I think I was about 10 years old when I saw the word Epicurean. I had no clue what it meant, but I liked the sound of it. I underlined it and promised myself to refer to the dictionary and find its meaning. As any 10 year old, I forgot to do that as other more pressing things such as playing with friends took precedence.
After about a year I saw the book again and flipping through it, saw my underlined words, and Epicurean leapt right out at me. This time the dictionary was handy. It defined the word, Epicurean as ‘someone fond of luxury and sensuous pleasure, especially that of eating and drinking’. A follower of Epicurus or his philosophy.
Wow, now I really liked the word. I liked the sound of it and I liked the meaning of it. I decided to become an Epicurean. I still had no clue who Epicurus was and what his philosophy was? But I liked the fact that he liked drinking, eating and having fun. This became my mantra. “Eat Drink and be Merry”. Whenever my mother summoned me to do homework, I would say, “Mum don’t you know that the great Greek philosopher Epicurus has found the elixir of happiness to be food, drink and fun”. My argument never did hold ground and I still had to do my homework….
How grateful I am to my mother, that she did not let me indulge in my Epicurean pleasures and forced me to go and do my homework. Had it not been for her, I would not be here sharing my real Epicurean insights with you.
Epicurus (341-270BC) was born to a poor Athenian colonist in Samos; he was neither wealthy nor aristocratic and apparently suffered from ill health for much of his life. He ate and drank sparingly and spent most of his time philosophizing from his hammock. The humble, quite and reticent Epicurus would be distraught at the connotation that his name suggests.
Epicurus was not a man of spiritual beliefs. He led a contemplative life and was extremely rational. He believed in the idea that the soul was itself nothing but the movement of atoms in the material body and some atoms could freely swerve in the void. This theory of his allowed him to maintain the concept of human free will.
The religious leaders of the day did not like the idea of human free will and thought that his philosophy was tainted with atheism and thereby preached hedonism and pleasure. Lack of religiosity and his defiance to gods who he felt were more interested in the pursuit of their own pleasure made his teachings rather contradictory.
According to Epicurus, real happiness lies in the elimination of pain, both mental and physical. Of the two, Epicurus taught that mental pain was worse than physical pain as the severest of physical pains can either be controlled or it results in death. Mental anguish on the other hand, in the form of anxiety and fears, if not checked would result in distraction, depression and other psychological ills.
He never promoted or condoned a promiscuous or a decadent lifestyle, on the contrary he was aware that many of the bodily pleasures brought with them pain or had painful consequences. (Think hang over, broken hearts, upset stomach!!!!)
What really is Epicurus’es Philosophy of Happiness?
As mentioned by Alain-De Botton (a modern day Philosopher), it is friends, freedom and an analyzed life. Although Epicurus did promote the pursuit of pleasure, but pleasure according to him was moderation, introspection and the avoidance of pain.
In his introduction to The Epicurus Reader, D. S. Hutchinson summed up the on-going significance of Epicureanism:
“Epicurus developed a system of philosophy and a way of living that deserve our respect and understanding, perhaps even our allegiance. This way of living claimed many thousands of committed followers, all over the ancient Mediterranean world, in cooperative communities that lasted for hundreds of years. But from the very beginning of his teaching mission, his message was opposed and distorted, first by academic philosophers and political authorities, and later by Christians. Epicureans apparently almost never switched their allegiance to other philosophical systems, whereas other schools regularly lost students to the Epicureans. Why? Perhaps because the Epicureans found that their system made excellent sense. But the explanation offered by Arcesilaus, Epicurus' rival, is typically dismissive: ‘You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can't turn a eunuch into a man.’ Even in modern times, the critics of Epicureanism continue to misrepresent it as a lazy-minded, shallow, pleasure-loving, immoral, or godless travesty of real philosophy. In our day the word ‘epicureanism’ has come to mean its opposite—a pretentious enthusiasm for rare and expensive food and drink. Please have the courage to ignore two thousand years of negative prejudice, and assess this philosophy on its own considerable merits.”
So if you really want to be happy- go out with some friends, have a simple meal with moderate amounts of wine and discuss the various ways to make this world a better place.
So has my Epicurean dream of self indulgence been shattered?
Not at all! In fact now that I understand the real meaning of being an Epicurean, I am even more proud to be one.
By all means go and pursue pleasure, but before that, at least try and understand what real pleasure is?
If you really want to know more about Epicurean Philosophy, please visit www.epicurus.net)