is more to life than avoiding stress.

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