Epicurus declared pleasure to be the highest good for humans. And that leads us to picture an Epicurean as a person who is deep into a hedonistic high living, overly fond of exotic foods, drinks excessively, and is hooked to sensual pleasures.
But that is not at all true about the people who follow that philosophy. What Epicurus said and taught about pleasure was subtle and thoughtful rather than associated with debauchery, as per popular imagination.
In stark contrast to what people visualize, the ancient Epicureans enjoyed eating simple meals. Epicurus, who lived mainly on bread and olives, once wrote to a friend, “Send me a small pot of cheese so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.”
How To Live Like An Epicurean
Here are thirteen tips compiled from Epicurus’ teachings to help us live like an Epicurean and find happiness in life:
- Choose what makes you happy and pleased
- Avoid whatever makes you feel any pain
- Do not let others suffer for your pleasure
- Shun overindulgence in bodily pleasures
- Desire mostly what is natural and necessary
- Do not pursue the “vain and empty” desires
- Find joy in the things you have in your life
- Make friends that trust and help each other
- Rid yourself of the societal superstitions
- Free yourself from the fear of your death
- Stop fearing the divine anger and judgment
- Believe in social justice and behave justly
- Live a life of virtue, courage, and rational pleasure
The Epicureans recognize pleasure (hedone) as the greatest good in life. They define their idea of pleasure as a state of tranquility (ataraxia), and freedom from bodily pain (aponia). For an Epicurean, the most pleasant life is tranquil, free of fear and need.
As the Epicurean Philodemus summarizes, in his “fourfold cure”:
Nothing to fear from god, nothing to worry about in death. Good is easy to obtain, and evil easy to endure.— Phld. Herculaneum papyrus 1005, 4.9–14, LS 25J
To live like an Epicurean means learning how to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The Epicureans are hedonistic consequentialists. For them, the ethical value of any action lay in its consequence — if it maximized pleasure and minimized pain, then it was good.
For Epicurus and his followers, life is mostly about making choices that give us pleasure and keep us away from pain. But one should learn to temper this natural tendency to seek pleasure and shun pain with prudence and morals. To attain pleasure, one must live a life of moderation rather than one of overindulgence.
Epicurus said there are two kinds of pleasure:
- Kinetic pleasures: those that stimulate us and get us agitated or excited. The kinetic or moving pleasures can unbalance us from a state of ataraxia. They can put us in unexpected situations and cause us inner turbulence and mental pain.
- Katastematic pleasures: those that are stable and keep us calm and unperturbed. They could be things like enjoying the company of friends, watching a beautiful sunrise, or relishing the taste of cheese. The katastematic pleasures maintain our state of ataraxia.
Since pleasure is the sensation that occurs when a desire gets satisfied, Epicurus explained it was useful to examine our desires to see what pleasures they are after. For this, he classified desires into natural and necessary, natural but non-necessary, and “vain and empty” desires.
The Epicureans know how to distinguish between the three types of desires:
- Natural and Necessary: desires are those that arise out of our basic physical needs, like those needed for maintaining life, as water and food. We should pare down our desires to only these.
- Natural and Unnecessary: those desires that are in human nature but not needed for survival, like exotic foods and extravagant clothes. We could have them, but we should be careful to not get addicted to them.
- Vain and Empty: these are unnatural and unnecessary desires and we have no physical necessity for them. But we still seek them as social currency, like status and wealth. The vain and empty desires have no natural limit and are difficult to satisfy. We base these desires on false opinions. We should eliminate them.
While Epicureans believe humans were given their lives to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but we should be ethical and make sure we do not seek our own pleasures at the expense of others. They also hold we should be wary about indulging in excessive pleasure today, as it could cause pain tomorrow (think of a hangover the day after a late-night drinking spree).
In brief, the central Epicurean idea is all pleasure is good, and all pain is bad. However, even when all pleasures are good, we cannot choose them all. And even though all pains are bad, we cannot avoid them all. Because some pleasures give us pain in the long run, and some pains lead to future pleasures. So, we have to think long-term while choosing our pleasures and pains.
Epicureans on Love, Death, And God
Epicurus recognized love can gift us immense pleasure and can also cause us excruciating pain. But the pain it causes, like jealousy and separation anxiety, is an inevitable part of its experience.
We cannot experience love in all its glory without feeling any of its hurt. Like life itself, that does not come without death. So, the Epicureans believed we should embrace love and passion despite all its pains.
The Epicureans believed death was nothing to cringe away from. While death is the worst thing to happen to any of us, however, it is not something to fear or criticize. We cannot have rights to the joys of life while choosing to escape the agony of death.
Like everything else in the universe, death is the ultimate limit of human life. And once we reach that endpoint, the Epicureans say, we should calmly accept this unavoidable law of nature, more so in old age.
Death should not cause us sorrow, as long as we can say we have lived a happy life.
They held nothing of cosmic significance was waiting to happen after we cease to exist. Once we die, our atoms go out and recombine into something else. That is the absolute end of us.
The Epicureans also argued that the gods, if they existed, had no interest in the lives of humans. The gods are perfect beings and hence live their lives in ataraxia. If they were to intervene in human lives, it would disturb their divine ataraxia. So, there is no need to fear the wrath of the gods.
So, also, there is no cosmic system of an afterlife or a judgment day. And that gives us more reason to live a life of pleasures on Earth while we still can.
Epicurean Physics: Atomic Theory
Epicurus gets the credit to have developed one of the earliest theories of the atom, called Epicurean atomism. He professed everything is composed of tiny, indivisible, and invisible particles called atoms. However, the atomist philosophy was first proposed by Democritus.
The Epicurean atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) and Robert Boyle (1627–91) both formulated versions of atomism explicitly based on Epicureanism. They, in turn, influenced Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Much later, in 1803, Dalton proposed in his atomic theory that said all matter is made up of atoms, which are indivisible and indestructible.
Epicurus suggested even our consciousness and sensations are the results of particular configurations of atoms inside us.
All we see in the universe are arrangements of these atoms, and when these change or die, it is the atoms that have rearranged themselves. An Epicurean would say when we cease to exist, our “soul atoms” escape into the air and become something else.
These atoms cannot come into existence but have always existed and live on forever. They are the only things truly permanent in the universe. And the universe has no beginning, but has always existed, and will always exist.
Modern physicists have proven both theories wrong; they have divided atoms into elementary particles called quarks, and have set the age of our universe at 14 billion years.
The spirit … is born with the body, develops with it, and succumbs with it to the stress and strain of age.– Lucretius
Epicurean Mind: A Physical Mind
Epicureans asserted the mind is a part of the body, an organ, like the head or the leg. The mind is responsible for sensation, thought, and memory. However, the Epicurean mind was placed inside the chest.
Epicurus said the mind comprises four different types of particles: heat, air, wind, and a nameless fourth element. The heat particles handle the heat of anger, calm air for tranquillity, and the nameless “fourth element” accounts for sensation.
At death, the mind dies too along with the rest of the body. For Epicureans, death is the complete annihilation of the body and the mind. Epicurus mocked at the Platonic idea that souls pre-exist their bodies and enter them at the time of conception, and keep on living after bodies die.
Epicurean Biology: Natural Selection
The Epicureans believed there was no divine force behind the creation of the natural world around us. Rather, it is the primitive atoms that came together in various arrangements to form the living creatures.
According to them, a long time ago, the earth was in a fertile period and acted as the “mother” of animals. After this initial burst of new creatures, as Lucretius says, many died out immediately as they were utterly unsuitable to live, like lacking limbs or reproductive organs. Later, competition among animals drove other species to extinction. Finally, those having strength (such as lions), cunning (such as foxes), or speed (such as deer) survived.
In a way, this was a precursor of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Of course, Darwin had years of scientifically collected data to back his theory while Epicurus was speaking from his philosophical insight.
Also, unlike Darwin, the Epicurean natural selection did not see evolution, with new species arising out of old. Epicureans were not evolutionists.
Epicureans on Friendship
One of the best ways to attain Epicurean tranquility is to have good friends.
Epicurus never forgot to remind his followers that friendship is one of the greatest means of attaining pleasure. Friends are our greatest kins when it comes to fending for us. Without them, he said, life is solitary and wrought with perils.
Who Was Epicurus
Epicurus, a major philosopher in the Hellenistic period, was born in 341 BCE on the Greek island of Samos. He began practicing philosophy at the age of twelve to fourteen. When he was eighteen, he traveled to Athens to serve in the army. For the next 20 years, he went on to live and teach in various parts of Greece.
When he finally returned to Athens in 307 BCE, he set up his school of philosophy in a grove outside the city. It came to be called the ‘Garden’ (kepos).
Epicurus lived at and taught from the Garden. His followers too lived there to discuss and practice his doctrines. The Garden was more like an open-house community where people from all walks of life could go over to talk philosophy. The Garden was egalitarian and openly admitted women and people from all social classes.
Epicurus wrote about 300 works on various subjects, but only a few fragments remain of his original works. However, his ideas survive because of his influential followers, like the Roman Lucretius and the Syrian Philodemus, who wrote extensively on his teachings.
Epicurus died in 271 BCE after suffering from kidney stones for fourteen days. During his last days, though in enormous pain, he remained cheerful until the end. After Epicurus’ death, Hermarchus became the head of the Garden.
Relevance of Epicureanism
For a philosophy founded around 2300 years earlier, remarkably much of what Epicurus said on nature, physics, history, love, death, and religion remains relevant in the modern era.
Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) claimed he was an Epicurean and was only following nature by seeking his own pleasure. He was a bestselling author in his day but spent most of his life behind bars on charges of rape, sexual terror and torture, imprisoning children, and poisoning prostitutes.
Sade inspired the term “sadism” – coined by Krafft-Ebing in 1893. Sigmund Freud later took up that term in his 1905’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.
A sadist is a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others.
In 1895, Freud used the term “pleasure principle” in his psychoanalytic theory of personality. He said it was human instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain to gratify our biological and psychological needs.
An Epicurean attains pleasure, and therefore happiness, by eliminating the painful thoughts of unfulfilled desires, and the fear that their desires might go unfulfilled in the future.
An Epicurean way of life is to live pleasurable and meaningful lives without indulging excessively or causing pain to others. For a well-lived life, we do not need to have mounts of wealth or stacks of recognition. We can live meaningful lives by doing what we love to do and loving those close to us, especially our friends.
Virgil, the famous poet of ancient Rome, wrote the Epicurean gist of happiness while likely referring to Lucretius:
Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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