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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is Epicurus right about sex?

This intriguing question has been asked by Jeff Mason in The Philosophers' Magazine's blog:

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.

Read on here. What do you think?

I like the comment that "one can well be even [a] keen follower of Epicurean teachings without swallowing the whole hog."


Gerald said...

Epicurus probably just said that so that his colleagues wouldn't compete with him for girls.

FernanDo said...

Sex is a state of mind that leaves you after the orgasm.
Physical love is very similar.

Nice blog.

Adrian said...

Now you've got me wondering what "swallowing the whole hog" is a euphemism for.

I think that a balanced approach to life is best, which means that you can and should enjoy food, drink and sex so that the denial doesn't twist your life, just as overindulgence would.

Athena Andreadis said...

I think that both Epicurus and the person who wrote this had too much time on their hands.

Anna Nachesa said...

We shrug the shoulders at the Ancient Romans who emptied their stomachs in order to get more eating pleasure, but we accept as normal when both men and women try to get sexual pleasure separated from anything else - from childbearing at one end, from any involvement with the partner at the other. So Epicurous might not have been exactly mistaken.

Blake Stacey said...

It's official: Epicurus was a transhumanist who would have been happier uploaded and with his desire subroutines disabled. To be honest, I can't blame him. Why should evolutionary baggage get in the way of living the good life and finding peace of mind?

Anonymous said...

"We shrug the shoulders at the Ancient Romans who emptied their stomachs in order to get more eating pleasure, "

Well, I do so because for me vomiting is so physically unpleasurable as to outweigh the joys of eating.

"Why should evolutionary baggage get in the way of living the good life and finding peace of mind?"

Unless there is also peace and good life to be found in sex.

While I'm not read in Epicurus, I tend to think that his attitudes toward sex are tied up in the gender roles of his time.

Sex was probably a bigger bother in the days when it was much more often deadly for one or the other partner. As such, sex required a greater amount of outlay of political capital, free time and willing to risk one's life to VD or childbirth than typically there is today.

Even sex with one's lifemate can be more casual and more egalitarian because of this safety. And also, if one is a man who enjoys the company of a woman, women can also be philosophers... so it's not like you have to split your time so harshly.

Philosophical pillow-talk.