The Epicurean way

The opposite of the stoic way is the Epicurean way. It is an equally powerful and still relevant position. Rather than focusing on doing the right thing in face of adversity, it may be easier to avoid unpleasant situations. Sure, this requires more knowledge and creativity, but I think it is totally worth the effort. For more ideas, try reading here, here, here, and here.

Lifestyle choice

It seems that I do not make my biggest life choices. Instead, they choose me. The particular choice of the values I can live with was not initiated by me. After the military service, I felt that something needs to be done with human suffering. So I meditated for seven years. But that felt like an escape, and I do not like to escape.

Once I got married and had a son, escapism was not my favorite option. One of the guys I worked with joked a bit that he believes in Venus and love and asked me to compare Buddhism with the way of Epicurus. During the conversation, it felt like a joke. Yet several years later I checked and I liked what I found.

(I am raising this issue now, since we still have a huge discount for my lifestyle course. If you like what you read contact me [email protected] for details.)

Happiness as an exercise in resilience

Two Greek schools of thought tried to address happiness as a resilience exercise. Clearly, they formulated it very differently, but as an editor of this blog I have all the freedom I need to play with formalism.

Stoics were great team players: soldiers, statesmen, visionaries. Stoics focused on doing the right thing, minding the values and the way rather than consequences. Today psychologists could call this ACT and I deal with it in the Teamwork course.

The Epicurean school today would be represented by mindfulness. I will quote wikipedia:

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy, tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. According to Epicurus, death is the end of both the body and the soul and therefore should not be feared. Epicurus taught that although the gods exist, they have no involvement in human affairs. He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.  Epicurus taught that the universe is infinite and eternal and that all matter is made up of extremely tiny, invisible particles known as atoms.

You can see that both schools of thought are quite close to Buddhist doctrines and to modern psychological paradigms.  Some of the formulations and thoughts appear as unbelievably modern, yet they are more than 2300 years old. Epicurus died in 270BC in Athens, aged about 72.

Who has wiped Epicureans from the pages of history?

The Epicurearns were incredibly popular during the late years of the Roman Republic, but they did not survive the clash with early Christians, since Epicureans were empiricists – something similar to modern scientists. They ridiculed religious zealots, but the tools they have were not sufficiently refined to provide an alternative.  Throughout the Middle Ages Epicurus was popularly, though inaccurately, remembered as a patron of drunkards, whoremongers, and gluttons. For two thousand years very few people talked about Epicurus until he was revived and enlisted by the Enlightenment and Karl Marx.

Our current consumerism and the search for meaningful experiences as a way to be happy would be the dark side of the Epicurearns. And it was as heavily criticized by the religious authors in early Christianity, as our ways are criticized by modern religious thought.

What did the Epicureans say to stoics?

The main attackers of the Epicureans in antiquity were the stoics. They asked: if the world can be so bad, why not work hard to make it better? So Epicureans came up with a paradox, which I will rephrase in my own words.

So many good people worked very hard for so many years to make the world better. The world is definitely different, but not profoundly better. So either nobody knows how to make the world better, or those who want to make the world better are not sufficiently capable. A third option would be: they say that they want to make the world better, but actually introduce a new sort of suffering. So if they are capable and knowledgable, they are actually the source of all evil in the world.

Clearly, stoics who lived and died to make the world a better place did not like this argument. Their muffed answer was also very modern: “We are doing our best. If the fine people like you would join us rather than enjoy the blissed poverty, we could be much more successful. Stop diverting the youth away from our great cause!”

Joyful blissed poverty

The best students of Epicurus did not chase peak experience or enjoy decadent consumerism. They understood that by feeding one’s desires we only make the desires bolder. Instead, they focused on the biggest joy which is cheap and universally available: simple peasant food, a company of positive people, learning as the best way to have fun, and lack of dangerous ambitions.

I quote:

Nature has designed us in a way so that satisfying certain goals brings us happiness, and seeking this happiness is what is good and natural. However, the pleasures we seek should not be excessive, because of the pain that tends to be the flip side of profound pleasure. As to avoid this pain, Epicurus divided pleasures into three categories: (1) natural and necessary, (2) natural and not necessary, and (3) not natural and not necessary.

I often formulate natural and necessary pleasures in terms of evolutionary advantage. We need food, comradery, romance, communication, and knowledge. (My interpretation. Ancient Epicureans might disagree with this list). Without these things, we are likely to die without bringing up the next generation. Yet we do not need a huge income for all of those. In modern terms, any simple and modest teacher is rich enough to afford happiness.

Analysis and trust

Epicureans believed in experimentation. Something that cannot be experienced and tested yourself was considered to be unreliable. In the days of Epicurus, philosophers spent their time in rhetorical conversations and complex argumentation. Epicureans reportedly trusted only their senses. The Enlightenment movement introduced a scientific method, where everything can be measured in a laboratory. Today we live in a postmodern era. The laboratories tend to be prohibitively expensive and experimental results prohibitively complex.

Anyway, we can no more trust our senses and use computers instead. When we want to experience something, we often use a computer simulation instead. If properly programmed,  a computer experiment can be as accurate as the real thing. Only when programmed differently it provides various stories to justify any crazy idea. This is a serious crisis, as we do not really know if we can trust our sources.

On a full stomach

Stoics would often suffer hunger, thirst, and pain for a greater cause or virtue. Epicureans satisfy the natural basic needs first and then focus on more complex issues.

I had a very strange discussion with my wife recently. Anna said: “You know what is the biggest problem with the world? People think too much! Go out, experience, and experiment?”. I tried to clarify: “So you agree with Lao Tsi’s statement: empty your heads and fill your bellies?”. To that, she answered: “Yes, definitely! Hungry people read about crazy stuff!”.

Epicureans did not practice meditation. They did not fill the belly with air and did not empty the head from defocusing thoughts. They were very direct in their approach. When they were hungry they ate, and when they were thirsty they drank. Some would argue that this is the ultimate Zen practice.  In one of the books (lost but mentioned by Seneca) Epicurus says: ‘To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy.’

Hopeful while realistic

We would appear a bit crazy in the eyes of ancient wisdom. Almost everybody has decent food, good company, and decent entertainment. Yet we are profoundly unhappy. We could do several good things. For example, we could focus on our values and strengths, or we could focus on small positive things, maybe we could spend more on improving the lives of all living things. If only we wanted that.

Instead, we want some strange almost abstract things. Our biggest desire: money. To be honest, money now is a computer score of the value we accumulated in an emulation we call work or investment. And that electronically stored number can be exchanged for almost anything almost instantly. The more people want this score, the tougher the competition for the highest scores. It is basically a strange game, not something real. People do crazy things and risk everything for a gamified score… That’s strange.

Epicureans were hopeful and realistic. They always hoped to be happy, as they could always enjoy cheerful poverty: crystal clean water, freshly baked organic bread, a company of a warm and compassionate friend, a long evening of passionate philosophical discussion. Somehow in our postmodern society, even clean air is hard to find, and clean water arrives in plastic containers.

Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the ancient wisdom?

athens philosophy



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