Stoic and Epicurean—two words that do not mean what people think they mean. The image of the Stoic is the unfeeling, emotionless brute and the Epicurean as the pleasure-loving, self-indulgent hedonist. Stereotypes always fall short, but in this case, the common understanding of what it means to be a follower of the Stoics or Epicureanism has dealt two vibrant philosophies a grave injustice.
Both philosophies were founded in Athens around 300 B.C as the lives of both Zeno and Epicurus, the founders of the two schools, overlapped. They both counseled that we should avoid excessive pleasure and desires. And to settle an important point early on, Epicureanism did not advocate for excessive self-indulgence the way we may think they did. (Just as the Stoics were not unfeeling and reject emotions.)
One starting point, which might surprise many, is that it is worth noting just how much the Stoics borrowed from the opposing and rival philosophical school. While the Stoic philosopher Seneca did offer a critique of Epicurus in his Letters from a Stoic, it would be unfair not to mention the numerous times he positively quoted him. In one letter, he writes,
“My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’”
In another, Seneca says this to his correspondent, Lucilius,
“I’m still turning over the pages of Epicurus, and the following saying, one I read today, comes from him: ‘To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy.’”
Why was Seneca quoting a ‘rival’ school, you may ask. This was of course a question he had foreseen:
“Quite possibly you’ll be demanding to know why I’m quoting so many fine sayings from Epicurus rather than ones belonging to our own school. But why should you think of them as belonging to Epicurus and not as common property?”
Or as he once poignantly remarked: “I’ll never be ashamed to quote a bad writer with a good saying.” But this is true to form for Seneca. He was looking for wisdom, period. It didn’t matter where it came from. This is something that a lot of fundamentalists— in religion, philosophy, anything— seem to miss. Who cares whether some bit of wisdom is from a Stoic or an Epicurean, who cares whether it perfectly jibes with Stoicism? What matters is whether it makes your life better, whether it makes you better.
It is the same attitude Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius had, evoking Epicurus in one of his notes to self in Meditations: “And in most cases you should be helped by the saying of Epicurus, that pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.”
(Epictetus for his part, one of the other three major Stoic philosophers, does not borrow from Epicurus. Instead, he “calls him preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him,” as Diogenes Laertius would say.)
Let’s now examine the differences between the schools: Stoicism claims that living justly and virtuously is the highest good that one can experience, and that pleasure and pain are to be treated indifferently, while Epicureanism claims that we should seek to maximize our own pleasure (mainly by removing pain from our lives). Pleasure, as Epicurus regarded it, was the “beginning and end of the blessed life.” And you’ve probably also heard of the famous garden of the Epicurean school and its motto as inscribed on the gate: “Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure.”
For Epicureans, virtue was a means to an end, that is, pleasure, whereas for Stoics it was their guiding principle and the foundation of their way of life. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca said,
“Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe.”
As you can probably conclude, although the ways that both philosophies recommend we live are very similar, they ultimately point us towards differing ideals.
Epicureans claim we can be happy like the gods if we live free of anxiety—especially the fear of death and fear of the gods—and satisfy our basic desires. Epicureans believed in the atomistic theory of the world, and thought that when we died the atoms that made up our soul became disorganized and then we no longer exist. As Epicurus said,
“The most terrible evil, death, is nothing for us, since when we exist, death does not exist, and when death exists, we do not exist.”
The Stoics sought to live in accordance with nature—emphasizing living in agreement with what happens, rather than rebelling against and lamenting what we cannot change. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,
“We are like a little appendage of Zeus, and who is an appendage to question the plans of the whole body?”
Epicureans and Stoics also differ on how to avoid suffering. Stoics believe that all pain stems from our perceptions and that we have the ability to not suffer when things typically considered bad happen to us. Epictetus again:
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
The Stoics teach that one can be happy no matter what obstacles or tragedies they might face. By accepting all that happens to us in life and understanding that we are never harmed unless we believe we are, we can avoid suffering and live a joyful life.
Epicureans believe that avoiding pain means not fearing the gods or death, and not desiring things that are not both natural and necessary. Peace of mind should be maintained by living simply and having strong friendships with people you can count on. Their ideal for life was to withdraw from public life (Epicurus’s principle: lathe biōsas, or ‘live hidden’), often by staying close to home, to avoid all complex desires, and spend a lot of time with close friends.
As Epicurus said,
“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
The Stoic way of life does not involve withdrawing from society at all, however, and it is considered unvirtuous to do so. The Stoics understand that we have obligations to each other and that public life depends on participation. A Stoic is supposed to fulfill his/her role in society and accept it even if it is a humble or stressful position. Failing to be a good citizen violates one of the four core Stoic virtues, justice.
Both Epicureanism and Stoicism recommend not harming others or breaking the law, but for different reasons. Remember, the Stoics value virtue above all else, to the point that they believed that virtue was all one needed to be happy and all else should be viewed with equanimity. In other words, virtue gives meaning to life.
Epicureans view virtue much more practically. Epicurus said that you should not break the law because the fear of being punished would detract from your happiness, claiming that “injustice is not an evil in itself.” However, this fails to consider those who don’t feel bad breaking the law—the people who are most likely to break it.
Epicureans also believed in the importance of the social contract, the agreement not to harm each other, and described morality in terms of this agreement. Treating your friends correctly is important because it is what will make your friends loyal to you as well.
As we mentioned earlier, Seneca, in Letters from a Stoic had strong criticisms for the Epicureans, and in particular their idea of friendship, which is one based on mutual self-interest.
“He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly… These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful… He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.”
This is in contrast with Stoic friendship, one based on having things in common and admiring each other’s character. Liking someone genuinely makes one more likely to put the friend’s interests above their own, a vital aspect of friendship. With virtue being only a means to an end in Epicureanism, it seems that the philosophy is indeed lacking when it comes to one of its primary prescriptions for life, having good friends.
What about the hedonism and pleasure aspect, you ask? How much of hedonists were the Epicureans after all?
Recall that for the Epicureans what is considered good is pleasure. Nature has designed us in a way so that satisfying certain goals brings us happiness, and seeking this happiness is what is good and natural. However, the pleasures we seek should not be excessive, because of the pain that tends to be the flip side of profound pleasure. As to avoid this pain, Epicurus divided pleasures into three categories: (1) natural and necessary, (2) natural and not necessary, and (3) not natural and not necessary.
Natural and necessary pleasures are the ones we should always seek, because they are easily satisfied. Having these alone is enough for peace of mind, a highly valued good in Epicureanism. These include the necessities of life such as eating, drinking, sleeping, shelter, social interaction, etc.
Natural but unnecessary pleasures include sex, having children, or being held in high esteem by others. These aren’t needed for happiness, and we should avoid pursuing these too much to avoid suffering and not overcomplicate things.
And to dispel the myth of the Epicureans as self-indulgent hedonists: There are unnatural and unnecessary pleasures, which are difficult to attain and include the usual vices of alcohol and excessive sexual pleasures. Epicureanism teaches that we should always avoid these. Epicurus warned, regarding these last two categories, “He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing.”
How does this contrast to Stoic philosophy? In Stoicism, virtue is the highest good and having a will that agrees with nature. It is clearly best to want to happen what will happen anyway. Since it is natural that you will want to get the necessities of life, your urges should be accepted, but in Stoicism, it is equally acceptable for urges such as hunger and thirst to go unsatisfied; if it happens to us, we should accept it.
In summary, a simple heuristic to remember the difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans: The Stoics cared about virtuous behavior and living according to nature, while the Epicureans were all about avoiding pain and seeking natural and necessary pleasure. And a subtle, but important lessons from this article that we have forgotten as a society, is the importance of borrowing wisdom and insight from our intellectual rivals—if it’s true and useful, use it, just like Seneca and Marcus did with Epicurus’ work.