Are We Epicurean? Not Quite.
(Reflections on the study of happiness by Ibtisaam Ahmed)
Say the word “epicurean” and what comes to mind is luxury, self-indulgence, gourmet food and a life of endless pleasure. There is of course much more to this school of philosophy and the stereotype does indeed fall short. In fact, in a number of significant ways, Epicurean philosophy and it’s route to achieving happiness suits the needs and lifestyle of a secular modern age. Yet, the rejection of a number of critical principles within the Epicurean worldview show that our current lifestyle is very far from Epicurus’s school The Garden whose gate had the following inscription:
“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…”
There are certain aspects of Epicureanism that suit modern, urban, secular life so well that it would be easy to forget that this school of philosophy is about 2 300 years old. For starters, it’s twin principles of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain is achieved through aponia (freedom from bodily pain) and ataraxia (freedom from mental anguish). The latter combined with Epicurus’s belief that the universe has no inherent order or purpose leads him to reject any notion of the Divine, the afterlife or religion. For Epicurus these things are delusions that cause us too much anxiety and dread, thus disturbing the desired state of tranquility. By minimizing the pain of these false ideas, we are better able to maximize our own pleasure. This certainly is in line with what many modern people think — why bother with religion and the sober idea of the afterlife?
Next is Epicurus’s view on children: they are likely to cause at least as much pain as pleasure, so it might be a good idea not to have them. Millennials are having less babies, studies show, due to financial reasons, the climate crisis and most recently the COVID19 pandemic. Choosing to be child-free, once the greatest taboo, has been rebranded into the ultimate altruistic act, according to Sian Cain writing in The Guardian.
If the climate crisis is the primary motivating factor in not having children these days, it would be interesting to consider what an Epicurean view on the environment and sustainability would entail. What we know with certainty is that it would not involve policy change through political action — Epicurus warned against politics as it brings too much frustration.
So while the pleasure-seeking, childless, apolitical atheist sounds familiar indeed, this is not enough to make the case that Epicurus’s philosophy has won. Religion and spirituality still continue to play an important role in the lives of billions across the planet. And even if this was no longer the case, modern sensibilities cannot quite be considered Epicurean.
Consider, for example the way that Epicurus encouraged knowing and distinguishing between different types of desires, noting that some desires are worthy and others are unworthy. To understand the difference we need to ask ourselves questions like:
• Why do we long for this or that?
• Will short-term satisfaction be offset by long-term pain?
• How is it that we choose to refrain from a certain opportunity but follow another?
• What draws us forward, and why?
Epicurus goes even further and suggests that if we were to answer these questions honestly we would see that the majority of our desires are idle or empty and are in fact irrelevant to aponia and ataraxia. This type of thought is not ordinarily associated with Epicureanism and highlights what we can learn from the philosophical school even if we do not embrace it fully.
It therefore seems that until we evaluate our desires honestly and discern between those that are good and those that lead us astray, no one can be called Epicurean in the true sense — no matter how much of a “foodie” you are.
Illustration? Sacre Frangine