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Epicurean pleasure


Explanations > Emotions > Happiness > Epicurean pleasure

Epicurus | Kinetic | Katastematic | Physical and mental | Desire gaps | So what



Epicurus (c. 341-271 BC) was a Greek philosopher who believed that our ultimate truths come from what we experience, not what we think. After sensation, we interpret and distort, moving us further and further away from original reality. He was, in effect, an early scientist, basing his findings on observation rather than thought.

He believed that most people suffer from damaging beliefs that inhibit the natural benefit of pursuing pleasure. He said that neither death nor the gods should concern humans, and so they should not be feared, and that overcoming these fears is a route to happiness. He said that to remove the fear of death and annihilation, one might consider the time before one was born.

He agreed with Aristotle that happiness is the highest goal though he also linked it with pleasure, which is the only thing people value for its own sake. He saw virtues as steps on the way to happiness but not ends in themselves.

Some view Epicurean pleasure as purely hedonistic, seeking the greatest pleasure. Epicurus, however, sought the untroubled, tranquil calm of ataraxia as the greatest goal.

After his death, Epicureanism was a major philosophy until the rise of Christianity.

Kinetic pleasure

Kinetic pleasure is that which is experienced from doing something, from playing football to indulging a good old intellectual argument. It is the process of satisfying a desire. If we gained no pleasure in satisfying desires, we would perhaps want but not act.

In kinetic activity we are engaging with the world, interacting with others and not particularly thinking about being happy, although we largely are. The action occupies our attention, giving little time for reflection. Thinking could well distract us from thoughts that could break the pleasure, so we do and are happy.

Katastemic pleasure

Katastemic pleasure, on the other hand, is the pleasure of being in a happy state, whether it is a quiet contentment or the throes of ecstasy. It is the pleasure of being, as opposed to the kinetic doing.

Katastemic pleasure often follows kinetic pleasure. We perform the kinetic and pleasant act of eating, which is followed by the katastemic state of satiety, of being 'full'. The metaphor of empty and full appears in a number of other contexts, for example when we are lonely, we feel 'empty', and when we have been with friends we feel 'full of happiness'.

Katastemic pleasure is also the absence of pain of any kind, the removal of unpleasant states. If you are not unhappy, then you are, to some degree, katastemic. Epicurus considered that the absence of pain in the soul as the greatest pleasure.

This also explains the view that there is only pleasure and pain, as one is defined as the absence of the other.

Physical and mental pleasure and pain

Epicurus also distinguished between physical and mental pleasure and pain.

Physical pleasure or pain is rooted in the present, as it is experienced physically and viscerally. Eating, drinking and fornicating are three very basic activities that give physical pleasure. You can also get physical pleasure from using the body, such as in many sports.

Mental pleasure or pain can also reach forward and backwards in time as we contemplate the past and anticipate the future. Mental pleasure can come from contemplation, conversation, chess and other stimulating activities.

Epicurus considered the greatest destroyer of pleasure to be anxiety, which is future-based anticipated pain, and that the greatest cause of anxiety is the fear of the gods or of death. Thus, if you do not think about the future, you will likely be happy now.

Desire gaps

Epicurus spent much time exploring desire and the two desire gaps:

  • Desire-satisfaction gap, which is about pleasure
  • Desire-frustration gap, which is about pain

Desire leads to two strategies: seeking to fulfil the desire or seeking to eliminate it. We seek to eliminate wrong desires, such as to harm others. We also may seek to eliminate desires that we cannot fulfil, such as the desire for another person's partner. The Seven Deadly Sins are desires that a good person seeks to suppress.

So what?

So seek your own pleasure both in doing and being, in journeying and arriving. Do not worry about death and things you cannot change.

Also, of course, use the promise of pleasure and desire in your persuasions.

See also

Aristotelian argument, Pleasure-Pain Principle


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