Epicureanism, Cynicism, and How they Stack Up Against Stoicism

In the following piece, the philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Cynicism will be examined in some depth. These two schools are not paired side by side terribly often—Cynicism’s natural partner is its descendant Stoicism and in contemporary philosophical discussion Epicureanism is sometimes dismissed rather brashly as reductive, and thus its conclusions are rejected with expedience, but nonetheless there are parallels that can be drawn between these two schools and some are indeed charitable to the oft overlooked Epicurean. Brief introductions of Epicureanism and Cynicism will be offered, followed by an analysis of how the schools agree, differ, and interrelate altogether. Sympathy to Epicureanism withstanding, this piece will conclude that it is Cynicism’s commitment to asceticism coupled with its willingness to criticize unacceptable social conventions that make its core tenets superior to Epicureanism and a more than worthy challenger to Stoic philosophy that permeates Western discourse as pertains to the conception of the Good Life.

Epicureanism, as espoused by Epicurus and Lucretius, above all else prioritize ataraxia which translates to “freedom from disturbance” and aponia translating to “the absence of pain”. Epicureans maintain that these feelings (or lack thereof) are in accord with our nature—in fact they are all that the body necessarily desires. “Do you not see that nature is barking for [these] two things only … ” implores Lucretius, and therefore anyone who faces or, better yet, seeks obstacles to attaining ataraxia and aponia is inviting undue distressful states that quite simply make life less tranquil than it can and ought to be (Lucretius 43). Vices to serenity, they argue, are caused by fear and the greatest fear that can plague the mind is death. Clearly the Epicurean must reject fear of death, and their move is to assert that “Death is nothing to us” and “One who no longer is cannot suffer”. To fear death would qualify as, “ … as baseless as those horrors which children imagine coming upon them in the dark” and it would be a paradoxical rejection of Nature as, “ … [her] rebuttal is justified and the plea [death] she puts forward is a true one” (Lucretius 44, 46-7). Fear of death is the chief component of life that can cause anxiety, but Epicureans also go on to apply similar maxims to love and sex that are characterized as impermanent, insatiable, and inevitable precursors to pain. Reason must be used to dispel fears and understand the outward form and inner workings of nature: fearing nonexistence is silly because we will not exist to endure it and breeding attachment brings about unnecessary pain. These are blatant to the Epicurean; they use reason to make these conclusions, but equally argue Nature makes these findings obvious.

Cynicism, as portrayed by Diogenes of Sinope and Antisthenes, is grounded in its extreme asceticism. The lifestyle of the true Cynic gives rise to the ability “ … to endure anything” (Diogenes Laertius, III). The Cynic is also equipped with no reluctance to criticize others who they deem to be living lives characterized by moral depravity or self-indulgence. There is a shamelessness to the way the Cynic lives his own life in his disregard for social constructs, and equally the Cynic is not ashamed to voice his, in the case of Diogenes of Sinope, “haughty disdain of others” (Diogenes Laertius, IV). For the Cynic, it logically follows that, “Everything belongs to the gods; and wise men are the friends of gods. All things are common among friends; therefore everything belongs to wise men” (Diogenes Laertius, VI). Thus, the Cynic is not necessarily at odds with his own philosophy: when the Cynic begs out of necessity due to his staunch asceticism, the wise man is empowered to share his excess and the Cynic would do the same if he somehow found himself with an abundance of resources. Altogether, the Cynic identifies desire, indulgence, and ignorance as the causes of human misery and therefore chooses to live an uncompromising lifestyle in avoidance of these three detriments.

What foremost unites Epicureanism and Cynicism is their adherence to asceticism. Both philosophies scoff at unnatural and unnecessary desires and possessions, and in this regard they share a kinship for asceticism that is stronger than the Stoic tendency to preach asceticism whilst paradoxically accumulating riches. This renouncement of materialism coupled with a general disregard for the gods (emphasized in Epicureanism more than Cynicism, of course) can prompt critics of these schools of thought to characterize their philosophies as too negative—brought into existence based upon what they reject rather than embrace. Philosopher George Santayana, after all, famously quipped that Epicurus, “ … renounc[ed] everything” and “hated life” (Rosenbaum 22). Diogenes of Sinope can be similarly regarded as an unproductive member of society who could stand to take the plank out of his own eye before removing the speck from his brother’s. However, these depictions misstep because, in their renouncement of aspects of life that bring about bad consequences, the doctrines actually become positivist in nature. Whether it is the Epicureans gathering in the Garden of Epicurus to learn and to teach or Diogenes of Sinope cheekily reminding Plato that, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings,” these philosophies are actually more proactive than often given credit for. Indeed, it is not just asceticism that unites these schools, but rather proactive asceticism.

But the schools do of course have their differences, and in their differences it is Cynicism that emerges as the more favorable of the two. Perhaps most pivotally, Cynics’ end goal is virtue while Epicureans prioritize pleasure. The Epicurean lacks in this regard because it is generally regarded that some pain is welcomed if it is for the sake of a greater good, and Cynics in particular actually use pain, whether it be via a minimalistic diet or exposure to harsh weather, to strengthen themselves in mind and in spirit. Thus, the Cynic showcases that pain can be used as a positive aspect of life whereas the Epicurean blindly accepts pain’s seemingly inherent negative connotation. This habituation to pain that Cynics embrace and Epicureans reject can truly not be understated in assessing their philosophies: while Epicureans try to make the claim that the duration of one’s life does not matter if it is pleasurable now, the Cynic can acknowledge that, to some extent, duration does matter because it takes time to develop the discipline to reject superficiality in favor of humble virtue. The Epicurean devotion to ataraxia and aponia is not necessarily an improper way to live, but in a world riddled with pain, the Epicurean retreats to his garden to form a pseudo-society of likeminded individuals at the expense of the community. The Cynic exposure to pain, in contrast, actually allows for them to critique society with impartiality: they understand the pain persistent in a society that they live in the shadows of, and they can offer candid remedies for they do not feel guilty about critiquing something that is broken. Perhaps Diogenes of Sinope could work on his delivery to sound less cynical in the modern sense and more constructive, but alas it is Cynicism that is equipped with the tools to ameliorate the self and the polis.

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