What is Epicureanism?

An Introduction to the Epicureans

The Epicurean school of philosophy was founded on the philosophy of Epicurus, one of the sages of ancient Greece. Born in 341 BC, Epicurus created a complete and practical system of philosophy that focused on empirical knowledge of the goal of human life.

Epicurus moved to Athens at the age of 18 but soon thereafter traveled with his father to Colophon on what is now the coast of Turkey. It was in Colophon that Epicurus studied philosophy under the teachings of Nausiphanes.

A decade later, Epicurus moved to the island of Lesbos, where he taught philosophy himself. Gathering a steady school of followers, he returned to Athens and purchased a property known simply as ‘The Garden,’ where he would continue his teaching to many students and peers.

A Misunderstood Philosopher

While philosophers before him studied morality and what makes people good, Epicurus attempted to understand what it was that makes people happy. Epicurus persisted in this quest, and, through his studies, he deduced that it is the attainment of pleasure that leads to happiness.

This new avenue of thinking was not well received at the time and brought Epicurus significant scorn and criticism. His school and commune known as The Garden was the basis of many vicious rumors and gossip involving 10-course feasts and even days-long orgies.

However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Epicurus owned only two cloaks to his name and lived off a simple diet of bread, olives, and cheese. He often called philosophy his bride in lieu of taking a real one.

Epicurus’ Philosophy Simplified

Despite the bitter misunderstandings from peers and critics for proposing pleasure as the path to happiness, Epicurus believed that pleasure was more than just feeding the bodily appetites.

True pleasure comes from the lack of physical pain or a disturbed psyche, in other words, poor mental health.

While this may seem simple, Epicurean philosophy has inspired philosophers for centuries because of its complex, descriptive, and naturalistic theories.

While other philosophers are puzzled over the metaphysical and transcendental, Epicurus takes a radically materialistic position grounded in observation and study.

Epicurus’ Ethics

Perhaps one of the most practical notions to come from the Epicurean school of philosophy is its stance on ethics. Ethics concerns moral values and value judgments.

This means it is mainly concerned with the questions of what is good or bad and how one ought to live. 

Philosophy, especially as it relates to ethics, is concerned with two major questions: What is the ultimate good of life? and How do I live in order to attain that good? Epicurus considered these questions to be of the utmost importance, lending a more practical aspect to philosophy than was seen in some of the philosophers who preceded him. 

To answer the first question, Epicurus decided that pleasure was the ultimate good to be pursued.

However, he was very careful to be clear about how he defined pleasure, making it clear that discipline was one of the highest virtues that could be attained alongside the pursuit of pleasure.

Read Epicureanism, not Hedonism

In discussing Epicurean ethics, it’s important to distinguish Epicurean philosophy, which strives for the attainment of pleasure to live a good life, from hedonism. Hedonism proposes that pleasure is the greatest of all goods, which Epicurus, no doubt, would agree with.

When thinking of hedonism, however, most people come up with a concept that most closely relates to the Cyrenaic theory of hedonism. The Cyrenaic school of philosophy believed that bodily pleasures were the most intense and, therefore, should be the most sought after of the pleasures in life.

These bodily pleasures include those of food, drink, and sex, and the more one has of them the better a life they enjoy. However, Epicurus’ philosophy disagrees with this simplification of hedonism in distinct and important ways.

While Epicurus acknowledged the power of bodily pleasure, he believed that the highest pleasure was better thought of as the absence of pain, fear, or anxiety.

Pleasure Versus Pain

Epicurus agreed with the Cyrenaic school of philosophy that bodily pleasures were, in fact, the most intense. While that much may be obvious, he also thought it was clear that one could have too much of a good thing.

Overindulging in these bodily pleasures is not necessary to live a good life and actually might prevent it. These bodily pleasures, while intense, are fleeting and short, and they may lead someone to act against their own interests and others to obtain them.

Often, these pleasures are followed by a more intense pain than the pleasure they bring.

A night out with friends is great, but the hangover the next day will last longer and is a heavy price to pay for fleeting fun and pleasure.

This observation of the precarious balance between pleasure and pain brings Epicurus to one of his most important philosophical propositions: to live the most pleasurable life, one must be able to decline bodily or sensual pleasures.

Epicurus’ True Pleasure

To Epicurus, discipline over bodily and sensual pleasures was the way to avoid most of the pain and discomfort in life. He believed that the fleeting satisfaction that sensual pleasure brings and the longer-lasting pain that may follow are too terrible a cycle to encourage.

Instead, and perhaps even paradoxically, Epicurus believed that a life spent avoiding chasing after bodily pleasures was sure to be the most pleasurable life. 

As Epicurus writes in his Letter to Menoeceus, “When, therefore, we say that pleasure is a chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasure of the debauched man, or those who lie in sensual enjoyment, as some think who are ignorant… but we mean freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from confusion.”

Epicurus believed that the pleasure we should seek in life as the ultimate good is not bodily pleasure but the freedom from pain, anxiety, fear, and confusion.

When Desire Goes Wrong

While Epicurus’ pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate good – alongside the absence of pain, anxiety, and fear – may seem simple enough, he believed that what stopped most people from obtaining this pleasure was their ignorance of the nature of their own desires. 

To further explain this ignorance and to help people gain knowledge and insight into their own desires, Epicurus placed the different types of desires into three categories: natural and necessary desires, natural and unnecessary desires, and unnatural and unnecessary desires.

Different Desires

Epicurus believed that humans sought three categories of desire. Natural and necessary desires are shared by all mammals and include the desire for food, water, and shelter. These desires are innate and are not shaped by society or external influence.

They are also necessary desires, as the lack of any one of them can lead to bodily harm or death.

Natural and unnecessary desires are desires that are natural but that one should satiate not for the sake of pleasure alone but only to avoid pain. These desires are, most commonly, sexual gratification.

Unnatural and unnecessary desires are ones Epicurus considered to be conditioned by society and are commonly the desire for wealth, fame, and status. These are not innate and usually are insatiable, leading someone to live a pain-filled life.

Knowledge of Our Own Desires

Epicurus believed that knowledge of the different types of desires, namely, which are necessary and which are unnecessary, would help people understand that what they are seeking in life may actually be causing them pain.

To avoid pain, Epicurus believed that natural desires should be satiated but always in moderation if they are not necessary for survival. Unnecessary desires, however, should be avoided and controlled at all costs.

Once knowledge about the different types of desires is attained, it is possible for people to look inside themselves and discover what desires of their own they are chasing that are not in their best interest.

Discipline and Desire

A good life is a simple life, Epicurus concluded in his philosophy. A simple life is one in which all fundamental needs are met while superfluous wants and darker desires are controlled by a firmly developed discipline.

Discipline is necessary to achieve happiness from these simple pleasures, as control must be applied to the appetites and desires of our own baser instincts and pressure from society.

To be content with a life of basic needs and simple desires, we must dive into our own psyches and discover the unnecessary desires that rule our minds and actions. Once these unnecessary desires are rooted out, we must actively seek to control them and reject them.

Mistaking Happiness

According to Epicurus, people commonly make three mistakes when they define happiness. The first mistake is that happiness means having romantic or sexual relationships.

Looking at the couples around him, he saw that this clearly wasn’t true, as so many relationships are filled with pain, misunderstanding, and unhappiness. Epicurus also noticed that friendships often bring more happiness than romantic relationships.

The second mistake is the desire for wealth. While money may bring peace of mind, the relentless pursuit of money makes one unhappy. What brings more happiness than money is meaningful work that contributes to the betterment of society.

The final mistake Epicurus saw in defining happiness is the love of luxury. The desire for nice clothes or possessions is really a misplaced desire for beauty.

While art brings peace to the mind with the beauty it evokes, luxury is a cheap imitation. It also fuels the desire for wealth and status, which only furthers unhappiness.

Stumbling Blocks for Happiness

One of the greatest discoveries from Epicurus is the realization that humans aren’t very good at making themselves happy. Too often, people chase after the wrong things – relationships, wealth, and luxury – to find happiness. They may believe this will make them happy, but they never find true pleasure or fulfillment.

If people remain unaware that these pursuits are empty, they will be doomed to chase them endlessly. Epicurus was firm in his belief that often it’s our own selves that stand in the way of our happiness.

If we simply took time to reflect on pleasure as a state without pain, fear, or anxiety and reflected on all the things we spend our time chasing that are empty and unfulfilling, we could then turn our minds to simpler pleasures and goods.

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