THE GOOD LIFE--Greek Philosophers Teachings

Selflessness, The Good, and Happiness--jk
Happiness & Scientific Psychology--jk
The Art of Loving: A Behaviorist Approach--jk
A Lesson on Love from Cats--jk
THE DECALOGUE: Greek Moral Philosophy Modernized--jk
THE GOOD LIFE--Greek Philosophers Teachings
No Free Lunches: The Role of the Stock Market--jk
Plato's Dream Fulfilled by Science--jk
The lessons from the previous essay, How Congress Works--jk
On Dying Atheist: A Doctor's Words

The Greeks gave the world philosophy (science then was part of philosophy), so wrote Diogenes Leartius in his History of philosophy.  Until then the world only had the darkness of religious explanations of the nature of things.  It was with Greeks that enlightenment began, and it was their wisdom rediscovered that laid the foundation for the Renaissance





I was reading a commentary on Herodotus by Professor Vandiver, and she pointed out that for the Greek audience who listened to his histories, Herodotus digressed to write about the cultural difference between the Greek norm and the nations he visited.  The further out from the center of the earth, which was at Delphi, the stranger the cultures.  My culture is academic, my schooling philosophy and science, and thus by inclination and studies I am out of time, for I am a Greek philosopher in a modern world.  Thus many things are strange, the center of my world is at the University of Manitoba (the geographic center of North America).  It is not just pierced, painted, and dyed flesh, but also religious practices, clothing worn for ornamentation, recreational shopping, and hobbies which consume much and return little.  Everything has an alternative, and to me hobbies which promote health, mental sharpness, and a knowledge of practical things is better than violin and chess playing, knitting and vacuous tube watching.    


For each person there is an historical analysis which accounts for their choices.  And for society social Darwinism provides the explanation for cultural diversity.  Birds develop varied courting practices, dogs too, and humans also.  As we go up the ladder of brain size in proportion to body weight, there is an increase in variation within the species.  But are we more complex dog?  Are we a product of a complex history of reinfocements?


The Greek philosophers had an answer.  Aristotle said (following a tradition of analysis over 2-centuries old) that man was a rational animal.  The degree of each depends on the training which the rational portion received--in philosophy, of course.  In those days philosophy included our current logic, epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, but also political science, psychology, science, life sciences, and mathematics--what today is called a liberal arts education.    


Some concepts are not easily stated in our language.  And rather than say Greek philosopher, I had elsewhere coined the rinkers (rational thinkers).  Concerning this goal and the advantages of obtaining it, these ancient philosophers were in agreement—with of course endless squabbling over details.  They justified the need for philosophical education through the advantages a rinker would have, and also a society made up of rinkers. 


Their chain of arguments compelling; principle topics:

1).  What good is (what ought we as rinkers and in the political state trying to maximize)?  

2).  Good life:

     a).  Pleasure and pain

b).  Freedom from poverty

          c).  Education and the examined life     

d).  Freedom from fears

     e).  Gods

     f).  Honorable behavior

     g).  Doing things in the right proportion

h).  Political/social obligations

i).  Friendship and security



The most common answer for the philosophers was that pleasure is good. Plato argued this in but one of his dialogues, Aristotle in Niocehean Ethics, Epititus the stoic in Discourses, and Epicurus in the letters and maxims preserved by Diogenes Leartius.  If they didn’t write directly on what was the highest good, they wrote indirectly by concerning themselves with the question of what one should do to live the good life.  The goal was to develop habits of character so that one would pursue activities that yielded the purer pleasures, those whose price tag of expenses and pains were lowest in comparison to their enjoyment.  


Epicurus gives the most satisfying explanation,[i] and it him that I shall rely upon.  He holds that pleasure is the highest good, and all things of value or valued because of their relation to or perceived relation to pleasure.  And of the pleasures he advises that we should seek the purest, those with the least expense and associated discomforts.  His maxims paint the picture of what sorts of qualities of character maximize the good life.  What follows is his words (The first “#)” is that assigned to the maxim and the end “(#)” is the page in Strodach):


A).  Pleasures and pains

8).  No pleasure is bad in itself.  But the things that make for pleasure in certain cases entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves (197).

29).  Some desires are (1) natural and necessary, others (2) natural but not necessary, still others (3) neither natural nor necessary but generated by senseless whims (201).  

9).  If all pleasures could be compressed in time and intensity, and were characteristic of the whole man or his more important aspects, the various pleasures would not differ from each other (197)[ii].

12).  The wise man will marry and beget children (109).

3).  The quantitative limit of pleasure is the elimination of all feelings of pain.  Wherever the pleasurable state exists, there is neither bodily pain nor mental pain nor both together, so long as state continues (196).

6).  Any means by which it is possible to procure freedom from fearing other men is natural good (197).

21).  One who understands the limits of the good life knows that what eliminates the pains brought on by need and what makes the whole of life perfect is easily obtained, so that there is no need for enterprises that entail the struggle for success (200). 



B).  Freedom from poverty

19).  He will be prudent about his property and provide for the future (109).


C).  Education and the examined life

4).  A man cannot become wise in any and every bodily condition or in every nationality (108).

11).  We would have no need for natural science unless we were worried by apprehensiveness regarding the heavenly bodies, by anxiety about the meaning of death, and also by our failure to understand the limitations of pain desire (198).

12).  It is impossible to get rid of our anxieties about essentials if we do not understand the nature of the universe and are apprehensive about some of the theological accounts.  Hence it is impossible to enjoy our pleasures unadulterated without natural science (198). 


D).  Freedom from fears

2).  Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensations and that which has no sensation is no concern of ours (196).


E).  Gods

9).  Love is not divinely sent (108).

1).  The blessed and indestructible being of the divine has no concerns of its own, nor does it make trouble for others.  It is not affected by feelings of anger or benevolence, because these are found where there is lack of strength (196)

24).  Dreams have neither divine character nor prophetic power but are generated by influx of atomic images.

123).  The irreligious man is not the person who destroys the gods of the masses but the person who imposes the ideas of the masses on the gods (179).


F).  Honorable behavior

17).  The just man is least disturbed by passions, the unjust man the most highly disturbed (199).

1.  Men inflict injuries from hatred, jealousy or contempt, but the wise man maters all these passions by means of reason (108). 

5).  It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly, and justly, and conversely it is impossible to live sensible, nobly, and justly without living pleasantly.  A person who does not have a pleasant life is not living sensibly, nobly, and justly, and conversely the person who does not have these virtues cannot live pleasantly (197).

31).  The justice that seeks nature’s goal is utilitarian pledge to men not to harm each other or be harmed (201).


G).  Doing things in the right proportion

68).  Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little (207).[iii]

44).  The wise man, after adjusting himself to the bare necessities of life, understands better how to share than to take—so large is the fund of self-sufficiency that he has discovered (206).

20).  He will love country life (109).

15).  Nature’s wealth is restricted and easily won, while that of empty convention runs on to infinity (198).

11).  For most people leisure is a stupor, and activity is a frenzy.


H).  Political/social obligations

10).  The wise man will not make high-flown speeches in public (109).

14).  Nor will he meddle in politics (109).


I).  Friendship and security

14).  The simplest means of procuring protection from the other men (which is gained to a certain extent by deterrent force) is the security of quiet solitude and withdrawal from the mass of people (198).

27).  Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of the who man, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship (201)[iv]. 



      Central to an understanding of the good life is the concepts of Ataraxia & Eudemonia

52).  Friendship {good cheer} dances round the world, summoning every one of us to awaken to the gospel of the happy life (206).

79).  The impassive soul disturbs neither itself or others (207).

129).  And so we speak of pleasure as the starting point and the goal of the happy life because we realize that it is our primary native good, because every act of choice and aversion originates with it, and because we come back to it when we judge every good by using the pleasure feeling as our criterion (182).

[i]   Among the well educated Greeks and Romans for over 4 centuries his teachings had the most followers. 

[ii]  Here Epicurus is saying what Bentham echoed 2000 years later, “push pins is as good as poetry.”  Two pleasures, argued Bentham, when assumed for sake of discussion are equal in intensity, long and short term consequences, and purity, then if their quantities are equal they are equal.  The part about characteristic of the whole man means an activity that the individual enjoys, rather than one he doesn’t naturally do.  .

[iii] My favorite.  Cyril Bailey translated it as “to whim who little is not enough, nothing will be enough.”

[iv]  This I would modify to read friendship of a beloved, for it is rear that a relationship will continue both in love and cooperative behavior found in friendship.   


Eudemonia as used by Aristotle meant the happiness from doing things well (including in the right proportion) from character rather than from need or employment. 

Ataraxia meant the happiness from being of good cheer because of being at peace with oneself and the world.  Such a person gets much more enjoyment form studies and learned discussion, and he doesn’t tire from the company of like-minded friends.  It is Nirvana stripped of religion.  Epicurus states that such pleasure is endless (one of the maxims not included by Strodach).

       Freedom from fear and worries is central to his ethics.  The good life consists of maximizing happiness.  Fears reduce the production.  Thus science is taught so as to eliminate fear of the gods, whom he says are blissful and unconcerned.  Friendship is desired not just to satisfy the drive for companionship, but for security, for in the Greek society protection from harm by fellow citizens rested primarily in their fear of consequences brought about the victim’s friends and relatives.  They taught not to fear death for there is no afterlife and thus no hell.  Pains from illness are at worse chronic and not acute, thus the Epicurean should not worry about future illnesses.  By realizing that wealth is not important to happiness, there will not be worry over the loss of wealth.  These teachings lay a foundation so that those who brace his teachings will be of a calm temperament for the sake of the maximization of ataraxia; a foundation needed given the pervasiveness of superstitions.


From the above axioms one can see that Epicurus has developed an ends measure of morality.  The ultimate end is the good-life.  This is a refutation of Plato and others who believe that there are principles, like that in mathematics which attach to human behavior and measure moral value.  Following this approach justice is an agreement between peoples, and is valued for its promotion of the good-life.      



More saying found in Cyril Bailey’s translation:

37).  I am thrilled with pleasure in the body, when I live on bread and water and I spit upon luxurious pleasures not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them (48).

79).  The greatest fruit of justice is security (51).

LXX).  Let nothing be done in your life, which will cause you fear if it becomes known to your neighbour (44).

XII).  A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story.  So that without natural science, it is not possible to attain our pleasures unalloyed (36).

     For the end we recognize pleasure as the first good and end of the blessed life.  For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good (30-31).

     Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen; even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided (31).   




There are those who with much solemnity state that you can’t derive and ought statement from an is statement.  They hold that there are general moral principles, and these principles, not the results determine if an action is moral or not.  This is not a valid criticism of Epicurus or hedonistic ethics:  to grant this criticism is to beg the question on the nature of ethics.  G.E. Moore and other are making an assumption on the nature of ethics that abstract rules are fundamental: Epicurus and Utilitarians an assume results are fundamental. 

John Stuart Mill pondered the foundation of ethics and in particular utilitarianism, and concluded that proof could not be obtained.  But it is not proof that should be sought, but rather results.  The Greeks philosophers justified their moral system upon consequences.  The system which best promoted the good life was the one a rinker would choose.  In that tradition and approach, the Epicurean school and its progeny utilitarianism best promote the good life. 


What Needs Correcting:

The life in politics with very few exceptions requires the individual to be like that of the common herd, and thus not able to live the good life.  It was not until the Utilitarians the issue of ideal government was brought under the umbrella of hedonistic ethics.  They held that good government’s primary duty is the promotion of the good life for its citizens (or as Jeremy Bentham stated the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the utilitarian principle). 

But should a person who seeks to maximize ataraxia be concerned about politics?  Epicurus merely warns against it as a profession.  His silence (based on what of his has survived) suggests disinterest.  One should and contemplate issues of politics, for that--as with other subjects--promotes ataraxia, but one shouldn’t become entangled with a political movement.  Jeremy Bentham was more effective as a writer than he would have been as an MP.     

     Epicurus silence on love and his negative comments on sex[i] leave an inadequate position.  Love for a woman because relationships he observed always deteriorate to such an extent as to disturb inner tranquility.[ii]  This is not necessary.  Epicurus thought it better to substitute friendships for the sake of satisfying our social drive. 


Morality Without God’s Law


     One doesn’t need either the bible to instruct one in prudence; nor the fear of divine retribution to provide the incentive.  Epicurus shows us how morality can be founded upon prudent self-interest.  Moreover, a conscientious follower would be much happier than a follower of Yahweh and his son. 

[i] Judging from reference to harm, I believe that he held that the semen contained the vital force—after all it produced babies.  Thus two much sex both weakened the health and shortened the life—a position common later among Christians.  They both believed that the woman was like a field and the man planted his seed therein. 

[ii] This observation is essentially correct because the competition for pleasures by a couple erodes love.  It is thus unnatural to be a couple for life.  With the removal of economic consequences, the Scandinavian alternatives will in time become the norm. 

on Lucretius, whose work most completely preserved the Greek Atomists approach to the nature of things--with link to this work.

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