Wisdom and Pleasure: an Overview of Ethical Thought in Lucretius and Aristotle

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WISDOM AND PLEASURE:
AN OVERVIEW OF ETHICAL THOUGHT IN LUCRETIUS AND ARISTOTLE

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...
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