Why Epicurus Matters Today
Epicurean is a dirty word. It calls to mind things we all are supposed to avoid: gluttony, desire, consumerism. That is if the word is recognized at all. Many people would think of Epicurious, the website for gourmets, before they thought of a philosopher from ancient Greece. The common conception is wrong.
Epicurus of Samos (341-270 B.C.E.) has never been ranked amongst the greatest of philosophers. In his own day he was overshadowed by those of the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoa. In the years following his death the school of thought he founded, Epicureanism, managed to win some converts but was ultimately forgotten by all except those with an archivist’s interest in failed philosophies. This has been a tragedy for mankind.
The problems Epicurus thought he solved are timeless. Human nature changes only slowly and the laws of nature not all. His is a voice that perhaps came into the world too early. It is time to bring back Epicurus and hear what he has to say.
Some ask whether it is worth studying ancient philosophy at all. What can possibly be gained from people who thought that the world was water (as Thales did), or air (Anaximenes’ belief), or a pale illusion of timeless and perfect forms (Plato)? Surely we, who are much more knowledgeable than these people, can learn nothing from them, right? We believe in particles and space.
So did Epicurus. Before there was any possible way of confirming such a statement he reasoned out the nature of reality. He held that atoms come in a limited number of forms and everything can be created from them by combining them in different ways. That sounds like chemistry. There are no gods pushing things to occur, only atoms, the void they move in, and the forces acting on them. That sounds like physics. From this materialist foundation Epicurus built his ethical philosophy. If we agree with his starting principles perhaps we can find some use for his other philosophy.
For it is Epicurus who can teach us the value of philosophy.
The Philosopher and the King
Pyrrhus of Epirus was a king with a lust for conquest. He set out from his little state of Epirus to win the world. As was the style at the time he took not only warriors with him but cultivated men to with which to discourse. One of these men, Cineas, was an Epicurean. Plutarch in his Life of Pyrrhus records one of their conversations, which I paraphrase here.
Pyrrhus was preparing to launch an invasion of the Italian peninsula at great cost to both gold and life. Over a philosophical dinner Cineas asked the king, “Once you have beaten the Romans what shall we do?”
“Once the Romans are conquered we shall have all the riches of Italy at our disposal,” Pyrrhus answered.
Cineas paused, probably sipped from his wine and asked, “And what will we do then?”
Sicily is near! It will be an easy victory.”
Cineas thought a moment more. ”And then what shall we do?”
"Then we will take Libya and Carthage,” the king replied.
"What will we do after that?”
"We will secure all of the Greek world under my rule,” the king nodded at the thought.
“But what will we do then?” Cineas asked.
“Ah, my friend,” said Pyrrhus, ”then we shall rest. We will drink wine, and talk philosophy, and enjoy the fruits of our friendship.”
Cineas looked around. They had wine. They had friendship. They were talking. “Can’t we do what you wish now without harming anyone with war or causing pain to ourselves?”
Pyrrhus’s reply is not recorded. The war went ahead. He died in one of his battles when a tile was thrown from a roof by an enemy woman, smashing his skull. Such accidents rarely happen in dining rooms, so the king would probably have done well to listen to his Epicurean friend and perhaps enjoyed the quieter life of the contemplative thinker.
‘What shall we do then?’
Cineas’s question is one we must all answer. Why are we doing what we are doing? We live such busy lives with so many pressing matters that we never pause to consider what the point of it all is. Might we not be like Pyrrhus, rushing to act before we know why we doing anything at all? Before we know it we might feel the tile flung at our own heads and in our last moments regret that we did not spare a minute to ponder.
Epicurus knew what the focus of our lives should be: pleasure. Simply writing that still gives one a shiver. With the puritanical weight of Western thought hanging over us, to declare pleasure the aim of life is a radical act. Romanticism has robbed us of the joys of serenity. We seek the heroes of the body; the noble one who struggles and suffers for his cause. They make for good stories but poor role models. For us happiness is frivolous, friends are accessories, and philosophy is a luxury. Perhaps society needs to pause and reflect on Cineas’s question. What is our end game? What is the point of all the suffering?
If you were given the chance to do anything what would it be? I do not need to hear any of your answers to know what they all have in common. Whatever you said will be something which brings you pleasure. It is natural to seek pleasure. It is time we listened to what Epicurus has been trying to tell us.
An Anatomy of Pleasure
“No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” -- Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 8.
Pleasure may be a natural urge, but should we chase after everything that offers to light up the pleasure centers of the brain? Epicurus tells us that wisdom is the knowledge of which pleasures are good for us. He was no wild hedonist always searching for the next great fix of dopamine. He set up a system for us to judge whether the things we let into our lives deserve to be there. And luckily for this age of clickbait and instant gratification, it’s gloriously simple.
Humans are animals. We have certain needs. We need food. We need water. These natural desires are impossible to live without. We are also social creatures. Without company we suffer. If you try to ignore desires which are both natural and necessary the only result is pain.
As animals we also have things that are natural to want but which we can live without. I have a sweet tooth. I add a lump of sugar to my tea. It is natural to enjoy sweet foods, but not necessary. Many desires fall into this category. It is here we can train ourselves to manage without certain pleasures. If pleasure is good then why should we seek to go without pleasures? We shouldn’t. But if we let in unnecessary pleasures we are at risk of suffering when they are removed. It is a matter of outlook. Enjoy unnecessary pleasures when they come your way, just do not seek them out. If I walk through a park in spring and see the blossom on the trees I smile. It would be foolish to then curse the winter because the branches are bare. I have the memory of the pleasure within me. If you stumble across a bottle of champagne, savor it; do not work yourself to death simply to get another taste.
The unnecessary and unnatural pleasures are the ones you should cut out entirely. Do you smoke? Nicotine provides a sense of pleasure, so shouldn’t we all smoke? Epicurus would say no. It is a pleasure that carries more pain with it than pleasure. You have to pay for it, so you have to work to earn the money. Few people work in genuinely pleasant jobs. Then you live in fear that you might leave the house without your cigarettes. Fear is always to be avoided. To top it all off, smokers stand good odds of falling ill due to their habit. Pain, pain, pain. All for an unnecessary pleasure.
There is the risk that avoiding pain may harm us. Pain is bad in itself but painful acts can lead to more pleasure. An old person with a damaged hip has the choice of a painful operation or doing nothing. The simple calculation of immediate pain would lead us to not have the operation. Having the operation, however, leads to greater pleasure in the long run. Or think of education. Learning a language is difficult, but having learned it we have a whole new world to explore.
The sane and thoughtful pursuit of pleasure is the key to living well. It is a simple philosophy. Is it too simple for the modern world?
“Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.” -- Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 27.
Epicurus set up a school in Athens to teach his philosophy. He called it the Garden. Here like-minded people came together to learn and to teach and to live free from pain. In this pagan Eden of their own creation there was no one to cast them out. It is a sign of Epicurus’s wisdom that he sought to live with others.
Hermits escape the world to live alone. Monks of all faiths retreat from the world to be closer to their gods. Epicurus reasoned that if gods exist they have nothing to do with humanity. If we cannot be close to the divine then separating ourselves from other people serves no purpose. Loneliness kills.
So Epicurus created a space for friendships to grow. Face-to-face interaction is key to human relationships. It is hard to interact with people wearing sunglasses because we miss so many facial expressions. How much more difficult is it when the person is at the other end of a computer screen or telephone?
We gather friends on Facebook as we collect points in a video game. Just as imaginary computer points are worthless so are many of these relationships. Can anyone really claim to have over a thousand meaningful friendships?1 Epicurus would tell us to leave behind these false friends and search for real meetings of minds.
Should we cast away all online social networks then? I think we should simply be aware of our use. It is too easy to get addicted to the hollow buzz of another friendship request. Maybe put down the iPhone and talk to someone face-to-face. Go for a walk in the garden with them.
“Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature's own prompting they originally sought.” -- Epicurus
We live in the age of celebrity, though it is not an innovation of our time. In all communities in all times there have been some personalities who stood out. The problem is that today fame is paradoxically both easier and far harder to achieve.
Anyone can throw up a video of themselves doing something wacky on YouTube and keep clicking “refresh” to check the hit count. You might get a million hits today and be forgotten for someone falling in a fountain tomorrow. Fame is fickle. It ties in again to our status as social animals. For the same reason we want friends we want to be known. For the same reason that a horde of Facebook friends is no guarantee that you will not be lonely there is no reason to think being mobbed by strangers on the street will bring you pleasure either.
Epicurus left the simple injunction to his followers to “live unknown.” Fame is not a bad thing necessarily. You might achieve something which helps a lot of people; no one begrudges Jonas Salk his place in history. But the point is to not seek notoriety. Fame may be a by-product but never the commodity itself.
Are famous people invariably happy? That does not seem to be the case. Are people who are constantly hustling to become famous happy? I doubt it. When you see people crying on the singing competition “The X Factor” after rejection you have to wonder whether they should not have stayed at home. So you have unhappy people trying to cure their unhappiness by seeking a state which may make them unhappier still. Tell me it is not better to live in a small community of friends where all know each other.
Moderation and the Modern World
“He who understands the limits of life knows that it is easy to obtain that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete and perfect. Thus he has no longer any need of things which involve struggle.” -- Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 21.
There will be those who say the problem with modern life is not an absence of pleasure but a surfeit. Our expanding waistlines don’t point to us lacking pleasure coming from food. The obesity explosion is almost enough to make us promote asceticism. But only if we forget what Epicurus taught.
“Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish,” Epicurus wrote to a friend. He was not against the pleasures of the body. He only urged moderation for the maximization of pleasure. His little pot of cheese would add to a meal without causing him any pain. A box of donuts on the other hand…
Imagine a man who stops at the bakery to pick up a dozen cakes every day. He eats them with smacking lips. For as long as he has the cream in his mouth he is in heaven. Surely Epicurus would approve of that? Not at all.
The man probably feels slightly nauseous after his feast. Pain. He gets fat, his joints hurt, he gets sweaty, he cannot enjoy exercise without feeling like death. His pastry-based ecstasies are robbing him of other pleasures. His swollen gut is a prison wall around his life. Besides all that, repeated pleasures soon become boring. His cakes start to be a habit and not a happiness. He ends up with no joy at all. Even if otherwise healthy studies have suggested obese people feel more pain. Diets are hard, losing weight is hard, but Epicurus would tell us to consider our goals and weigh the momentary discomfort against them.
The man who exercises to excess also suffers. The jogger is fit when he is young but should take care not to lose sight of the fact he may need some cartilage in his knees in later life. Take your pleasures in moderation, take them with care and forethought, and you can achieve the maximum of pleasure.
“It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe, but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.” -- Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 12.
When we look at Epicurean thought it is easy to see how modern it is. Epicurus would not be out of place in the Existentialist school. He thought the soul, like everything else, was made of atoms and dispersed on death. Most people understand that when the brain is destroyed so is the mind. All we have is the here and now.
Epicurus thought there were gods, but they were not beings we would nowadays understand as deities. They were creatures of pure pleasure living calm and detached lives. They had no cares for Earth and never stooped to interact with humans. No reliable evidence exists for any god ever taking a role in human affairs, so we might well agree with Epicurus that if they exist they are infinitely remote. It is hard to imagine anyone blowing themselves up in hopes of winning the affection of an indifferent Epicurean god.
Many people find Existentialism hard to accept because it seems to offer little comfort to the common sufferings of humanity. Nihilist despair can make a clear-sighted view of the universe a bit of a tough sell. This is where Epicurus, leap-frogging the millennia comes to the rescue.
Why should we fear death? We can never experience death. As Epicurus says in a letter to his friend Menoeceus, “When we are, death is not. When death is present, we are not.” When we are gone, the soul scattered after death, we cannot feel pain, so how can that hold any terror for us? In freeing our minds from all fears, death removes even the fear of death. Nor should we fear to live. What is pleasant is easy to get, so why are we afraid to reach for it?
The ethics of pleasure can seem risky to some. Doesn’t this make us all selfish? Perhaps we can make a virtue of Epicurean self-interest. When we come to know ourselves better we understand others, we build empathy. Seeing others in distress causes pain in us if we are not sociopaths. We want to help people. Seeing others happy causes us pleasure. Who does not smile when they give a friend a gift? We will seek to do well for others because it will improve our lives. It is perverse to think that we have to suffer in helping others to live a good life. The Golden Rule, however it is derived, is a profound ethical doctrine.
The Garden Without Walls
“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry. Here our highest good is pleasure.” Sign over the Garden.
Epicurus deserves to be better known, but it is fitting with his doctrine that we should “live unknown” that he is not. At least we can aim to reclaim his name from its links with gluttonous excess. The dream of building a Garden of our own to live in may always be unfulfilled. I do not think it matters.
We can create our own Garden within ourselves and carry it in our minds. Thinking about our pleasures, weighing our actions carefully, and not allowing pain and fear to twist our intentions does not require us to abandon the world for life behind walls. We do not have to suffer. The life of pain and the life of pleasure both end in death, so which would you rather spend your limited time experiencing?
- 1. Studies show that Facebook use correlates with a host of negative feelings: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069841.