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Troubled Hedonism and Social Justice: Mill and the Epicureans on the Ataraxic Life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 November 2022

Chris Barker*
The American University in Cairo, New Cairo, Egypt


J. S. Mill is typically thought of as a liberal utilitarian disciple of Jeremy Bentham, and in other readings as a modern Socratic or even a modern Epicurean. Mill and the Epicureans are alike in several respects: they theorize personal freedom and active character versus determinism and passivity, they oppose excessive love and praise friendship, and they are critical of traditional religiosity. In spite of these similarities, Mill and the Epicureans have a different conception of active character and citizenship, stemming from a difference in first principles. Mill's philosopher does not share the Epicurean aim of untroubledness (ataraxia), and Mill accepts the demanding task of educating and regenerating a mass democratic society. Below, I assess Mill's troubled hedonism, that is, his acceptance of often intense and long-term mental perturbations, justified by a decidedly non-Epicurean social reform project.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Rosen, Frederick, Classical Utilitarians from Hume to Mill (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 1528, 166–84Google Scholar; Frederick Rosen, Epicureanism and the Enlightenment, in America and Enlightenment Constitutionalism, ed. Gary L. McDowell and Johnathan O'Neill (New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 81–98 (pp. 83–86). For discussion of Rosen, see Lyons, David, Review of Rosen's Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill, Utilitas, 18, 2 (2006), 173–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rosen's response, Epicureanism and Utilitarianism: A Reply to Professor Lyons, Utilitas 18.2 (2006): 182–87.

2 Exceptions are Scarre, Geoffrey, Utilitarianism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 3947Google Scholar; Vaughan, Frederick, The Tradition of Political Hedonism: From Hobbes to J. S. Mill (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982)Google Scholar. For Lucretius, see Nichols, James H., Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

3 For astute discussions of Mill's Socratism, see Antis Loizides, John Stuart Mill's Platonic Heritage: Happiness through Character (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013); John Stuart Mill: A British Socrates, ed. by Kyriakos N. Demetriou and Antis Loizides (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Devigne, Robert, Reforming Liberalism: J. S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Villa, Dana, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 59124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 In some recent scholarship, Mill's defense of selective imperial control of foreign dependencies is connected to his defense of high and harmonious character development and mental culture in a democratic age. See, for example, Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 77114CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In these readings, Mill's attention to character creates an “outside” or “other” that is disadvantaged by his approach. Thus, a progressive social theory such as Mill's (or Kant's or Hegel's) privileges some geographic locations and invokes a “civilizational ladder” that leaves some peoples and societies in the “waiting room” of history. The waiting room image is in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 8. See also Marwah, Inder S., Liberalism, Diversity and Domination: Kant, Mill and the Government of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Rosen, Epicureanism and the Enlightenment, p. 94.

6 Henry Sidgwick, Preface to the Sixth Edition, in The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1930), pp. xiv–xxi (xv); Crisp, Roger, The Cosmos of Duty: Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2015), pp. 1, 70–75, 203–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 A. A. Long, Epicureanism and Utilitarianism, in Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism, ed. by Phillip Mitsis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 742–60.

8 Scarre, Utilitarianism, p. 46.

9 James Warren, Removing Fears, in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. by James Warren (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 234–48 (235).

10 Konstan, Epicurean Happiness: A Pig's Life? Journal of Ancient Philosophy 6.1 (2012), 1–22 (13).

11 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. by Martin Ferguson Smith (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001), p. 95.

12 Epicurus, Fragments, in Epicurus: The Extant Remains, trans. and ed. by Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), pp. 106–39 (139). For discussion, see Geert Roskam, Live Unnoticed: On the Vicissitudes of an Epicurean Doctrine (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007).

13 See discussion in A. W. H. Adkins, Polupragmosune and ‘Minding One's Own Business’: A Study in Greek Social and Political Values, Classical Philology 71, 4 (1976), 301–27 (301).

14 For example, Eric Brown, Politics and Society, in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. by James Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 179–96 (pp. 179–80, 195–96); Green, Jeffrey, Solace for the Frustrations of Silent Citizenship: The Case of Epicureanism, Citizenship Studies 19.5 (2015), 492–506 (494)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Roskam, Live Unnoticed, pp. 1–28, uses “apolitical” to mean unnoticed rather than outside of the city.

15 My thanks to the journal's anonymous reviewers for making the range of interpretations of a hedonically based active political life clearer to me, and for many other helpful suggestions. See Section V below for the limits of sympathetic identification with the happiness of others.

16 Mill, Diary of 1854, in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. by John Robson, 33 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963–91), XXVII (1988), 639–68 (654). (All references to Mill's writings are to The Collected Works.)

17 Mill, Diary of 1854, XXVII, 642.

18 Eric Brown, False Idles: The Politics of the “Quiet Life,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, ed. by Ryan Balot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 485–500.

19 Mill, Utilitarianism, X (1969), 203–59 (227).

20 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 233.

21 Bentham, Jeremy, A Fragment on Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 5859CrossRefGoogle Scholar n. 3.

22 Knut Haakonssen, Introduction, in Adam Smith: Theory of Moral Sentiments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. vii–xxiv, explains the neo-Epicurean position, which he attributes to Hobbes, Gassendi, Pufendorf, Mandeville, and Hume. Morality is a human contrivance designed to “control or regulate self-interest,” based in “agreements or contracts to set up political institutions to reinforce the rules of morality” (p. xi). Mill argues in “Utilitarianism” that a sense of moral duty is acquired, yet still natural (X, 230).

23 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 216.

24 Sidgwick, Preface to the Sixth Edition, p. xvi. This article sticks with Epicurus and Mill because Sidgwick moves beyond hedonism into a “moral government of the world” (p. xx). It is interesting to examine how Mill fares without this assumption.

25 Unlike Anglo-American interpreters, Pierre Hadot denies that Epicurean happiness is egoistic happiness (bonheur égoïste) and instead describes it as consisting in the happiness of “small, faithful communities” who possess the knowledge of how to enjoy existence. See Pierre Hadot, The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as Practice, trans. by Matthew Sharpe and Federico Testa (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), pp. 191, 202, 272–73.

26 Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, in Epicurus, pp. 94–105 (pp. 101–3). See also Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, in Epicurus, pp. 83–93 (87). See also Principal Doctrines, pp. 103–5, and Fragments, p. 117, for justice. For a powerful statement rejecting beauty insofar as it is not pleasurable, and embracing justice because it produces untroubledness, see Fragments, pp. 137–39. See also Plato, Republic, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 251, 263 on necessary and unnecessary pleasures and desires.

27 Mill, On Liberty, XVIII (1977), 213–310 (272). For Epicurus on prudence and honor and justice, see Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, p. 95; Letter to Menoeceus, pp. 89–91; and Fragments, p. 109.

28 See Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, pp. 101–3; Fragments, pp. 107, 109, 133, 137–39.

29 Diskin Clay, The Athenian Garden, in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. by James Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 9–28.

30 Brown, Politics and Society, pp. 195–96.

31 Clay, The Athenian Garden, p. 16.

32 Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, pp. 114–62, interprets Mill's morality as incoherently influenced by Christianity along with ancient Socratic zētēsis and modern Enlightenment commitments. For Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), it remains Christian. Unlike the Epicureans (and Aristotle and Plato), Mill does not write extensively about friendship, and when he does his focus remains on socially useful intellectual friendships. See Barker, Chris, Educating Liberty: Democracy and Aristocracy in J. S. Mill's Political Thought (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2018), pp. 3943Google Scholar.

33 Mill, Autobiography, I (1981), 1–290 (177).

34 Mill, Auguste Comte and Positivism, X (1969), 261–368 (310).

35 Mill, On Liberty, XVIII, 279; cf. 225 on evil done by inaction; and Brian McElwee, Mill on Virtue, in A Companion to Mill, ed. by Christopher Macleod and Dale E. Miller (Malden, MA, and Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), pp. 390–406 (398). (Hereafter, CM.)

36 Mill, Civilization, XVIII (1977), 117–47 (131).

37 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 217.

38 Mill, The Gorgias, XI (1978), 97–150 (149); Mill, Grote's Plato, XI, 375–440 (416). Socrates’ moral heroism partly explains the aforementioned association of Mill with Socratism.

39 Guy Fletcher, Mill's Art of Life, in CM, pp. 297–312; Ben Saunders, Mill's Conception of Happiness, in CM, pp. 313–27 (319); Dale E. Miller, J. S. Mill: Moral, Social and Political Thought (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), pp. 65–66; David O. Brink, Mill's Progressive Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2013), p. 51.

40 Mill, Letter to John Sterling, XII (1963), 74–88 (79); A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive, VII, 6. There are nuances of context and rhetorical strategy, as well as a thirty-year time gap, separating the early letter to Sterling and “Utilitarianism.”

41 J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 14–17.

42 Elizabeth Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984).

43 Voula Tsouna also adds “moral portraiture,” an understudied Epicurean tool reminding us of Mill's figures of Condorcet, Socrates, and Harriet Taylor Mill. See Voula Tsouna, Epicurean Therapeutic Strategies, in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. by James Warren (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 249–65 (262).

44 Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, ed. by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2030), p. 231. Mill's analysis of swinishness and dignity are found in Mill, Diary of 1854, XXVII, 663, and Utilitarianism, X, 212.

45 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 217.

46 Rosen, Classical Utilitarianism, p. 184.

47 Rosen, Classical Utilitarianism, p. 183.

48 Mill, Autobiography, I, 137.

49 Bentham, Jeremy, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007)Google Scholar.

50 Bentham, Introduction, pp. 95–96.

51 Brink, Mill's Progressive Principles, pp. 36–37, 44.

52 See Taylor, Charles, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, pp. 22, 188, 198, 200; see also pp. 15–16, 53, for dignity versus swinishness.

53 Mill, Diary of 1854, XXVII, 654. To be clear, this is not a merely biographical point. The diary is the product of an obligation to think useful thoughts. See Diary of 1854, XXVII, 641.

54 Mill, Autobiography, I, 153.

55 Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, pp. 161, 164, 186–90, 221, 223–24.

56 Compare Mitsis, Epicurus’ Ethical Theory, pp. 29–32 for observations on the hedonic calculus; and p. 36 and context for needs and desires.

57 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 211 (emphasis added).

58 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, pp. 35–36. Presumably, the “ship of state” metaphor is intended here.

59 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 211.

60 Mill, “Gorgias,” XI, 149.

61 Mill, Diary of 1854, XXVII, 666.

62 Pinkard, Terry, Hegel's Naturalism: Mind, Nature, and the Final Ends of Life (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, pp. 125; pp. 131, 132 n. 10. The organic unity of the people generates the “warmth” of Greek direct democracy. Classical warmth is fed by oratory (Rede). The modern morality of justice is predicated on each individual's thinking of herself as both sovereign and subject (pp. 131, 145).

63 Sidgwick, Preface to the Sixth Edition, p. xvi.

64 Mill, The Subjection of Women, XXI (1984), 259–340 (272).

65 Mill, Utility of Religion, X, 420.

66 Fortification, settled division of lands, navigation, treaty-making, poetic songs of renown, and “all the prizes and all the luxuries of life” are achieved as humans ascend to the pinnacle of the arts (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, p. 176), but that does not stop the cataclysm (i.e., the plague, p. 206–11).

67 Mill, Utility of Religion, X, 420.

68 Monica R. Gale, Lucretius, in Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism, ed. by Phillip Mitsis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 430–55 (435).

69 Mill, Utility of Religion, X, 420.

70 Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone is our Happiness, 2nd ed., trans. Marc Djaballah and Michael Chase (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

71 Hadot, The Present Alone is our Happiness, pp. 68–69. But see Tsouna, Epicurean Therapeutic Strategies, p. 260, for the pleasures of remembering the past and anticipating the future.

72 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 212–214. See 217: “It is noble to be capable of resigning entirely one's own portion of happiness, or chances of it: but, after all, this self-sacrifice must be for some end.”

73 J. S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, XIX, 371–577 (412) and Wendy Donner, John Stuart Mill on Education and Democracy, in J. S. Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, ed. by Nadia Urbinati and Alex Zakaras (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 250–74 (263).

74 For a “‘third perspective’ of practical reason” that takes into account egoistic and utilitarian reasons, see Crisp, The Cosmos of Duty, p. 231.

75 Long, Epicureanism and Utilitarianism.

76 Hadot, The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot, pp. 55–62.

77 Hadot, The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot, p. 191, for Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II. 646.

78 Mill's “theism of the imagination and feelings” may bring him closer to a Sidgwickian necessity of positing a “moral government” than either thinker might like. See Mill, Utility of Religion, X, 403–28 (426).

79 For a competing interpretation, see Ludwig Edelstein, The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967).

80 Konstan, Epicurean Happiness: A Pig's Life? The younger Mill is more confident in the mental cultivation of the masses: Mill, Civilization, XVIII, 124–26; see also Diary of 1854, XXVII, 645, 668 (we are “doomed to live in almost the infancy of human improvement”), and Autobiography, I, 239.

81 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 215.

82 Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 215.

83 Mill, Utilitarianism, X. 236; and Henry R. West, The Proof, in CM, pp. 328–41 (336).

84 Long, Epicureanism and Utilitarianism; Mill, Utilitarianism, X, 220.

85 Mill, Diary of 1854, XXVII, 660, and Mill, Autobiography, I, 139.

86 Rosen, Classical Utilitarians, p. 183.

87 Varouxakis, Georgios, Mill on Nationality (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 113–16, 123–26Google Scholar.

88 Mill, Civilization, XVIII, 120, 122; Brink, Mill's Progressive Principles, p. 37.

89 For the Choice of Heracles (Xenophon, Memorabilia II.i.21–34), see Mill, Autobiography, I, 49; Mill, Grote's History of Greece [5], XXV (1986), 1157–64 (1162); and Grote's Plato, XI, 391–92.