Wisdom and Pleasure: Overview of Ethical Thought in Lucretius and Aristotle Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Philosophical thinkers in antiquity seem to follow a general trend in favour of self-discipline and imperturbability as opposed to excess, and arguably Aristotle and Lucretius, despite their many differences, do not detach themselves from this current of thought; drawing on this, it is possible to outline briefly what crucial elements their respective ethics have in common. Although De Rerum Natura appears to be a didactic poem dealing primarily with the Epicurean atomistic theory and other proto-scientific investigations of reality, Lucretius clearly and repeatedly calls our attention to the ethical character of this work; in fact its ultimate aim is to provide the readers with an illuminating and liberating philosophy of life, a tool of emancipation from ignorance, able to dispel the irrational fears of Gods and death that oppress men and hinder us from attaining the summum bonum, i.e. earthly happiness. While Lucretius refers to pleasure as “dux vitae, dia voluptas” (“divine pleasure, the guide of life” DRN 2. 172) and undoubtedly places pleasure at the centre of the Epicurean ideal of a blessed life, it is mistaken to interpret this as an encouragement of unrestrained hedonism that breaks with the aforementioned tradition.

Admittedly, Lucretius’s concept of voluptas shows a significant consistency with it: according to Epicurean teachings, wise men do not submit blindly to any animalistic impulse but apply their vera ratio (reason, intellect) to choose only those pleasures that do not upset their inner balance – as the author’s attack against mindless sensual passions and the folly of aspirations to power and wealth demonstrate. Further developing a distinction that Aristotle had made in his Nicomachean Ethics, he calls these pleasures ‘katastematic’ (resulting

in a settled state of tranquillity); by fulfilling our natural needs they grant us a “vita placida

et pacata”, a peaceful and untroubled existence, grounded in ataraxia (“leave your heart unpossessed and free from care” DRN 2.46) and aponia, i.e. lack of pain. Thus it is by means of wisdom alone that happiness can be achieved, and this is precisely why Lucretius’s explanation of physics goes to great lengths, since by building on a deep knowledge of the world we can restore equilibrium and serenity to body and mind.

Furthermore, it is important to note Lucretius’s focus on a materialistic and corporeal view of the world and on the possibility to attain the ultimate goal of life in this world rather than in the afterlife (unlike Christian thinkers or Plato) thanks to our intellect and the simple things that nature supplies – “few things altogether are necessary for the bodily nature” (DRN 2.20-21). Whereas Plato can be described as ‘the philosopher of the transcendental’, Aristotle shifts his focus to worldly things and values. As defined in the books I and X of the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness in a nutshell is within our reach on this earth, it is strongly associated with wisdom, knowledge and contemplation and it is accompanied by pleasure (“philosophic wisdom[…] offer[s] pleasures marvellous for their purity and steadiness” X.7.1177a-25); hence it is not too dissimilar from Lucretius’s vision.

Aristotle famously argued that “all human beings by nature desire knowledge” (Metaphysics I.980a21), thereby what differentiates us from animals is both our ability to act on the basis of understanding and our tendency to experience pleasure in intellectual activities. We can take catharsis as an intriguing instance of cognitive pleasure. In the Poetics he states that tragedy “effect[s] through pity and fear the purification (katharsis) of such emotions” (1449b-24); drama may be regarded as a kind of “ethical” genre since it provides us with a deeper insight on human matters, consequently allowing catharsis to operate on two levels, namely relieving us from intense negative emotions and restoring us to our natural balance. As Halliwell claims (1989, 255-56), our response to tragedy is a complex one, that integrates emotion, cognition and pleasure – owing to Aristotle’s notion that regaining our healthy, balanced state is in itself pleasurable (Heath 1996,xl). In conclusion, it is indeed reasonable to identify voluptas, natural harmony and enlightened reason as the core of both thinkers’ ethics; moreover it follows that their rejection of dissipation on one hand and aloof inhibition of the senses on the other can be rightly considered “classical” in its sensible moderation.


* Aristotle (1996), Poetics, trans. with intro. by Malcom Heath (London: Penguin Books). * Aristotle (2010), Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Silvia Masaracchio [e-book]

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