Epicurus: the simplest philosopher to understand

Epicurus proposed that we typically make three mistakes when thinking about happiness.

1. People fret if they don’t have a romantic relationship

Then, as now, people were obsessed with love. But Epicurus thought that happiness and love (let alone marriage) seldom go together. There is too much jealousy, misunderstanding and bitterness. Sex is always complicated and rarely in harmony with affection. It would be best, Epicurus concluded, to be careful about relationships. By contrast, he noted how rewarding most friendships are: here we are polite, we look for agreement, we don’t scold or berate and we aren’t possessive. But the problem is we don’t see our friends enough. Work and family take precedence. We can’t find the time. They live too far away.

My comment: if you are lucky your spouse is your best friend.  Happiness and love go together.  On the other hand, Epicurus is right about a significant number of relationships. Proportion of unhappy marriages: unknown.

2. We think we need lots of money

Then, as now, people were obsessed woth their careers, motivated by a desire for money and applause. But Epicurus emphasised the difficulties of employment: the jealousy, the backbiting and frustrated ambitions. What makes work really satisfying, Epicurus believed, is either working alone or in very small groups and when it feels meaningful, when we sense that we’re helping others in some way or making things that improve the world. It isn’t really cash or prestige we want, it’s a sense of fulfilment through our labour.

My comment:  agreed 100%

3. We put too much faith in luxury

We dream of luxury, a beautiful home and  trips to idyllic locations.   Epicurus disagreed with the fantasy of luxury and thought that what we really need  is calm. Yet calm won’t possibly arise simply through changing the view or owning a delightful building. Calm is an internal quality that comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to reflect,  and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener, a sympathetic, kind, clever person.

My comment :  Ah! calm!  yes, please! As for the regular support of a good listener, a sympathetic, kind, clever person – one’s spouse?

With his analysis of happiness in hand, Epicurus made three important innovations:

– Firstly, he decided that he would live together with friends.  He bought a modestly priced plot of land outside Athens and built a place where he and his friends could live side by side on a permanent basis. Everyone had their rooms, and there were common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents would always be surrounded by people who shared their outlooks, were entertaining and kind. Children were looked after in rota. Everyone ate together. It was the world’s first proper commune.

– Secondly, everyone in the commune stopped working for other people. They accepted cuts in their income in return for being able to focus on fulfilling work. Some of Epicurus’s friends devoted themselves to farming, others to cooking, a few to making furniture and art. They had far less money, but ample intrinsic satisfaction.

– And thirdly, Epicurus and his friends devoted themselves to finding calm through rational analysis and insight. They spent periods of every day reflecting on their anxieties, improving their understanding of their psyches and mastering the great questions of philosophy.

Epicurus’s experiment in living caught on. Epicurean communities opened up all around the Mediterranean and drew in thousands of followers. The centres thrived for generations – until they were brutally suppressed by the early Christians in the 5th century. But even then, their essence survived when many of them were turned into monasteries.

Epicurus remains an good guide to life in advanced consumer capitalist societies where advertising cleverly muddles  people up about what they think they need to be happy: romantic love, professional status and luxury.

Epicurus invites us to change our understanding of ourselves and to alter society accordingly. We mustn’t exhaust ourselves and the planet in a race for things that wouldn’t possibly satisfy us even if we got them. We need a return to philosophy and a lot more seriousness about the business of being happy.

My comment: I fully support the ideal Epicurus proposes,  but he ignores one important point: some people tend towards extroversion – for them the commune is ideal.  For those who are introverted, the communal live would be unattractive.  But there is no dogma in Epicureanism as there is in most religions.  One can adapt the thoughts of Epicurus to one’s own character and preferences.

  • Owen Bell

    Were more people to adopt the Epicurean way of life, I think we would all be better off. There would be less stress and anxiety. The brutally competitive economy and society we now live in would become slower paced and more equal. Sadly, I don’t think Epicureanism is ever likely to become a mass movement. For the working class, they are too stressed with having to work to survive to be able to work less. They must juggle long working hours, looking after the children and doing essential chores. On the other hand, many middle class people are very ambitious- they want the best degrees and the best jobs, even if it means working hopelessly long hours and not enjoying life much at all. As for forgoing romance, that will never catch on. The media relentlessly portrays romance as the most important aspect of the human experience. People will always want to get married and have children. Also, romance is partly a product of sexuality, and telling people to suppress their sexual desires would make Epicureanism seem even more authoritarian than the religions it offers an alternative to.

    • You are, of course, right. But I like the idea of Epicureanism as an ideal, an ideal I personally will never realise because of my own emotional make- up, but which seems, by and large, intelligent. I don’t at all agree with him about romantic love – I have a wonderful marriage and my wife is my best friend. Sweeping statements are thus just that – sweeping statements. And Epicurus was an ancient Greek, the culture being very different then, to say the least. But of all the religions, philosophies etc, Epicureanism is to me most attractive nonetheless.