Philosophy of the Month: Epicureanism

by Thom Kilburn

Since mankind first rose from the primordial ooze, we have tirelessly searched for the secret of happiness. As humans, we are driven day by day to continue doing just that. We actively look for the things in life that imbue us with pleasure and avoid that which gives us pain. In the end, however, do we really understand what makes us feel happy? And why?

Few have come up with more relevant and more suggestive answers to these questions than the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Epicurus was born on the small island of Samos in 300 BC but spent the vast majority of his life in Athens. It was there that Epicurus founded the Garden, the place where he would profess his philosophical musings to a devoted following. In many ways, the Garden resembled what would be known today as a hippy commune—it was a place for friends to gather, share ideas, and live together in peace.

His initial followers, later known as the Epicureans, were an ascetic community that rejected the politics and civility of Athenian philosophy. They praised Epicurus’ morals, were moved by his belief in the gods and inspired by his simple way of life. Contemporary philosophers regard him as a “Christian before Christ,” a savior who spoke the truth.

Essentially, Epicureanism emphasizes friendship, fearlessness, moderation, enjoyment of life, and tranquility.

It is a type of hedonism insofar as it regards pleasure to be the only intrinsic good. What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. According to his teachings, the way to attain optimum pleasure is to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit the scope of one’s desires—not exactly what we consider to be hedonistic, today.

It is only when an individual combines ataraxia, the freedom from fear, with aponia, the absence of bodily pain, will they have achieved happiness in its highest form. The gods, as Epicurus believed, have always existed in this state of being. By nature, the gods are fundamentally free of any troubles and are accordingly happy for all eternity. Thus, it makes sense that Epicurus’ most basic concern for people is how they may be free from trouble.

Another fundamental tenet of Epicureanism, other than the pursuit of pleasure, is the pursuit of understanding. To Epicurus, it was essential to lead an analyzed life. He looked to the sciences—mostly physics—to abate primal fears of death and the unknown. Because Epicurus was an atomic materialist, he ultimately believed that what and who you are is determined by what you’re made of, the very matter that constitutes your existence. He has been quoted as saying, “A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story.”

With all of this in mind, how can you lead the type of life that the ol’ lush Epicurus would be proud of? Learn to embrace the little things in life and lower your standards of living—there’s something to be said about minimalistic living. Gather often with the people in your life that make you happy; cherish the relationships you have with them. Most of all, extract as much pleasure as possible from every waking moment.

Your life is disappearing at this very moment, so why not enjoy every remaining bit?


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