The Pursuit of Pleasure
What is your life’s greatest or highest good? I’m talking about that one “good” thing—idea, concept, phrase, person—around which you organize your entire life. What is it?
For some people the greatest good is God. The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Christians with God’s glory as their greatest good live their lives following Jesus Christ, obeying Him, and staying close to Him.
Others may believe honesty is the greatest good. One must never tell a lie. Still others may choose family or country. These are all worthy pursuits. They have a positive effect on others and help build community.
Some people’s greatest good may have either a positive or negative effect depending on the person. For example, money and wealth are the greatest good for some people. A person’s love of money may cause him to build a corporation and create jobs for many people. But love of money may lead to the greed that hurts others and destroys lives.
Many other things may become someone’s “greatest good.” Someone’s greatest good may help others. But the same greatest good in the hands of another person may result in pain and hardship for self and others.
Many atheists consider the pursuit of pleasure as the greatest good. Pleasure as the greatest good is not a new idea. This belief originated in ancient Greece with a philosopher named Epicurus. He lived in Athens a few years after Plato and around the same time as Aristotle. Epicurus is one of the four “horsemen” of atheism. But Epicurus was not an atheist. How did his greatest good become an organizing principle for many atheists?
From time to time I’m certain you have heard the world “epicurean” bandied about. This word refers to Epicurus and his teachings. What does the word mean? According to www.dictionary.com, an epicurean is a person who is
Fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking.
An epicurean is a person who takes sensual pleasure seriously. According to Wikipeida,
In modern popular usage, an epicurean is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures; epicureanism implies a love or knowledgeable enjoyment especially of good food and drink. . . . Because Epicureanism posits that pleasure is the ultimate good, it has been commonly misunderstood since ancient times as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as constant partying, sexual excess and decadent food.
During the early years of the atheist revival (the eighteenth century), atheists used sexual and sensual pleasures to lure people away from the church and into decadent living. The pursuit of pleasure served to justify these harmful pleasures. The pursuit of pleasure can form the ethical basis to support a godless world-view. It was especially suited to the needs of atheists.
Today we live in a society where the pursuit of pleasure dominates the lives of many. The pursuit of pleasure is their highest good. This idea originated with Epicurus. Let’s consider briefly the life of Epicurus.
The Life and Lifestyle of Epicurus
Epicurus was born on the isle of Samos in the Aegean Sea in February 341 B.C. He moved to Athens in 306 B.C. and remained there for the rest of his life. He founded a philosophical school in Athens called The Garden. The entry gate for the garden displayed the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
Most of Epicurus’ biographical information available today originates from the book Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written by Diogenes Laertius around five hundred years after Epicurus’ death. Epicurus never married and had no children that we know about. He probably died of kidney disease in 270 B.C. According to Diogenes Laertius, he produced many works:
“Epicurus was a most prolific author and eclipsed all before him in the number of his writings; for they amount to about three hundred rolls, and contain not a single citation from other authors.”
Very few of Epicurus’ writings survive today. They include a few fragments of his books and a couple of personal letters to his friends.
Although Epicurus taught the pursuit of pleasure as life’s greatest good, his lifestyle is not what we would expect. He outlined the central features of his lifestyle in his Letter to Menoeceus. He called these features “the elements of right life.” He said regarding God:
First believe that God is a living being immortal and happy, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of humankind.
He taught that we should not fear death:
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality.
Our most important desires are those that make us happy, that rid the body of uneasiness and that help us live a long life. According to Epicurus:
He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and, when once we have attained all this, the tempest of the soul is laid.
What, then, is his definition of pleasure?
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.
I said earlier that Epicurus is considered one of the four horsemen of atheism. But he was not an atheist. Why do atheists consider him one of their own? For one very important reason. Epicurus “invented” two of the most powerful weapons used by atheists against Christians: (1) the riddle of Epicurus and (2) the ethical idea that the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good.
The Riddle of Epicurus (the Epicurean Paradox)
The riddle of Epicurus (AKA the Epicurean Paradox) is a very powerful tool for atheists when they discuss the existence of God with Christians. Some people think this riddle was invented by Scottish philosopher David Hume. No, Epicurus said it first.
THE RIDDLE OF EPICURUS
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
The problem of evil refers to the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with a totally loving, all knowing, and all powerful God. This riddle did not affect Epicurus’ beliefs. He believed in gods that were immortal but his gods spent eternity in the pursuit of pleasure.
The Christian God is all loving, all knowing, and all powerful. How could evil exist under such a God? This riddle helped lay the foundation for the issue of “the problem of evil,” a primary topic in Western philosophy.
If God is all good, all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil in the world? Let’s randomly pick an event such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that took place on December 26, 2004. The earthquake producing the tsunami was measured at 9.1-9.3 on the Richter scale, making it the third largest earthquake ever recorded.
The resulting tsunami inundated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and several other countries. About a quarter of a million people were killed by this event.
Why would God let this happen? One person would say, “It was just bad luck.” Another would opine, “God was not involved. It was just a natural disaster.” A third would chime in, “It was fate. Those people were fated to die?” Others would wonder whether God is angry at Southeast Asia. Perhaps God does not like the people in Southeast Asia.
All of these answers have one trait in common: they are based on partial knowledge.
The problem of evil is like the story of the blind men and the elephant. In this story six blind men examine parts of an elephant. One man examines the tusk and says, “The elephant is like a spear.” Another handles the trunk and says, “The elephant is like a snake.” Each of the six examines part of the elephant. Each of them draws false conclusions due to their partial knowledge of the elephant.
That’s the way it is with the problem of evil. Each of us has only partial knowledge and this knowledge often is based on supposition and formed within the matrix of our world view. In addition, a large part of the solution is hidden from view. Can we even hope to provide answers for the problem of evil based on our current level of knowledge?
In other words, there is no good answer to the problem of evil. There is too much missing information. But the riddle of Epicurus serves the atheist community well. As Christians, we have no definite answer for this riddle. The answer is known only to God.
Epicurus’ other contribution to atheism is his belief in the pursuit of pleasure as the greatest good for life.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
What’s wrong with selecting the pursuit of pleasure as your life’s greatest good? Why is this so powerful an idea for atheism? Well, when Epicurus invented this idea he redefined morality for all time.
Is the pursuit of pleasure an unworthy goal for life? The pleasures Epicurus pursued were good health, inner peace, and close friends. He shunned sensual and sexual pleasures as unworthy goals. A moral person probably would approve of his lifestyle. And remember, his phrase “the pursuit of happiness” appears in the Declaration of Independence. Why do many ethical and religious people hate this phrase?
Prior to Epicurus most systems of morality were centered on an established authority. For example, the laws of the Hebrews were based on the authority of God. The Jewish and Christian ethical systems are God-centered. The laws of God and the teachings of Jesus and the prophets are the focus of these ethical systems.
Other ancient societies based their ethical systems on a recognized authority. The ancient laws of the Sumerians as well as the Law of Hammurabi were based on the authority of tradition and established legal codes. Many other groups, such as the Greeks and Romans, were very concerned with seeking guidance from the gods.
The pursuit of pleasure changed this. The definition of pleasure is personal, that is, each person defines pleasure for him or herself. Therefore, according to Epicurus, a person’s greatest good no longer involves God—serving God, obeying God, even believing in God. Nor does his system respect recognized authority. Epicurus’ system is man-centered. Each person defines pleasure according to his own preferences and the desires of his or her heart.
Thomas Jefferson referred to the pursuit of pleasure in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Thus, the pursuit of happiness entered our national consciousness not as an alternative lifestyle but as an “unalienable right” given to us by God. In the twentieth century the pursuit of happiness was redefined along the lines of “I have the right to do anything I want to do whenever I want to do it and you cannot stop me.”
We call this freedom. But is this really freedom or just an excuse for satisfying our lusts? The apostle Paul talks about the abuse of freedom in Galatians 5: 13-15
“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (NAS)
Epicurus encouraged his students to pursue the pleasures of a healthy body and a peaceful mind. But the pursuit of pleasure had a greater impact in other areas. Epicurus’ idea opened the door to all sorts of negative lifestyles. Under the shelter of the pursuit of pleasure, people could justify the most disgusting, debasing lifestyles.
Atheists like to see the destruction of moral and ethical barriers. If there is no God, then there is no good or bad. According to Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, “If there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it.” Dostoevsky also wrote, “if you have no God, what is the meaning of crime?”
If there is no God, there are no fences and no controls regulating our behavior. If God is not the authority behind our ethics and morality, everything is permitted. Man-centered ethical systems, such as the pursuit of pleasure, are atheistic. They have no place for God.
God-centered ethical systems set limits to behavior. Atheists see these limits as fences. They claim that these fences keep people from enjoying the good life of satisfying their lusts and passions. Atheists hate fences. But fences serve two important purposes. First, they protect us from harmful behaviors. Second, prevent us from going too far from recognized ethical norms.
Yes, some fences are meant to keep us out. They protect us from our own harmful behaviors.
When I lived in Maryland the television newscasts from time to time reminded viewers of the danger of deer that wander onto interstate highways. Every year hundreds of deer are killed in vehicle collisions along these highways. Deer also pose a threat to motorists. Dozens of motorists are injured each year. Some motorists are killed.
What does this have to do with fences? Most interstate highways have high chain link fences along both sides of the highway. The purpose of these fences is to protect both wildlife and motorists from colliding with each other.
Some deer ignore those fences. They see a broad belt of grass along both sides of the highway and in the center median. The area appears free from predators. The grass looks so inviting. Obeying the call of his lusts, the deer jumps the protective fence. He does not realize the danger. He does not understand that people also are in danger.
The fence was not there to restrict the deer’s freedom. It was there to protect the deer from harmful behaviors. But we’re smarter than deer. Right? Are we really?
Even if we are smarter than deer and are able to discern the consequences of “jumping God’s fence,” that is, disobeying His commands, our best intentions are corrupted by the wickedness of our hearts. The Bible reminds us of our depravity in Jeremiah 17: 9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (KJV) and Genesis 8:21, [God said to Himself] the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (NAS)
God-centered ethical systems also prevent certain behaviors by reminding us that we are accountable to God. We don’t like to think about accountability. It’s a lot more fun to do whatever we want to do without consequences. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Accountability and consequences can keep us on the straight and narrow. Even serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer understood this. According to Dahmer,
“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”
In an ethical system based on the pursuit of pleasure there is no accountability and no consequences. There are no rules and no fences. A person can do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it.
However, there are consequences for our behavior. That’s part of the natural order and the divine plan. There is accountability for our actions both here and in the next world. We can’t just wish these truths away. We cannot justify our actions by hiding behind “unalienable” rights. The pursuit of happiness is not a right granted by God.
Although Epicurus was not an atheist, his ideas provided atheists with two very powerful weapons. His riddle filled the atheist bunkers with ammunition designed to have us question the righteousness, love, and goodness of God. His belief in the pursuit of pleasure as the greatest good causes people to question and finally to overthrow God-centered ethical systems.
People use Epicurus’ pursuit of pleasure to justify their evil actions and to assuage their depraved consciences. His influence continues to grow.