John Mitchinson sets out why the Greek philosopher Epicurus’ legacy has been claimed by hedonism but actually represents the opposite and is so relevant for our anxious times.
There are few philosophers whose work has been more misunderstood than that of Epicurus (341-270 BC). As the word ‘Epicurean’ gradually became confused with ‘hedonist’, the assumption was that the founder must have been the high priest of high living and sensual pleasure; the philosopher of the debauchee and the gourmand.
In fact, far from indulging in orgies and banquets, Epicurus lived on barley bread and fruit, with cheese as a special treat only on feast days. Celibate himself, he discouraged sexual relations amongst his followers and his students were allowed no more than a pint of wine a day.
He had the misfortune to live in the highly competitive golden age of Greek philosophy, in which he found himself up against the Academy founded by Plato, and the porch (stoa) of the Stoics: both articulate and well-organised opponents. The mud they slung at him over two millennia ago has stuck firm.
Unlike the very public disputations of the Academicians and Stoics, the Epicureans kept themselves to themselves. Inscribed over the entrance arch were the alluring words: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure”. You can see how the rumours started.
In fact, the Epicurean definition of pleasure is quite precise. It is simply “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul”. This tranquil state is to be attained by “sober reasoning” and most specifically not by “an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry”, “sexual lust” and “the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies”.
Epicurus’ idea of ‘the good life’ was also not what you’d expect. “It is impossible”, he wrote, “to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honourably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honourably and justly without living pleasantly”.
Decent behaviour depends on a decent standard of living. Asked to name the bare necessities, most of us would list food, water, warmth and shelter, but Epicurus insisted on a few more: freedom, thought and friendship. “Of all the things”, he wrote, “which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship”. Food and wine are pleasurable mainly because they are sociable. “Eating or drinking without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf”.
But the thing that he really wanted to free his followers from was fear. “It is better to be free of fear while lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble”.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed: “Wisdom hasn’t come a step further since Epicurus, but has often gone many thousands of steps backwards”. One such backward step is to forget Epicurus’ core idea: that freedom from pain depends on the absence of fear – fear of loss, fear of being found out and, worst of all, fear of death. Epicurus solved the last one by dropping the whole idea of an afterlife – and with it the fear of eternal punishment. When you’re gone, you’re gone. What matters is a calm and contented life in the here and now.
Epicurus was the first person to advocate equal rights for slaves and for women and the first to offer free schooling. In teaching that we should believe only what we can test through observation, he laid the cornerstone of scientific method and he was also one of the founders of atomic physics. Building on the work of Democitus, Epicurus believed that “events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space”. These ideas – of fundamental randomness and the lack of a planned design for nature – anticipate both quantum mechanics and natural selection.
In ethics, Epicurus’s dictum “minimise harm; maximise happiness” was the first Greek version of the Golden Rule (‘do as you would be done by’). It has inspired thinkers as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx (who gained his doctorate from a study of Epicurus). The humanist movement also claim him.
His epitaph – “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind” – is often used at humanist funerals.
This mix of courage, humour and concern for others is the real Epicureanism. Weathering the unjust slurs, it became, with Stoicism, the most popular belief system in the classical world for more than 800 years, until the adoption of Christianity.
In a secular age, in which anxiety is at epidemic levels, we would do well to remind ourselves of Epicurus’s sane and useful mantra – the Tetrapharmakon or ‘Four Cures’:
Don’t fear God, don’t worry about death, what is good is easy to get, what is terrible is easy to endure.