I noted in my previous post that Aristotle didn’t see pleasure as the highest good, and didn’t equate it with happiness.  Other philosophers have equated pleasure with both the good and happiness.  Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341 B.C.E. to 270 B.C.E., thought that pleasure is the goal of the happy life.  He said that the good things in life are whatever causes pleasure, and the bad things are whatever causes pain.  His name is the root for the adjective “epicurean,” which can be defined as “given to indulgence in sensual pleasures.”


Actually, though, being epicurean in the sense of pursuing physical pleasures was not what Epicurus had in mind (so no, he wasn’t epicurean as we define the term). Despite equating pleasure with happiness, Epicurus didn’t advocate self-indulgence.  He conceived of pleasure not as sensuality, but as “freedom from bodily pain and mental anguish.”  The goal of life was not to stimulate the senses but to minimize physical and emotional suffering.  Epicurus thought that distress could be reduced if we both jettison false beliefs that cause anxiety and avoid pursuing idle desires.  He counseled prudence and frugality, though many of his followers subsequently abandoned such restraint in preference for satisfying libidinous desires. 


For Epicurus, then, happiness consisted in freedom from physical and mental pain.  He eliminated the connection between virtue and happiness that Aristotle thought was so important, and also eliminated Aristotle’s notion that the blessing of the gods (in the form of giving the person a respectable family, sufficient wealth, a good name, and the like) is necessary for happiness.  He also rejected the precondition that Plato set for happiness, namely the harmony of various aspects of the personality.


Freedom from physical and emotional pain is a pallid sort of happiness.  Can’t we do better than this?  Perhaps so, but Epicurus’ view had its advantages.  The chief of these was that it made happiness available to all. 


In his book Happiness: A History (2006), historian Darrin M. McMahon describes how happiness was progressively brought under human control.  Before the fifth century, humans could hope for happiness, but could do nothing to bring it about, since it was entirely a gift of the gods.  Plato and Aristotle were the first to broach the possibility that humans could do something to increase their likelihood of happiness.  However, for them, the path to happiness was quite arduous—for Aristotle, only a fortunate few could hope to display the requisite virtues, and even those men (no women, children, or slaves need apply) were still dependent on the blessings of the gods.  Epicurus threw the doors open: everyone could learn to think and act so as to free themselves from pain, so everyone could be happy.  It’s not surprising that he attracted a large number of followers, both then and for centuries to come.