|Marble bust of Epicurus|
Virtue is happiness in this world. The pursuit of happiness is the animating force of the Epicurean philosophy, just as it is the animating force of Epicurean humankind. Every other doctrine that Epicurus produced, from theology to the philosophy of mind, is provisional and in a way unserious, inasmuch as all ultimately answer to the teachings of his ethics, that happiness is the only point of life. Behind the lifestyle teachings that glosses its surface, nonetheless, Epicurean ethics is at bottom an attempt to apply the guiding principle of philosophy to the question of how one may live.
Epicurean ethics begins in a formal sense with the doctrine that pleasure is the only true good and pain is the only true evil. This claim generally goes under the name of “hedonism” — from the Greek word “hedon,” meaning pleasure—though that label is often the source of more misunderstanding than insight. The common view, abetted by Epicurus’s enemies in the early Christian church, falsely construes Epicurus’s hedonism as the claim that we should gratify our immediate sensual desires at the expense of all other goods. It is on this account that the term “epicurean” remains even today a synonym for “sybaritic,” “decadent,” or just “scrumptious.” Yet those who trouble themselves to look beyond his unearned reputation—as Diderot, for example, did—soon discover that Epicurus’s idea of the good life is one of moderate, sociable, and rather ascetic virtue. While Epicureanism is everywhere associated with fine wines and fatty foods, its founding philosopher lived on a diet of plain salads and fruits. “A man’s great wealth is to live sparingly with a tranquil mind,” says Lucretius; “for there is never a shortage of little.” While hedonism is usually thought to be a selfish creed, Epicurus was famous for the value he played on friendship. “You should be more concerned about whom you eat and drink with than what you eat and drink,” says Epicurus. It is “more pleasurable to confer a benefit than to receive one.”
The point of Epicurus’s hedonism is not that pleasure is the highest or best good, but that it is the only conceivable good. The distinctive feature of Epicurean ethics is not that it rejects those dispositions of character that we typically unite in the idea of virtue—prudence, fortitude, charity, honesty, and so forth—but that it explains and defends them as expressions of pleasure and pain.