This article was last modified on April 9, 2008.

Can Moral Agents be Apolitical?

Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school where pleasure is the greatest good, was known for his life lessons, two being: the best life is the one lived simply, and the idea that politics tends to lead to trouble.

There is certainly truth in both of these maxims: a simple life would likely produce the most happiness and least stress. Also, verily, politics is full of corruption and back-biting that will likely lead one into trouble or at least into great disfavor by many people.

But, I propose that on another level these two lessons are incompatible and in some way contradictory. When man is in full control of his life and property, living a bucolic lifestyle, politics may be unnecessary. But this does not reflect the reality we live in. Laws govern our world. Freedoms, god-given or not, are overseen by world leaders. We can hardly get schooling, health care, employment or any other thing in life today without the fingers of government dipping into our pies. So I ask: can man live a happy life if decisions are left to others or to no one at all? Wouldn’t our happiest world be the one where we have our voices heard? This is, I think, the most fundamental part of being “political” — having a voice in the affairs of men.

Happy, Simple Life Is Best

Let us briefly recount Epicurus’ basic ethical principles, so that we may expand and compare them to the political life. Above all, he sought pleasure and happiness. Henry Chadwick, among others, mistakenly calls him “the arch-hedonist”. [Augustine: xvii] This view is understandable, though easily discounted when Epicurus’ words are actually read.

Epicurus says that “pleasure is the beginning and the end of the blessed life … the first and natural good” [56] … where “pleasure” is defined as “the state wherein the body is free from pain and the mind from anxiety.” [57] He elaborates the contrast between pleasure and pain, and how even when one is good and one evil, the good may not always be best to seek. “Every pleasure is a good since it has a nature akin to ours; nevertheless, not every pleasure is to be chosen. Just so, every pain is an evil, yet not every pain is of a nature to be avoided on all occasions.” [56] This exclusion of some pleasures is what frees Epicurus from the title of “arch-hedonist”, for even he recognizes that many pleasures (drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, etc.) will often result in pain that makes the pleasure (although a good in itself) an unwise venture.

But physical pleasure was not Epicurus’ primary goal, again separating him from the common hedonist. He claimed that “for insuring lifelong happiness, by far the greatest is the possession of friends.” [63] Likewise, “gaining health of body and peace of mind … is the final end of the blessed life.” [55] Happiness? Friendship? Health? Peace of mind? All worthy goals, and for the sake of this argument we will accept them as a foundation for an ethical system. (Ethical systems vary, but by and large they would all agree with these goals — though not necessarily the methods to achieve them.)

Politics Leads To Trouble

In an entirely different vein, Epicurus was known to be opposed to politics and the political life. These pursuits lead to “trouble”. One might ask, where does he say this? And I must concede that I do not know. The fragments of his writing that have survived do not touch upon political matters. One is left to suppose that his students spoke of him as apolitical, and we know that a great many of them also believed that an apolitical life would be optimal. Without direct quotations, it is hard to definitively say what Epicurus believed, but let us suppose the words of his students are accurate.

And the case can be made that politics is a messy and troublesome vocation. Any political idea is likely to get a sizable minority to become upset with you. Many politicians fall to bribery or sexual scandal. Lying is rampant; friendships are hard to keep outside of friendships of utility. The more power a person achieves, the more likely they are to abuse it or to inflict violence on others. One could list countless examples of scandal, bribery, warmongering and so forth… but I think these would be unnecessary.

So, Epicurus has a point. Who am I to disagree? Read on.

Is His View Deficient?

While Epicurus is likely right that pleasure, happiness and friendship are great goods and that the simple life will produce the most of these things, I believe he fails to take into account the complexity of modern life (which, even in his day, was never as simple as we’d like to think it was).

Some people simply cannot achieve happiness, simplicity or pleasure on their own. Slaves, for example, or people living under oppressive regimes. Even in free countries such as America, there is no doubt that some people have the advantage over others in their ability to live in comfort and happiness. Can people learn to accept poverty and starvation and be happy with the most simple things, such as a sunrise? Possibly, but it seems we have a duty to keep our friends as comfortable as ourselves if possible.

This is where the utilitarians take Epicurus and expand on his idea. They don’t just think the most happiness is a goal, but the most happiness for the most people. What good is it to be living a pleasurable life when you are surrounded by pain and suffering?

However opposed to politics Epicurus may have been, his own words contradict him. Suppose that the best way to achieve other people’s happiness — or even our own — is some sort of political involvement. Perhaps not running for office or staging protests, but something as simple as the two minutes a year it takes to vote. A vote could change the allocation of goods and services to improve our lives, something that’s necessary in the modern world.

Epicurus believed that “freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.” [72] Be that as it may, as the world becomes more complex, the ability to be self-sufficient is more and more rare. Who among us grows all his own food, sews all his own clothes and so on? We must strive for freedom in other ways if we cannot get there on our own.

Eduard Zeller says that Epicurus’ political and legal philosophy can be summed up as: “The purpose of all laws is to secure society against injustice.” [Zeller: 259] While I would argue that this is not at all what many laws are for, let’s set aside that point and merely focus on the fact that this is what Epicurus believed. If so, he would have to accept that legislators — those who create our laws — are important, as they are securing us against injustice.

He may be too optimistic in some of his judgments. “No one chooses a thing realizing that it is evil.” [66] I find this hard to swallow. Many people consciously know right from wrong but choose wrong. Perhaps they can rationalize their choices, but they still know what they do is wrong. And politicians fall in this category. Are we to ignore politics and allow the wrong people to continue doing wrong? Plato wrote that democracy can fall into despotism, and with an ignorant populace such as Epicurus might want, this isn’t surprising.

Epicurus’ concept of justice is unclear. While he says no one chooses evil, and seems to believe laws are meant to protect us, he also has his doubts. He acknowledges that “if anyone makes a law and it does not prove useful in men’s relationships with each other, it is no longer just in its essence.” [64] So faults can creep into the law. But what is just or unjust for Epicurus? He declares that there is “no such thing as justice in the abstract” [63] — presumably a counter to Platonic thinking. What, then, is justice? We are left to assume it must be a system that brings about happiness and pleasure.

Returning to the idea that we might choose pleasures that are ultimately not in our best interest, we are informed that “the means by which certain pleasures are gained bring pains many times greater than the pleasures.” [61] Alcohol consumption, a pleasure, can lead to any number of health issues. But let’s look at this from a distance, too. Many pleasures we choose cause pain to others, and many pleasures we enjoy as a society cause pain to other societies. For Americans to live comfortable and prosperous lives, people in third-world countries are suffering. Certainly, Epicurus would not accept this as morally permissible simply because we live in pleasure, happiness and have strong friendships while our government does wrong beyond our borders.

If Epicurus says “not every pain is of a nature to be avoided on all occasions”, he may concede the unpleasantness or trouble of politics might be an “evil” that is necessary to ensure long-lasting happiness and pleasure. Even minimal involvement in politics — voting or a boycott of certain products — might produce great pleasure for others while we lose nothing.


We can accept the maxims that pleasure and happiness are goods and that politics can be a troublesome lot and should be avoided. But when we examine the details, these two ideas seem to be deficient if we think both can be maintained. As government becomes more powerful and personal freedom and self-sufficiency is reduced, one must sacrifice their freedom from politics in order to gain the sense of freedom, happiness and pleasure they desire.

And the “friendship” of Epicurus’ day could be expanded now to “world unity” today. News outside the city or country in his day was slow-moving and city-states could be relatively autonomous. Today, we know about the world’s events instantaneously. And we are not innocent of our actions here that affect others elsewhere. We must strive for “friendships” between nations, with global unity and diplomacy.

Perhaps for Epicurus the best government would be no government at all. In theory, this proposal would be ideal. But the reality is we live in a world where the government is everywhere and simply ignoring it will not work. Try to go without paying taxes or following laws and see how long you can maintain happiness. Thus, we must dismiss Epicurus’ distrust of politics and embrace them: troublesome people make troublesome politics. People striving for happiness, friendship and unity make positive and meaningful politics.

The simple life for the many can be achieved, even in today’s complex world, if we are willing to make the commitment.


Augustine. Confessions. Oxford University Press, 1992. (translated by Henry Chadwick)

Epicurus. Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1964. (All page numbers not mentioned with an author come from this book.)

Zeller, Eduard. Outlines in the History of Greek Philosophy. World Publishing Company, 1964.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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