POP culture

Premises Of Post-Objectivism


Copyright Ray Shelton

Objectivity Vol. 2 no. 4 (1995)

A real life, simple and sincere, and even naive, is the only life where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can really be found. - Ayn Rand<1>

I welcome the invitation to respond to Peter Saint-André's comments. I am grateful to Stephen Boydstun for providing an arena for scholarly dialogue in regard to my essay Epicurus and Rand (Shelton 1995).

Before responding to Saint-André's comments, I wish to correct two errors in my essay. First, I misconstrued the noun form of deometha to be deoma. The correct noun form of deometha is endeia.<2> Second, I now realize that I was mistaken in characterizing Rand as unwilling to engage in debate, and in assigning to her any Epicurean, Jeffersonian, or Misesian influence in the formation of her philosophic system (ibid., 16-17, 32-33).<3> Now to Saint-Andrés comments.

My central claim is not, as Saint-André would have it, that "Ayn Rand's ethics is deeply similar to that of Epicurus." Nowhere do I compare or contrast Epicurus' actual code of morality with Rand's. Rather, my thesis is fundamental parallels exist between Epicurus' and Rands metaethical presuppositions of moral theorizing.<4> Consequently, Saint-André criticizes me for a claim I do not make. This failure to grasp my project warrants the rearguing of the essence of my position. Saint-André also takes issue with my interpretation of Epicurus' moral thought upon which my argument rests. Therefore, I shall first argue against his traditional view of Epicurus' philosophy, and afterward briefly reargue my thesis.


Saint-André makes four claims about Epicurus' moral thought, the first claim being: Epicurus' moral philosophy aims primarily at tranquillity. This is the traditional interpretation which takes ataraxia to mean a quiet, calm, sedate state of mind; and aponia to mean painlessness. W. Windelband, commenting on his understanding of the Epicurean telos as including both ataraxia and aponia, writes: "It is the more valuable pleasure of painlessness, which goes with the state of more nearly perfect rest, ... a state consequent upon the satisfaction of wants" (Windelband 1956, 322; emphasis mine).

"Lack of confusion" is actually a better translation of ataraxia, and "physical health" is a better translation of aponia. Epicurus uses the concept of ataraxia to capture a state of mind that is clear, focused, rational, and without inner conflict; a mind that understands the world and is in harmony with itself. There is nothing inherently sedate about such a state of mind, nor is this latter meaning intended by Epicurus as the following quotation clearly shows.

Nor do I know what I could understand that good to be, if I set aside the pleasures we get from sex, from listening to songs, from looking at [beautiful] shapes, from smooth motions, or any other pleasures which affect any of man's senses. Nor, indeed can it be said that only mental rejoicing is [to be counted] among the goods; for this is my understanding of mental rejoicing; it lies in the expectation that our nature will avold pain while acquiring all those things I just mentioned.... I have often asked those who are called wise, what they would have left [to put] in the category of goods if they removed those things - unless they were willing to emit empty sounds. I was able to learn nothing from them. And if they wish to burble about virtues and wisdom, they will be referring to nothing except the means by which those pleasures which I mentioned above are produced. (ER 58; Tusculan Disputations 3.41-42; emphasis mine)<5>

A person sharply focused and enjoying an energetic game of volleyball or a mountain climber attempting a difficult ascent could be in a state of ataraxia and aponia just as easily as someone at home quietly reading a book or tending a flower garden.

Saint-André's second claim is: Epicurus holds that tranquil pleasures are superior to active pleasures; active pleasures are "bad." There is no textual evidence to support this claim. Epicurus does not denigrate work and sex only to praise quiet reading and friendship.<6> Work, sex, reading, and friendship are all appropriate as pleasures - as long as they are not the objects of obsession. A successful life, a life spent in the achievement of personal values, results in a sense of joy. Additionally, Epicureans were vigorously active in attempting to recruit fellow citizens to their way of thinking, and they were highly successful. Recall Epicurus' charge to "never stop proclaiming the utterances of correct philosophy" (ER 38; VS 41). Lively activities are not necessarily bad and may, depending upon what they are, actually be necessarily good. Julia Annas notes that

the condition of ataraxia itself allows for variation even when all the needs are met. For ataraxia is a state in which nothing, bodily or mental, is interfering with your natural state; but the natural state for humans is not one of inertness, but of varied activity.... ataraxia, then, is a state where you are functioning normally, in ways that do not constrain or flout your nature, and you are not hindered or upset by mental or bodily troubles. (Annas 1993, 337; emphasis added)

Saint-André does raise a serious question when he challenges my interpretation of the link between kinetic hedone (active pleasure) and katastematic hedone (static pleasure). The exact relationship is debated in the journals. Michael Wigodsky, for example, argues that it is more coherent to identify kinetic hedone with the variations in the objects of the natural but non-necessary desires rather than with the changes of condition involved in the removal of necessary needs - as I claimed in my paper (Wigodsky 1986). I admit the point of contention is not completely settled, even in my own mind, but this issue cannot be resolved here, and my thesis does not turn on this point.

Saint-André's third claim is: Epicurus relies on the formal distinction between tranquil, "state" pleasures and active "process" pleasures to determine which values one ought to pursue in life. Epicurus' actual standard for determining and ordering the values is the application of reason to ones own life to determine which pleasures are life serving. "Chance has a small impact on the wise man, while reasoning has arranged for, is arranging for, and will arrange for the greatest and most important matters throughout the whole of his life" (ER 33; PD 16). Each man's life is his standard of values, his own pleasure is its purpose. "Epicurus scored a logical point over his predecessors in drawing a distinction between the greatest good, which he declared to be life itself, and the end or telos [of pleasure]" (DeWitt 1954, 218).

Saint-André's fourth claim is: Epicurus advocates a minimalist life based upon the necessary, natural desires. Necessary and natural desires are the foundational desires. Epicurus, however, also recognizes the class of natural but non-necessary desires which are derivative and optional. He writes, "One must not force nature but persuade her. And we will persuade her by fulfilling the necessary desires, and the natural ones too if they do not harm." (ER 37; VS 21; emphasis added.) Epicurus does not seek minimalism, or mere biological survival, anymore than Rand does. Both would also agree that, although thin gruel may sustain a person for a while, such a person is not living a truly human life.<7>


Rand does not belong in the Aristotelian ethical tradition in either method or content. Aristotle's metaethics is alien to Rand. Rand stands with Epicurus in metaethics. Below I summarize the central parallels between Epicurus and Rand which support my thesis.


Epicurus approaches metaethical inquiry in the same manner he approaches all cognition - inductively. (See Asmis 1984.) In the context of rejecting universal teleology, Epicurus carefully examines the behavior of animals and infants in order to discover what it is they naturally move toward or try to obtain.

As soon as each animal is born, it seeks pleasure and rejoices in it as the highest good, and rejects pain as the greatest bad thing, driving it away from itself as effectively as it can; and it does this while it is still not corrupted, while the judgment of nature herself is unperverted and sound. (ER 59; On Goals 1.29-33; emphasis added) A confirmation that the goal is pleasure is found in the fact that from childhood on we involuntarily find it congenial and that when we get it we seek nothing more and that we flee nothing so much as its opposite, pain. (ER 44-45; Diogenes Laertius 2.88-90; emphasis added)

Integrating his understanding of what all animals (including men before exposure to culture) seek with his theory of the evolutionary development of species, and with his acceptance of human mortality, Epicurus concludes that naturally pleasurable things are experienced as pleasurable precisely because they serve the needs of life.

Rand's point about the relation of pleasure to life is the same.

The pleasure - pain mechanism in the body of man - and in the bodies of all the living organisms that possess the faculty of consciousness - serves as an automatic guardian of the organism's life. The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action. The physical sensation of pain is a warning signal of danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the wrong course of action, that something is impairing the proper function of its body, which requires action to correct it. (Rand 1964, 18)

Rand proceeds methodologically exactly as Epicurus, except that she broadens her scope to include both flora and fauna. (It was while she was contemplating a patch of weeds on Park Avenue in New York that she reached her conclusion that "only a living entity can have goals or can originate them" (Rand 1964, 6).) Epicurus and Rand begin moral inquiry by looking at reality, that is, by looking at the actual behavior of living beings, then abstracting to reach a causal fundamental, and finally integrating what they observe with the rest of their knowledge. In addition, Rand parallels Epicurus in her analysis of how man first encounters the issue of good vs. bad. "Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of 'value'? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of 'good or evil' in its simplest form? By the means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain" (Rand, 1964, 18; emphasis added).

Aristotle, on the other hand, begins his metaethics by rationalistically spinning out a host of deductions from his axiomatic principle that the Good is "that for whose sake everything else is done." Further on in NE, arguing by analogy that just as the "flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the 'well' is thought to reside in the function," Aristotle concludes, "so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function" (NE 1097b20-30). This function is "the activity of soul [reason] in conformity with the best excellence." When he turns to detailing his view of the virtues, Aristotle shifts his methodological approach from rationalistic deduction to sociological and dialectical examination of the behavior of noble men. Commenting precisely on this point in Aristotle's ethics, Frederick Copleston writes: "In other words, in ethics we start from the actual moral judgments of man, and by comparing, contrasting, and sifting them, we come to the formulation of general principles" (Copleston 1993, 333).

Saint-André claims Rand misunderstands what Aristotle does in ethics by her assumption that his approach is strictly dialectical as opposed to metaphysical. In the context in which I quoted Rand, she is writing about Aristotle's derivation of the central virtues and the nature of the virtues as means between two extremes. This is an issue of ethics, not metaethics. Whatever Aristotle's underlying metaphysical and psychological presuppositions in regard to virtuous action, he does begin his reasoning about the nature of the virtues and how they are to be catalogued by examining what noble men do. In regard to excellence of character Aristotle writes, "Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it" (NE 1107al-3; emphasis mine).


As I have noted before, "Epicurus rejects out of hand the method of [universal] teleological explanation which bulks so large in Plato and Aristotle" (Long 1974, 40). Epicurus believes teleological action exists only in conscious living organisms. Rand's concept of teleological action is narrower than Aristotle's but broader than Epicurus'. Rand accepts Aristotle's concept of final causation in regard to consciousness - including perceptual ends-in-view (animal action) and conceptual ends-in-view (human action). However, Rand also argues for a second type of teleology, a biological goal-directedness absent any form of consciousness (see Binswanger 1990). For Rand teleology, goal-directed action, exists in only, but in all, organic entities.

Aristotle's teleology is a universal one, a teleology to be found in both the organic and inorganic. Rocks as much as men strive to actualize their potential. Although, to be fair, Aristotle does recognize a division between organic teleology and inorganic teleology; the former is end-striving, the latter end-related. This teleological motion is ultimately set in motion by the unmoved mover and transmitted to earth through the heavenly intelligences. There is nothing even remotely like this in Epicurus or Rand.


Epicurus' central metaethical concept is endeia, which means need. Endeia carries with it a sense of obligation, or of being bound together in a necessary fashion. Epicurus uses endeia to denote the biological and psychological needs of conscious living organisms. Need means needed for animal life. And this is what Epicurus means when he writes, "The principle and root of all good is the pleasure of the belly; and the sophisticated and refined [goods] are referred to this one." (ER 100, Athenaetis Deipnosophists 12, 546f (409 U); emphasis added.) Rand's central metaethical concept is value. It is the concept value, based on the concept life which allows the whole ethical enterprise to get off the ground. "An organism's life is lts standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the bad" (Rand 1964, 17).

Aristotle's central metaethical concept is ergon, or characteristic function. A thing is good or bad to the degree it fulfills its function. If the river flows to meet the sea, if a knife is sharp and cuts, if an eye sees clearly, or if a man reasons correctly, then to that degree they are actualizing their potentials and functioning properly and are therefore good.


Epicurus believes that reason is an instrument to help us live. It is a natural tool which "searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls" (ER 31, M 132). This is Rand's belief also: "Man's mind is his basic means of survival - and of self-protection" (1975, 227).

Aristotle conceives the main function of reason is to grasp the essences, located in particulars, for the joy of contemplation. "Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not accidentally, but in virtue of the contemplation, for this is in itself precious" (NE 1178b25-30). The ultimate purpose of the active intellect, nous, is just apprehension and contemplation.


In ancient philosophy there are three answers to the question on the relation of virtue to goodness or happiness.

(1) For some the relation is purely instrumental; they hold that virtue is desirable only as an instrumental means to happiness, not at all for its own sake. (2) For others the relation is constitutive, but only partly so; they hold that virtue is a principal, but not the only, thing desirable for its own sake. (3) For still others, who go further in the same direction, the relation is constitutive in toto [i.e., one of identity]: for them, virtue is happiness - the only thing that makes life good and satisfying. (Vlastos 1991, 204; emphasis mine)

Position (3) is held by Antisthenes; position (2) by Plato and Aristotle; position (1) by Epicurus. Vlastos remarks:

I could now see, more clearly than ever before, Socrates' true place in the development of Greek thought: he is the first to establish the eudaemonist foundation of ethical theory which becomes common ground for all of the schools that spring up around him, and more; he is the founder of the non- instrumentalist form of eudaemonism held in common by Platonists, Aristotelians, Cynics, and Stoics, i.e., of all Greek moral philosophers except the Epicureans. (Vlastos 1991, 10; emphasis mine)

Epicurus is clear. "The virtues too are chosen because of pleasure, and not for their own sakes, just as medicine is chosen because of health." (ER 44, Diogenes Laertius 10.136-138; emphasis mine). Rand shares Epicurus' position. "Virtue is not an end in itself" (Rand 1957, 1021). Virtues are the means to values. Virtues are the instruments to values, and values are the instruments to life. Rand illustrates her conception of virtues as instruments in relation to a single and final "intrinsic" value in a letter to John Hospers:

Values which are ends to be achieved by a certain process of action and which, therefore, could be called "intrinsic" in that context - become means to further and wider ends and thus become "instrumental" in a wider context. For instance, the process of writing is an "instrumental" good in relation to creating a book, which is an "intrinsic" good in this context; but creating a book is an "instrumental" good in relation to achieving a literary career, which is an "intrinsic" good in this context; and achieving a literary career is an "instrumental" good in relation to achieving one's happiness and supporting one's life. Since I regard all values as contextual and hierarchical, I would ultimately regard only one good as "intrinsic," in your sense of the term, namely: life (with happiness as its corollary...) (Berliner 1996, 561)

Like Epicurus who stood alone in the ancient world with his instrumental view of virtues,<8> so too Rand stands alone in the modern with precisely the same view.<9>


Epicurus views the psyche, like the body, as composed of atoms. The soul is a material aspect of the body. It dies when the body dies. "We are born only once, and we cannot be born twice; and one must for all eternity exist no more" (ER 36, VS 14). Rand conceives of consciousness as an emergent property of a complex nervous system. Consciousness ceases when the nervous system fails. Aristotle, on the other hand, writes:

Thought in this sense of it is separable, impassable, unmixed, since it is in its essential nature activity.... When separated it is alone just what it is, and this above is immortal and eternal (we do not remember because, while this is impossible, passive thought is perishable); and without this nothing thinks. (De Anima 430a17)

Epicurus and Rand believe that man can exist as man outside of society. Society is to be entered into only if it is beneficial to the individual. Aristotle believes that any man who lives outside society is either a "beast or a god." A human being can only be a human being in a polis. A man outside the polis is not truly a man. Further, Epicurus and Rand advocate the exact same necessary and sufficient condition for the formation of society; the abolition of the initiation of force. This condition is required before a man should be willing to enter, or remain in, any given society. Epicurus writes: "The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.,] neither to harm one another nor be harmed" (ER 35, PD 31). Rand writes: "The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships" (1961, 84). Aristotle, on the other hand, accepts the initiation of force against innocents as legitimate in a number of cases; his defense of slavery being the most infamous (see Miller 1995).

In conclusion, Saint-André has not argued for his interpretation of Epicurus. He has neither quoted relevant text nor tied the extant texts together into an argument.

Further, he has not presented a single line of evidence that Rand is metaethically or ethically an Aristotelian.<10> In order to accomplish such a task one would at minimum have to discuss Aristotle's concepts of form, matter, potentiality, actuality, and teleology as they applied to moral action and how they can be related to Rand's own moral theory. One would also have to carefully compare Aristotle's list of virtues with Rand's list of virtues, including an analysis of Aristotle's concept of virtues as means between two extremes and an examination of the function, in both Aristotle and Rand, of the virtues. Lastly, one would have to explain why Rand herself explicitly stated that she rejected Aristotle's methodological approach to - as well as much of the resulting content in - his moral theorizing.


<1> Rand as quoted by Leonard Peikoff in his Afterword for the 50th anniversary edition of Rand's The Fountainhead.

<2> I am indebted to Michael Wigodsky, Epicurean scholar in the Classics department at Stanford, for correcting my error.

<3> Remarks of Gary Hull, Objectivist scholar of the Ayn Rand Institute, have made clear to me Rand's originality in this regard.

<4> Indeed, nowhere in my essay do I actually compare and contrast Epicurus' ethics with Rand's. Rather, as I stated, "the purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the existence of fundamental similarities between both the metaethical and normative aspects of Epicurean and Randian ethics." These parallels include not just content but Epicurus' and Rand's methodological approach to moral theorizing. The "normative aspects" mentioned refer to the relation between each thinker's egoistic perspective and their respective views of love broadly construed. While I can not argue my case here, I would contend that there are deep parallels among many areas of Epicurus' and Rand's philosophy, from metaphysics to a benevolent sense of life. It is not that these topics went unnoticed - as Saint-André posits - rather they went unmentioned in this essay.

<5> All quotations of Epicurus are from The Epicurus Reader, hereafter ER.

<6> In Shelton 1995, I claimed that Epicurus placed little value on work and sexual pleasure. Given the broadest textual evidence, I now believe that claim was wrong.

<7> On this last note, Saint-André, as an aside, questions whether Epicurus' concept of hygieia covers the psychological dimension. This is odd, as the second line of Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus reads, "For no one is either too young or too old for the health of the soul." (Recall that Epicurus believes that the soul is a physical component of the body.)

<8> Guthrie in remarking on the ethical turn in philosophy initiated by Socrates writes: "The great tradition running from Socrates through Plato to Aristotle already had the upper hand, and with the notable exception of the Epicureans, most schools, however diverse, liked to think of themselves, as the heirs of Socratic thought" (Guthrie 1971, 99; emphasis mine).

<9> Instrumentalism is rampant in the modern era. The chosen ends, however, are arbitrary. The modern view is that reason has nothing to say about the ultimate goal chosen, but once a given end is chosen, then reason can dictate what instrumental virtues to pursue toward that end. Epicurus and Rand, of course, would reject this, as would Aristotle. Epicurus and Rand view virtues as instruments in the service of man's life, with man's life being an objective standard.

<10> Furthermore, Saint-André unfairly compares Rand's highest vision of man with Epicurus' worst. Fairness would dictate that he compare Rand's vision of man at his best with Epicurus' best.


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