The Doctrine of Pleasure

A Sermon by Dr. Neil Chadwick

Both in the Old Testament (Isaiah 22:13), and in the New (1 Corinthians 15:32), mention is made of an age old doctrine summed up in the popular saying, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." This philosophy of life was articulated by one of the Greek teaching philosophers, and is no less popular today than it was twenty-three hundred years ago.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus was born on February 4th, 341 B.C., the second of four brothers, on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea just off the west coast of what is now Turkey. Epicurus's parents were cleruchs, a class of poor Athenian citizens who settled territory appropriated from the tributary states of Athens. Cleruchs were looked down upon by Athenian residents and scorned as foreign invaders by the natives of the territories they settled, which made their social position precarious. This proved to be the case for Epicurus's family, which was forced to evacuate Samos in 322 B.C., just a year after Epicurus was drafted into the Athenian army. His father, the school teacher Neocles, and mother Chaerestrate subsequently moved the family home to the near-by coastal city of Colophon. After a brief stay he joined (322) his father in Colophon, where he began teaching. Epicurus founded a philosophical school on the island of Lésvos about 311, and two or three years later he became head of a school in Lampsacus (now Lâpseki, Turkey).

Returning to Athens in 306, he settled there permanently and taught his doctrines to a devoted body of followers. Because instruction took place in the garden of Epicurus's home, his followers were known as "philosophers of the garden." Both women and men frequented his garden, and this occasioned much gossip about the alleged activities there. Students from all over Greece and Asia Minor flocked to Epicurus's school, attracted as much by his charm as by his intellect.

The Inscription at Epicurus' Garden hints at the central teaching of this philosophy:

    "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; He will welcome you with bread, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: 'Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it.'"

The essential doctrine of Epicureanism is that pleasure is the supreme good and main goal of life. To their credit, intellectual pleasures are preferred to sensual ones, which tend to disturb peace of mind. True happiness, Epicurus taught, is the serenity resulting from the conquest of fear of the gods, of death, and of the afterlife. The ultimate aim of all Epicurean speculation about nature is to rid people of such fears. The soul is regarded as being composed of fine particles distributed throughout the body. The dissolution of the body in death, Epicurus taught, leads to the dissolution of the soul, which cannot exist apart from the body; and thus no afterlife is possible. Since death means total extinction, it has no meaning either to the living or to the dead, for "when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not."

The "Principal Doctrines" are a collection of forty quotes from the writings of Epicurus that serve as a handy summary of his ethical theory. The second of these points out the doctrine just mentioned:

    "Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us."

    Number 8 provides some insight into the doctrine concerning pleasure: "No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves."

    And Number 12 suggests the preference of "science" over "religion": "It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure."

On the other hand, some of these "Doctrines" do make good sense:

    Number 5. "It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the person is not able to live wisely, though he lives well and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life."

    Of course we would add to this that "wisdom" is that which comes through the revelation of God, the "wisdom which is from above" (James 3:17; 1:5).

    Number 17. "The just person enjoys the greatest peace of mind, while the unjust is full of the utmost disquietude."

    Number 27. "Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends."

    Although we would not agree that this is the "most" important, we would agree that it is very important to acquire friends who will not only provide companionship but also accountability.

The idea of indulging in pleasure as a response to hopelessness and despair can already be seen in the Old Testament.

Isaiah foresaw Jerusalem as being attacked by enemy armies. Instead of turning to God for protection and provision, they chose to handle the situation themselves. When their efforts failed and the enemy started closing in, they adopted a cynical, hopeless attitude.

Isaiah 22:12, 13 - The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! "Let us eat and drink," you say, "for tomorrow we die!"

Paul in his teaching on the importance and meaning of the resurrection of Christ points out that the Epicureans are right, if indeed the dead are not raised.

1 Corinthians 15:32 - If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

If the Epicureans are right, and there is no resurrection, then the philosophy of pleasure is appropriate. But if Jesus Christ rose from the grave, and makes good on His promise to do the same for all who believe, then it is far better to live in the "Joy of the Lord" rather than in the pleasures of this world. For "In His presence is fullness of joy for evermore." (Psalms 16:11)

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