Is Epicurus Right about Sex?

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.

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27 Comments.

  1. Jeff Mason hits Epicureanism in its soft underbelly in this fine blog-entry, when he brings up the disturbing question of sexuality.
    Epicurus was himself overall not a big fan of sex at all. He clearly thought that sex is one of those things one should keep to the absolute minimum to be able to achieve ataraxia or a perfect state peace of mind.
    However one can well think that you can strive for a less than perfect level of peace of mind, where a normal and healthy sex-life is quite okay.
    I for my part think that one can well be even an keen follower of Epicurean teachings without swallowing the whole hog.
    I also think that sexuality is one of the areas where people and their needs differ enormously and there is no “one-size fits all” -answer even in Epicurean philosophy.
    Epicurus is btw. also in Facebook:
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Epicurus/79493658728

  2. I’d be interested to know which word for ‘love’ Epicurus used.
    I think a craving for passionate love can cause much pain, but the love of a long-lasting friendship provides considerably more pleasure than pain, even if it is a romantic relationship that harbours the love. I don’t think it is the love/sex that causes pain, but the craving for it.
    I equate this to the consideration of money – ‘does money bring you happiness?’
    Having money to spend can bring you happiness, but the craving of money rather than the happiness it brings will never do.

  3. This all implies that we have some sort of control over if and when we fall in love…. Or that I can truly control having the desire of sex… I might be able to control acting on the desire, but I don’t think I can simply eliminate having the desire.

    With food and water, Epicurus’ argument works. I can eat simply, water and bread, or in a more modern sense soybeans. I end those desires, without being extravagent. But I can’t do the same with sex. Perhaps the simply non-extrvagent version of satisfying the desire would be masturbation? But I have to do something about the desire…

  4. Wayne, I do gather that Epicurus did in fact have a good word for masturbation as a safe way of releaving sexual pressures. At least the later leading Epicurean Lucretius advised men in this way; “Ejaculate the liquid collected in the body and do not retain it.”

  5. Epicurus is painting an extremely idealized picture of friendship and an excessively negative one of love. Friendship can be at times demanding, a hassle, a source of frustration, an unwanted obligation, just as sexual love can be at times a source of total harmony.

  6. Amos, one size really does not fit all. I think Epicurus was a person who did not in the end have a lot of sexual needs himself.
    As one inevitably sees the world through one’s own eyes, even a philosopher all too easily falls into the trap of over-generalization, as conditional truths are not common there-
    If a person does not have great sexual needs, he thinks all too easily that others need to be similar.

  7. I know very little about Epicurus. However it seems to me that his recommendations for human behaviour are not compatible with human psychological/physiological states as we currently understand, and deal with them. I note that Nietzsche, who suffered from much ill health during his lifetime thought that Epicurus’s conception of happiness as freedom from anxiety, was too passive and negative, which is my impression. I note that Epicurus was stated to be unmarried and childless, which does give some food for thought concerning, what is for me, an unconvincing argument. His views on what we call today Science and the Universe in general seem, unlike his behavioural recommendations for a type of Hedonism, to be astonishingly mature.

    More importantly this discussion so far seems to be male orientated. May we accordingly hear some female viewpoints which I am sure will be quite penetrating.

  8. i hope that i studies phylosophy in english

  9. I have one reservation about this thoughtful piece. I think the analogy drawn between sex and the economy is misleading. It is morally right and wise (I believe these go together) to take the burden of loving and raising a family to enrich life. But for people to “go into debt to buy things they do not really need”, is neither right nor wise. The economics of consumerism is responsible for the misery of the vast majority of human beings. We need an economy that aims at providing the basic needs of all human beings, instead of enriching a few and impoverishing the many.

  10. Dear D. R. Khashaba. I think you are quite mistaken in your assessment of effects of consumer economy. Consumer societies have brought about an unbelievable amount of wealth, which has also been distributed within these societies more evenly than has been the case any time after the fall of hunter-gatherer-societies and the creation of extremely unjust feudal societies.
    You must be referring to the fact that the Southern part of the world has not been able to jump-start that same kind of consumer economy, as the northern part and has fallen way behind, as standard of living has jumped up in extraordinary fashion in northern parts of the Earth just because of this consumer economy.
    The dire straits of developing world are however not a result of consumer economy, but of the lack of it.
    There is no particular reason why these countries would and could not be able to the same thing that the Asiatic Tigers have already done; that is risen from poverty to create a wealthy consumerism-based societies.
    They just must be able to create stable and justice-based societies, as before that any real progress is extremely difficult.

  11. Epicurus’s advice may or may not be very wise, but even if it is, it is unachievable. No matter how much we would like to adopt his attitude to sex it is impossible for most of the human race to do so and the people who could adopt it probably adopt it anyway, whether or not they have read or heard of Epicurus.

  12. Dear Mr Jakko Wallenius, I am afraid I find it difficult to accept your defence of consumer economy. I do not know much about the social conditions in the Asiatic Tigers, but I know that there is poverty and suffering in the USA and in the countries of Western Europe. I am also convinced that even if conditions in, say, all countries of Africa greatly improve so as to remove famine and abject poverty, there would still be injustice as long as market economy continues to prevail in the world.

  13. Dear D. R. Khashaba. I think you talking now about the unequal sharing of the wealth created by the consumer society, but that is a political question and not a result of workings of the economy. Here in Scandinavia the economy is based on the very same model, but because of different political history of long social democratic influence, we have a much more equal distribution of wealth than in for example in the US of A.
    So you are barking at the wrong tree when you blame the economy for not distributing the wealth well enough. This is a question of politics and not economics.

  14. It may be true that many people constitutionally simply will not be able to avoid sex, or even (horror of horrors) marriage. That doesn’t change the fact that, much else being equal, such people will have a reduced possibility for a tranquil and pleasant life. And I think this was the basis of Epicurus’ analysis and advice. I don’t think he ever expected that everyone could become a perfect Epicurean. And he even admitted you could get lucky and reap no ill effects from sex.

  15. I can understand the sentiment behind Epicurean mistrust of sex, or, rather, erotic liaisons : however, suffering associated with pleasure derived from such passion is a vital ingredient of life, and indeed much of human condition. would we recognise pleasure were it not for the canvass of pain upon which it is superimposed?

  16. Apologies for the lateness of the comment, but there are three points that need to be made.

    Firstly, it is not against Epicurus or epicureanism to say that, because we now know that sexual need is a biological feature, we must amend epicureanism a little. Being able to change and absorb new knowledge is the mark of a living philosophy…

    So, secondly, we might say that, like eating and drinking, there are situations in which sex is a good, while in others it isn’t. For instance, sometimes friendship deepens into love (and you really can’t love someone and not be their friend), and in this situation sex is quite conducive to happiness. However, if you treat sex as your primary means of achieving happiness, you are committing a grave mistake, and suffering will be the result.

    Finally, to say that because sex or love may lead to some anxiety or even suffering we must avoid both at all costs. As Amos said earlier, friendship carries these same risks. To try to guard oneself by denial leads to fear of life and repression… in other words anxiety and unhappiness.

  17. One word to the wise: Kundalini

  18. Lookatthestars

    My experience is this: I have experienced a sexual desire for women since I was around 12 or 13 years old. I believe that in the last 12 or so years there has been perhaps a curve where it increased to a maximum and then has gradually decreased, though it is still a significant factor in my life. Due to ideas I have held at different moments during these years that are similar to the ideas Epicurus tells of, I have attempted to abstain from sexual activities several times.

    My experience is this: It hasn’t worked. There have been periods when I have been able to go without, but always, it ends with a release of tension and return to the previous routine. I am mostly talking about masturbation, though there have been sexual relationship relationships with women.

    My thoughts: I don’t know if there are men out there with less of a sexual urge than my own. I suspect that there probably are, but I can’t think of any offhand. However, I don’t talk about these things with most people often, if ever. My experience is that, for me, the desire and release is part of my life and it doesn’t really interfere with my other pursuits, intellectual or otherwise. However, in a sense, I do wish that I did not have these desires. I wish that I could live my life without sexual desire, or at least with only a slight amount that didn’t provoke me to acting on them. I don’t know the reason for this. I suppose it may be the kind of wishful thinking that muses, “if only I were never unhappy.”

  19. To LOOKATTHESTARS: if one applies some principles of Epicureanism, then your desire to attain a total lack of sexual desire is unattainable, and thus, you should cease to have it for the sake of your own wellbeing. Wishing to control something that is uncontrollable leads only to anxiety and dysphoria, and thus keeps oneself from coming closer to ataraxia. 🙂

  20. In my opinion, and no I’m not a famous philosopher nor do I think I am, if sex can make you lose your peace of mind then you are not a very mentally strong person.
    To reach peace of mind you just have to let things flow. It’s true that one must not become obsessed with sexual partners, money and fame, but treating sex like kryptonite can’t do you any good either.

  21. Various Philosophers on Sex | Shaun Miller’s Weblog - pingback on August 16, 2011 at 5:31 pm
  22. 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😳 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😐 😐 😥 😥 😥 😥 😥 😥 :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: ❓ ❓ ❓ 👿 👿 👿 👿 👿 👿 👿

  23. I suppose the only way to accurately carry out hedonic calculus around choosing a particular lover is by judging (hopefully, accurately) how trust-worthy and, perhaps, drama-free, that lover is. Maybe if one spends enough time getting to know a lover prior to the commitment, one can gauge this. I don’t think all sexual and romantic relationships are equally a source of pain: some are worth the time and energy invested.

  24. One problem with his argument is that the issue is not simply about sex. Nobody in his day could have children without sex so the good/pleasure of children has to be included in the discussion. Epicurus had no children to my knowledge but there were people in his community/school who had children since his last will and testament mentions them. The other related issue is the different way men and women perceive sex. I think the children he mentions in his last will and testament were children of women in his school. I can’t remember a reference to the children’s father, only the mother. (I may be wrong) So do women see sex more as a reproductive act and men less so? Certainly the disturbance in life from a pregnancy is far greater for women than men. But I guess my point is that his argument can’t be decided without thinking about both children and gender differences.

  25. I was wrong. Fathers are mentioned in the last will and testament of Epicurus. But there are odd things in there given his views on sexuality. He leaves provision for the female children in the school to marry and acknowledges the children of some of the males in his school. So not everyone was taking his advice about sex very seriously.

  26. See Tad Brennan on Epicurus, Sex and Children from Classical Philology Vol 4 1996 for good commentary on this topic.

  27. It’s all just preference based. Sex is just a natural urge and just like the rest of our natural urges, it holds an influence over the mind. You are sex and sex is you. You are hunger and hunger is you, etc… You may not like or agree with your nature, but you must understand and accept it, because you cannot control it.
    If one can accept that which they find unfavorable, one can start to question ego and what it brings to the table in a manner of consequence.

    For myself, regarding sexual desire, I think it foolish and unavoidable. How you deal with your fool of a body is up to you, be it an 18 year (minimum imo) dedication to raising a child, or a 15 minute hand festival, it’s your perogative. You have to deal with it one way or another, it’s just a matter Life preference.

    It’s the same as “Sprite or Mountain Dew?” You’re thirsty; that, you cannot change, so how you quench that is up to you, whether it be a refreshing bubbly, or an energetic bubbly. In hindsight, I used two dehydrating fluids as examples, but whatever, same idea.

    So, in a nutshell, if you disagree with your nature or embrace it, you’re gonna be thirsty either way, so just stop caring. Just do what you want or not, be it based on consequence or excitement. If anybody judges you negatively for feeling either way, fuck ’em… or just ignore them.

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