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Aristotle and Epicurus
by Justin P. Wendling

The philosophies of Aristotle and Epicurus include some similarities, but at the same time, they are completely different in many ways. In a few ways, the two great philosophers have ideas that are almost exact duplicates; however, Epicurus seems to take a different direction when it comes down to certain ideas. For example, the two are similar in that they both believe that all human actions aim toward the goal of complete happiness (human flourishing). On the other hand, they disagree on the idea of God and God's existence. As we progress, we will get to see the similarities and differences in detail (through their metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.), and perhaps the two are more similar than one might think.

Metaphysics

Aristotle never really did use the term "metaphysics," but he did call the area of that particular subject matter as first philosophy or the study of being qua being. Like Ayn Rand, Aristotle believes in an external objective world that is set apart from any man's consciousness. When he means is that "A is A," everything is an objective reality and our minds can only perceive reality, not create it. Although everything is set in an objective standard, each and every human being can perceive objects in many different ways. The world is made up of independent entities that nothing exist separately from and that all else depends on.

Aristotle believes that there are axioms used in all reasoning. Axioms, to Aristotle, are the most fundamental principles that he uses before explaining what substance and essence entail. These axioms are self-evident laws that do not need proof. Therefore, he also states that we must be concerned with the principle of non-contradiction. This principle means that one thing cannot at the same time be and not be, nor can an attribute at the same time belong and not belong to the same object in the same respect. This is his first principle and, therefore, it is not derived from anything else.

Our knowledge, according to Aristotle, is limited. We use our senses to obtain knowledge and store our experiences as memories. These memories produce experiences, in the sense that one can learn from experiences. We may not know the causes of certain things, but we are able to use these experiences to our advantage by gathering more information through experience to find out the causes of certain things. Even though our knowledge is limited, we by nature desire to know.

Epicurean metaphysics is much different from that of Aristotle's metaphysics. Based on atomism, Epicurean metaphysics follows the belief that the only things that exist are matter and void. He believes that atoms make up everything by falling into space (void). The universe is unlimited and full of empty space that is constantly taken up by these eternal atoms made of up different sizes and shapes. When presented with the argument that the universe is limited, he explains that if man were capable to reach the end of the universe, he would be able to stick his fist through the end and wherever his fist reaches, that would be the new end of the universe and this would happen repeatedly. Epicurus states that these atoms can and will sometimes swerve from side to side creating atomic collisions (The Swerve). These atomic collisions spontaneously create separate worlds.

Following his belief that the world is made of matter and empty space, he states that the world has no beginning, nor does it have an end. This world has always existed and will always exist. According to Epicurus, nothing comes into existence from nothing. This argument leads him into the belief that there is no higher being that created the universe and man. Furthermore, he believes that the universe is limitless and that there is always empty space for an unlimited amount of atoms to fall.

Aristotle and Epicurus disagree greatly on the idea of atomism. Aristotle does not accept the concept that there is the possibility of empty space and void, that there exists a space in which nothing exists. Aristotle disagrees mainly because of his notion of potentiality. According to his idea of potentiality, wherever there is space, there is potentially a substance. Potentiality is just the possibility of having some form, and what is formed into a substance is matter. Therefore, wherever there is space there has to be matter. Matter never exists unformed; as a result, the idea of empty space, or a void, is a contradiction in terms. Although they both agree that matter does exist, Aristotle believes that everything is made up of matter, and there is never the chance of void, empty spaces.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge and the method of obtaining knowledge. Going along on the same line as his metaphysics, Aristotle believes that we are capable of knowing reality. Like Ayn Rand's Objectivism, Aristotle rejects mysticism (any acceptance of faith or feeling as a means of knowledge) and skepticism (the claim that certainty or knowledge is impossible). Reason is man's only way of obtaining knowledge and reason separates humans from all other living beings.

Aristotle stated that our knowledge relies on experience-based reasoning. We use our senses to obtain knowledge, and then we use abstract reasoning to evaluate our newly acquired knowledge to make it valid. This sets us apart from all other living things because man is the only type of being that is capable of reasoning.

Empiricism, the proposition that the only source of true knowledge is experience, is what Epicurean epistemology stems from. He believes we obtain all of our knowledge strictly through sense experiences (our five senses). His epistemology is also anti-skeptical, stating that we can trust our senses when properly used (that we are capable of knowing true reality). The sensations give us information about the external world then we use future sensations to prove or disprove the information gathered the first time. According to Epicurus, the sensation itself is never in error, but that errors are made when we make judgments on the sensations. This idea is also on the same lines that we are able to sense objective reality, but we might perceive objects in different ways.

Epicurus used three arguments to refute the Skeptics on what we can know. The arguments are known as the "lazy argument," the self-refutation argument, and the argument from concept-formation. These arguments were formed by Epicurus to break apart the attempts by the Skeptics to deny epistemology.

The lazy argument is quite humorous and states that it is impossible to live as a skeptic. If a person really believed that it was possible to know nothing, and therefore actually not know anything, then that person would have no reason to engage in any activity over another. Therefore, the skeptic would not be involved in any sort of activity and would eventually die off.

The self-refutation argument states that we should ask the skeptics if they know that nothing can be known. If the skeptic replies, "Yes, I know that nothing can be known," then the skeptic is contradicting himself. If the skeptic says no, then there is no reason to listen to him.

The argument from concept-formation deals with the formation of the concepts of knowledge and truth. If the skeptic says that nothing can be known, then ask the skeptic where he gets the concepts of knowledge and truth. As the skeptic asserts, the senses cannot be relied on; therefore, he is not at liberty to use those concepts since those concepts draw from from the senses. These arguments are successful at refuting the skeptics and prove that epistemology is valid.

God and Teleology

Aristotle, unlike Epicurus believes that there is a God, or a higher being, that gives us a purpose in life. This God is at the beginning of everything in this world. Aristotle believes that God is an ultimate mover that guides intermediate movers (i.e. humans). This ultimate mover is necessary for there to be any movement at all in nature. This ultimate mover is also called the unmoved mover because it is the final mover in the series. No other being is able to move this mover.

This unmoved mover is considered the final cause in Aristotle's four causes for the existence of things (similar to Thomas Aquinas' idea of why there must be a God). The final cause is the ultimate cause of all things; it is what all other things love. Therefore, this first mover must be a good thing. According to Aristotle, God is this first mover and is important to our existence. God gives us a purpose and without the possibility if a higher being, we would not be able to exist.

Epicurus desired to replace teleological explanations of natural phenomena (having a definite purpose or goal in life) with mechanistic ones (his idea of atomism). He disagreed with Aristotle's belief that God is the final cause of things. Epicurus wished to banish the fear of the gods and believed that the clashing of atoms is the reason for disasters and not the will of the gods. To banish the fear of the gods meant to, according to Epicurus, view the gods as material beings resulting from random events.

Although Epicurus was charged with being an atheist, he actually believed that there were gods. However, these gods were happy beings (and possibly only mental creations of the perfect being) that were unconcerned with our being. Although we should try to emulate these beings, we have no reason to fear their wrath. The gods are only ideas of the perfect beings created in our minds. We should try to act like these supreme beings, but they are not even aware of our existence and as a result, we should not fear them.

Ethics

Aristotle and Epicurus are split when it comes to the discussion of ethics. While they are both considered egoists, only Epicurus is well known for being an egoistic hedonist. Aristotle believes that every man should look out for his self-interest and Epicurus believes the same thing except that he adds to that bye saying man should seek pleasure and avoid pain to obtain true happiness. Aristotle assigns two different meanings to happiness and pleasure, while Epicurus uses the terms interchangeably.

Aristotle is a main advocate of egoism. He believes that for humans to be happy and to flourish, human beings ought to look out for their self-interests. For Aristotle, every man is an end in himself and not a means to an end for others. Going against the belief of altruism (that morality consists in living for others or society), Aristotle believes that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself (going back to man is an end in himself, not a means). Man must work for his rational self-interest.

Epicurus and Aristotle would have the same understanding of ethics except for the fact that Epicurus follows Aristippus and believes in egoistic hedonism. Aristippus was considered a true hedonist, or a Cyrenaic hedonist, because he advocated the unreflective pursuit of intense, immediate pleasure and made no qualitative distinctions among pleasures. Epicurus had a more complicated view on pleasures and assigned pleasure to different levels.

Epicurus mainly tried to advocate that nature forces humans search for pleasure and avoid pain. The two different types of pleasures that he assigned were called ataraxia (mental pleasures) and aponia (physical pleasures). He believed that reaching ataraxia was for more important than aponia. Thus, he did push for the necessary pleasures over the unnecessary ones. He also did not see that all pleasures were good, nor did he believe that all pains should be avoided. Contrast to popular belief, he did not follow the saying “eat, drink, and be merry.” In this aspect, he was somewhat similar to Aristotle in the realm of ethics.
Politics

For Aristotle, politics are important for human beings to live a happy life. Politics are beneficial for man as long as man is not coerced. Voluntary action involved in politics is necessary for man to flourish. Epicurus, on the other hand, believed that man's involvement in politics only added to the anxiety and brought man farther away from ataraxia.

Epicurus thought that man should stay out of politics because it only brought disturbance and increased unhappiness in man's mental state. He preached that political power is not essential for man and is irrelevant for man to achieve happiness. Thus, Epicurus could be considered an extreme example of libertarianism. He wanted man to live as free as possible and to plan his own life however, he wanted. However, without any type of government there is the possibility of extreme and complete chaos.

Aristotle was a little more accepting of government than Epicurus was. Aristotle believed that government was necessary to protect each and every right of man as long as there was no force or fraud. The only time government is allowed to intervene is when one man interrupts the right(s) of another man.

Conclusion

Aristotle and Epicurus seem to have the same end goal, but with different means in obtaining the end. They both believe that every man's actions are directed to human flourishing and happiness, but Epicurus also interchanges pleasure with happiness. They get to this end through different methods, and in that aspect, they are very much so different. Epicurus and Aristotle may agree on matter, but when it comes to space, they are split between the idea of void, or empty space. Although they have many different ideas that separate the two of them, they ultimately have good intentions for human beings. In most instances, for example, Epicurus is miss-understood and Aristotle is better known, therefore it is easy to see why many people reject epicurean philosophy.

Man can learn much from these two great thinkers. Although many people might fully reject the thoughts of Epicurus due to his belief that there is either no God, or that the gods are unconcerned with our being, he has many great ideas that should be brought forth. It would be wrong to completely reject his philosophy because of simple deviations from what people believe. Integrating the two philosophies along with many other philosophies would be the best option because it is hard to fully agree with one set opinion or philosophy.
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