Epicurus and politics

Epicureans thought politics was a needless cause of stress and anxiety. The masses are incurably deluded, and the powerful are incurably corrupt, so it’s best to withdraw from the state, set up your own philosophical commune, and pursue the good life privately. Some Epicureans did attempt some outreach, though. Diogenes of Oeneanda paid for a large wall to be erected outside his city, inscribed with Epicurus’ teachings, to spread the word of his philosophy. (Quoting from the website philosophy for life.org).

The problem we face is that the scope of politics in Ancient Greece was rather limited. You could feasibly ignore it, unless a war visited your doorstep. The size and reach of government in modern times is quite different. Government is useful and important and has improved the lives of most people. But it’s reach is such that you simply cannot ignore it. The good that it can do can easily be reversed by those with different ideologies.

If everyone ignored politics then the bad actors would hold the stage unimpeded, like Hitler or Stalin. This is the dilemma facing Epicureans. It suited politicians like Margaret Thatcher to have a supine public, whom she viscerally loathed. Had people stood up to her the dire changes in the UK, some of which were necessary, would have been more moderate.


  1. Exactly! A rich and clear explanation of the ongoing tension between the quietism of Epicurus’ counsel to abjure politics and the realities of today’s dispiriting world.
    One historical lesson is indisputable. To survive and be helpful, every human explanation of what happens to us–our outlooks, customs, rituals, laws, theories, philosophies, religions, everything–must adjust to our growing understanding of REALITY.
    Epicurus’s world was built on the totalitarian assumptions of Aristotle and Plato. The beliefs were “totalitarian” in the sense that NO aspect of social life was believed possible outside of the polis. For example, Socrates did not assert his right of conscience against the polis, he committed suicide rather than resist the decisions of the then-degraded Athenian democracy which he hated. Epicurus’ courage to reject that fundamental and all-inclusive assumption of the Classical world is as impressive as is the content of what he said.
    What if Epicurus had lived in Athens in 500 B.C. when democracy still had a good chance of flourishing? He might have been more hopeful about politics than would have been reasonably possible centuries later during his violent and unhappy times. Same for us, isn’t it? we have to maneuver between the hope that some meaningful political life is possible or seeing a totally dysfunctional reality and choosing a saner life.

  2. I disagree.

    Take a leaf out of the Stoics handbook and know what is in your control and not in your control. This is not saying avoid politics at all costs (Epicurus may not have said such either) but rather try not to get wound up in it to the point were it causes you anxiety without benefit. For most of the masses it is a major source of constant anxiety without any benefit.

    I grew up with a father who spent a great deal of time yelling at the politics on the TV news. What a waste of time and energy. All such a person can really do about it practically is vote every four years. That’s it. That’s all the power you have. Sure, you can get more serious and go to protests and write letters and start a blog. Good luck with that, at the end of the day you have no control over the outcome. And if you did such things knowing so and without emotional attachment then you would very much be in line with the mood of Epicurus.

    Politics is largely a waste of peoples time and energy as ironically it is one of the least effective ways to affect society. Just think about how much society progresses non-politically: The discovery of penicillin, the treatment for HIV, the mission to Mars, computers, the internet, etc etc. Our time would be much more wisely spent pursuing the betterment of ourselves and our fellow human beings, and as paradoxical as it may sound, one does not need an interest in politics to accomplish this.

    • Hi Rubes,

      I think that your view on politics is rather defeatist. Yes, politics is traumatizing. You vote for someone for change every four years and every election is disappointing. When that happens generation after generation, I can understand how it can be quite tiring. However, it is important to assess our circumstances and act accordingly to achieve the most beneficial outcome for the most number of people. In order to do that, I think we should not only vote, but also hold politics accountable for a lot of the suffering that it enables. That can come in forms of protests, campaigning or in everyday conversations; as frequently or as extensively an individual wishes.

      Politics is a large factor for all the events that you have listed as it is in your every day life. too, more than in the time of Epicurus. The longer we ignore that fact, the more we become complacent of suffering endowed to the masses. I think that it is highly relevant and imperative that we apply Epicurean philosophy to politics today.

      • I think society needs a mix of Epicureans and non-Epicureans. There are those for who politics is important and vital. People like MLK made our lives better. And so did the women suffragists. But many of them had to suffer and die for it.

        Epicurus’ point is dying and suffering is not as pleasurable. Therefore, ignoring politics is preferable to those who don’t want to be bothered. If you want to suffer, go into politics. Many are willing to suffer in order to better others’ lives. This is a net positive for society, but as Epicurus points out, you will be suffering and therefore its a tough decision ultimately.

        Rubes makes a good point about things outside politics which actually improve society first, then politics comes along for the ride later on. Case in point, Jackie Robinson who just played baseball. A sports figure helped transform society first. He played a game, which helped integrate blacks into society more, thus laying the groundwork for the end of segregation. Brown v. Board of Education doesn’t happen without Jackie Robinson and other influential Jazz musicians of the 20s and 30s. Art and sports pushed politics towards the right decision. Epicurus wins.

    • You are spot on Rubes. People were actively engaged to try and defeat Hitler in his day. Further, we have only become more knowledgeable and wise with each passing generation, yet the Germans still voted for Hitler. Many intellectual powerhouses were on the side of the Nazis, including the German scientists and many enlightened thinkers of the time. This is what Eli Weizel mentioned following his long night in the camps. They defended and promoted Nazi propaganda. I feel politics should be mostly abolished.

      I liken it to high school politics. Do you remember your class President? I don’t. No one gave a shit then and we shouldn’t give a shit now. It’s also one big Milgrim experiment whereby good people often succumb to social pressure to conform. Decent people will cater to authority almost every time. They will harm others and themselves just to follow orders. Being obedient is ingrained in us. It’s part of our nature and therefore, we’re liable to elect self-destructive leaders like Trump that go against every principle we supposedly admire in this country.

      Take America today, where competent, intelligent conservatives voted for Donald Trump, a raging lunatic who belongs in an insane asylum. He’s cheated on wives and taxes, obstructed justice, incited a coup, and promotes civil war rhetoric to this day. He wanted to bomb Mexico and shows no signs of ever having read a book or took a class on public speaking. He’s broken the law countless times, will never go to jail, and this from the party who promotes law and order. This, in the very country where we are also producing vast wealth, technology, and medicine. Politics is the domain of the superstitious and stupid. You have to be willing to die or be the victim of cruelty and slander to see significant change, vis-a-vie, Lincoln, MLK, and many others.

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