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Epicurean Pleasure

Abhik Roy |


For quite some time I have been interested in learning about what constitutes happiness or, to be more precise, what kind of a life one should pursue to be happy. In my search to learn about a happy and meaningful life, I forayed mostly into Western philosophical writings. Recently, as I was remembering all the Western philosophers I have read and who really resonated with me the most, one name clearly stood out from the rest ~ Epicurus. It’s Epicurus’s simple life and his pithy aphorisms that attracted me the most.

Epicurus (341-270 BC) was born in the Athenian colony of Samos, which is an island in the Mediterranean Sea near present day Turkey. According to his biographers, he started practising philosophy at the age of either twelve or fourteen. He studied philosophy in Asia Minor and taught in several Greek cities before relocating to Athens in 307 BC. Epicurus founded his school of philosophy on the outskirts of Athens at a time when Athens was already the centre of the philosophical world with schools founded by Aristotle, Plato and other eminent Greek philosophers.

Epicurus’s “Garden” was not only the location of his school of philosophy, but it also became a thriving community where the members tried to put to practice the principles of Epicurean living, epitomizing the simple pleasures of life. It was in the Garden where Epicurus, his friends and followers lived a simple life, growing vegetables and fruit. They made it a point of eating together while conversing endlessly about Epicurean philosophy.

Epicurus’s Garden was open to all. It was surprisingly egalitarian because Epicurus welcomed not only women but also people of all social classes, which was not at all common in those days. The inscription on the gate of Epicurus’s Garden stated: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry: here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with bread, and serve you water also in abundance…”

Epicurus was ahead of his time: women were always welcome to join his community, where they could engage freely in all philosophical discussions and debates. More importantly, women were treated as equals. Epicurus even allowed prostitutes to join his community, which was always a source of local gossip. Many locals erroneously assumed that Epicurus had a penchant for wanton hedonism. It is curious that, even today, so many people entertain the wrong idea that Epicurus was a depraved libertine who loved gourmet food and a lavish lifestyle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both Epicurus and his followers eschewed the lifestyle of hedonistic pleasure and, instead, embraced a life of serene beauty. Epicurus’s biographers indicated that he was a celibate because he believed that sex was a major cause of unhappiness, jealousy and even boredom. Epicurus’s food habits were also quite unpretentious, similar to a hermit’s. He subsisted mostly on bread and water with an occasional lentil soup when he wanted to indulge himself. Clearly, his lifestyle was far removed from the images of a hedonistic lifestyle that the word “Epicureanism” is associated with today.

For Epicurus, the ultimate goal in life is to live pleasurably. In order to achieve pleasure or happiness in life, we need to know how to discern between pleasures that are enduring from those that are fleeting and lead to pain. In his efforts to lead a happy life, Epicurus distinguished between three kinds of desires, which he labeled as being (a) natural and necessary desires (eating, dressing, having a home, etc.); (b) natural and non-necessary desires (gourmet cooking, fancy clothes, luxury home, etc.), and (c) non-natural and non-necessary desires (power, popularity, indulgence in luxuries, etc.). For Epicurus, people who could successfully satisfy the first group of desires would find happiness. The second group was not important in order to lead a happy life; it was also wise to avoid them. As for the third group of desires, Epicurus strongly advised us to avoid them at all cost because they brought nothing but sorrow and pain.

In recent years, Epicurus has made a comeback with many scholars who find his philosophy quite appealing. His famous aphorisms were found in the Vatican Library millennia after his death.

These aphorisms are as relevant today as they were during his times in ancient Athens. Epicurus’s pithy aphorisms often resemble Zen Buddhist teachings, and this is probably why his maxims are so popular. There are several popular aphorisms but for the purpose of this piece, I will focus on just three of them.

Epicurus spent his entire life pondering the outcomes for a happy life as reflected in the oft-quoted maxim: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” In this maxim, Epicurus states that desiring for something that we do not possess diminishes our ability to appreciate what we do have now. More importantly, he urges us not to forget that when we do indeed get that desired object, which we were missing in our life, it is going to put us back to square one ~ desiring more because we are not quite happy with our new acquisition. We are wired in such a way that our aspirations always prompt us to strive for more accomplishments and acquisitions.

The major problem with this kind of mindset is that there will always be more to desire after we acquire what we were hankering for but the process will never end; we will always be in a position of unsatisfied desire.

According to Epicurus, one of the sure ways to find happiness in life is when we can detach ourselves from the tentacles of the commercial world of business. He wrote: “We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs…” Here, Epicurus exhorts us to free ourselves from our enslavement to the world of business, where many of us toil perpetually in modern day “sweat shops,” hoping that it will make us prosperous and happy.

Epicurus warns us against thinking that we have no choice but to work tirelessly in order to survive and, ultimately, to find happiness. While giving up our day job or career is not easy, as Epicurus’s perspective demands, it’s well within reason to search for the “right livelihood,” which is choosing a line of work that makes us happy. Sometimes doing what makes us happy may not be financially rewarding, but we also need to remember that doing what we love may be more important than making money.

Friendship was always at the top of Epicurus’s list of life’s pleasures. He stated: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” Knowing that we can count on our friends to help us out in times of need allows us to face our future, come what may. But in order to have such friends, we must also help our friends out when they need us. Epicurus believed that it was quite possible to love your friend as much as yourself.

For Epicurus, friendship was not simply a one-on-one interaction between friends, but was rather a network of friends who look out for one another. The network of friends not only protect each other from physical and emotional harm but it also serves as an intellectual mutual aid society.

It didn’t matter one bit to Epicurus if his friend was from a lower class. In fact, he believed that genuine friendship was based on who one was and not what station in life one had achieved. Epicurus believed that loving and being loved by friends was one of the greatest sources of happiness in life. Good friends not only helped affirm one’s self-worth but they also helped alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Epicurus passed away in 271 BC after suffering from kidney stones for fourteen days. He was not afraid of death. He said to his friends: “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not. The absence of life is no more alarming than the nothingness before birth.”

While Epicurus graced this earth thousands of years ago, his perceptive observations about a happy life still continue to resonate with many in the contemporary world. His message, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little” sums up the message of finding happiness in our life.

The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.