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The doctrine of the Epicureans,—which was widespread among the mass of the cultured, and which subsequently became even the dominant spirit of the age, but which still remained without any scientific development, as, in fact, it was incapable of such,—is the consequential unfolding of the individual pleasure-principle, the theoretical expression of irreligion and immorality. The subjective pleasure-feeling is the highest criterion of truth and of the good; the yielding to natural proclivities, even the sensuous, and the greatest possible enjoyment of the present, are the highest virtue,—prudent calculating for prolonged pleasure, the highest wisdom,—anxious concern as to a future retribution and a divine world-government, the greatest folly; our striving an& thinking should regard only this life.
Epicurus, (ob. 271 B. C., see Diog. L., x, 1 sqq.), who stood most closely related with the school of the Cyrenaics, obtained very soon for his doctrine—which has so much to 129recommend itself to worldlings—a wide acceptance; and while the solid thinking of Aristotle became almost forgotten, this thought-sparing, self-styled philosophy continued to spread wider and wider,—formed, in fact, by far the most numerous of the sects, and sustained itself until long after the advent of Christ. The more superficial the wisdom, so much the greater the party that clings to it. This doctrine, as comprehended in a very few thoughts and forms of expression, soon became fixed and stationary and received no further development, but nevertheless an all the wider practical application. From the so wide-spread sect there have not come down to posterity even the names of self-styled philosophers of any great eminence, to say nothing of systems of thought.
Happiness is the highest good, and hence to strive after it the highest wisdom and morality; all cognition looks to it as its end. For man only that is true which he feels, which he becomes acquainted with through the senses, namely, concrete sensuous reality. Whatever transcends this is at least doubtful, and to fear the doubtful and supersensuous disturbs happiness. Fear of the gods and of a life after death must vanish away, for of them we have no knowledge. Sensuous feeling, and hence the individual pleasure-feeling, is the highest criterion of all truth, and hence also of the morally-true, the good.. But we feel only the sensuous, the corporeal, hence only this is for us true and real. Individual being, and hence multiplicity, is the solely true existence,—and hence, first of all, the individual subject; consequently to carry out the rights of the subject is the moral task. This task looks in no sense whatever to the realizing of a something transcendent to the individual,—of an idea; man is not to follow an all-prevalent law, but, on the contrary, his individual nature,—is not, in any sense whatever, to deny himself, but in fact to cling to and assert this his particular existence, such as it is. Alan is not an upholder of a spiritual world, on the contrary, he is himself absolutely supported and guided by nature,—should merge himself harmoniously into nature, should therein feel himself well. This feeling of one’s self-well is the chief end of life, and therefore the solely true measure of the good. Enjoyment 130is the end; the yielding of one’s self over to one’s own naturalness, is the means.
Now, for this manner of life there was of course no great degree of wisdom requisite; nevertheless direct unconscious desire may lead astray, and hence it must be guided by considerateness. Man must consider in each separate case whether an immediately inviting pleasure is not connected with a subsequent greater pain, and in this case he must avoid it, or at least confine it within the necessary limits, and that simply in order to render the pleasure-feeling a lasting one. The pleasure of the soul is greater than that of the body, because it is more lasting, and hence it is more to be sought after; however, the difference is not essential, inasmuch as the soul itself is but a refined body. Higher than the pleasure which consists in the present gratifying of a natural impulse, is the pleasure of being satisfied, that is, when desire and the soul are in a state of comfortable repose; for this reason a certain degree of temperateness and moderation are among the conditions of happiness. Hence virtue is indeed an element of a wise life, not for its own sake, however, but as a means to a higher pleasure-enjoyment,—even as one takes medicine as a means to health. Right and wrong, to which the virtue of justness relates, are nothing per se; right is only the contents of mutual compacts that are entered into for reciprocal benefit; their violation is the wrong. Where there are no compacts there is neither right nor wrong, and hence also no justness or righteousness. Moreover, only so far as it redounds to my utility, have I to practice justness; and the evil of unjustness is simply the damage I incur,—especially through judicial infliction. Friendship is of much value, wedlock-love properly of none at all. From offices of state the wise man keeps himself aloof; he acquires for himself wealth as far as practicable, and thus provides for his future.
An essential condition of happiness is the being free from all fear of spiritual powers—of the gods and their displeasure, of death and a retribution in the “yon-side.” Gods there may indeed be, but as they are to be conceived of as in a state of bliss, hence they cannot possibly have any concern for the world and for men. Death does not fall within the 131scope of feeling, and hence does not exist for us at all,—does not concern us in the least. So long as we have feeling, death does not exist, and when death does exist, then we have no feeling; hence it disturbs our happiness only when we foolishly harbor a fear of it. But, that with death, all is over with man, is a matter of course, as in fact the soul also is but a fortuitous combination of manifold atoms which, at death, again fall apart. In order to get rid of the tormenting superstition of a life after death, one needs but to study physics. The all-comprehending and dominating chief-condition of happiness is, therefore, prudence,—which in each particular case chooses and determines the proper measure and the proper means of pleasure. Man is, consequently, lord of his own fate, and herein consists his freedom; fortune, as mere chance, has but a minor share in our destiny. But that perfect happiness is not to be reached in the way recommended Epicurus knew very well, and he himself depicts the miseries of humanity in very dark colors; he does not, however, throw the blame for them upon man, but upon the imperfectness of the fortuitously-arisen universe itself; and, by this course, he does not fall out with his system, but in fact finds for it a fresh justification; the more numerous the miseries to which man, without his own fault, is exposed, so much the stronger stimulus, and so much the greater right has he, to strive after the enjoyment of life.
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