Note: I started writing this post a long while ago, back when there were was a little kerfuffle on Facebook. This will be, hopefully, a series of posts that explores the similarities and differences on these two rival schools.
After noticing some headbutting between Stoics and Epicurens, I thought it was high time someone sat down and did their best to figure out if all this denouncing of one another is necessary or not. While I do consider myself a Stoic, I call myself a philosopher first and foremost. So, in the interest of discovering just how much is different -- or the same -- with these two philosophies, I decided to start with the end: what kind of life are we hoping to lead?
Stoics hold that the whole point of being Stoic is so that we can live a virtuous life. This in turn leads to happiness which, finally, ends with us having a good life. Of course, what, exactly, counts as virtue can be debated, and often is. Are the seven heavenly virtues a good place? But, wait, courage isn't on that list. Is courage a virtue? Can pride be a virtue, if done right? There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to virtue, so it can be hard to tell if we are, indeed, living a virtuous life.
This doesn't not, however, mean Stoicism is necessarily invalid. Often, people tend to want to led a virtuous life, at least those who make an effort for it. In my own quest, I ask what qualities I have that are virtuous and ask if they are or aren’t. In fact, we seem to have two different kind of people in our world: those who are sure of their virtues and those who constantly seek what they mean. Both seem to be heroes in our world.
Epicureans have a different aim. To them, their aim was to live a pleasurable life. How do we live a pleasurable life? Well, according to the Principal Doctrines:
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.”
Wisdom, honor, and justice. Three things people would consider virtues. So it seems we’re at a bit of a standstill. Stoics say we need virtues to live a virtuous life because that means we’ll become happy and therefore live a good life. Epicureans say virtue leads to pleasure, which leads to a good life. The end goals are different, but the method -- living a virtuous life -- is the same. What’s the big difference?
For the Stoics, happiness didn’t mean pleasure. Pleasure was more of a side effect of happiness: if we got any, it wasn’t because we sought it out, it just came with whatever it was we were doing. For the Epicureans, pleasure is the goal. But there is still an even bigger divide here than just happiness or just pleasure.
Pleasure, according to the Epicureans, was the absence of pain. If we are in pain, we could reflect on past pleasure or try to outdo our pain with pleasure. However, according to the Principal Doctrines:
“The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.”
In short, the highest amount of pleasure could only be reached if we aren’t in any pain, a bit of a damper if you have chronic pain. The Stoics, however, thought we could be happy even in pain. Of course, this does strike a blow to the Stoic position of suicide: if we can be happy in even the worst of the events, why should we ever kill ourselves?
Each philosophy has something about it that doesn’t really work in our day and age. Both have sites that praise each for applying to our lives. But perhaps the most striking thing is the reality of it all: neither promises perfect. Stoics teach that we’ll always experience negative emotions, it’s just we’ll get a better handle of them. The Epicureans, though they say perfect pleasure is in the total absence of pain, never say we’ll hit a point of total painlessness. To me, the ultimate end goal of each philosophy was never all that important. Remember, both aimed to add virtue to life. And I think that's what's most important in life.