Epicurus is very clear that the desire for sex is generally bad for one’s peace of mind. When we imagine Epicurus doing what he likes best, he is swinging in a hammock in his garden talking philosophy with his friends. The frenzy of love making and its aftermath disrupts the calm and stately demeanor that comes with living a simple life, satisfying only one’s basic desires. His motto is “Plain living, high thinking.”
Epicurus is very clear about this. Desires are natural or vain, necessary or unnecessary. Pursuing vain desires, like extreme wealth, pleasure or fame, is difficult, fretful and uncertain. None of the vain desires are necessary, and we never find rest if we pursue them. The necessary desires are for food, shelter, clothing, water and air. With these the individual can maintain life. Our happiness lies in cultivating a taste for the basics.
There is one desire, however, that Epicurus singles out for special attention, the desire for sexual pleasure. Like the vain desires, the desire for sex is unnecessary for the survival of the individual, yet it is perfectly natural, like thirst or hunger. We are built for sexual reproduction, and a maturing human animal will feel the stirring of sexual desire no matter what. We are hardwired to find sexual attractions in the world.
As well as being natural, the desire for sex is necessary for the survival of the human race. However, what is true of the species need not be true of every individual member. If everyone were to take the advice of Epicurus, we would die out in a generation. I suppose it is because of this that he sees sexual desire as natural. Nevertheless, whatever fools the rest of us make of ourselves, Epicurus thinks that it is not a good idea for a wise person to pursue sexual relationships or to be entangled in them.
A good analogy may be today’s economic paradox. Just as it is in the interest of each individual to get out of debt, live within a budget, and save some money for a rainy day, it is in the interest of consumer society that individuals spend beyond their means. As Bernard Mandeville puts it, in his commentary to The Fable of the Bees, called “Private Vices, Public Benefits,” the economy grows if people go into debt to buy things they do not really need, but it benefits the individual to remain debt free. So it is with sex and Epicurus. Humans must breed to keep the species going, but wise individuals refrain from doing so.
So what does Epicurus have against sex? First off, his objection is not against pleasure per se. In fact, Epicurus judges the good and bad as what leads to pleasure or pain. Also, he does not deny that sexual pleasure is the most intense physical pleasure that there is. But, for him, that is a large part of the problem. Sexual pleasure is too intense. It disturbs our mind. Think of the innumerable love songs about the craziness and blindness of love. We are carried away and lose our ability to reason things out realistically. The lover is outside the beloved’s window in the dead of night singing songs of longing. Look at all the fools for love and what happens to them: disaster after disaster.
What if one’s mighty love is unrequited? Oh, the agonies, weight loss, depression, bitter sweet memories when they are playing your tune. Then, suppose you are successful. You have a love and your love has you. Now you need each other, or are stuck with each other, engaged in working and child rearing. All of this bonding brings anxiety, concerns, hopes, fears, frustrations, pains and agitations of mind.
From all this bother, Epicurus sees an easy way out. Cultivate friends, not lovers, and you will not experience the possessiveness or jealousy, the hate or anger of frustrated love .You do not need your friends to be a certain way, and will accept them as they are. Friends are happy to see each other, become totally engaged with each other while they are together, and then say good-bye and go their separate ways without pulling romantic heartstrings. Sexual relations get one into trouble of mind, and this is precisely what Epicurus wants to teach us to avoid.
So is he right? I suppose that will depend upon whether or not one shares Epicurus’ view of what will make us happy in this life. If you think that peace of mind is the final desideratum and the essence of happiness, then it is true that one’s life runs more smoothly with fewer hostages to fortune, without erotic and then familial entanglements. If the avoidance of all suffering is the goal of life, then avoiding sexual relationships might provide some relief. However, if one deems it a richer life to have loving and erotic relations with others, and if one accepts the agitation that comes with them, then perhaps the advice of Epicurus is too bloodless.