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Nathaniel Kan

Philosophy 125 a

TA: Les Wolf

Epicurus and the Stoics

During the Hellenistic period, several schools of philosophy emerged that were

not only theoretical studies but forwarded practical philosophy for ordering one’s own

life. Epicurus and the Stoic philosophers are both omnipresent examples of these

practical philosophies, applications of which have appeared throughout history. While the

ethical philosophies of these schools are probably their most widely recognized ideas,

issues raised by their metaphysical philosophies—notably the compatibility of

determinism and Free Will—are still puzzled over today. By reviewing each school’s

metaphysical theories, we can see why they developed different ethical recommendations

for practical living.

Both Epicurus and the Stoic philosophers argued in their ethics for following a

natural course of being. Epicurus claimed that the two most important things were one’s

own bodily health and a peaceful state of mind. The Stoics’ philosophy of ethics was one

step removed: one’s own health, etc are “natural things” (i.e. you generally prefer them),

however, happiness is not contingent on external things. Happiness rather is contingent

on whether you have rational ordering of preferences.

We can see how these two contemporary Hellenistic schools developed different

ethical philosophies by looking at their differing metaphysics. The Stoics deny the

existence of universals or Forms: everything that is must have the power to act and be
affected by other things that exist. The Stoics proposed a cyclical, entirely materially

universe. This universe has no vacuum space and is populated by the four elements, two

of which are active (fire and air) and two of which are passive (earth and water).

In order to maintain distinct macroscopic objects in the ontology, the two active

elements combine to form pneuma, a substance which guides the development of animate

bodies. Pneuma’s inward force is what constitutes the unification of a single object, while

its outwards force is what grants objects distinct properties.

This denial of non-physical objects does not mean that the Stoics rejected the

existence of God, rather, they make God an omnipresent material internal to the universe.

Every cycle of the Stoic world-view is completely teleologically determined by this

World-Soul. The Stoics believed in fate as a science.

The Epicurean world-view, on the other hand, is not completely determined;

certain events are indeterministic, and still others are under the control of the individual.

Epicurus was an atomist, adopting Democritean atoms into his own philosophy and

adding to them the properties of weight and swerve. Swerve, the propensity of atoms to

randomly readjust their course, allowed Epicurus to argue that Free Will does exist—in

the form of indeterminacy.

This is one of the primary differences between the Stoic and Epicurean World-

Views; the Stoics posit the elements as the primary matter, and argue for completely

populated world, while the Epicureans followed in the tradition of Democritus and used

the existence of atomic particles and motion to explain their physical system. Today, we

would probably say that the Epicureans allowed for Free Will in a much more traditional

sense than the Stoics did.

There are various arguments for the incompatibility of Free Will and an

indeterministic system (as well as obvious arguments for why Free Will is incompatible

with a deterministic one, teleological or otherwise). In modern terms the Stoics would

probably be called some form of Compatibilist; believing that the actions of all matter are

fully determined, but that Free Will is simply acting in accordance with the physical

states of one’s mind. The Epicureans, believing that indeterminacy can be equated with

Free Will, bear some similarities to modern theories that quantum mechanical

indeterminacy can be equated with Free Will.1 Both schools believed in Man’s capacity

for an independent will, however, their definitions of what constitutes Free Will are


The Stoic assumption that the universe is a determined system leads directly into

the Stoic ethical philosophy: it makes no sense to anguish when something tragic befalls

you, as there was nothing you could have done. Men are born with the facilities to


[28] Haven’t you received faculties that enable you to bear whatever

happens? Have you not got magnanimity? Courage? [29] Have you not

received the power of endurance? Any why should I care any longer about

whatever happens if I haven magnanimity? (Epictetus 14)

Thus the best life is one where contentedness is achieved not through the actualization of

events, but by correctly ordering one’s preferences based on a system of “natural

preferences”—those things which in general we desire—health, wealth, etc. To the Stoic,

these things are not truly Good things, as they are not Good in every circumstance (we

can easily imagine situations where money does not equate happiness). Thus the only
Nick Herbert explores this idea thoroughly in his book Elemental Mind.
truly Good thing is virtue produced by happiness. Maximizing this virtue without reliance

on events out of one’s control is the ultimate life-goal.

For example, supposed the Stoic Sage lives on a tropical island prone to

hurricanes, and after a storm warning one cloudy day he has the choice between 1)

fortifying his house against the possible storm and 2) drinking all night. The sage choose

to prepare, and yet the storm comes the next day and destroys his house and kills his

family anyways. But the Stoic sage accepts this. Epictetus writes “[37] Come then, now

that you are aware of all this, contemplate the faculties that you have, and having done

that, say: ‘Bring, Zeus, what circumstances you please.” (13).

The sage is content in the fact that he made the right decision because of his

rationally ordered preferences. In terms of modern economic preference theory, the utility

of the Stoic is not based on actually events. Rather, the Stoic sage can fully determine his

own happiness independent of events, by properly ordering his own preferences. This is

an idea that seems very different from usual conceptions of happiness; it seems natural to

think of happiness as at least somewhat bound to actual happenings, even if it is not

completely tied to it.

The different metaphysics of Epicurus lead his school to a different ethical

proposition. Whereas the Stoics believed fate was set in stone, Epicurus believed that

one’s actions could change future events. Epicurus argued against popular religion,

choosing to believe instead that the Gods exist but that they do not actively affect human

lives. Because of these postulates, Epicurus was lead to a different ultimate life-goal:
A steady view of these matters shows us how to refer all moral choice and

aversion to bodily health and imperturbability of mind, these being the

twin goals of happy living. (Letter to Menoeceus 128)

Epicurus’ ideal life is the minimization of anguish, “ataraxia.” This is not the same thing

as the maximization of pleasure, as to Epicurus too much pleasure can result ultimately in

pain (for example, taking a drug and later becoming a drug addict). Thus, Epicurus

recommends a careful pain-averse life of moderate pleasures.

Like the Stoic, the Epicurean advocate rational choice, however, his happiness is

ultimately affected by the actual events that occur. The Epicurean is a risk-averse rational

consumer. This means that the Epicurean in practical orderings becomes very similar to

the Stoic. Because of the Epicurean’s aversion to risk and desire for moderation, the

Epicurean sage adopts a risk-minimizing preference order. Epicurus writes:

[The Epicurean sage] thinks it preferable to have bad luck rationally than

good luck irrationally. In other words, in human action it is better for a

rational choice to be unsuccessful than for an irrational choice to succeed

through the agency of chance. (Letter to Menoeceus 136)

The Epicurean proves that he is not a gambler by maintaining that is better make the

rational decision (that which attains the most pleasure and minimizes risk) and lose than

to take a needless risk and win. Over-consumption and risks lead to anxiety and

unfulfilled desires, which the Epicurean wants to avoid.

Another principal difference between Epicurean and Stoic ethics is the inclusion

of other people into what classifies as ‘good.’ An Epicurean is a pure egoist: his

interactions with other people only matter insofar as they provide pleasure to him.
Practically, this results in day-to-day interactions which are very similar to modern

ethical standards: most people would derive normal small pleasures from interacting with

others in a reasonable and civilized manner. The Stoic, on the other hand, allows for the

accommodation of others into his preference ordering calculus. The Stoics extend their

philosophy to include regards for other people, by adopting a principal of familiarity:

included along with things that are suitable for us “according to our nature”—money,

good health, etc—are things that stand in a natural relationship of affection—our relatives

and loved ones. Thus, when considering our choices, we should take into account things

that we have a natural affection for as well.

The schools are very similar in many respects. The Epicurean advocates

moderation so that one is never set up for disappointment. To return to the drug use

example, you probably should not spend all your money on heroin, because the

immediate pleasure will cause future pain. The Stoic agrees, for different reasons: you

should not spend all your money on heroin because heroin is not a good, it does not

benefit you to use it in all circumstances.

Both schools forwarded that philosophy was a way of life, not merely an abstract

science, and urged followers to rethink traditional values. In the context of the Hellenistic

period, both philosophies provided means to dealing with difficult situations. The Stoic

advises we rethink our value calculus to not include events outside our control, and

instead focus on our internal decision-making process as the true measure of value. The

Epicurean philosophy advises a life that minimizes the possibility of pain; we should

avoid marriage, sex, drugs, over-eating and other such “risks.”

Modern psychological studies show some data that supports these value systems.

According to a recent study2 published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest

magazine, happiness (measured in several different ways) is not correlated with wealth.

This could be used as support for either Epicureanism, as moderation may seem now as

an attractive alternative to a philosophy which suggests the maximization of a physical

quanta (e.g. wealth), or Stoicism, as ultimately external factors may play much less a role

in our own contentedness than intuition may suggest.

Both Epicurus and the Stoics were radical philosophers in that they combined a

traditional philosophical system with practical recommendations, many of which persist

today. The influence of these philosophers on philosophy and action continues to this

day: Admiral James Stockdale adopted a Stoic philosophy as mental defense while a

prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. Ultimately, both the Stoics and the Epicureans contributed to

a philosophical tradition of practical ethical guidelines.

Psychological Science in the Public Interest,