Was Epicurus Epicurean?
From author Phineas Upham
The Internet is, in many ways, a reflection of the interests of its users. One might imagine, therefor, that the topics of highest interest would generate the most number of Internet search-engine ‘hits,’ an approximation of web pages that discuss the topic. One of the most central questions of an examined life is how one ought to live it. What constitutes a good life, what does want out of life, how might one go about getting it. The philosopher Epicurus is one of the more important and most misunderstood (though not for lack of name-recognition) philosophers to tackle this topic seriously. Going to Google, arguably the best all purpose search engine on the web, I looked up the name “Epicurus” and received 3X,000 hits. In short, XXXXX web sites might discuss Epicurus.
The unfortunate part of Epicurus’s fame is how his life and philosophy has been forgotten in favor of a simplistic misunderstanding of his work. A cooking show, called Epicurious (note the play on words here), for example, implicitly associates Epicurus with the eating of good food, a misunderstanding explored later. Yet this cooking show rates a whopping 300XXX,000 web hits in a Google search, about ten times that of the philosopher who’s name the show butchers! Given the systematic and often ubiquitous misrepresentation of Epicurus’ philosophy, I will present a brief look at the life and philosophy of one of the major thinkers on perhaps life’s most crucial issues.
Our modern conception of Epicurianism have slipped its true meaning and become symbolic for the decadent and sensual fulfillment of needs. Epicurus himself advocated contemplation, prudence and simple needs to achieve a pleasurable life that is free of want, pain, and fear. Instead of being associated with a balanced, ascetic and intellectual way of life, it has become associated with pleasure seeking above all (let us all shiver again over the name EpiCURIOUS). The term has become a simulacrum, a mere shell, of its original meaning. Though pleasure was a good that served as an initial goal, not all pleasures, according to Epicurus, ought to be chosen, and certainly pleasure was not the be all and end all of existence.
Epicurus, born in 341-2 BC, lived a life of contemplation and virtual poverty. In view of the state of recent scandals in Washington and New York, is refreshing to see a man who’s teachings were in keeping with his modest lifestyle, and who set an example of simplicity, needlessness, and kindness for all of his followers. A charismatic and well loved man, he attracted a school around him which lasted well after his lifetime.
In the Webster’s Dictionary 2nd edition, epicurean is defined as “given to luxury or to sensual gratifications: adapted to luxurious tastes… .” Given this definition, were the Epicureans epicurean? By this definition, decidedly not. Epicurus ate and drank mostly bread and water and lived simply. He claimed that “poverty, if measured by the goal of nature, is great wealth; and wealth, if limits are not set for it, is great poverty.” This is not to imply that Epicurus did not have some regard for wealth and its benefits. Though he understood that a “certain degree of security from other men does come by means of the power to repel [attacks] and by means of prosperity” nevertheless “the purest security is that which comes from a quiet life.” “Becoming accustomed to simple, not extravagant, ways of life makes one completely healthy, makes man unhesitant in the face of life’s necessary duties.” Both his chosen lifestyle and his teachings show how misguided is the idea that Epicurus was given to luxurious tastes. “I live on bread and water, and I spit on luxurious pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them… send me some preserved cheese, that when I like I may have a feast (a quoted by Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 242).” He found his own form of simple pleasure by not developing expensive tastes, for “nothing is enough for someone for whom enough is little (HP 39).” How then did epicureanism acquire a modern definition so antithetical to some of the core teachings of Epicurus? It did so by a misunderstanding of the emphasis Epicurus placed on pleasure.
Pleasure for Epicurus was “the beginning and end of the blessed life… I do not know how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste and withdraw the pleasures of love and those of hearing and sight. (Russel, 243).” Thus we see here that it was not a scorn for pleasure, or a desire for simplicity for its own sake that led Epicurus to chose a simple and austere lifestyle, but rather “self sufficiency is a great good, not in order that we might make do with few things under all circumstances, but so that if we do not have a lot we can make do with a few, being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it most. (HP 30).” The pinnacle of the Epicurean lifestyle is not pleasure but rather the absence of pain or fear. A life of contemplation, prudence, and moderation in which we fear neither death nor the gods, and in which we neither want for food, nor crave that which we cannot have, would be an ideal life. Thus the modern adjective epicurean misunderstands the emphasis of Epicureanism which is on the balanced life, not on the pleasurable one as such.
How compelling is the Epicurean view of morality and the good life as contained a simple unneedful life of contemplation and prudence without pain or fear? The idea of the ideal life being one that is devoid of pain, but not necessarily one with pleasure is hard to accept in our modern hard driven, devil-may-care society. We sing the praises of the risk taker bears great burdens and throws all to the wind for a chance at untold riches – as long as this risk taker succeeds.
With social security, welfare, and a healthy economy many, though certainly not all, of the people living in the US today, for example, can reasonably expect to live their life without much fear of going hungry, thirsty, or cold. Ought they to count themselves as having fulfilled a major part of living a good life?
We moderns, though, have much higher expectations. Even back in ancient Greece there was dissent on this point. Plato claimed that one must aspire to something beyond avoidance of pain. Plato would not “judge every good by the criteria of feeling” but rather Plato would emphasis the virtue of fulfilling ones function – specifically ones intellectual capability. Perhaps there is a positive, affirmative aspect to life and aspirations that Epicurus fails to recognize, and perhaps out priorities are hopelessly out of whack. There is the danger, the original true Epicurean says, of seeing “enough [as] little” and therefor “nothing [as] enough.”
About the Author
During his undergraduate education at Harvard University, Phineas Upham worked as the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Review of Philosophy, a student-run journal. Phineas Upham has edited three books: Philosophers in Conversation (2002), The Space for Love and Garbage (2008), and All We Need is a Paradigm (2009). He currently works in finance with a focus on macro analysis and technology. For more information, visit his website.