Principal Doctrine 18

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When pain arising from need has been removed, bodily pleasure cannot increase – it merely varies. But the limit of mental pleasure is reached after we reflect upon these bodily pleasures and the related mental distress prior to fulfillment.


This Doctrine is rather complex, its argumentation running along two, main strands:

  • The first branch of the argument is that, as regards bodily pleasures, once what is "suffering due to lack" of its natural gratification (e.g. hunger for food) has been "removed" (i.e. once one has eaten, and is thus no longer hungry), the "pleasure of the flesh", the bodily pleasure of eating cannot be increased (e.g. by eating any more food than what one needed in order not to be hungry), but can only be varied (e.g. by some different sort of food, and only on some future occasion when one gets hungry again).
  • The second branch of the argument is presented as corroboration of the first, namely that it was the logical process of reasoning out "these things themselves and those of the same kind" that has yielded this conclusion regarding the limits of pleasure; it is also presented as a "transposition" of the experience of pleasure, from that of the body, to that of the mind: the realization outlined in the first clause of the Doctrine, argues Epicurus, is in and of itself the limit of mental pleasures in turn, i.e. peace of mind, ataraxia. When one knows what the limits of bodily pleasure are, one has attained ipso facto mental pleasure as well. Absence of this systematic reasoning, on the contrary, causes the mind its greatest fears.

The syntactical structure of this Doctrine is precariously close to allowing for a misreading of the argument as an antithesis between body and mind, which it is definitely not meant to be. This is not a juxtaposition of bodily experiences as opposed to mental ones (as in other arguments attributed to Epicurus), but a corroboration of a bodily experience by a mental process, and its attendant benefit to the mind as well.

The syntax and word order of the latter clause is admittedly convoluted, involving a number of parenthetical clauses. The meaning can be unfolded in a simpler sequence of thoughts:

Rational examination of these things (i.e. bodily pleasure and pain) and of those of the same kind (i.e. mental pleasure and pain) --those that were causing the mind the greatest fears-- has borne out the limit of mental pleasure. In other words, once one has figured out the limit of mental pain (i.e. anxiety, disturbance, tarache) and overcome it (i.e. reached ataraxia), one has ipso facto arrived at the limit of mental pleasure. This stands in remarkable symmetry to Epicurus' claim in the former clause regarding bodily pleasure and pain: once pain caused by need is relieved, pleasure reaches its maximum. Peace of mind after due reflection is, according to Epicurus, no harder to attain than satiety after a filling meal!

The crucial --and most contestable-- dogma imparted here lies in the key word homogenon, i.e. the implicit claim that the limit of mental pleasure and pain is essentially "of the same kind" as that of bodily pleasure and pain. If one arrives at this conclusion rationally, assures us Epicurus, one is ridden of the worst of all pains, those that have caused the mind its greatest fears and anxieties. The philosophical/psychological question whether the two are in fact of the same kind or not remains of course open.

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