On the Standard Interpretation of Static Pleasure

The following is based on On Cicero and Errors In The Standard View of Katastematic Pleasure by Mathew Wenham, which inspired in part our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure. Please read the dialogue for full context.

Some Epicureans are questioning Cicero’s interpretation of Epicurus’ definition of pleasure found in On Ends, and have cited several key essays in articulating their arguments. The Wenham essay is among them.


The founders of the Epicurean school were adamant that words had to clearly correlate to the attestations presented to our faculties by nature, and had to be clearly defined as such prior to any investigation into truth. The first error in Wenham is this:

“katastematic pleasure in Epicurus has it referring to “static” states from which feeling is absent.”

Katastematic pleasures were defined as pleasures by Epicurus, and a pleasure is not a pleasure if feeling is absent. So we would be accepting a false premise if we were to admit Wenham’s definition, which he gets from Cicero.

when we examine aspects of Epicurus’ epistemology, it seems to demand that we attribute to him an account of pleasure that fits the experiential framework. – Wenham

Wenham makes, from the onset, a clear distinction and separation between the attitudinal and the experiential approaches, and presents and either/or view of them. Can this be a true dichotomy? Can there not be a both/and approach–which would be entirely consistent with Epicurean polyvalent logic?

He solves the controversy in favor of experience, and I agree 100 % that Epicurean ethics concerns itself primarily with the immediate experience of a sentient being.

The problem is that attitude (diathesis) is central in both Diogenes—where it’s said that we are in control of it, and so this is tied to freedom and its moral repercussions—and Philodemus, for therapeutic purposes, as it is one’s attitudes / diathesis that are being healed and reformed via cognitive therapy. This means that Epicurean philosophy can not furnish the moral revolution that it promises without an in depth study of diathesis and its account of how and by which methods diathesis–one’s attitude and character, sometimes translated as “disposition”–must be reformed. The “anatomy” of long-term pleasure and its relation to disposition is explored in Diogenes’ Wall:

Let us now [investigate] how life is to be made pleasant for us both in states and in actions.

Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

It is clear that life is made pleasant not just by the removal of anxieties and false beliefs, but also by replacing them with true beliefs based on the study of nature. It follows from what Diogenes is saying, that once the right view is accepted and the cognitive perturbation is corrected, the new view leads to a feeling of pleasure. Philodemus reports Epicurus as saying this, in On Piety:

“… we all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility.”

Although ataraxia (non-perturbation, here translated as tranquility) is a means to pleasure and not the end itself, when we study the anatomy of a pleasant life, it seems that the opinion, or judgment, or cognitive component that leads to ataraxia is a pre-cursor, maybe even a reason / justification for pleasant experience, but is distinct from the (katastematic) pleasant existential state itself in the Epicurean system. One of the documents alluded to in our Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure, a chapter of the book The Greeks on Pleasure by Gosling & Taylor, explains that

joy (chara) and a sense of well-being (euphrosune) seem to correspond to ataraxia and aponia as positive counterparts.

By positive here it meant the feeling component, without which katastematic pleasure would not qualify as pleasure. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus, in On Telos, says that ataraxia and aponia imply a state of rest (katastema), joy and delight a state of motion and activity (kinesis). It is clear that when Epicurus used the word katastema to refer to aponia (painlessness) and ataraxia (tranquility), he was referring to a pleasant feeling of well being, not a purely cognitive judgement.


At the heart of the controversy that we have been discussing is the error–originally attributed to Cicero, but partially traceable back to Plato–where Cicero assumed that everyone agrees that pleasure is an active stimulus and not a stable state, ergo it is a motion towards replenishment (vitality). In the attitudinal theory, pleasure is an intentional state or attitude (belief, desire), and in the case of “katastematic” it’s purely cognitive (that is, void of feeling). This view can be traced back to Plato because he held that pleasure was partially cognitive.

Wenham argues that the standard interpretation does not agree with the Epicurean canon, which does not admit a cognitive component. Cognition helps in interpreting the signs presented by nature to our faculties, and the canon (or measure of truth) is the set of faculties that receives raw data from nature. It does not interpret, and hence does not admit cognitive components.

But what Wenham is also saying is that the cognitive component informs katastematic pleasure, and the katastematic pleasure itself is felt as joy and a sense of wellbeing. It could also be experienced as gratitude, as confidence, as joy, as relaxation, or a variety of other mellows that constitute the pleasure itself.

In our discussion, some Epicureans–dismissing the Ciceronian (now seen as the standard / academic) interpretation as another chapter in our counter-history of philosophy–wish to do away entirely with katastematic pleasure, and even go as far as to deny that it is a truly Epicurean concept. Others hold that view that we need not deny the attitudinal component because it is a necessity that comes with freedom, and it is self-evident that a wholesome disposition can help to lead to a life of pleasure.

Those who hold the second view, also find that katastematic pleasure needs to be reaffirmed and properly understood as a felt experience, as a feeling. If we admit the Laertius quote and accept katastema as a category of pleasure, and insist on defining katastema as including FEELING, the entire Ciceronian argument falls. Here is the quote attributed to Epicurus, from Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X:81-2

[81] “There is yet one more point to seize, namely, that the greatest anxiety of the human mind arises through the belief that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible, and that at the same time they have volitions and actions and causality inconsistent with this belief ; and through expecting or apprehending some everlasting evil, either because of the myths, or because we are in dread of the mere insensibility of death, as if it had to do with us ; and through being reduced to this state not by conviction but by a certain irrational perversity, so that, if men do not set bounds to their terror, they endure as much or even more intense anxiety than the man whose views on these matters are quite vague. [82] But mental tranquility means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.

“Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.


Attending to “our present feelings and sensations” reminds us of the Zen-like Cyrenaic practice of presentism. Existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Sartre say that apprehension of something, or knowing someone, is the same as having power over that object. If this is the case, and if we are, indeed, present to our feelings and sensations–ataraxia can then be seen as a positive, dynamic, active consumption and enjoyment of reality here and now, and the exercise of “being present” (“presentism”) could help to make our attention available and maximize our ability to experience pleasure in our immediacy. Also, this would mean that static pleasures may also be, to some extent, active.

Wenham makes another contribution to the discussion, one that links the Epicurean theory of pleasure ethics to both Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus and Polystratus’ scroll Irrational Contempt. In the scroll, our third Scholarch argues that pleasure and aversion (and categories like noble or vile) DO exist in nature and are observable, but that they do not exist in the same way as the inherent properties of bodies. He refers to them as relational properties of bodies, which they exhibit when in the presence of certain other bodies. These two categories of primal and secondary properties of physical bodies exist within Epicurus’ physics. Polystratus uses examples like the magnet, which attracts iron, but not other stones; and of herbs which heal certain diseases but do not have healing properties in the presence of health.

ex·trin·sic, ADJECTIVE
  1. not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside

Wenham’s assertion that there is in the experiential model an “experiential object extrinsic to the self” relates to Polystratus‘ assertion that what is experienced as pleasure or aversion exists not as a primary or inherent attribute of bodies, but is relational in nature. There is some object, whether mental or physical, that is enjoyed and incites pleasure in the organism.


Our intention here, by posting both the dialogue on the controversy surrounding katastematic pleasure and a discussion of the sources mentioned, is to present the controversy and encourage familiarity with it among students of Epicurean philosophy.

Much more can be said about the anatomy of the pleasant life, according to Epicurean philosophy, and also according to modern science. In recent discussions, the similarities between the two feel-good hormones serotonin and endorphin and the two modes of pleasure have surfaced.

Serotonin regulates sleep cycles, mood and appetite, and gives people a general, stable sense of well-being (which likens it to katastematic pleasure) whereas endorphin is more euphoric and intense (which likens it to kinetic pleasure). Could these similarities add another layer of insight to this conversation? Answering that is beyond the scope and intention of this essay, but might be a worthwhile exploration for the future.

Further Reading:

Dialogue on Katastematic Pleasure