Arguments Against:

The “unhealthiness of avoiding pain”

The argument goes something like: Epicureans pursue pleasure, but since achievement and ambition require pain, Epicureans are neither ambitious nor capable of great achievement; worse, since they avoid pain they are weak and undisciplined. Also known as “Epicureans Lack Ambition” and “Epicureanism is Passive,” this is both an argument and a misunderstanding.


“One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating. There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy. We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance”1 is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety. The more strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will try to suppress or avoid them.”2


People making this argument don’t understand the Epicurean position at all.

The misunderstanding is that epicureanism is a way of thinking, not a set of proscribed beliefs. There is no set list of “pleasures” that epicureans pursue — “pleasure is pleasure” and our purpose is to “maximize our pleasure within our context.”

It is up to the individual and their nature whether, for example, achievement (and its requisite pains) are more valuable than other activities and pursuits. An ambitious person cannot maximize their pleasure unless they push for achievement.

In the example, Donald Robertson implies that epicureanism leads to suppressing or avoiding “unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety.” His is the same misunderstanding — no Epic would argue that a person would achieve their greatest pleasure by avoiding their pain, depression or anxiety. This is contextual, as is everything.

Depending on the person, culture, time and severity (and any other factors), a person’s pleasure might be maximized by facing their anxiety head on, or taking it one day at a time, or, yes, sometimes not dealing with it at all. Epicureanism doesn’t say exactly what you must do, it states that you must determine for yourself by following the dictum to maximize your own pleasure within your context.

In The Hobo Test, this is even more apparent — the following was used as an argument against the epicurean position, but literally makes the argument for epicureanism:

“Contrary to this Epicurean thought, many things that are difficult to acquire nevertheless are highly pleasurable. Large goals we give ourselves, as long as they are reasonable, are difficult to attain, but highly pleasurable when we attain them ^. Moreover, recalling the memory of their achievement becomes a long-lasting source of pleasure. For example, a writer wants to publish a novel – a difficult goal to attain. However, if he publishes his novel, he will be immensely pleased, and his achievement may bring him pleasure for a long time.”3

Similarly, the “Venice Church of Christ” falls into the same trap:

“In truth life is full of disappointment, pain, and difficulty. A life which exists only to pursue pleasure and avoid pain proves shallow and futile, and ultimately does not satisfy ^.”4

^ The emphasis is mine; instead of successfully arguing against the epicurean position, these examples are laying it out precisely.

For an Epic, “avoiding pain” is the correct course of action only if it maximizes their pleasure.

One can easily see how the goal “avoiding pain” can lead to negative effects, for example never facing your fears, whereas the goal of “maximizing pleasure” contains within it the idea of avoiding pain when it serves but actively pursuing pain if it will bring you greater pleasure, for example overcoming those fears and experiencing something new and delightful.

On the other hand, it must be said that ideas like “ambition,” “weakness,” “duty,” and the like can all be used to manipulate people unless they have some other standard by which to judge.

How many people waste their hours chasing “success” when for them, success might be having time to sit with their family and play games? Or who continue to suffer great pain — or to finally decide it’s no longer worth it — because of their misconception of duty and pain? Our inability to understand that weakness is actually not having the courage to understand what we want and making our lives bend to our own will?

The “unhealthiness of avoiding pain” argument is commonly used to suggest that Epics are “passive,” implying that other philosophies/religions/patterns of thought are “active.”

In fact it is the Epic outline that encourages action. The difference lies in who determines what is valuable? Me? God? Church? Government? Culture?… or YOU.

Truly Epic people are disciplined (if discipline will maximize their pleasure in this life), strong (if strength will maximize their pleasure in this life), ambitious (if ambition will maximize their pleasure in their life) and capable of great achievement (if great achievement will maximize their pleasure in their life).

1 More on experiential avoidance on Wikipedia.

2 Stoic Arguments Against Hedonism

3 The Hobo Test

4 Epicureanism and the Modern World