Hume on Epicurean Ethics

Someone in one of our facebook discussion groups recently brought up Hume’s essay titled The Epicurean, which is followed by a portion on Stoicism and seems to conclude that the Stoic approach of pursing “virtue” for the sake of “glory” is a good idea.

I read the essay with an open mind, and liked his defense of nature as setting the standard for us, as well as the initial challenge to philosophers to produce a new pleasure that nature has not yet invented. This is true to what Epicurus taught. My only reserve is that he has Virtue “come to the rescue” of Pleasure, once Pleasure has failed because of its impermanence. I think, and I would venture most educated Epicureans would agree, that it is PRUDENCE that must come to the rescue of Divine Pleasure, not virtue. We see it in Frances Wright and in the letter to Menoeceus.

Behold her! it is Prudence, the mother of the virtues, and the handmaid of wisdom. A Few Days in Athens

Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. – Epistle to Menoeceus

Here, the Greek word used would have been phronesis, which usually translates as either practical wisdom or prudence. In the Epistle to Menoeceus, the role of pleasure as the end that nature herself has established, is clear.

Wherefore we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.

Our friend Cassius reminds us that virtue has no substance of its own and can’t be more permanent than pleasure, and comments:

(Hume implies) that virtue is something separate that has an essence of its own with its own goals, other than that which it really is: tool for producing pleasure. Virtue isn’t an equal force with pleasure, and it has no separate existence or standard other than what is efficacious in producing pleasure or avoiding pain. But this implies that virtue is some separate goddess equal to pleasure.

… Ultimately the role of pleasure is not going to be vindicated by reasoning of any kind – pleasure is in the driver’s seat because nature made us that way. ALL efforts to rationalize why nature was “correct” to make us the way it did are going to lead to an improper elevation of logic, because nature does not need or want our approval.

Later, concerning the Stoic chapter by Hume, he says:

This is very much as Frances Wright describes it in A Few Days In Athens: lots of seductive high-sounding words that flatter the mind but in the end mean nothing, because there is no bedrock on which to find the foundation. Lots of passages are indicative but this one, near the end, gives a good summary of what Stoicism is all about. Every stoic has to face the question: Why be virtuous, and Hume hails the answer: “glory” – because virtue is “glorious!”!

Putting aside doctrinal discrepancies–which were here evaluated for the benefit of the students of Epicurus–I did enjoy reading the Hume essay on Epicurus and would recommend it.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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