Ethics of Philodemus: Against Maximalism

Epicurean sources make frequent mention of the natural limits of desires. This teaching is meant to help us cultivate a mind that has an accurate understanding of how much is enough, and is therefore satisfied, content and grateful. ‪Both minimalism (see Vatican Saying 63) and maximalism (see Principal Doctrine 15, and Vatican Sayings 22, 25, 59, 67-69) are problematic in Epicurean philosophy. ‬

‪Maximalist thinking leads to the search for unattainable objects of desire and to the inability to feel any pleasure at all. – Voula Tsouna

In page 235, note 114 of The Ethics of Philodemus, we find the following:

Philodemus ad hominem argument may indicate that his opponents are maximalists: self indulgence like theirs could justify anything.

Principal Doctrine 21 mentions the idea of “a complete life” (βίον παντελῆ), which Tsouna relates to the problem of maximalism.

He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.

What does this “complete and perfect life” consist of? This is where philosophers will consider the impact of length of life in one’s happiness, and how important it may be to achieve one’s plans before dying. People who look to a long life or to the future in order to pursue new goods constantly are never able to achieve and enjoy the greatest pleasure because they are never content or satisfied. Furthermore, they think that happiness means a greater number of accumulated pleasures. Vatican Saying 14 advises against postponing our happiness, and Principal Doctrine 9 argues against the view that we can condense pleasures in time or space. The idea is to be present to the pleasures that nature makes easily available: here and now, somewhere in our minds and bodies, we are able to experience some form of pleasure.

Perhaps the worst case of maximalism today can be seen in the transhumanists who desire immortality. PD 21 says that we must understand the limits set by nature in order to secure the complete life. The author of The Ethics of Philodemus does make one concession in page 262, in honor of this idea of “the complete life”, which still requires a clear definition.

One might wonder whether the attitude of Philodemus and, generally, of the Epicureans towards will-writing may not indicate some concern after all for the narrative model of the complete life.

Both Epicurus and Diogenes of Oenoanda expressed concern about their legacy towards the end of their lives. This may be indicative that some measure of leaving a legacy is a natural part of a complete life and (insofar as it’s not difficult to acquire) a natural pleasure, and does not exceed into maximalist terrain.

Further Reading:

The Ethics of Philodemus