Thursday, 27 January 2011

Epicurus - Much misunderstood, but maybe an admirable example?

What does the term 'Epicurean' imply to you?  To many it implies unbridled hedonism, excess and lack of moral compass. 

But is this really to see him through a lens distorted by political and religious opponents, who saw him as a threat to the fabric of their society?  I am grateful to Alain De Botton for his book 'The Consolations of Philosophy' from which much of the following enlightening material is taken:

Epicurus was born in 341BC on the island of Samos near the coast of Western Asia Minor.  Athens was then the hub to which he gravitated. He took to philosophy from his early teens and read widely.  He was unsatisfied by the conclusions of previous philosophers, so decided that he would come up with his own philosophy of life.  He is said to have written a huge number of books, though sadly almost all have since been lost. 

The 'sound bite' that people tend to latch onto was his view on the fundamental importance of sensual pleasure.  ("Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life").  This was profoundly shocking to the society in which he lived, for which the great virtues were deemed to be the acquisition of wealth, and courage in battle.  His decision to spend his wealth on setting up a kind of commune to study philosophy, and in particular the pursuit of pleasure, was considered a threat to the fabric of 'civilised' society.  And superficially one can see their point.

But actually Epicurus was teaching a much simpler and arguably purer way of life.  His guiding principles were:
  • Friendship We don't exist unless someone can see us existing; what we say has no meaning until someone can understand; while to be surrounded by friends is to constantly have our identity confirmed.  True friends do not evaluate us by worldly criteria.  It is the core self in which they are interested; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year.
  • Freedom  In order not to have to work for people they did not like, Epicurus and his companions removed themselves from commercial Athenian society and accepted  the simpler life of an isolated commune, in exchange for independence.  This did not affect their sense of status because they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis.  Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic confines of the City, there was nothing - in the financial sense - to prove.
  • Thought  "There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought.  In writing down a problem, or airing it in conversation, we let its essential aspects emerge.  And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics: confusion, displacement, surprise.  About death Epicurus would say that it is senseless to alarm oneself in advance about a state which one could never experience (he was convinced there was no afterlife) He said: "There is nothing dreadful in life for a man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living."
Epicurus summed up what he believed was, and was not, essential for happiness as follows:
  • Natural and necessary:  Friends, freedom, thought, food, shelter and clothes
  • Natural but unnecessary:  Grand house, Banquets, Private baths, Servants, Fish, Meat
  • Neither natural nor necessary: Fame, Power
With only minor modification this could equally be true today.

Epicurus also found that conspicuous wealth, or wealth over a relatively modest size, did not increase happiness.  Indeed he was adamant that without the 'natural and necessary' prerequisites, wealth could not bring happiness.  We can do without most of the material things that we erroneously think that we do need, and still be happy, if we only have the necessary requirements for happiness.

This is a very brief and hence superficial summary of his philosophy, but I hope it offers a flavour of the true Epicurus.  I find him rather endearing!

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