January 20, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Pleasures of the Mind are Superior to the Pleasures of the Body

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Three things belong to human beings: body, mind, and externals. Of these, mind is the best.
  2. If mind is the best, then pleasures of the flesh should necessarily be inferior to it.
  3. Therefore, Epicurus is wrong in saying that pleasures of the flesh are of primary importance.
  4. By concentrating on pleasures of the flesh to the exclusion family and society, Epicurean philosophy advocates a society without ethics.
  5. The flesh in itself is not important. What the flesh does is.
The mind is supreme

The commissioner, an Epicurean, visited Epictetus who said

“Just as a person who arrived in a new city asks for directions from those who know the place, it is natural for laypeople like us to ask you what the best thing in the world is. When we have learned what it is, just as visitors do, we may seek it out and look at it. Three things belong to a human being: mind, body, and externals. Hardly anyone denies this. All you have to do is answer the question which is the best. What are we going to tell others? The flesh? And was it for the pleasure of the flesh that Maximus sailed in winter all the way to Cassiope with his son? [There were two prominent people by the name Maximus during Epictetus’ time. It is unclear to which Maximus Epictetus was referring.]

“Of course not.”

“Isn’t it proper, then, to pay attention to what is best in us?”

“It is.”

“What do we have that is better than the flesh?”

“The mind.”

“Which is better: things of the best part or things of the inferior parts?”

“Things of the best.”

“Does the pleasure of the mind lie within the area of our choice?”

“It does.”

“How does this pleasure arise? By itself? That can’t be. For we must assume that the essence of good has been in existence prior to this and we feel the pleasure when we partake of it.”


What, then, triggers the pleasure in our mind? If it relates to the mind, the essence of the good has been found. It is impossible that the good should be one thing and our delight should come from something else –  it is claiming that the effect is good, while the cause is not. If the effect is good, the cause must be good. But, if you have any sense, you should not admit to this; It would be inconsistent with Epicurus and the other doctrines of your school. All that you can say is that pleasure of the mind is the pleasure of the bodily things. They are now of primary value and are essentially good. Maximus was foolish to undertake the voyage if his purpose was anything other than the flesh, since that is the best. He is also foolish if he fails to take what belongs to another when he is able to do so as a judge.

The reason to be good should not be fear of being caught

But let’s consider just this, if you please: How to do it secretly and safely so no will find out? After all, Epicurus himself did not say that stealing is evil, but only being found out. He says, “Do not steal,” only because it is impossible to be sure that you won’t be found out. But, let me tell you, it is possible to escape detection if you steal skilfully and cautiously. Besides, we have powerful friends – both men and women –  in high places. The Greeks are too feeble to go to the top to complain. Why do you not, then, go after what you believe to be good? It is madness, it is stupidity. But if you tell me that you do refrain, I would not believe you anyway. Just as it is impossible to agree to what is false or to deny what is clearly true, it is impossible not to go after what is good.

Now, wealth is good; it is the chief means by which you secure pleasure. Why don’t you acquire it? And why don’t you seduce the spouse of your neighbour if you can do it secretly? And break the neck of the other spouse too if you are found out? That is what you should do if you are consistent as a philosopher of your own doctrines. Otherwise, you are no different from us Stoics. You see, we too talk one thing and do another. We talk well, but act shamefully. But you are perversely different. You talk shamefully, but act well.

By God, can you imagine a country full of Epicureans? [If we did, conversations would go like this.]

 “I shall not marry.”

 “Neither will I. We ought not to marry.”

“Yes, we should not have children either.”

“We should not engage in public affairs.”

What is the result of all this? Where will the citizens come from? Who will educate them? Who will guide the young people? Who will train them to be athletes? What will they be taught? How do we decide this? Bring up a young person according to your doctrines. Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the state, destructive of the family, not even fit for women. [This is a strange comment coming from a Stoic. If ‘goods of the mind’ are the best, why would they be any different for women compared to men? It is obvious that the principles expounded by Epictetus apply to all human beings irrespective of gender. So it is unclear what Epictetus was trying to imply here. A misogynist insult accepted as normal during the times he lived? We can only speculate.]

Give them up, man. You live in an imperial city. It is your duty to hold office, judge the right way and keep your hands off the property of others. No other person except your spouse should seem beautiful to you. Not any other person, not even a plate of gold or silver. Look for doctrines that are consistent with such behaviour and you will gladly stay away from things that are persuasive enough to attract and overpower you. If we add to this the philosophy we just discovered, to help push us towards them and encourage us to do so, what will be the result?

Flesh is not important; the actions of the flesh are

Let’s take a plate. What is best, the silver or the workmanship? Hands may be made of flesh but what is important is the way they work. There are three kinds of appropriate actions:

  1. Actions that relate to mere existence;
  2. Actions that relate to existence of a particular kind; and
  3. Actions that are our principal duties.

So it is with human beings. we should not honour the material itself which is the flesh but its principal duties. What are they? Involvement in public affairs, marriage, procreation, worship of the divine, and caring for parents. In general, having desire and aversion and having impulse to act or not act, depending on whether it is in accordance with nature.

“What is in accordance with nature?”

“To be free, as noble and self-respecting.”

After all, what other animal blushes? What other animal has a sense of shame? It is our nature to subject pleasure to these considerations as their servant. This will arouse our interest in continuing to act in accordance with nature.

“But I am rich. I need nothing.”

“Then why do you pretend to be a philosopher? Your gold and silver plates are enough for you. What do you need doctrines for?”

“I am also the judge of the Greeks.”

“Do you know how to judge? Who taught you that?”

“Caesar wrote me testimonials.”

“Let him write you testimonials that will allow you to judge music and literature. What good will it do you? Let me ask you another question. How did you become a judge? Whose hand did you kiss? That of [influential freedman] Symphorous or of Numenius? In front of whose bedroom door did you sleep [so you can salute him as soon as he wakes up]? To whom did you send presents? Don’t you see that the office of judge is worth no more than what Numenius is worth?”

“But I can throw anyone I want in prison.”

“As you can a stone.”

“But I can club anyone to death.”

“As you can a donkey.”

This is not governing people. Govern us as rational human beings. Show us what is in our interest and we will follow that. Show us what is not in our interest and we will avoid that. Like Socrates, make us admire and imitate you. He was one person who governed people as human beings – he caused people to subject to him their desires and aversions and their impulses to act or not to act. “Do this; don’t do that or I will send you to prison” is not the way to govern people as rational beings. No. What you should be saying is

“Do this in accordance with nature, or you will be punished, you will be harmed.”

“Harmed in what way?”

“Only in this way: You will destroy yourself as a person of good faith, honour and decent behaviour. Look for no greater harm than that.”

Think about this

The substance of a hand is flesh, but its operations are the principal things. Discourses II.7.24. Epictetus [CH/RH]