So the vital strength of his spirit won through, and he made his way far outside the flaming walls of the world and ranged over the measureless whole, both in mind and spirit.
— Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura, Book I.72
Epicurus was the first real philosopher of happiness. There were philosophers before who made much of the good life — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes to name a few — but they all talked about it in terms of virtue or goodness. Epicurus, much like ourselves, thought of happiness as the highest goal of life. He was a philosophical hedonist believing that pleasure was the key to unriddling the happy life. But as we shall see, this term hedonist is something of a red herring and nowadays makes us think more of a Rolling Stone than a sage.
The living philosophy of Epicurus is elegantly simple and can be summarised in the Epicurean four-part cure and that’s what we’re going to explore here.
The Life of Epicurus
Epicurus was born on the Greek island of Samos. He was the son of a schoolmaster and this middle-class background made him the source of disdain and derision among the ancient philosophers who were almost exclusively aristocratic.
It’s worth questioning whether these humbler origins might be fruitfully connected with Epicurus’s close kinship with our modern worldview. Is there something in the soil of the middle-class psyche that predisposes it to pursue happiness and comfort as ideals?
After spending some years teaching in different places around the eastern Mediterranean, Epicurus moved to his parents’ hometown Athens and there he set his school of philosophy in what was known as The Garden of Epicurus which had the inscription on the gate:
“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
He spent the rest of his life in Athens teaching, writing, living his best life and developing and spreading his philosophy. The life of the Garden school was the model for later Epicurean settlements. It’s like the movement towards communities that we’ve seen a lot of since the 60’s counterculture. The idea was to live in a self-sufficient manner growing your own food and living a simple life with your friends.
This ideal of friendship was one of the most important things in life in the Epicurean philosophy. This theme comes up a lot in the scraps of writings we have left from him:
“The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.” — Vatican Collection #78
“Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.” — Doctrine XXVII
As well as friendship and self-sufficiency, Epicurus’s living philosophy was about living the life that was most pleasurable or more accurately it was about living the life with the least amount of pain and suffering. To attain this goal of ataraxia — freedom from pain — Epicurus devised his fourfold cure (known as the Tetrapharmakos) that a later Epicurean called Philodemus summarised as:
“Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; what’s good is easy to get, and what’s terrible is easy to endure.”
1. Don’t fear God
Epicurus’s attitude towards God is that we have nothing to worry about. Those who fear punishment in the afterlife or the wrath of the gods should put it out of their minds. The garden philosopher wasn’t an atheist but in essence his attitude was the same — there’s no god watching over creation tentatively observing every transgression.
For Epicurus, the gods were perfect beings living in conditions and an attitude suitable to perfection. He argued that it was inconsistent with the concept of divinity to think that the gods cared about such petty affairs as our own. The most suitable way to think of them was in a state of bliss, without any cares without any needs and invulnerable to harm. The gods aren’t something to be feared but to be emulated and Epicurus said that if you live the Epicurean way
“you will live as a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal goods is in no respect like a mere mortal animal.”
Epicurus was a follower of Democritus’s theory of Atomism — which we looked at in a previous episode — and he believed that there was a lot of value in studying the natural world in what we would now call a scientific way. Understanding the mechanics of the world helped us to overcome our superstitions and see that the cosmos is governed by mechanical laws rather than puppeteered by a god.
2. “Don’t worry about death.”
The second aspect of Epicurus’s living philosophy is the cultivation of the proper attitude towards death. Many people feel a lot of anxiety about death. For some it is fear of punishment in the afterlife — but the first part of his cure should deal with those anxieties — for others though they fear death because of their non-existence.
Epicurus seeks to put the mind to rest on this by saying that:
“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
— Epicurus, Letter to Menoceus
So death will always be irrelevant to us because by its very definition we are not present when it is. Another brilliant point he makes here is by asking us if we remember any pain from before we were born. And obviously that’s an absurd thought and so he says that since we have no problem with endless non-existence on one end of our life why should we fear it on the other?
As a materialist and a hedonist, the equation is simple for Epicurus — all pain and all pleasure all good and all bad come from sense experience. Since death is the absence of sense-experience it is neither painful nor pleasurable it’s just irrelevant.
And if philosophy is as some have said the art of dying, then Epicurus is one of the true greats. Despite bitter hatred being cast towards him and his school by the other ancient schools of philosophy, he was still admired for how he died.
He died a slow and painful death from a kidney stone blocking his urinary tract but despite the prolonged pain involved, he is reported as saying in a letter to Idomeneus:
“I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions.”
— Diogenes Laertius, X.22
It is always great to see a philosopher who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk and it is something that even his staunchest detractors admired in him. It’s a lesson I think we can all learn from and strive to emulate in our own living philosophies.
3. What we actually need is easy to get
The final two parts of the Epicurean good life complement each other like a yin and yang. The one tells us that what is good — pleasure — is easy to attain and what is bad — pain and suffering — is easy to endure.
This first part is the hedonistic core of Epicurus’s philosophy. The nature of this hedonism was warped by his contemporaries and this warping has survived into the modern English definition of an epicurean as “a person devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially that derived from fine food and drink.” But as we shall see this conception is completely off-base.
Though all pleasure is good for Epicurus, not all pleasures were made equal. He divides them into three types: the natural and necessary, the natural but not necessary and the vain pleasures.
The first of these are what he is talking about when he says that what we need is easy to get. These are the simple pleasures — food, shelter, safety and water. These things are easy to hand and you can get them with little effort or money (at least back in his day; though shelter doesn’t seem to be so cheap or easy to acquire as it was in his day)
The second category are like variations on the first. They provide a variety of pleasure but they don’t remove the feeling of pain. So things like expensive foods and booze are things that are natural but not really necessary. Sex would go into this category for Epicurus as well.
The third category are the vain pleasures like fame and power that unlike the natural pleasures are not limited by a satisfiable appetite. The desire for them does not go away by getting a little. There is just never enough of them to go around and even those with a lot will still be hungry for more.
So when you’re setting out to live the happy life you don’t just say yes to every pleasure that comes your way. The goal is not to maximise pleasure but to minimise pain. A little food and water keep away the pains of hunger and thirst.
Figuring out what path led to the least pain was the important thing and that’s why for Epicurus the highest virtue in life was prudence; it’s even more important than philosophy. Sometimes a pleasure can lead to more pain and sometimes a little pain now can lead to more pleasure later and so prudence is the virtue that guides us in choosing the right course that leads to the most pleasurable life. You can really see the fertile soil in Epicureanism for the later evolution of Utilitarianism Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
By satisfying the natural and necessary pleasures we give our bodies what they need. And as for our souls all they need is the confidence that our bodies will get what they need. When you know that your body has what it needs and you are confident that your body will continue to have what it needs then you will be cheerful and this is the key to enjoying the pleasures of life. Epicurus calls cheerfulness ‘the limit of pleasure’.
The essence of the Epicurean attitude towards pleasure is learning the art and discipline of recognising how little you need, to enjoy possessing it and enjoy the confidence you will continue to possess it. This doesn’t mean swearing off all luxury in fact Epicurus says that those who least need extravagance enjoy it most and in one of my favourites lines from Epicurus he says in a letter to a friend:
“Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may have a feast when I care to.”
Simple pleasures without anxiety. That’s the essence of the Epicurean good life. Once you remove the fear of the gods and of death then it’s about meeting the needs of the body and the soul. We’ve looked at the pleasure side of this equation now let’s talk about pain.
4. What’s terrible is easy to endure
The final piece of the puzzle in the Epicurean philosophy of living is that what is terrible is easy to endure. He argued that sickness is either brief or chronic and either mild or intense. Most acute pains don’t last very long and chronic pains tend to cause only mild distress. Discomfort that is both chronic and intense is very unusual.
As we have seen, Epicurus himself died in excruciating pain, after two weeks of excruciating pain caused by kidney stones; but he died cheerfully, he claimed, because he kept in mind the memory of his friends and the agreeable experiences and conversations they had had together.
In comparison to physical pain, mental suffering is agony to endure but once you embrace the Epicurean philosophy then you should be released from it and won’t have to face it again as it contains the cure for anxiety.
The Impact of Epicurus
That’s everything I wanted to say about the living philosophy of Epicurus but before we wrap up I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the legacy of this living philosophy in the modern world.
One of America’s foremost founding fathers and its third president Thomas Jefferson was an Epicurean. The mark of Epicureanism has made its way into the DNA of the country through him and you can see it in his most famous bit of work the Declaration of Independence where he argued for the values of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Another of the most influential men of modern times was Karl Marx who did his PhD on Epicurus and so it’s not surprising to find that his utopia of communes bears a striking resemblance to the communal lifestyle of his ancient hero.
And as an interesting counterpoint to these two there is Nietzsche who admired Epicurus and said that
“For those with whom fate attempts improvisations -those who live in violent ages and depend on sudden and mercurial people — Stoicism may indeed be advisable. But anyone who foresees more or less that fate permits him to spin a long thread does well to make Epicurean arrangements. That is what all those have always done whose work is of the spirit.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science §344
One of the goals of Nietzsche’s life was to set up non-academic monasteries of the spirit where the free spirits the philosophers of tomorrow would be educated and live in high commune and you can see the strong does of Epicurus in the DNA of this vision.
So this Epicurean philosophy has a long reach despite being so brutally attacked and misunderstood in the ancient world. It has influenced our modern world through its greatest thinkers and like Democritus its materialist and egalitarian worldview bears a closer relation to our modern post-Enlightenment world that any of the other philosophers of antiquity.