Epicureanism and self-interest

A young man wrote to me, worried that Epicureanism is a selfish philosophy. The following is my reply::

The idea of Epicureanism being selfish is an idea put about by the early Christian church. At the time Epicureanism had more followers than any other philosophy or religion. It was part of the Christian strategy to trash Epicurus and all he stood for. Thus, he was pictured as a self-indulgent glutton, whose only interest was having orgies and a riotous life. The Christians won the PR battle because they tailored their message to suit the purposes of the Emperor, and their political triumph meant that a huge proportion of the writings of Epicurus himself were destroyed, leaving us with fragments.

During his lifetime there was great violence in the Greek world following the death of Alexander and the fight over his legacy. Epicurus reacted by retreating into his Garden, refusing to get involved in the politics, which were unpleasant and downright dangerous. He was therefore branded selfish and unsocial and an enemy of the polis and the community . Latterly, the followers of Ayn Rand latched onto this interpretation of Epicurus, and today Libertarians invoke Epicurus as a model. Libertarians believe only in their individual interests, reject government, won’t pay taxes or give to charity, and want to freeload on everyone else, a very disagreeable lot of people. Unfortunately, they are numerous and vocal.

Libertarians completely misinterpret Epicurus. Look at what Epicurus actually said:

1. Happiness and enjoyment of life is the greatest good. We only have one life and we shouldn’t waste it. This does not mean riotous living – on the contrary, Epicurus and his followers ate and drank very moderately. What it does mean is that you pick the activities you like and enjoy and avoid unpleasant people and stupid, aggressive confrontations and arguments. You are polite, respectful and considerate of others, because, if you are, you encourage others to treat you in the same way. You are generous because you are naturally so, but also because you get psychic pleasure from doing so. As Jesus said, very correctly, “it is more blessed to give than to receive”.

2. Friendship is vital to a happy life. You cannot make and keep friends if you are selfish and focused only on yourself!

3. Inclusiveness is Epicurean. Epicurus was the first recorded person, or philosopher, to welcome into his Garden both women and slaves ( unheard of before). These were women and slaves who presumably were fun to be with and had the intellect to discuss matters of life and being. Epicurus believed in equality of effort – that is, in a relationship the partners should shoulder equal responsibilities (this message still hasn’t gotten through to a lot of men). He believed such things because they cause pleasure and a happier life

4. Epicurus subscribed to the idea put forward by Democritus that we are all made of atoms, and that these atoms collide to form mass. This was his explanation of the universe, and it turned out that actually he was basically right! But because he was an atomist doesn’t mean that he regarded all human beings as bunches of separate atoms selfishly looking after their own interests. The issue of atoms has nothing to do with his outlook on moderate living, friendship, kindness, empathy and generosity – these are what he stood for philosophically.

5. With regard to giving back, Epicurus would have agreed with you 100% : how can anyone with a conscience and a modicum of the human kindness not be moved by the dire poverty of India or the tragic happenings in Syria? How can you have a happy life unless you GIVE. This doesn’t just mean donate to the local food bank.

6. One way of explaining Epicureanism is encapsulated in the phrase “getting along together”. This implies compromise and give-and- take, together with an open mind and – important this – a sense of humor. A funny comment turneth away wrath. Unfortunately, there a subset of people who will not compromise and have absolutely no sense of humor.

7. Friendship means giving, as I said above. There are many ways to give, from setting a good example of consideration, kindness and empathy to devoting yourself to the poor. You can be an entrepreneur and still be a good and generous human being. I have run my own company and had to do some things I regret, but I hope on balance that I gave more than I took. Social entrepreneurship is an excellent idea, very Epicurean (it makes one happy!) and not really new.
There are many cases of it going back to the 19th Century. One example is Rowntree in England. Rowntree was a chocolate manufacturer who gave his workers excellent wages, very nice housing that is still there, healthcare and pensions. He was very successful. But I digress!

There is an inconsistency between what Epicurus said and my own Epicureanism. I personally part company with Epicurus over non- involvement in politics and the community. His attitude was understandable given the conditions at the time. But we live in a totally different world, where at least we do not have warfare on our own doorstep in the United States. If we give up on politics and hide away in a Garden, our freedom and our future is doomed, because the really selfish and ambitious people out there ( and you know who I mean) will destroy what liberty we have, to the detriment of the poor and the shrinking middle class.

Epicureanism is a gentle, kindly philosophy, christianism without the virgin births, saints, the outdated ideas on marriage and procreation, and a hierarchy of people who tell us what and what not to believe. It is a set of humanist beliefs that place friendship, happiness and peace of mind before all else. And you cannot have peace of mind, for instance, with mentally disabled people begging on the street, while some banker gets ten million a year. Yes, we have an obligation to give back to society to say “thank you” for what it has, in many cases, liberally given us. For all the modern problems we face, we are very lucky to be living at this time, and it is churlish and unattractive to refuse to contribute towards the welfare of those less fortunate than ourselves.