Epicurus: For a pleasant life

Epicurus was one of the last great Greek philosophers to focus on the subject of living a happy life. His approach, commonly known as Epicureanism, has been a widely misunderstood term often associated with a lifestyle of excess pleasure, particularly in food. But quite to the contrary, Epicureanism is a deeply rational, disciplined and natural way to a tranquil life. If you’re at a loss at how to bring balance back into your life, Epicurus may be the man for you.

WHO

Epicurus
Branch: Ethics
Approach: Epicureanism

Influenced by: Democritus (Atomism); Socrates (Pursuit of truth for the good life); Diogenes (Cynicism: simple living)
Himself was an influence on: Lucretius (Epicureanism); Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism);

WHEN

341 – 270bce.
Just after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but at the same time as the early Stoics.

WHERE

Athens, Greece. Later moved away from the city to form his own commune called “The Garden”. Here, anyone could come to live in peace with fellow adherents, whether they were women or slaves; quite a revolutionary move in that era.

TEXTS

Epicurus apparently wrote over 300 works. These have all been lost or destroyed. What remains are a few of his letters of advice to friends, and a summary of his philosophy called “Principal Doctrines”.¹ All other information we have of his teachings are from Lucretius.

WHAT

Epicureanism is a relatively simple and natural process to follow. Choose what’s natural and necessarily pleasurable in order to avoid suffering. This doesn’t mean a constant chasing of most quantity or quality in pleasure. Rather, it’s a fulfilment of basic biological and psychological needs. Epicurus sought to teach that there’s more to life than satisfying the senses. This practice becomes addictive and causes more pain in its absence than the short-lived pleasure it produces. There are dynamic and static state of pleasure. The dynamic is equivalent to eating so as to avail the discomfort of hunger. Whereas a static pleasure is equivalent to the satiation you feel after you ate: the absence of discomfort. This is more what Epicureanism is about. The pleasure in the absence of suffering NOT pleasure on top of pleasure for its own sake.

The other great contribution to peace of mind is Epicurus’ view of death. Since he’s a materialist/atomist (Yes, the concept of physical stuff being composed of atoms was rationalised by the Greeks  (Democritus) back then), he thinks it’s common-sense that once we die, and our atoms disperse, that we are no more. There’s no separate soul or mind to go anywhere because your mind exists solely because of your brain. He challenges us to imagine of death as the same way we were before birth: we were not. Since when we’re alive, we’re not dead; and when we’re dead, we’re not conscious of being alive or dead for that matter, the two conditions – life and death – are mutually exclusive. So why worry or even think about it?

Eat little, for fear of indigestion; drink little, for fear of next morning; eschew politics and love and all violently passionate activities; do not give hostages to fortune by marrying and having children; in your mental life, teach yourself to contemplate pleasures rather than pains. Physical pain is certainly a great evil, but if severe, it is brief, and if prolonged, it can be endured by means of mental discipline and the habit of thinking of happy things in spite of it. Above all, live so as to avoid fear.²

WHY

Personally, I find Epicureanism an automatic behaviour that everyone does naturally. If practiced with a bit more awareness and discipline, much stress, anxiety and the woes of excess anything would be non-existent. I personally practice Epicureanism without being aware of it and receive in return, a peaceful life. That is, I control my environment, interactions and consumption only to those things that are pleasant. I naturally avoid or cut short anything that may cause more trouble than its worth. Having ALS and being paralysed means this is an essentiality. Of course, I endure what’s necessary but I don’t tolerate what’s not. When one is healthy and young, these dramas make us feel alive and important. After a while, feeling important isn’t so important; and neither are the vices, ideals, relationships, choices and arguments that go along to satisfy it.

But one sees this happen naturally to people as they mature, grow older and have the experience to know what is worth worrying about and what is not. As you age, you’ll see the same subject matter happening over and over and over but with a different wrapper. Not much surprises you because you’ve been around long enough to see every variation of the same drama play out. So it’s not that older or wiser people are boring per se, it’s more that they’re bored with the same things; and those things are not worth investing any more of our precious little time left on.

Remember those times you traveled and how great you felt despite having so little with you? That’s the essence of Epicureanism. You don’t need much at all to feel physically fulfilled and as long as your mind is being exposed to something new but primarily interesting, you find all the stuff from home just fades away to pettiness. You’d be surprised how many of your worries and dramas are only so because of boredom and habit. If you discover and become involved in something truly meaningful to you, something you can learn and evolve from, all the myriad of peripheral worries become a laughable spectacle. Try it.

QUOTES
  • Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensation and that which has no sensation is no concern of ours.
  • The quantitative limit of pleasure is the elimination of all feelings of pain. Wherever the pleasurable state exists, there is neither bodily pain nor mental pain nor both together, so long as the state continues.
  • It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly, and justly, and conversely it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly, and justly without living pleasantly. A person who does not have a pleasant life is not living sensibly, nobly, and justly, and conversely the person who does not have these virtues cannot live pleasantly.
  • No pleasure is bad in itself. But the things that make for pleasure in certain cases entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.
  • One who understands the limits of the good life knows that what eliminates the pains brought on by need and what makes the whole of life perfect is easily obtained, so that there is no need for enterprises that entail the struggle for success.
  • Some desires are (1) natural and necessary, others (2) natural but not necessary, still others (3) neither natural nor necessary but generated by senseless whims.
  • All desires that do not lead to physical pain if not satisfied are unnecessary, and involve cravings that are easily resolved when they appear to entail harm or when the object of desire is hard to get.
  • Of all the things that wisdom provides for the happiness of the whole man, by far the most important is the acquisition of friendship.
  • All pain is readily discounted. Intense pain has a short life, and longer lasting bodily pain is weak.
  • For most people leisure is stupor, and activity frenzy.
  • Every friendship is desirable for itself, but it has its origin in personal advantage.
  • We are born once. We cannot be born a second time, and throughout eternity we shall of necessity no longer exist. You have no power over the morrow, and yet you put off your pleasure. Life is ruined by procrastination, and every one of us dies deep in his affairs.
  • The most important consequence of self-sufficiency is freedom.
  • Approval on the part of others must come voluntarily; it is our business to get on with our own self-therapy.
  • I learn from your letter that carnal disturbances make you excessively inclined to sexual intercourse. Well, so long as you do not break any laws or disturb well-established conventions or annoy any of your neighbors or wear down your body or use up your funds, you may carry out your own plans as you like. However, it is impossible not to be affected by at least one of these things. Sex never benefited any man, and it’s a marvel if it hasn’t injured him!
  • We should envy no man. The good are undeserving of envy; as for the bad, the more successful they are, the more they mutilate themselves.
  • We must get out of the prison house of routine duties and politics.
  • It is not the belly that cannot be satisfied, as people believe, but the false belief about the belly’s having unlimited capacity.
  • It is senseless to ask the gods for what a man is able to provide for himself.
  • We must put the following question to each of our desires: What will happen to me if the object of my desire is achieved? What will happen if it is not?

 


REFERENCES
  1. Epicurus and George K. Strodach. The Art of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

  2. Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy : And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New edn. (reset). ed. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1946.

2 thoughts on “Epicurus: For a pleasant life”

  1. Wise words to reflect on, and highly educational.
    It’s a well set out read, and should you continue producing these articles, I look forward to more insightful enlightenment from the past.
    It’s truly great. Thanks Jorge.

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