the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus believed the secret was simpler than you might think: we should aim to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
These days, when people think of Epicureanism, they tend to imagine scenes of luxury – an aristocrat, perhaps, in his wine cellar, or a gourmand tucking into a generous dinner. Epicureanism often just means pleasurable, hedonistic high living, with a weirdly strong emphasis on food and drink.
the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasized the importance of pleasure. And so did his most influential follower, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. But they also acknowledged this was complex. Too much pleasure today, for instance, can lead to pain later on
What should you do with your life? For Epicurus, this question is about choice and avoidance. Put simply, we should choose pleasure and avoid pain. Our desire to do that is natural – and nature, for Epicurus, is the most important force of all.
Too much pleasure can end up having the opposite effect, though – just think of a hangover. That’s why Epicurus’s advice is to act prudently – with an awareness of how much pleasure and pain your actions will cause in the long term, as well as right now.
The Marquis de Sade claimed to be an Epicurean; he said he was following nature by seeking his own pleasure – which just so happened to involve torturing people. But this overlooks a hugely important part of Epicurus’s teachings: that we must act according to moral conventions.
Kindness, Epicurus said, usually comes naturally to people. But he also saw how much could be gained through torture, theft, or murder – and people’s nature, unfortunately, is sometimes drawn in that direction. So, he believed in human-made laws and institutions. Even though they’re not naturally occurring, laws are needed to prevent a descent into chaos.
Because they aren’t natural, moral conventions change over time, and systems are often hugely flawed – the author points to the American criminal justice system, for example. But despite all that, law is an artificial invention that we badly need, so that – for the most part – we can go on living our pleasurable lives.
The ancient Epicureans believed that, long ago, atoms happened to form many animals – far more than exist today. But only some survived: the ones that had the most useful features, like speed or intelligence. In other words, there was no divine force behind the creation of the natural world around us – a belief that was widely ridiculed for centuries.
Epicureanism was the only ancient philosophical school that women were allowed to join, and were treated as equals – another way in which Epicurean thinking seems impressively modern when we study it today.
Not that every relationship is between a man and a woman. A modern Epicurean perspective on homosexuality is accepting. Of course, banning such relationships causes enormous pain. And there’s nothing objectionable about any relationship, as long as it’s conducted prudently and morally, with no harm caused to anyone else.
Take an empirical approach toward religious beliefs, and they start to look unlikely. The author even suggests we have a moral responsibility to disagree with the claim that there’s a god or gods watching over us all, sorting everything out.
Not all aspects of religion are at odds with Epicurean values, though. Some religious communities do charity work, and many religious teachings encourage good morals. However, there’s a superstitious aspect to religion that doesn’t fit with the rational Epicurean perspective.
Stoicism. It’s enjoyed an upsurge in popularity recently. But life for the Stoic is perhaps not as enjoyable as it is for the Epicurean.
The Epicureans’ ancient rivals, the Stoics, had some dark views about passion – they likened it to a disease. But for an Epicurean, passion should be embraced. And besides, even if passion is like a disease, aren’t diseases part of nature? Surely they’re inevitable from time to time.
We’ve already mentioned that the Stoics frown on emotions, calling them “diseases.” But an Epicurean embraces emotion as something natural – what could be more natural than feeling, and wanting to feel, pleasure?
A Stoic might reply that it’s selfish to want a pleasurable life. Shouldn’t we live a life that’s not just enjoyable, but meaningful? The Epicurean answer to this questions what the word “meaningful” really means in this context.
Human life has a natural limit, just like everything else in the universe, whether living or inanimate. And once that limit is reached, we should accept it. Death in old age should not cause sorrow, so long as the person has lived a happy life. It’s all just part of nature.
Epicureanism distinguishes between nature and convention. Natural things simply are as they are, and there’s nothing we can do to change them. But conventional things could be one way or another, so they’re changeable – and sometimes we ourselves can change them.
The distinction between nature and convention is at the heart of Epicureanism.
That distinction means that there are three categories of things in the world. First, there are indestructible things – those are just atoms. Second, there are natural things like plants, animals, and stars. And third, there are conventional things, which we’ve made. That category includes objects like clocks and driving licenses, and concepts like royalty and money.
While conventional things may be physical objects, their meaning depends on context. Imagine a pound coin somehow turned up in ancient Assyria. It wouldn’t actually be a pound coin, because nobody would be able to use it as one. Similarly, if Queen Victoria was there, she wouldn’t be a queen.
modern-day Epicureans believe that human rights are conventions – even though many other philosophies say they’re natural. An Epicurean would point out that, if rights were natural, there would be no need for people to discuss and debate them at length; we would simply be able to observe them.
If you see your neighbor’s house burn down, you should believe it happened. If someone else tells you it happened, ask yourself: Do you accept they’re in a position to know about it, and they don’t want to trick you? If the evidence adds up, believe them.
the Epicurean believes that a life can be well-lived, even if your awards cabinet is empty and you’ve never won a war. You can live a meaningful human life simply by doing what you do and loving those close to you.
Whenever reading any of my posts consider the date it was posted, people change as do our views.
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