Pleasure is the first good. It is the beginning of every choice and every aversion. It is the absence of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul. Epicurus In the third century BC on the Greek island of Samos, a man was born that would become
the founder of one of the four main philosophical schools of late antiquity. His name was Epicurus and he spent his life studying what makes people happy and how to attain this. According to Epicurus, happiness is the main goal in life. We can achieve this by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, but also by taming our desires and enjoying the small things. Aside from a collection of fragments, the majority of Epicurus’ works are lost.
Fortunately, we can find many of his quotes and ideas in the works of other authors, like Stobaeus, Philodemus, and Cicero. The reason why Epicurus focused on happiness rather than virtue, is because he observed that humans are pleasure-seeking beings by nature. Looking at small children we can see that they’re always aimed at seeking pleasure for themselves. When they grow up, this pleasure-seeking often becomes a bit more refined. We learn, for example, that it’s sometimes necessary to undergo pain in order to gain pleasure.
And even engaging in activities that may seem altruistic is, ultimately, a way to gain pleasure; be it in the form of status, acceptance or creating a better community from which we all benefit. The pursuit of pleasure in the Epicurean sense is often misunderstood. While some people think that Epicurus was pointing to indulging the senses like eating luxurious foods, participating in orgies and being drunk and high all day, this is not what he meant. He recognized that overindulgence may be pleasurable for a short time, but in the long run, it only causes pain; in such amounts that it overshadows the pleasure derived from the activity in the first place. this experience makes people vow to never drink again. So, this form of overindulgence completely misses the mark and wouldn’t have been recommended by Epicurus. So, what did he recommend?
Epicurus distinguished different kinds of pleasures and desires. Therefore, he created a system that tells us what pleasures we should and shouldn’t pursue. An essential part of this system is a hierarchy of desires. These are natural and necessary desires, natural and non-necessary desires and vain desires. Living in agreement with nature is the starting point when it comes to attaining happiness, pointing to our own human nature as well as the nature around us. Therefore, Epicurus discouraged the pursuit of unnatural pleasures, while going for natural pleasures instead. When we look closer at these distinctions we’ll find out that natural and necessary desires are easy to satisfy, thus, finding happiness in life is actually pretty easy. Such desires are things like food and shelter.
Generally, humans have easy access to these things as they are basic needs. Another characteristic of these desires is that they have a natural limit. For example: after eating a certain amount of food we’re satisfied. From this mechanism, Epicurus distinguished two types of pleasure: ‘moving pleasure’ and ‘static pleasure’. Moving pleasure is the actual act of eating, for example, and static pleasure is the contentment we feel when we’re satisfied. Eating a nice meal can be immensely pleasurable, but according to Epicurus, the absence of
‘needs’ or ‘wants’ after one’s desires have been satisfied is even better. That’s why he saw static pleasures as the best pleasures. Epicurus also emphasized the importance of socializing, believing that friendship is one of the main ingredients for happiness, as opposed to romantic and sexual relationships that often go hand in hand with unhappiness, looking at the jealousy, possessiveness, and boredom that many couples experience. He practiced what he preached: he was celibate and lived, together with his followers, in
a place called the Garden of Epicurus, enjoying the simplicity of bread, weak wine and an occasional pot of cheese. I should add, however, that in the current individualistic societies, friendship seems to be a lot harder to find. Natural and non-necessary desires are a bit harder to satisfy. Examples of this are luxurious food, an expensive car, and recreational travel. Even though we need food; we don’t need luxurious food. Generally, a Ferrari isn’t necessary to go from point A to point B, and we don’t need to travel abroad to enjoy ourselves or find relaxation. Also, if we crave for luxurious foods but satisfy our hunger with a simple meal of water and bread, is there any difference afterward when our cravings are gone? Most likely, the contentment we feel, that comes from the eradication of desire, is the same. Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote several passages on Epicurus, often quoting him to support
his own pleas. Epicurus recognized that our sense of poverty and wealth depends on how we define it, as told by Seneca and I quote: “There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.” For nature’s wants are small; the demands of opinion are boundless.” End quote. This brings us to the last type of desires: the vain desires.
Power, fame and extreme material and financial wealth are difficult to obtain and also impossible to fully satisfy. As opposed to natural desires, vain desires don’t have a natural limit. This means that even though we may have an extraordinary amount of power; it will never
be enough, we always want more and we make huge sacrifices (including the murdering of fellow humans) to attain it. Epicurus saw these desires as unnatural and, thus, based on opinion. In other words: they are what society makes us think that we need. Especially in today’s society, we’re told that we’re losers when we don’t make a certain amount of money, and the younger generations grow up with the idea that pursuing status, fame, and riches is what life’s all about. This means that we’re conditioned to spend our time and energy chasing something that’s not only unnatural but also doesn’t fulfill us. I quote: “We call ‘vain pursuits’ the types of life that do not tend towards happiness.” End quote. Furthermore, by slaving away on the plantation of societal expectations, chasing what never satisfies, we close ourselves off from all the enjoyment that is within our reach. Epicurus probably wouldn’t have been surprised why the sales of antidepressants are skyrocketing these days: we simply don’t allow ourselves to be happy. Epicurus believed that the happy life equals an absence of anxiety and suffering.
This isn’t just the pain that comes with the constant wanting and craving for more, but also by the fear of death and God. Epicurus viewed these fears as irrational and delivered rational explanations to explain his point. Firstly, the fear of God, which he explains by proposing a thesis that stands strong among atheists to this day. I quote: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” End quote. Epicurus believed that there’s no afterlife, no heaven or hell and that our universe consists
of atoms and void. Because there’s is no punishment or reward after we die, it’s kind of pointless to live well in this life, for the sole purpose of enjoying the next. Secondly, there’s the fear of death. According to Epicurus, death means annihilation. It does not affect the living, otherwise, they wouldn’t be alive.
And when someone is dead; how can death affect this person? When the body and the consciousness are gone; how is it possible to be harmed? Or, from the standpoint of heaven and hell: how is it possible to punish what isn’t there? Therefore, Epicurus argued that death isn’t bad for neither the living nor the dead. So, we shouldn’t let the fear of death spoil the possibility to be happy. It’s this life, today, that counts. Moreover, it’s important to remind ourselves of the shortness of life and to realize that
we might be missing out on pleasure. I quote: “We are born once and there can be no second birth. For all eternity we shall no longer be. But you, although you are not master of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. We waste away our lives in delaying, and each of us dies without having enjoyed leisure.” End quote. To wrap it up: Epicurus created a rational philosophy of pleasure, that is strikingly ascetic, opposing
to popular belief. Instead of the blatant consumerism of today, he encourages us to be happy with little. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy unnecessary pleasures from time to time. Even though Epicurus lived on water, bread, and olives most of the time; occasionally he deeply enjoyed a slice of cheese. Of course, we all know that the more simple we live, the more we enjoy luxury when we encounter it. The philosophy of Epicurus is quite compatible with atheism, stating that the fear of God is pointless and that we shouldn’t worry about death either. A Stoic would say that we must remember death because the time to live virtuously is limited
but an Epicurean would say that we shouldn’t waste time and opportunities on vain pleasures and irrational fears so we can be happy. Living in current consumerist societies, we might want to ask ourselves the following question: why suffer by the constant chase of money, fame, and power, when living happily and content is so easily accessible? Thank you for watching.