Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Patricia Curd

Committee Member 1

Mark Bernstein

Committee Member 2

Patrick Kain

Committee Member 3

Kirk Sanders


In this dissertation, I argue that there is a standard reading of Epicurus’ ethics (SRE). The thesis of SRE is that Epicurus is both a hedonist and monist about the good, which entails that if something is good, then it (a) is pleasure, (b) contributes to pleasure, or (c) constitutes pleasure. If something is good in the sense of (a), it is intrinsically good. If something is good in the sense of (b), it is instrumentally good, i.e., it is good insofar as it is a tool for securing pleasure. If something is good in the sense of (c), it is constitutively good, i.e., it is an essential component of pleasure. According to SRE, Epicurus argues that only pleasure is intrinsically good, but other things can be good either instrumentally or constitutively. I argue in this dissertation that SRE is incorrect.

Chapter 1 offers an overview of the key components of Epicurus’ ethics. It explains the nature of pleasure and its kinds along with how they relate to one another; it does the same for desire and its kinds. Chapter 1 also explores the relation between pleasure and desire, which invites a reconstruction of Epicurus’ theory of action. This raises questions about which goods are worth pursuing. Chapter 1 answers these questions and discusses what Epicurus takes goods to be and what kinds of goods there are. Epicurus distinguishes between private goods and external goods, which he adopts (I argue) from the Aristotelian distinction between internal and external goods. Since Epicurus considers virtues to be goods, Chapter 2 explores the nature of virtue and its role in Epicurus’ notion of the best possible life. It offers a new reading of what Epicurus has to say about what kind of thing virtue must be, what count as the particular virtues, and why. I argue that Epicurus takes virtue to be an excellence with respect to one’s desires; being virtuous is a matter of cultivating the right desires and then satisfying them appropriately. Epicurus follows Aristotle very closely in identifying virtue as such, but I take care to show how Epicurus modifies the Aristotelian notion of virtue. Chapter 2 also explores the relation between virtue and pleasure. SRE takes this relation to be either instrumental or constitutive, i.e., it takes virtue to be either an instrument for pleasure or constitutive of pleasure. In Chapter 2, I expose the problems with both of these views, and I argue for a new understanding of the relation between virtue and pleasure in Epicurus.

Putting together (a) my conclusions about goods and pleasure from Chapter 1 with (b) my findings about the relation between virtue and pleasure from Chapter 2, I propose a new alternative for reading Epicurus as an objective goods perfectionist. My thesis is that Epicurus takes the final telos to be eudaimonia, something over and above pleasure. Eudaimonia is the realization and pursuit of the best things in life: pleasure, knowledge, friendship, and virtue. Epicurus insists we should sometimes pursue these goods for their own sake, although we should often pursue them for the sake of other goods on the list; most often we should pursue them for the sake of pleasure. My thesis requires a rejection of SRE because it argues that the goodness of all goods is not derivative of the goodness of pleasure, which SRE considers the one and only intrinsic good.

To attribute SRE to Epicurus is to insist that Epicurus endorses three more specific claims: (1) that anything is worth choosing only for the sake of my own pleasure, (2) that if something is good, then it is pleasure, promotes pleasure, or constitutes pleasure, and (3) that pleasure is the final telos. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 each argue against SRE (1-3) respectively. In Chapter 3, I argue that Epicurus does not endorse SRE (1) insofar as he insists that friends should sometimes do things for one another that are in no way for the sake of their own pleasure. Epicurus claims, for example, that (a) friends should not always aim to get something for themselves out of friendship, (b) friends should die for one another, and (c) we should feel pain when a friend dies. Similarly, the gods engage in friendships but enjoy complete pleasure, which means they must choose friendship for the sake of something other than their own pleasure since they already enjoy this completely. To the extent that Epicurus exhorts us to become godlike with respect to our pursuit of friendship, I argue that the same must be true of humans. None of these commitments, I argue, is consistent with the claim that anything is worth choosing only for the sake of my own pleasure, which means that Epicurus must reject SRE (1). In Chapter 4, I argue that Epicurus does not endorse SRE (2) insofar he insists there are cases where knowing something is still good if it does not promote or constitute pleause. This could not be true if Epicurus were to endorse SRE (2), since its contrapositive entails that something is not good if it does not promote or constitute pleasure. Here I also (a) provide a list of technical terms related to knowledge, e.g., truth, justification, belief, and I (b) explore their place in the best possible life. I ultimately suggest that Epicurus takes knowledge to be justified and true belief. In Chapter 5, I argue that Epicurus does not endorse SRE (3) insofar as he insists there are goods that humans should cultivate, e.g., friendship, knowledge, and virtue, over and above even the most complete pleasure, which means that pleasure cannot be the final telos, i.e., that for the sake of which we should do everything else.