What is the greatest good?

A common topic for argument amongst philosophers is “the greatest good” – by which they mean the fundamental “thing” from which all else flows. Examples include virtue (the stoics), reason (platonists), and of course it is often stated that the epicureans took “pleasure” to be the greatest good.


For epicureans, the “greatest good” is our most important possession, which is life itself. Epicureans do not believe in the afterlife, so this life is the concentration of all value – “good” has no meaning except to the living.

But then, of course, being alive we must determine how best to spend the time we are given, and the guide we are given by Nature is pleasure. By “pleasure” we mean any pleasure as we ordinary people define it – there’s nothing complicated about it. You have heard others defining “divisions” of pleasure – divisions like “active” and “continuing,” and “body” and “mind.” But for our purposes they are all equally considered pleasure – only an individual, within their own context, can determine which of those activities would deliver the most net pleasure.

There are epicurean arguments for why we don’t fear death; the ancient epithet “when we are, death is not; and when death is come, we are not” sums up the main argument succinctly. Of course you might feel anxiety about what happens to your family after you are gone, or worry that you won’t accomplish a goal before its over – and these are things that as an epicurean you must take action on because the anxiety is delivering a net loss of pleasure – but the point is that Epics are not “fearful of death” nor are they “careless of losing life.”

Epics value life for the opportunity of pleasure it brings.