(Review) Jean-Marie Guyau, La Morale d’Epicure et ses rapports avec les doctrines contemporaines

Henry Sidgwick’s Review

Mind, Vol. 4, No. 16 (Oct., 1879), pp. 582-587.


Guyau’s work is an enlarged edition of the first part of an essay on “La Morale Utilitaire,” to which a prize was awarded in 1874 by the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. His view of Epicureanism is not, in the main, quite so novel as the reporter of the Académie seems to have supposed; but his book may be cordially recommended to students of ancient philosophy as containing not only the most ample and appreciative, but also—in spite of some errors and exaggerations—the most careful and penetrating, account of the ethical system of Epicurus.

Such a book is all the more welcome, because the treatment of Epicureanism in the most widely accepted history of Greek philosophy — Zeller’s — constitutes one of the least satisfactory parts of that valuable work. Here, as elsewhere, Zeller is uniformly impartial in intention and trustworthy in details; but his want of sympathy with the general view of Epicurus has prevented him from apprehending the real significance and inner coherence of some of the Epicurean doctrines, and in other cases has led him involuntarily to depreciate their originality and importance. Thus, he fails to make his reader understand the ardour of enthusiasm which Epicureanism excited in minds like Lucretius, and its prolonged and inflexible vitality — all the more remarkable as contrasting with the brief and unstable existence of the earlier and more naive hedonism of the Cyrenaics. The fact is that Zeller with other historians has missed the right point of view for tracing the process of Greek philosophic thought after the turn given to it by Socrates. Their attention is always primarily directed to the development of speculative philosophy; ethics is always dragged in the wake of metaphysics; whereas the post-Socratic philosophy itself was throughout in its first intention practical, a pursuit of wisdom for the sake of life. It is very natural for students of Plato and Aristotle to forget this; indeed, my assertion may easily seem paradoxical, when we contemplate the absorbing profundities of Plato’s metaphysical research, and the small place that the theory of practice occupies in the vast range of Aristotle’s thought. Still the paradox is merely apparent. Plato never ceased to hold that the only true and reasoned answer to the fundamental question of practice had to be supplied by ontology; and though in Aristotle’s view speculative philosophy did not, in one sense, give the answer to this question, being concerned with higher things, yet in another sense it did: it was not the theory of the true end of human existence, but it was the end itself. Hence, we ought not to regard the preponderance of the practical interest in the post-Aristotelian school as a mere indication of the decay of genuine philosophy — which seems to be Zeller’s view — but rather as a return, after a splendid digression, and reconcentration of philosophic thought on what, since Socrates, had always been regarded as its main problem.

From this point of view the peculiar historical importance of Epicureanism is easily seen. Greek ethics, as more than one writer has noticed, was throughout egoistic in form, at least so far as the statement of its fundamental question is concerned; but Epicureanism alone among the great rival systems supplied a content obviously and completely adapted to this form. When Socrates started the search for The Good, he meant primarily “good for himself” or for any other individual philosophic soul inquiring after the true way of life; but, from his original and epoch-making conception of the nature of knowledge, he inevitably failed to distinguish this inquiry from the investigation of abstract or absolute good: hence his search led naturally to that blending of ethics, physics, logic and theology in one dream of a supreme universal science, which we call Platonic Idealism. Again, though Aristotle’s analysis definitely distinguished the end of ethical investigation as the individual’s wellbeing, his conception of this end was powerfully influenced by the organic or teleological view of the physical universe which he inherited and developed; while in determining the particulars of practical good his ultimate appeal is not really to the individual’s experience, but to the common moral consciousness of the society of which he isa member. In Epicureanism we have for the first-time ethical egoism purged of all alien elements, and supported by a physical doctrine purged of all teleology.

I have referred briefly to these historical generalities because, while agreeing with M. Guyau as to the degree of importance to be attached to Epicureanism, I am by no means able to accept his view of its historical relations. Indeed, I am bound to say that many of his references to other philosophic systems seem to me characterised by a superficiality very strange in a writer so careful and penetrating. For instance, his first chapter opens with the following historical sketch: —

“On le sait, les peuples qui commencent à philosopher font presque toujours de la spéculation pure ; ils pensent, ils cherchent pour penser et pour chercher ; plus seulement, quand les philosophes s’aperçoivent qu’ils ont cherché pendant fort longtemps pour trouver fort peu et qu’ils sont en désaccord les uns avec les autres, ils finissent par s’inquiéter, ils craignent d’avoir perdu leur peine : les sceptiques, les Pyrrhon, en voyant leur impuissance et leurs contradictions rient et raillent, mais les utilitaires, plus sérieux, au lieu de condamner l’esprit humain, condamnent la spéculation, ramènent la pensée vers le moi, prétendent qu’ avant de poursuivre la vérité absolue, il faut chercher la vérité relative et utilité, et qui plus est la trouver. Ainsi fit Epicure en Grèce ; on peut considérer son système comme une tentative pour arracher l’esprit humain aux écarts des Héraclite, des Platon et des Aristote, en un mot pour régler la pensée humaine sur l’utilité.”

An account of the transition from pure speculation to the study of “le moi” and “l’utilité,” in which the very name of Socrates is left out, is certainly more original than satisfactory! Nor is it easy to understand how anyone who has read Aristotle’s Ethics can go on to inform his readers that “Platon et Aristote cherchaient le vrai pour en déduire le bien”. On Stoicism M. Guyau — who has published a translation of Epictetus and an Etude sur la philosophie d’Epictéte — is naturally better informed. Still, he hardly ought to assert, on the strength of a single passage of Epictetus and against a consensus of other authorities, that “les Stoiciens conseillaient à leur sage d’éviter le mariage”. Again, it is misleading to say that the Epicurean doctrine of political abstention was shared by a majority of Stoics, without also explaining that the Stoics always maintained as a theoretical principle that the sage should take part in public affairs unless there were good reasons to the contrary. Withdrawal from political activity was a part of the Epicurean ideal of life, while it was forced on the Stoic by the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual conditions of political existence: the difference in theory is of fundamental importance.

On the other hand, so far as M. Guyau treats of matter that he has especially studied, he is almost uniformly instructive as well as trustworthy. For instance, his comparison between the hedonism of Aristippus that pursued the pleasure of the moment, and the “utilitarianism” of Epicurus, whose end was the happiness of a life, is thoroughly careful and well-informed. I think, however, that in this comparison he, to some extent, confounds two distinct issues; one really practical, while the other is merely metaphysical, or, if I may coin a word—metapractical. When the Cyrenaics, as Diogenes Laertius tells us, maintained that the τέλος was not εύδαιμονία but ή κατά μέρος ήδονή, they did not necessarily adopt the paradoxical position of denying that future pleasure, so far as it is capable of being foreseen, is to be regarded as much as present pleasure: indeed, as Diogenes goes on to say, they allowed that εύδαιμονία was αίρετή, though not per se but as a means to the particular pleasures. That is, they admitted it to be practically reasonable for a man to aim at making the sum of his future pleasures a maximum: they only laid stress on the fact that the hedonistic end is not capable of being actually realised except in successive parts. At the same time the scepticism of the Cryenaics would naturally lead to an exaggeration of the uncertainty of the future, and to a practical adoption of the principle “carpe diem”: and in fact, Athenaeus and Ælian attribute this principle in its extremest form to Aristippus, and all that we are told of his life is in harmony with their statement.[1] While, on the other side, it is in direct contradiction of Epicurus’s express statements to say that his “fin” is “le bonheur, non le plaisir”: indeed, the success of Epicureanism may be attributed to the fact that it started with frankly accepting the vulgarest pleasure-seeking as reasonable and right, though it ended by constructing an ideal life as remote from the voluptuary’s practice as Stoicism itself was—a life, as Jerome exclaims with admiring surprise, “full of herbs and fruits and abstinences ”.

Guyau traces clearly and skilfully the process by which the stable and perfect edifice of philosophic happiness is raised by Epicurus on the apparently shifting and unstable basis of sensual gratification; and in so doing corrects more than one widespread error. He lays stress on the positive quality of the καταστηματικὴ ἡδονὴ Which Epicurus contrasted with that ἐν κινήσει and maintained to reach the highest degree of which pleasure admits: this being not mere painlessness, but the stable satisfaction derived from the mere sense of normal life, unruffled by pain or anxiety. In connexion with this he ingeniously and perhaps rightly interprets the well-known utterance that “the pleasure of the belly is source and root of all good,” not as exalting the pleasures of the table, but as emphasising the importance of satisfying the bodily needs of nutrition. At the same time M. Guyau goes too far in calling this καταστηματικὴ ἡδονὴ “le seul vrai plaisir” and speaking of the “plaisirs inférieurs du mouvement” as being “rejected” by Epicurus. It is not easy to make Epicurus’s utterances on this point perfectly consistent; but I think he must be understood not to “reject” the ἐν κινήσει ήδοναί, nor even to treat them as inferior; rather, he would coordinate and as far as possible combine them under one notion with the stable satisfaction that lies in the feeling of settled and serene existence.

No feature of Epicureanism is more striking than its triumphant announcement of the perfect attainability of its ideal. The Epicurean sage, no less than the Stoic, enjoys a happiness that could not be increased by the prolongation of life and that can be maintained even amid the torments of the rack; and like the Stoic he owes this to philosophy and to the intrinsic superiority of the mind to the body. M. Guyau puts this point effectively : but he modernises it rather misleadingly when he says, “L’esprit qui n’était d’abord qu’un moyen pour le corps reprend son rôle de fin véritable, et cela grâce a une idée qui fait le fond de l’esprit humain, l’idée d’infini. Les peines et les plaisirs de l’esprit ont quelque chose d’infini et éternel.”[2] For the Greek mind, from first to last, found perfection in the finite rather than the infinite : and accordingly the cup of happiness is filled to the brim for the Epicurean sage by a consciousness not of the unlimitedness of mental satisfaction, but of its completeness within the appointed limits of life; he is said to live ἐν άθανάτοις άγαθοῖς, but that is merely a way of saying that “death does not concern him”.

In an original and interesting chapter on “Contingency and Liberty,” M. Guyau defends vigorously the well-known “clinamen” or spontaneous deviation from the perpendicular, attributed by Epicurus to his atoms; on which most historians of philosophy have poured unmitigated contempt. He argues forcibly that this assumption is necessary to reconcile the Free Will which Epicurus regarded as at once a datum of experience and a necessary postulate of his ethical optimism, with that complete mechanical explanation of nature by which he claimed to annihilate superstition and secure the mental tranquility of his disciples. If man’s actions are not completely determined, there must be spontaneity in the elements out of which he is composed; otherwise, the chain of natural causation is broken and the miraculous let in. M. Guyau shows the mistake of supposing that Epicurus attributed this spontaneity to his atoms only in the origination of worlds, afterwards suspending its exercise: and he plausibly suggests, on the strength chiefly of a passage of Plutarch (De Solert. Anim. 7), that the τύχη which Epicurus admitted as a third cause, side by side with mechanical necessity and human free will, was merely the form in which this essential spontaneity reveals itself to us.

The Epicurean view of death is also well and carefully presented: but M. Guyau seems to have trusted too completely the gloomy description given by Epicurus and his school of the “prava relligio” from which they claimed to deliver mankind. The following sentences, for instance, cannot be applied without great qualifications to any period of ancient history later than the seventh century B.C.: —

“Dans les religions antiques, au contraire, l’espérance du ciel n’existait pas ; seuls, quelques héros comme Hercule ou Bacchus avaient mérité de prendre place là-haut parmi les dieux ; tous les autres hommes, pêle-mêle, ensevelis sous la terre, y demeuraient 4 jamais loin du jour, et si parmi eux il y en avait de plus châtiés, de plus malheureux les uns que les autres, il n’y en avaient vraiment point de fortunés.”

This certainly expresses, so far as we know, the idea of a future life generally entertained by the contemporaries of Homer and Hesiod. But so soon as we come to Pindar we find a distinct expectation of a post-humous fate corresponding to earthly merit as well as demerit — compare, among other passages, the second Olympiad, and the fragment commencing ψυχαί δ άσεβέων. Then, for Plato’s age, we have distinct evidence of a similar hopefulness in the language placed in the mouth of the aged Cephalus at the outset of the Republic; and in several of the mortuary inscriptions that have come down to us from later times the survivors assume that the departed are in bliss among the stars or in the air. How widely spread this brighter tone of sentiment was we cannot now determine; but at any rate we are bound to recognise its existence.

In the chapters which deal with the social aspects of Epicureanism M. Guyau is especially concerned to point out the various and striking anticipations of modern thought which the system presents. He notices the difficulty which the Epicureans found in providing a rational basis for the Friendship which they exalted as so essential an element of happy life: a difficulty signalised by the fact that on this point only have we any evidence of a distinct advance made by disciples of Epicurus beyond the position taken up by their master. The result of this advance is exhibited in the earliest form of that “associationism” by which English utilitarians have met the similar difficulty of explaining disinterested benevolence. In the same way Epicureanism presents the first definite and constructive statement of the modern utilitarian view of Justice, as essentially dependent on a social convention for the promotion of common interest by the prevention of mutual injury; so that, while the general conception of justice is everywhere the same, its particulars naturally vary with the varying circumstances of different communities. Again, we have a germinal form of the modern view of human progress in the pictures of the origin of civilisation given by Lucretius—to the originality and importance of which Zeller does rather imperfect justice by speaking of them as “im ganzen sehr gesunde Ansichten”. M. Guyau, on the other hand, in this part of his work, has not altogether resisted the temptation to modernise unduly his interpretation of ancient texts, and to underrate the characteristic differences of the modern systems with which he compares them. The criticisms, however, with which his exposition is interspersed are nearly always sensible and just.

About one-third of the book consists of shorter studies of modern successors of Epicurus; the writers most fully treated being Hobbes, Rochefoucauld, Spinoza, and Helvetius. These form rather a strange quartette; and in truth the point of view taken is unfavourable to an adequate treatment of Spinoza: nor do I think that sufficient attention is given to the characteristics that distinguish Hobbism — as an original and powerful essay in constructive politics — from the older egoism to which it may no doubt be affiliated. On the other hand, the account of Helvetius is very interesting and instructive.

[1] I may observe that Zeller is not perfectly consistent in his language on this rather subtle point. In his account of the Cyrenaic doctrine he says: — “Auch das aber scheint ihnen bedenklich, wenn man . . . die Aufgabe des Menschen darein setzt, sich die höchste Gesammtsumme von Genüssen zu verschaffen”: while afterwards in the chapter on Epicurus he observes with more accuracy that they “die Glückseligkeit nicht in dem Gesammtzustand des Menschen, sondern in der Summe der einzelnen Geniisse suchten.”

[2] In the same way there is an awkward and distorting Teutonism not only in the phrase but in the thought of Zeller, when he speaks of “die Unendlichkeit der auf sich selbst beschränkten Subjektivität” as the fundamental assumption of Epicureanism.

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