Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 2

Systems which make Virtue consist in Prudence

by Adam Smith Icon
9 minutes  • 1887 words

55 Epicurus’ system is the most ancient one that renders virtue as prudence.

His enemies allege him to have borrowed his philosophy’s leading principles from his predecessors, particularly from Aristippus. Despite this, it is very probable that at least his way of applying those principles was original.

56 According to him, bodily pleasure and pain were the sole ultimate objects of natural desire and aversion.

These required no proof. Pleasure might sometimes be avoided because it might cause us to:

  • forfeit some greater pleasure or
  • expose ourselves to a greater pain than the pleasure

In the same way, pain might be eligible because by enduring it we might:

  • avoid more pain, or
  • acquire some more important pleasure

Whatever was desired or avoided, was due to its tendency to produce desire and aversion. The tendency to procure pleasure rendered power and riches desirable. The tendency to produce pain made poverty and insignificancy the objects of aversion.

Honour and reputation were valued because the esteem of those we live with were of the greatest consequence to:

  • procure our pleasure
  • defend us from pain

On the contrary, bad fame was to be avoided because the hatred, contempt and resentment of those we lived with:

  • destroyed all our security,
  • exposed us to the greatest bodily evils

57 According to Epicurus, all the mind’s pleasures and pains were ultimately derived from those of the body. The mind was happy when:

  • it thought of the past pleasures of the body
  • hoped for other pleasures to come

It was miserable when:

  • it thought of the pains the body had endured
  • dreaded the same or greater pain thereafter

58 But the mind’s pleasures and pains were vastly greater than their original bodily pains and pleasures. The body felt only the sensation of the present instant.

Whereas the mind felt also the past by remembrance and the future by anticipation. It consequently suffered and enjoyed much more. He observed that when we are under the greatest bodily pain, we always find that it is not the suffering of the present instant which chiefly torments us, but the:

  • agonizing remembrance of the past or
  • yet more horrible dread of the future

The pain of each instant is a trifle. Yet this is all which the body can ever suffer. In the same way, when we enjoy the greatest pleasure, we shall always find that:

  • the bodily sensation of the present instant, makes but a small part of our happiness
  • that our enjoyment chiefly arises from=
  • the cheerful recollection of the past, or
  • the still more joyous anticipation of the future
  • the mind always contributes the largest share of the entertainment

59 Since our happiness and misery depended chiefly on the mind, how our body was affected was of little importance if:

  • this part of our nature was well disposed
  • our thoughts and opinions were as they should be

Though under great bodily pain, we might still enjoy a considerable share of happiness if our reason and judgment maintained their superiority. We might entertain ourselves with:

  • the remembrance of past
  • the hopes of future pleasure

We might soften the rigour of our pains by remembering why we needed to suffer, so that:

  • this present bodily pain could never be very great in comparison
  • whatever agony we suffered from it was created by the mind

This creation might be corrected by juster sentiments by thinking that:

  • if our pains were violent, they would probably be short
  • if our pains were of long, they would probably be moderate and have many easy intervals
  • at any rate, death was always at hand and available to deliver us

According to Epicurus:

  • Death will end all pain or pleasure.
  • It could not be regarded as an evil.
    • When we are, death is not.
    • When death is, we are not.
    • Death therefore can be nothing to us.

60 If the positive pain was so little to be feared in itself, that of pleasure was still less to be desired. Naturally, pleasure was much less pungent than pain. Therefore, if this last could take so very little from the happiness of a well-disposed mind, the other could add scarce any thing to it.

When the body was free from pain and the mind free from fear and anxiety, the superadded sensation of bodily pleasure could be of very little importance.

Though it might diversify happiness, it could not increase the happiness of the situation.

61 Therefore, the perfect state of human nature consisted in ease of body and in tranquility of mind. This was the sole object of all the virtues.

These virtues were not desirable by themselves, but on their tendency to bring this ease and tranquility.

62 For example, prudence is the principle of all the virtues. Prudence was not desirable on its own account. The prudent mind is careful, laborious, circumspect, ever watchful and ever-attentive to the most distant consequences of every action. It could not be a pleasant or agreeable thing for its own sake.

It is pleasant for its tendency to:

  • procure the greatest goods
  • keep off the greatest evils

63 It could never be desirable, for its own sake, to:

  • abstain from pleasure
  • curb and restrain our natural passions for enjoyment

This is the office of temperance. The whole value of prudence arose from:

  • its utility
  • its enabling us to postpone the present enjoyment for:
    • the sake of a greater to come, or
    • avoiding a greater pain that might ensue from it

In short, temperance was nothing but prudence with regard to pleasure.

64 Fortitude would often lead us to:

  • support labour
  • endure pain
  • be exposed to danger or death

These were surely still less the objects of natural desire. They were chosen only to avoid greater evils. We submitted to labour to avoid the greater shame and pain of poverty.

We exposed ourselves to danger and death to:

  • defend our liberty and property
    • These are the means and instruments of pleasure and happiness.
  • defend our country for our own safety
    • Fortitude enabled us to do all this cheerfully at our best.

In reality, it was caused no more than:

  • prudence
  • good judgment
  • presence of mind
  • in properly appreciating pain, labour, and danger
  • in always choosing the less in order to avoid the greater

65 It is the same case with justice. To abstain from what is another’s is desirable because by doing otherwise you will provoke resentment.

This will then destroy your mind’s security and tranquillity. Doing good to others procures us the esteem and love of others.

66 Epicurus is described as having the most amiable manners. It is extraordinary that he never observed that:

  • the feelings which those virtues or vices naturally excite in others, are the objects of a much more passionate desire or aversion than all their other consequences
  • to be amiable, respectable, and esteemed, is more valued by every well-disposed mind than all the ease and security which love, respect, and esteem can procure us
  • to be odious, contemptible, and objects of indignation, is more dreadful than the resulting bodily suffering from hatred or indignation

Consequently, our desire for love and our aversion to hate, cannot arise from any of their bodily effects.

67 This system is totally inconsistent with my moral system. However, it is easy to discover from what view of nature this account comes from.

By the wise contrivance of the Author of nature, virtue is ordinarily real wisdom. It is the surest and readiest means of obtaining safety and advantage.

Our success or failure very much depends on the opinions of others. But the best, surest, easiest, and readiest way to obtain favourable judgments is to render ourselves the proper objects of favourable judgements. Socrates said:

Do you want the reputation of a good musician? The only sure way of obtaining it, is to become a good musician. Do you want to be thought capable of serving your country as a general or statesman? The best way too is really to acquire the art and experience of war and government, and to become really fit to be a general or statesman. In the same way, if you want to be seen as someone sober, temperate, just, and equitable, the best way is to become sober, temperate, just, and equitable. If you can really render yourself amiable, respectable, and the proper object of esteem, you will soon acquire the love, respect, and esteem of those you live with.

The practice of virtue is generally so advantageous. The practice of vice is so contrary to our interest. The consideration of those opposite tendencies stamps:

  • an additional beauty and propriety on virtue, and
  • a new deformity and impropriety on vice.

Thus, temperance, magnanimity, justice, and beneficence come to be approved of, under:

  • their proper characters, and
  • the additional character of the highest wisdom and most real prudence.

In the same way, intemperance, timidity, injustice, and malevolence or sordid selfishness, are disapproved of under:

  • their proper characters, and
  • the additional character of the most short-sighted folly and weakness.

In every virtue, Epicurus appears to have attended to their advantages only. This often happens to people who are trying to persuade others to a regularity of conduct. Sometimes, people do not care about the natural beauty of virtue. In such a case, they can only be moved by:

  • representing their conduct’s folly
  • pointing out the suffering from it

68 Philosophers fondly cultivate the propensity to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible. This propensity=

  • is the great means of displaying their ingenuity, and
  • is natural to all men.

Epicurus indulged in this propensity by classifying all the virtues and vices as being rooted in bodily pain or pleasure. He was the great patron of the atomical philosophy. He took so much pleasure in deducing all the powers and qualities of bodies from:

  • the most obvious and familiar,
  • matter’s figure, motion, and arrangement of its small parts

He felt a similar satisfaction, when in the same way he accounted for all feelings from those most obvious and familiar.

69 Epicurus’ system agreed with the systems of Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, in making virtue consist in acting in most suitably to obtain the primary objects of natural desire.

It differed from all of them in 2 other respects:

  • In its account of those primary objects of natural desire
  • In its account of the excellence of virtue or the reason why virtue should be esteemed

70 According to Epicurus, the primary objects of natural desire consisted in bodily pleasure and pain only. Whereas, to the other three philosophers, there were many other objects which were ultimately desirable for their own sake, such as:

  • knowledge
  • the happiness of our relations, friends, country

71 According to Epicurus, virtue did not deserve to be pursued for its own sake. Virtue was itself not part of the ultimate objects of natural appetite.

It was eligible only because of its tendency to prevent pain and procure pleasure.

In the opinion of the other three, on the contrary, it was desirable as:

  • the means of procuring the other primary objects of natural desire, and
  • something which was in itself more valuable than them all

They thought:

  • man was born for action
  • man’s happiness must consist in:
    • the agreeableness of his passive sensations, and
    • the propriety of his active exertions

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