Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Post #2: Epicurus and Epictetus

How does Epicurus define an ethical person? Compare and contrast his moral theory with that of Epictetus’ understanding of ethics.

Epicurus thinks that an ethical person is one who pursues “the highest good….for its own sake.” The highest good for Epicurus is happiness coupled with pleasure. According to Epicurus, all of humanity chooses to avoid pain by pursuing pleasure. Yet, not all pleasure is worthy of choice and not all pain is worthy of avoidance. All choice of the matter should be with long-term effects in mind. Epicurus surmises that the ethical person should believe in a God that is “a living being immortal and happy,” should not fear death, should not be codependent upon another, and should have and understanding of the nature of one’s pleasures and desires.

Epicurus claims that the pleasure one seeks is directly tied into the desires one possesses. He states that there are two types of pleasure: “moving’ pleasures and ‘static’ pleasures.” “Moving” pleasure are those pleasures that one is moving towards and “static” pleasures are those pleasures that one has attained and satiated. He continues that there are three types of desire: “natural and necessary desires, natural but non-necessary, and ‘vain and empty desires.” “Natural and necessary desires” are those desires that are associated with the necessities of life and are “naturally limited.” These desires are always “moving” pleasures and easily “static” pleasures. “Natural but non-necessary desires” are those desires that are associated with extravagance and luxury and are not necessities of life. Finally, “vain and empty desires” are those desires that are never satiated and have “no natural limit.” These are false desires impressed upon man by society and ignorance.

Epictetus understood that the majority of humankind lives in a state of unhappiness. The trials and tribulations of daily life, the obstacles of everyday life compromise one’s happiness on a daily basis and confound the majority on what is truly important in life. Epictetus suggests that if one chooses to do so, he can change his fortune and live a life of happiness. This would entail that one understand “the true nature of one’s being and keeping one’s prohairesis (moral character) in the right condition.”

Epictetus suggests that life is lived either virtuously or decadently. What propels one towards one or the other is what Epictetus calls the “indifferent.” “Indifferent” things are either “preferred” or “dispreferred.” What is considered “preferred” are things that contribute to living well. What is considered “dispreferred” are things that do not contribute to living well. Epictetus thinks proper use of “preferred” things when they are available to be a virtuous act and virtuous action when they are not available to be a virtuous act as well. The point is one seizing control of the circumstance and acting on that moment.

Epictetus thoroughly believed that the life one lived was totally dependent upon that one person and no one else. He states that there are things within our control and things that are out of our control. Epictetus continues that one must learn to adapt and overcome any situation and to recognize that anything that is “dispreferred” does not have enough sway in one’s life to motivate action. The power of influence in one’s life is truly subjective.

Epicurus and Epictetus approach happiness differently. Epicurus thinks humans should avoid pain by pursuing pleasure. Epictetus thinks humans have control as to how to react to circumstances. Both are similar in their perspective on wants. Epicurus thinks that there are wants that are “natural and necessary” and wants that are “vain and empty”. Epictetus thinks that there are wants that are “preferred” and “dispreferred.”
The “natural and necessary” wants and the “preferred” wants contribute to living well , whereas the “vain and empty” wants and “dispreferred” wants do not contribute to living well. They also differ in respect to the gods. Epicurus thought the gods had no time for us. The gods, according to Epicurus, were ideals for men to aspire towards but not something that men should fear. Epictetus thought God was responsible for everything. He believed that humanity should be thankful for what God has “given us.”

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