The Dream of Reason
The principle of utility, most famously formulated by Bentham in terms of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number', instructs one to produce a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. Such a principle is supposed to guide the good utilitarian as he calculates the consequences of actions and policies in order to decide what to do, just as Epicurus spoke of a careful 'calculation and survey of advantanges and disadvantages'. The main differences between Epicurus and the utilitarians are ones of emphasis and motivation. First, the Epicureans focussed on conquering fear and anxiety, whereas utilitarianism tends to be concerned with more positive measures of welfare. Second, while utilitarianism was specifically intended to guide law-makers and politicians, Epicurus warned his followers against any direct involvement in public life: 'We must liberate ourselves from the prison of routine business and politics.' Epicureanism might well have made a fine system for running the world; but Epicurus and his friends were inclined towards less stressful occupations.
Epicurus preferred to fight dangerous beliefs rather than rival politicians. He was after all a practitioner of philosophy, 'an activity which by arguments and discussions brings about the happy life'. The first step on the road to happiness was to secure basic comforts such as freedom from hunger. Although one might think that 'arguments and discussions' are not much help with that sort of thing, it turns out that they can be, for example by convincing us how little we really need. According to Epicurus, many of our problems in life are caused not by our actual circumstances but by our false beliefs about them: 'What is insatiable is not the stomach, as people say, but the false opinion [that it needs] unlimited filling.' Not only do we strive to get things that are in fact unnecessary or even undesirable, we are afraid of things that are not there, and worry about things that won't happen. We are unnerved by superstitions because we don't understand how the world really works; we are oppressed by the thought of fate for much the same reason; and we are in a complete muddle about death, because we have not grasped what life is. Such anxieties and confusion cause the pains which do most to blot out the pleasures we could he enjoying. Philosophy, particularly in the form of scientific knowledge, is the answer for such 'fears concerning celestial phenomena and death and distress.'
Debunking the fear of death was a speciality of the house for Epicurus and his followers. They argued that tales about the unhappy disembodied souls of the dead must be scare-stories, because the mind or soul is a physical thing that does not survive the death of the body. Lucretius argued that the 'mind and spirit must both be composed of matter', and so must share the fate of the rest of the body, because 'we see them propelling the limbs, rousing the body from sleep, changing the expression of the face and guiding and steering the whole man-activities that all clearly involve touch, as touch in turn involves matter. How then can we deny their material nature?' The main thing to grasp was the truth of Democritus' picture of life as a precarious assemblage of mechanically interacting atoms. According to this picture, when atoms are arranged in a certain way the result is a living creature that can think, feel, move about and so on. When this arrangement falls apart, and we die, there will be no thought or feeling left. So the state of being dead is not something we ever experience, either pleasantly or unpleasantly. The process of dying might sometimes he unpleasant, but the state of being dead cannot be so, 'seeing that when we exist death is not present, and when death is present we do not exist.'
Lucretius noted that for the dead person himself, being dead will be no different from not yet having been born. And the Epicureans had plenty of other reassuring observations on the subject: 'a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, hut by ridding us of the desire for immortality'. Thus 'the wise man neither deprecates living nor fears not living. For he neither finds living irksome nor thinks not living an evil. But just as he chooses the pleasantest food, not simply the greater quantity, so too he enjoys the pleasantest time, not the longest.' Clear thinking shows that we do not need an infinite time in order to enjoy a complete life. In fact, worrying about death and longing for immortality just wastes the time we have got. So too does quaking and shuddering in a state of superstitious terror—for which, once again, the cure is Democritus' atomism. His account of the world shows us that signs and wonders in the upper atmosphere are a matter for atomic science, not for burning chickens and wailing at the sky. The universe is not ruled by gods hut by atoms, and atoms have no interest in prayers and sacrifices. Actually, the gods are not interested in these things either, since they are busy enjoying a life of blessed tranquillity. The last thing they would want is to listen to the begging of organizing a good thunderstorm.
Although Epicurus spoke of gods, it is not clear in what sense he believed in them. Certainly he rejected tales of the gods intervening in everyday life and the sort of creation-story told in Plato's Timaeus. It was a proud boast of atomism that gods were not required in order to account for the workings of the natural world, a boast which Lucretius, for one, took great pains to justify with his ingenious and sometimes bizarre theories about everything from magnets to milk.