Pleasure: The First Good Innate in Us

Reannon Broekema

The study of philosophy is a study of theories and opinions. Each philosopher has their own ideas, backed up by their own evidence, of how things in the world should be interpreted. One topic that philosophers studied was the idea of pleasure and happiness. In our examination of this topic one philosopherís ideas of pleasure and happiness stood out in my mind. Upon learning his views I found that I relate to them easily and tend to support his theses. I found the following quote one of the most interesting of Epicurusís theories:
For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin each act of pursuit and avoidance. Life is based around pleasure, we strive to find it and achieve happiness. Without it we have nothing to live for. (qtd. in Jones 318)
In order to create an accurate account of Epicurusís theory I must first give some background information about him. Epicurus was born on the island of Samos, off the coast of present-day Turkey, the second of four boys. His parents were poor Athenian citizens that were forced from their home because of their low social status. After his childhood Epicurus served in the Athenian army where he first began his study of philosophy, mostly the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Once his service to the army was complete he briefly returned to his family, only to move away again to begin his serious study of philosophy. He studied many philosophers, including Democritus, and he soon began to promote his own variations of their theories. Many people were upset by his originality and disagreement with these previous philosophers, and only after political turmoil had discredited the views of Platonists and Aristotelians could he return to Athens to establish his own school of philosophy.

The school he established was named the Garden, as it was a modest home and garden that housed Epicurus and his circle of friends. Instructional sessions were taught in the Garden; it was here that Epicureanism was developed. Epicurus did not want his philosophy to be forced upon others, he wished to merely inform people of his views and if they chose to support it they were welcome in the Garden and encouraged to proclaim their Epicurean identity. He allowed women and slaves to participate in his school, tried to stay out of political trouble (seeing as most philosophers were looked down upon by government as trying to embed ideas in citizensí minds), and treated everyone as an equal. This goodwill towards virtually everyone was a quality of his philosophical views; his demeanor is reflected in his theories, especially his theory that "we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us."

I believe pleasure is the most important thing to find in life. Pleasure brings happiness, and life is not worth living if you are not happy.  I recently had a conversation with some friends about this topic. We asked each other the question "If you could have one thing in life, anything, what would it be?" My immediate response was ďHappiness."  If I could have anything at all in the world I would want to be a happy person and lead a pleasurable life. Some of my friendsí answers were money, various possessions, and companionship. My reply to them was "What are material possessions if they do not make you happy? You can have all the money in the world, but if there is something missing in your life and you cannot quite pinpoint it you will not be happy.Ē They claimed that those material things would give them happiness, confirming my conclusion that they (in an indirect manner) also wished for happiness. All things give either pleasure or displeasure. Most people do not like displeasure, so they look for things to give them pleasure. Pleasure makes us happy. If I am not happy I have nothing to look forward to in life, therefore I strive to do things that give me pleasure and make me happy.

. . . and from pleasure we begin each act of pursuit and avoidance. (qtd. in Jones 318)
My first question is why would anyone want to do something that does not give them pleasure? We can take our first example from Epicurus himself. He showed incredible benevolence towards others because it gave him pleasure to treat them nicely. He also received pleasure by teaching students philosophy in an attempt to spread Epicureanism around the world. If he had not enjoyed these things he would not have put the immense time and effort into them, and his teachings would have never made the impact they did on philosophy. We can credit the success of Epicureanism to the fact that its founder followed the theories he set forth exactly as he had laid them out.

I tend to follow the same principles Epicurus did - do things that give you pleasure. Since I can remember I have had a love for horses. It gave me pleasure to see them when I was young, so my parents bought me horse toys, calendars, books, and many other horse things. As I got older my love was still present, so I went to horse camp and took riding lessons, which gave me great pleasure. Finally my parents bought me my own horse to ride and compete with. I cannot think of anything else in my life that gives me as much pleasure as being with my horse. The bond between human and animal is incredible - she is my best friend. If my horse did not give me pleasure, I would not do things to keep her in my life. Any choice in life, whether its about treating people with kindness or buying a horse, depends on the question "Will it give me pleasure and make me happy?"

 In further support of Epicurusís theory of the first good innate in us, we avoid things that do not give us pleasure. He himself can be used as an example once again. It was known that philosophers in his time were often exiled for promoting their beliefs because new ideas and revolutions might be sparked. Therefore Epicurus made every attempt to observe religious and legal forms in order to avoid political conflict. Political conflict could have meant persecution by the government and a ban on his school and its teachings. This would have given him immeasurable displeasure, so he chose to obey Athenian rule. Most of us make the same choice - avoid things that do not give us pleasure. Why eat broccoli if we do not like it when we can eat chocolate chip cookies instead? The idea here is simple; do what gives you pleasure, avoid what does not.

 I feel that a simple assumption can be made at this time about Epicurusís theory, and it is best explained in this quote: ". . . all living beings from the first moment of their existence pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and that consequently pleasure is a natural good, and the normal condition of every being" (Zeller 473). Any living animal resides in a usual state of pleasure, for if we compare the state of being in pain to the state of not being in pain, not being in pain brings us pleasure. In other words, we prefer to not be in pain, and that gives us pleasure. This assumption can be made about physical and mental pain. We avoid physical pain because it hurts us and we do not like it. If we do something and it hurts us we stop doing it to alleviate the pain. But in the larger scheme of things, we try to reside in a state of mental pleasure. Things such as stress, concern, sadness, and depression can all cause us mental pain, and these are all conditions we do not like and try to avoid. I think being in a mental state of happiness is key to life; being unhappy mentally causes everything else in our lives seem worse, making us wholly unhappy. The solution, then, is as Epicurus says, pursue pleasure, avoid pain.

 Though I support Epicurusís premise that pleasure is the first good innate in us, some arguments could be made to contradict his view. One possible argument could be that even though we seek pleasure and avoid pain, sometimes we avoid pleasures when great inconvenience follows them and tolerate pain when a greater pleasure follows from its endurance. For example, I could get drunk every night of the week, giving me the pleasure of being drunk, but the outcome of my drunkenness would result in missing classes and tests, unfinished homework or papers, or being sick from too much alcohol. The pain of doing poorly in school outweighs (in my opinion) the pleasure of being drunk every night, so I avoid the pleasure and do not drink. In the same way, say I want to do well on an exam on some certain Friday. In order to do well on the test I need to study Thursday night, the typical bar night here at Alma College. I might want to have the pleasure of going to the bar, but I know that if I do that I will perform poorly on the test, so I endure the pain of staying home and studying so that I get the pleasure of doing well on the exam. The immediate conclusion to this argument is that we sometimes, in contrast to Epicurusís theory, avoid pleasure and seek pain.

 My reply to this argument is simple - we may avoid pleasure and seek pain, but the outcome of either act results in pleasure. If I avoid the pleasure of drinking every night in order to do better in school, in the end I will achieve a greater and more prolonged pleasure. Also, if I seek the pain of studying on a Thursday night instead of going to the bar I will achieve the greater pleasure in the long run of doing well on the test. Though I may avoid pleasure or seek pain directly, I am seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the eventual outcome of my actions.

 I have already stated the notion that pleasure is the normal condition of every being. An argument could be posed here as well. If pleasure is the normal condition of every being, pleasure is a prolonged state. A group of philosophers named the Cyrenaics would tend to disagree with Epicurus here. They hold that pleasure is momentary - we seek the pleasure and once it is gratified that is the end of it. Take for instance the idea of being thirsty. I am enduring pain if I am thirsty. I search for the pleasure of drinking water to alleviate the thirst. Once I drink, the pain is gone, giving way to pleasure. But, the pleasure of drinking is momentary (according to the Cyrenaic theory). Once the original pleasure of drinking has been experienced, it is over; my thirst is quenched.

 Though this is an argument one could pose, I find it weak and lacking substance. The solution I pose to this argument is that if we are thirsty (in pain), we seek pleasure through drinking. Once the pain is alleviated by drinking, we are in a state of pleasure, the normal condition of every being. As long as we remain content with our drink, we have achieved pleasure, the first good innate in us.

 Quality of life is determined by how happy you are. If you are not happy than you cannot lead a good life. In order to achieve happiness you must seek pleasure and avoid pain because in my opinion (and Epicurusís) pleasure is the first good innate in all of us. We do not do things that give us pain or do not pleasure us. We may stray from this search for pleasure momentarily to achieve immediate goals, but in the long run everything we do is based around the desire to lead a happy life in a content, pleasurable manner.


Cook, Vincent. (1996), Epicurus and Epicurean Philosophy.  Online:

Hicks, R. D.  (1961)  Stoic and Epicurean.  New York: Russell & Russell.  153-202.

Jones, W. T.  (1980)  The Classical Mind.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Oates, Whitney J.  (1940)  The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers.  New York: Random House.  3-65.

Taylor, A. E.  (1911)  Epicurus.  London: Constable and Company Ltd.

Zeller, Dr. E.  (1962)  Trans. Reichel, Oswald.  Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics.  New York: Russell & Russell.  404-513.