Happiness, and what it entails, is a question that has been unrelentingly tormenting philosophers throughout the ages. For however many schools of thoughts that seem to be in agreement with each other on the answer, there are just as many schools of thought that disagree, and still more that only partially agree with each other. Pinpointing a specific example, the perspectives of both Callicles (from Plato’s Gorgias) and the Epicureans both assert that the highest good is pleasure, and that pleasure is what leads to happiness, but the two viewpoints diverge in their methods of achieving pleasure. To be more precise, Callicles and the Epicureans deviate from each other in their beliefs on the role of desire and the importance of virtue.
To begin, the establishment of Callicles’ viewpoint is needed. In his lengthy discussion with Socrates, it is revealed that Callicles believes that pleasure is the highest good, and that doing what is pleasurable will lead one to happiness. Expanding on that, it is the process of doing something pleasurable that attains happiness – therefore, one should consistently do things that consist of a pleasurable process. Furthermore, Callicles regards some of the virtues, such as justice, self-discipline, and self-control, as an obstruction to achieving pleasure. “What in truth could be more shameful and worse than self-control and justice?” Callicles asks, effectively criticizing those virtues, and adamantly denying that they play a part in achieving happiness (492b). For virtues, in Callicles’ eyes, are what we use to “mold the best and the most powerful among us, taking them while they’re still young, like lion cubs, and with charms and incantations we subdue them into slavery, telling them that one is supposed to get no more than his fair share, and that that’s what’s admirable and just” (483e-484a). Virtues contradict nature in such a way that restricts one from obtaining all the pleasures they can, Callicles argues, stating that “these contracts of men. . . go against nature,” for nature “itself reveals that it’s a just thing for the better man and the more capable man to have a greater share than the worse man and the less capable man” (492c, 483d). Additionally, Callicles is an advocate of unrestrained desire. “The man who’ll live correctly,” he states, “ought to allow his own appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them” and that “living pleasantly consists in this: having as much as possible flow in” (491e, 494b).
Now, like Callicles, the Epicureans also upheld the belief that pleasure is the highest good, and that pleasure is what brings one happiness. However, that is where their similarities end.
The first point of Callicles’ viewpoint that the Epicureans would critique would be how Callicles believes that one’s desires (or as he called them, appetites) ought to be continuously filled and unrestrained in order to achieve happiness. The Epicureans regarded desire as a commodity which should be deliberately restricted, for “desire is insatiable: it destroys not only individuals but whole families; often it can even bring an entire nation to its knees” (I, 43). In plainer words, the Epicureans believed that too much desire was a destructive thing, liable to corrupt any being or entity. Furthermore, the statement made by Callicles that deemed “pleasant and good are the same,” meaning that all the pleasurable desires are good, is another concept the Epicureans would contradict (495d). The Epicureans perceived desire as a threefold category, believing that not all desires were natural, necessary, or good. Their division of desire consisted of the first kind of desire as something “both natural and necessary; a second kind as natural but not necessary; and a third as neither natural nor necessary” (I, 45). Stated more clearly, desires could either be natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, or unnatural and unnecessary. This meant, according to the Epicureans, that not all pleasurable desires were actually good, and did not always contribute to achieving happiness – therefore, one cannot leave their desires unfettered and unchecked as Callicles would have them be. Thus, as stated by the Epicureans, desire “must be choked off” (I, 51).
Additionally, the Epicureans were sure to address the consequences of untamed desire, laying out what would happen if one did allow their desires to run rampant. “It is from desire that enmity, discord, dissension, sedition and war is born,” the Epicureans warned, illustrating the effect uninhibited desire could have on a nation or city-state (I, 44). Furthermore, the Epicureans cautioned that “desire not only swaggers around on the outside and hurls itself blindly at others: even when desires are shut up inside the heart they quarrel and fight amongst themselves,” which insinuated the conflict an individual can experience on a personal level (I, 44). Overall, the Epicureans firmly believed that “the inevitable result” of desire left unrestrained would be “a life of great bitterness” (I, 44). This is what will happen, the Epicureans believed, if one allows “as much as possible” to “flow in” (494b). Therefore, unrestrained desire does not lead to happiness, as Callicles said it does. Indeed, the person “who is always happy” is “one who sets desire within limits” (I, 62). Hence, one must curb their desires in order to guard themselves from its inevitable consequences.
The second point made by Callicles that the Epicureans would critique would be his blatant disregard for some of the virtues. While Callicles viewed some virtues as “contracts of men” that “go against nature” and as obstructions to one acquiring the most pleasurable desires that one is able to, the Epicureans placed great emphasis on the virtues, believing that they were a part of what enabled one to recognize and choose between the natural and unnatural desires (492c). For instance, temperance, or self-control, is “what bids us follow reason in the things we seek and avoid” and what holds us “to adhere to what we have decided” (I, 47). In using temperance, one is able to avoid becoming “defeated and debilitated by what spectre of pleasure” comes their way. It was this particular virtue, the Epicureans argued, that was crucial in restricting one’s desires, therefore avoiding “a life of great bitterness” (I, 44).
Additionally, the Epicureans believed that “the root cause of life’s troubles is ignorance of what is good and bad” and that the mistakes one makes in choosing between what is good and bad “often rob one of the greatest pleasures and lead to the harshest pains” (I, 43). So, in order to secure oneself against choosing wrongly, the fear of choosing wrongly, and undergoing “the harshest pains,” wisdom, which is a virtue, “must be brought to bear” (I, 43). It is wisdom, the Epicureans believed, that “drives misery from our hearts,” “stops us trembling with fear,” and “represents our surest guide to the goal of pleasure” (I, 43). It is with wisdom that “one can live in peace,” confidently enabled with the skills of choosing between the desires that are natural and unnatural.
Furthermore, justice, in the eyes of the Epicureans, is not used to “mold the best and the most powerful among us, taking them while they’re still young, like lion cubs, and with charms and incantations we subdue them into slavery” as Callicles believed it to be (483e-484a). Instead, the Epicureans regarded justice as a proponent in choosing what pleasures are natural, good, and right. “Not only does justice never harm anyone,” the Epicureans say, “but on the contrary it also brings some benefit” (I, 50). This belief of the Epicureans, that justice is an asset, is in stark contrast with what Callicles advocated. While Callicles would shun justice as a method of subduing “the best and the most powerful among us” in slavery, the Epicureans state that justice and the threat of what it will bring, “bad conscience, legal entities, and the hatred of one’s fellow-citizens,” is enough to outweigh “any contribution that wicked deeds can make to lessening the discomforts of life” (483e; I, 51). Justice is not suppression, as Callicles would say it is. Instead, justice is a method of determining between what is good and what is bad under the Epicurean ideology.
The virtues, the Epicureans insist, are the things that enable us to choose well and correctly among the countless pleasurable desires that exist, and are therefore vital in achieving happiness through pleasure. Thus, the Epicureans would criticize Callicles’ view that some of the virtues serve as unnatural obstructions, saying instead that they are what empowers one to accurately choose amidst the plethora of options.
Superficially, both Callicles and the Epicureans appear to be in agreement about their take on happiness. Simply put, the two put forth answers that revolve around the importance of pleasure in achieving happiness. However, while Callicles and the Epicureans both use the same word, pleasure, to define happiness, the two viewpoints do not attach the same meaning to it. For the Epicureans, it is the pleasure achieved through virtue that will lead to happiness. For Callicles, it is the pleasure derived from doing a pleasurable act that will lead to happiness. Hence, to the Epicureans, happiness is a state of being, while to Callicles, happiness is an emotion one feels, leading to the conclusion that the two viewpoints never were in accordance with each other.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius, and Julia Annas. On Moral Ends. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
Plato. Gorgias. Translated by Donald J. Zeyl, Hackett Pub. Co., 1987.