Epicurus was a hedonist, who believed that one’s goal in life is to maximize pleasure. Conversely, Epictetus was a stoic, who taught people that their key priority should be to live life in accordance with nature. While these teachers prescribed to different philosophies, they both agreed on the need for ataraxia as a prerequisite to living a fulfilled life; however, they differed on how to attain this goal since Epicurus saw things in an instrumental way while Epictetus focused on their inherent goodness.
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How the philosophers compare in terms of ataraxia
Ataraxia is a state of mind in which one is free from anxiety or worry. In other words, the person exists in a state of tranquility. Epictetus and Epicurus both acknowledged the immobilizing role that anxiety played in attainment of ataraxia. They affirmed that one would never enjoy life if one were in a state of worry about other things.
However, they prescribed different ways of how a person can free oneself from worry. Epicurus had a four – part prescription, in which he urged his followers not to fear the gods as one of the recommendations. The philosopher believed that the gods were happy beings who did not care about man’s actions (White 8).
If they watched every move that humans made, then they would compromise their own happiness. Epicurus claimed that the gods were not out to punish men for their misdeeds, so people should free themselves from anxiety about divinities. Conversely Epicurus held that man was indeed accountable to a divine being. He asserted that people should think of themselves as actors in a play (Inwood and Gerson. 16).
Someone else did the casting, so one’s duty was to play his or her part well. To Epictetus, God is the only giver and receiver of life. Therefore, when a loved one dies, one should think of it as a settlement to the creditor. Epictetus thus argued that knowing the supremacy and divinity of God allowed one to accept unpleasant situations since these experiences were not in one’s control.
Eventually, this leads to a state of ataraxia. On the other hand, Epicurus advocated for an elimination of gods from the picture in order to acquire ataraxia. To this philosopher, a fear of the gods was an obstacle to tranquility while to Epictetus an acceptance of the gods was the path to ataraxia. It should be noted that Epicurus’ views on God were radically different from his contemporaries because they were quite religious. His materialist background led to such conclusions.
Epicurus taught that an accident created all elements in the universe and they only seemed orderly because they were the most stable structures among a series of chaotic elements. Conversely, Epictetus believed in divine intelligence because the stability of the universe could not have arisen by chance; a divine being it must have created it.
The two philosophers also believed in the relevance of virtue or moral actions in the attainment of harmony. However, they differed on the primacy of virtue or motivations for abiding by moral acts. Epicurus affirmed that one ought to strive to maintain happiness always. If one engages in immoral acts, then this compromises one’s happiness as one would have to worry about the repercussions of their actions (White 25).
In this regard, the philosopher advocated for moral actions only because of the consequences they had on other people. One may assume that since Epicurus’ prescription only depends on one’s circumstance, then it becomes inconsequential to engage in immoral acts if no one will be around to watch. However, Epicurus negates this assertion by stating that one can never be certain that other people will not find out, so moral actions are indispensable.
The philosopher acknowledged that society developed moral laws over a relatively long time in order to protect man from harm. To Epicurus, moral acts were simply a means to minimize harm and maximize one’s happiness. On the flipside, Epictetus argued that virtues in and of themselves were inherently good. People should strive to live virtuous lives because they are good while vices are evil.
One would attain a life of ataraxia if one strove to live by virtue. In fact, the pursuit of pleasure was frowned upon by the Stoics because it always led to unwanted circumstances. Virtues were the only things in the world that were inherently good such that other things were neutral. It was one’s judgment of those things that would compromise one’s ataraxia. For instance wealth or health were neither virtuous nor negative, they only became so when the judgments made about them were detrimental (Inwood and Gerson. 13).
Therefore, one’s moral character has a critical role to play in determining how effectively one attained happiness and thus ataraxia. The stoics advocated for maintenance of the right moral standing as it was the only thing that was within one’s control. They believed that one’s ability to know evil and good allowed one to achieve self mastery. Virtues have more primacy in the stoic school of thought than they do in the hedonic school. To the latter, they were mere instruments but to the former, they were at the heart of the philosophy.
Perhaps one of the areas that the two Philosophers converged was the need to live a basic lifestyle. Both philosophers argued that it was essential to be content with what life had in store rather than to seek for wealth, status and power perpetually. Epicurus surprisingly advocated for a simple lifestyle in which one met one’s basic needs for survival. It is possible for one to live in a state of tranquility or ataraxia when one limited oneself to the necessary and natural things of life.
Epicurus identified food, shelter and clothing as some of the necessary needs that must be met in order for one to eradicate worry and anxiety (White 30). He believed that bodies require relatively little to survive and the mind would stop worrying if it had assurance that these needs will be met. However, when an individual starts yearning for other unnecessary desires like power or wealth, then the person will neutralize his state of tranquility.
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Things like power and status are needs created by society based on artificial beliefs. Additionally when one desires external things like jewelry, then one may become dependent on the material item. Essentially, one will become anxious that one will not have the item in the future, and this undermines their ataraxia. Similarly, Epictetus argued that people should not focus on externals. The key to tranquility is prioritizing things that one can control.
The philosopher prescribes working on oneself rather than other externals because they could be changed. In essence, material desires are vain because they are limiting. They can enslave a person because one can become dependent on them, yet they cannot be altered. For instance, seeking public office would lead to unhappiness because it is not something that contestants can control (Inwood and Gerson 16).
One ought to select things whose victory is within one’s power. Living a basic life in the stoic school of thought also spanned across interactions of people with one another. A person who wants to attain ataraxia should avoid displaying how the person has attained self mastery (Inwood and Gerson. 27). Furthermore, he or should not lecture others about his principles of philosophy as that would be approval seeking.
The most one can do it to focus on oneself and let others learn about the philosophy through one’s actions. Both philosophers acknowledge that human beings require relatively minimal amounts of externals to attain inner harmony. However, Epictetus takes it a step further and argues that simplicity should also be seen in the way one interacts with others. Epicurus did not ask his followers to refrain from enjoying luxuries on occasion, but dependence on them was his key contention.
Hedonists and stoics disagree on the relevance of divinities in attainment of ataraxia. Hedonists affirm that there is no divine being that will punish human beings, while the stoics state that acceptance of the supremacy of the divine being leads to inner harmony.
Additionally, Epicurus and Epictetus also diverged on the primacy of virtue in freeing oneself from anxiety. To Epicurus, it was a tool for causing no harm to others while to Epictetus is was the only good thing that one could seek. Finally, both schools of thought converged on the need for simplicity in attainment of ataraxia as longing for unnecessary externals lead to dependency and anxiety over getting them in the future.
Inwood, Brad and Lloyd Gerson. The Epicurus reader: Selected writings and testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. Print.
White, Nicholas. The Epictetus handbook. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983. Print.