Diogenes’ Wall: on the Pleasures

In the coming weeks, The Autarkist will be covering in detail some gleanings from Diogenes’ Wall Inscription. Diogenes of Oenoanda was a wealthy Epicurean from the Second Century of Common Era who lived in what is today the south of Turkey. He erected the wall with an inscription of Epicurean teachings so that the teachings would benefit all passers-by. The two major portions of the inscription are an epitome on the physics and another one on the ethics. The key portion on pleasure are fragments 32-35. It begins by tackling how virtues are the means and pleasure is the end:

If, gentlemen, the point at issue between these people and us involved inquiry into «what is the means of happiness?» and they wanted to say «the virtues» (which would actually be true), it would be unnecessary to take any other step than to agree with them about this, without more ado. But since, as I say, the issue is not «what is the means of happiness?» but «what is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?», I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end …

He then goes on to argue that the virtues benefit man, and exist and act for the sake of his nature. Diogenes says that there are three categories of causes of pleasure according to time: those that precede the pleasure, those that coincide with it (coincident causes, among which the virtues are to be found according to Diogenes), and those that follow the pleasure. Fragment 33:

Well now, I want to deflect also the error that … further inflates your doctrine as ignorant. The error is this: [not] all causes in things precede their effects, even if the majority do, but some of them precede their effects, others [coincide with] them, and others follow them.

Examples of causes that precede are cautery and surgery saving life: in these cases extreme pain must be borne, and it is after this that pleasure quickly follows.

Examples of coincident causes are [solid] and liquid nourishment and, in addition to these, [sexual acts:] we do not eat [food] and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we drink wine and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we emit semen and experience pleasure afterwards; rather the action brings about these pleasures for us immediately, without awaiting the future.

[As for causes that follow, an example is expecting] to win praise after death: although men experience pleasure now because there will be a favourable memory of them after they have gone, nevertheless the cause of the pleasure occurs later.

Now you, being unable to mark off these distinctions, and being unaware that the virtues have a place among the causes that coincide with their effects (for they are borne along with [pleasure), go completely astray.]

The ability to remember and anticipate past and future pleasures will be discussed in a future essay, and relates to this, but first I wish to explain that the above passage is controversial among Epicureans, who tend to stay away from talk of virtue precisely because of our preference for clear speech. Prudence is the kind of virtue by which we plan for the future, and while we may take pleasure in the anticipation of future confidence and stability, it’s not immediately clear that it (like all “the virtues”, according to Diogenes) is coincident with its effect (pleasure).

In Fragment 34, Diogenes rephrases the portion on choices and avoidances from the Letter to Menoeceus, and then once again revisits the subject of pleasures’ causes in time using garden imagery, explaining how the seeds of different pleasures germinate in different seasons.

… [let us] not [avoid every pain that is present, and let us not choose every pleasure, as the many always do. Each person must employ reasoning,] since he [will not always achieve immediate success: just as] exertion (?) [often] involves one [gain at the beginning and] certain [others as time passes by], so it is also with [experiencing pleasure;] for sowings of seeds do [not] bring [the same benefit] to the sower but we see some seeds very quickly germinating [and bearing fruit and others taking longer] …………… of pleasures and  [pains] …….. [pleasure].

In my book, I translated katastematic pleasure as abiding pleasure, and kinetic as dynamic pleasure. Dan Gilbert in his science of happiness book and TED Talk, uses natural and synthetic happiness. The Oenoanda page speaks instead of pleasure in states and in actions (static and active), and gives some insight into how an Epicurean from the Second Century CE defined static pleasure and into how ataraxia (equanimity, imperturbability), while not identical to pleasure, opens the way for pleasure.

Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

The premise here is that, as sentient beings, at least so long as we are awake and conscious, we are always in some state of being. As philosophers, we should therefore be mindful of the dispositions that inform our states of mind—and some of these are hidden or unconscious–so that the perturbances can be healed in order to allow for pleasure to enter and take their place. Notice that there are four roots of evil that are clearly identified for our introspection and inner work.

Of the unconscious nature of many of these fearful dispositions, we read in Fragment 35:

As a matter of fact this fear is sometimes clear, sometimes not clear—clear when we avoid something manifestly harmful like fire through fear that we shall meet death by it, not clear when, while the mind is occupied with something else, it (fear) has insinuated itself into our nature and [lurks] …

This accentuates the psychotherapeutic nature of Epicurean ethics: we frequently use avoidance, repression, projection, and other techniques to lie to ourselves about what perturbs us. We therefore have to confront ourselves with honesty in order to profit from the Epicurean process of philosophy. And so Epicurean therapy–the purpose of which is to secure a life filled with pleasures–requires introspection, focus, attention, and the healing and training of the mind so that it may be pleasantly occupied.

See Also:

Oinoanda: “What the Truth Was Before it Turned into Ruins”


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. 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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