What are Epicurean Virtues?


Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, Live Wisely:

The greatest virtue and the basis for all virtues is prudence. Prudence, the art of practical wisdom, is something even more valuable than philosophy, because all other virtues spring from it...For the virtues are inseparable from a happy life, and living happily is inseparable from the virtues.

I'm trying to understand how all virtues could possibly stem from prudence (in an Epicurean manner) and what that implies for the definition/meaning of virtue in this context. Are virtues, then, values and morals that further instill prudence?

I'll draw a comparison - Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, Chapter 1:

We suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience (which implies that Wisdom depends in all cases rather on knowledge); and this because the former know the cause, but the latter do not...thus we view them as being wiser not in virtue of being able to act, but of having the theory for themselves and knowing the causes.

The picture I'm getting here is a chicken-or-egg difference. It seems like Epicurus believes that prudence supersedes knowledge as a virtue, as one guided by prudence will use knowledge to better deduce consequences of their actions/behaviour to live more pleasurably, and thus more wisely.

However, one could say that without prior knowledge (of say prudence, or a vague idea of what it might mean to live pleasurably etc), how could one possibly arrive at accurately deducing information and thus living wisely?

Does then Epicurus' words imply that to live by way of 'trial and error', adjusting choices accordingly, is to live more wisely than the philosopher?

EDIT: added from comments

Otherwise it appears that someone who is accidentally prudent is living well and wise, perhaps more so than a student of Aristotle!


Posted 2018-03-25T17:01:24.840

Reputation: 123


See Epicurus: The Virtues: "Epicurus' hedonism was widely denounced in the ancient world as undermining traditional morality. Epicurus, however, insists that courage, moderation, and the other virtues are needed in order to attain happiness. However, the virtues for Epicurus are all purely instrumental goods--that is, they are valuable solely for the sake of the happiness that they can bring oneself, not for their own sake. Epicurus says that all of the virtues are ultimately forms of prudence, of calculating what is in one's own best interest."

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-03-25T17:37:54.813

You don't necessarily need to use "trial and error" method for being prudent. My guess is that he means opposite: the ability to extrapolate knowledge. – rus9384 – 2018-03-25T18:16:26.837

@rus9384 I agree that it is not at all needed. My question is why/how prudence supercedes knowledge as a virtue. The latter comment is making a logical jump: In an epicurean view, is someone that lives that way instead of focusing on acquiring knowledge potentially more wise – vapurrmaid – 2018-03-25T18:21:35.417

@MauroALLEGRANZA That was helpful, thank you. I can see how certain virtues are thus "instrumental goods". I guess my question remains - how can prudence supersede knowledge, if knowledge might be needed of prudence/these tools. Otherwise it appears that someone who is accidentally prudent is living well and wise, perhaps more so than a student of Aristotle. – vapurrmaid – 2018-03-25T20:28:21.190

1But knowledge also depends on ability to learn etc. And out of 4 cardinal virtues prudence is the closest to that. – rus9384 – 2018-03-25T20:38:41.707



How do all virtues stem from prudence in Epicurus' view ? The following passage, too dense to summarise so I quote it, throws some light. The second paragraph contains the key material but the first is a necessary lead-in.

Epicurus's idea of justice ] [morality] is distinct from, but closely related to, his better-known doctrine that the telos [aim, goal] of human life is pleasure. Explaining how Epicurus's unusual hedonism is connected to his complex theory of justice is an important step in explicating his moral theory. Committed to eudaimonism and hedonism, Epicurus believed that human eudaimonia, well-being, lies at the foundation of justice and that living well consists in living a life of hedone (pleasure). In some sense, Epicurus believed that the desire for hedone is natural and basic for humans, and he thought that because of this, hedone is the basic good of human life. Because he could not have meant by hedone what we usually mean by 'pleasure,' his idea that well-being consists in a life of hedone is deeply misleading, and it has consequently born the misunderstanding and the disapprobation of the history of western ethics. Since the aim here is not to explicate Epicurus's hedonism nor to show wherein it is unique and misunderstood, it is simply asserted that his idea of the human good was unique and that it cannot properly be dismissed in the way most critics think it can. However one understands Epicurus's hedonism and whether one rejects it, one can nevertheless understand and appreciate his theory of morality and can begin to assess its interest and plausibility.

Coupled with Epicurus's idea that hedone is the human good was his conviction that the virtues are naturally linked with, and inseparable from, a life of hedone (Diogenes Laertius = DL, X, 132, and KD 5). He regarded phronesis (practical intelligence, or practical wisdom [prudence]) as the foremost virtue, the "natural source of all the remaining virtues: it teaches the impossibility of living pleasurably without living wisely [phronimos], honorably and justly, and the impossibility of living wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasurably" (DL, X, 132; KD 5). Epicurus's ideas about the importance and centrality of practical wisdom are crucial ... It is important first to understand that he believed that living a life o? hedone was not only compatible with the virtue of justice, but actually required it. Such a belief will not seem feasible to those who would think that a life directed toward the acquisition of hedone would often exclude virtue. A full understanding of Epicurus's notion of hedone and eudaimonia would help dispel this impression. In any case, the main point of mentioning the connection between hedone and virtue is to indicate how Epicurus combined his advocacy of the life of hedone with his advocacy of the just life. ( Stephen E. Rosenbaum, 'Epicurean Moral Theory', History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 390-1.)

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-03-25T17:01:24.840

Reputation: 34 276

Thank you for sharing this passage, I'll accept with these notes:

  1. I think understanding this definition of prudence is crucial and distinct from how it may be used in modern definitions

  2. I think from this definition stems the following: to be prudent by this definition cannot be "accidental" for it requires knowledge of self and baseline intelligence: thus prudence guides one to more appropriately acquire/utilize knowledge. Contrast with someone strictly looking for knowledge, who may not be equipped with how to use it to live wisely if they do not have prudence.

  3. < – vapurrmaid – 2018-03-27T14:52:15.930

I recall specifically from a lecture given 2 years ago that my professor would try to say that Aristotle would argue that we must acquire knowledge of forms, whereas Epicurus would argue that we only need knowledge that helps us. That there are limits we should be aware of.

My question arose from an (erroneous) idea that one could be 'arbitrarily/accidentally' prudent and thus possibly more wise than an astute philosopher that seeks to acquire all knowledge, regardless if helpful to them or not. – vapurrmaid – 2018-03-27T14:58:39.203