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The topic of living a happy and fulfilling life has been one of the key issues for philosophy since the ancient world. A range of answers given by thinkers might satisfy any seeker, if they find an approach that resonates with them most. Ancient Greek philosophers were quite prolific in exploring the issue and offering guidelines on happiness. Epicurus and Stoics are just two examples of schools, yet they are quite remarkable for giving contrasting and often conflicting recommendations. All in all, Epicurus focused on pleasure, while Stoics, on the contrary, promoted discipline and selflessness in facing the challenges of life.
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Thus, speaking of Epicurus’ doctrine, pleasure is a key word here: “pleasure is a starting point and goal of living blessedly”. Hence, he claims that each person has an inborn necessity to feel pleasure and that any pleasure is good if happiness is not treated in connection to ethics. In parallel, any person has a desire to avoid pain, and again it is natural for a person to avoid any kind of pain even if it is necessary to experience this pain as a kind of moral challenge. Yet, there is no need to worry that pleasure is a threat to morality because it is a person’s goodness that makes them choose right pleasures from the range of all possible amenities. According to Epicurus, basic pleasures are rooted in bodily perceptions, and in this sense people are the same as animals: Cicero interprets the philosophy of Epicureans in the following way, “As soon as each animal is born, it seeks pleasure and rejoices in it as the highest good, and rejects pain as the greatest bad thing” . To the philosopher, this statement is not meant to prove that there is no difference between people and animals in seeking pleasure; he does so to prove that pleasure is natural because every object of nature seems to look for it. Because animals do so, pleasure is not a twisted produt of a human mind but a gift of nature.
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However, it is also important for Epicurus’ philosophy that there is a difference between animal’s and human approach to amenities: human needs to be more refined and wise in choosing a pleasure as the selected one must be also positive for their soul. Some types of pleasures should be avoided because they are not necessary and cause greater pain. So, amenities which lead to pain as their ultimate result are not considered to be true human pleasures and therefore cannot bring happiness. In the same way, certain pains can be necessary because they are in fact a kind of useful labors that serve human development and lead to ultimate happiness in the end. Epicurus also suggests living life in a simple way without overcomplicating it and paying attention to good relations with friends.
In their turn, Stoics refer to the same example of an animal’s seeking pleasure but draw a different conclusion from it. They believe that following the laws of nature is not the right implication for a human being, but rather the first stage in their growth that cannot be satisfactory for the entire lifetime. Thus, they claim that while a person seeks for pleasure after being born, this preference is changed as he grows: “as soon as one has gained some understanding…and sees an order and as it were concordance in the things which one ought to do, one then values that concordance much more highly than those first objects of affection” . Hence, it is not enough to feel pleasure to be happy, but it is important to live according to certain principles and values which do not lead a person to extreme pleasure or extreme pain but rather make them function successfully with their own beliefs and other people. There are several of such principles which researchers mention, wisdom being one of them: “Wisdom embraces magnanimity and justice…Only wisdom is directed at itself in its entirety” . So, this means that wisdom is not only a way to achieve happiness, but also is happiness itself, because it attributes certain features to a person which enables them to be happy. Morality is thought of as an ultimate goal without which it is impossible to be happy for a person of spirit, otherwise a person is no different from an animal. The secret of happiness is also related to moderation, which means that in order to avoid suffering one has to control excess desires. Too much focus on pleasure is not healthy and does not ensure happiness in the end. Stoics believe that virtue is reasonable, because it is natural for a person to be good in order to be happy. Therefore, trying to be good is not related to extra spiritual effort because there is practical advantage for a person in a moral behavior which is connected to self-preservation.
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Hence, the two schools have different happiness approaches that are conflicting in some ways but comprise certain common points, too. Epicurus and his followers believe that pleasure is the ultimate good which is equal to happiness, and that it should be treated as such because it is natural. Pleasure is not related to morality by default: one can be ethical or not when seeking pleasure. All pleasures are connected to happiness, even though they might be morally wrong. Yet, Epicurus notes that there are pleasures which are necessary and those which are not, and that a person who is good tends to stick only to necessary or appropriate pleasures. It is also stated that it is not necessary to feel pleasure all the time to be happy; it is enough to avoid pain. In this sense, there is some similarity to Stoics’ notion of wisdom and moderation, when a person avoid going to extremes. Even though pleasure is not directly linked to ethics, ethics helps to be happy in a longer run because some pleasures can make people happy only for a short time with negative consequences.
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