On Choices and Avoidances is an evaluation of the criteria by which a philosopher must made decisions. Traditionally in Epicureanism, the simple answer to how to make moral or personal decisions is that we should conduct hedonic calculus, that is: the comparative evaluation of the pleasure versus pain that one gains in the long term. If one follows this general guideline, one attains net pleasure in the end, which is the goal.
The Doctrine of the Principal Things
However, men of prudence need to know much more than this. They need a complete philosophical education that helps them to discern between the different kinds of desire and of pleasure and to pay close attention to the things that really matter for human wellbeing, the kyriotatai, the chief goods or principal things. Not being able to discern clearly what these things are leads to suffering, disillusion and confusion. These chief goods are things that lead to life, health, and happiness and include specifics like shelter, food, safety, and association.
If a philosopher clearly discerns what really matters, on the other hand, he will be able to make firm decisions and have full confidence in how he manages his life. Therefore, we must keep in mind what these real natural needs are.
In relation to these chief goods, men must have a clear understanding that externalities are only secondary and firm confidence that they can not affect our happiness in the way that the eary to procure chief needs can. This is clarified in Column XV, and mentions things like beauty, marriage, wealth, luxury, and the like.
The inability of foolish men to recognize the chief goods in life also produces societies where men are ruled by fear. Column XII mentions that laws that threaten with death and beliefs about divine punishment only work with men who do not know true precepts of philosophy. In our discussion of the scroll On Frank Criticism, we discussed how Confucius taught that “when leaders are virtuous, the people naturally feel shame when they are wrong whereas when leaders are not virtuous, they rule by fear instead and people follow the law for fear of punishment.” However, here Philodemus is expressing the same idea viewed from the other perspective: a foolish man can not imagine being ruled by anything other than irrational, unfounded fear. That is what he knows. If a society has enough foolish men, it will likely invent these fears or produce the tyrants to meet the demand.
Column V. For men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires which they take to be most necessary–I mean desires for sovereignty and … reputation and great wealth and suchlike luxuries … they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature.
Column IX. Many and great evils concerning many matters occur as a result of the worthless assumptions of mindless men and are avoided as a result of the right concepts.
The scroll begins by mentioning some of the opinions that have been presented regarding the matters that will be discussed: some have called for uncalculated hedonism (the Cyrenaics), others call for reserving judgement until all the facts are known about a matter, others claim that knowledge is not possible and that grief and joy are empty notions (the Skeptics). It then asserts the last two of the Four Cures:
the good is both limited and easy to attain
the bad is both limited and easy to bear
and then restates them as meaning that one does not seek a thing that does not remove pain and that one does not avoid that which doesn’t prevent pleasure; instead one avoids that which prevents pleasure.
On the Pleasures
Column VI. (of natural pleasures) some are necessary, others not necessary; and of the former ones themselves some are necessary for life, others for the health of the body, others for living happily.
When Philodemus says that some desires are necessary for life, it is understood that here he means for our safety and protection. This includes the need for shelter and for the rule of law. These necessary pleasures are declared to be the natural end and goal of life, as established by nature itself.
Column XI. (Choices and avoidances) are accomplished successfully when we measure them by the ends laid down by nature.
Let’s ponder what this means by considering what happens in nature: just as birds must build a nest, lions must roam a certain territory where they can catch prey, and apes must live on trees for safety, so humans also have a territorial instinct and need a the warmth and sweetness of a home for safety, familiarity, and protection.
Just as carnivores and plant-eating animals all have their peculiar dietary needs, similarly humans must maintain their health with wholesome foods. We also must take care of our mental health as social animals, in the same manner that a baby chimpanzee must have tactile connection with its mother for the first two years and many animals are happier and best protected when they are part of a pride, pack or some other group. We instinctively seek the pleasure of company and affiliation.
Lion cubs play with each other, and like many other species in doing so they learn important skills: when they play hide-and-seek, they’re honing their instinct to prowl and chase. But in the end, they play because they’re happy. They naturally do this, and do not need encouragement from others or effort on their part. Nature guides them, through pleasurable activities, to the necessary things in life. This is one way in which we can gain a better understanding of how the good, needful things are easy to attain.