According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an epicure is a person who “appreciates fine food and drink”; this is the modern misinterpretation of Epicureanism, an ancient philosophy which does make pleasure the goal of life—but not sensual pleasures (sorry)—and incorporates a broad range of other philosophical positions—about the nature of reality, knowledge, society, and the gods, and a philosophy of how to live which goes well beyond “bottoms up!”
Epicureanism is named after the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus of the 3rd-4th centuries B.C.E, an iconoclast from the Athenian colony of Samos who taught a philosophy of materialism, pragmatism, and, some would say, egoistic hedonism, that contradicted Aristotle and Plato before him, and became a chief competitor in Greek and Roman thought against Skepticism, Stoicism, and Christianity.
Epicureanism includes positions on many major philosophical questions:
- Metaphysics: the world is entirely made of atoms and obeys natural law; gods and souls exist but they too are made of atoms, and there is no afterlife.
- Epistemology: the world is as it seems to our senses and empiricism (observation of the material world) is the greatest source of truth.
- Theology: the gods exist but don’t care about us and we shouldn’t care about them
- How to Live: the goal of life should be “pleasure” – meaning freedom from pain, anxiety, fear, and un-satisfied desires. One should live in whatever way is necessary to bring about this state, including:
- Enjoy sensual pleasures, but moderately, because otherwise they may lead to pain later.
- Enjoy mental pleasures, which are better than sensual pleasures, such as the company and conversation of friends
- Use knowledge and reason to make decisions that lead to happiness
- Don’t worry about the gods or death
- Rid yourself of fears and desires through simple peaceful living
- Avoid intense relationships that might disturb your peace of mind
- Avoid politics and public affairs, which disturb peace of mind
Most of these positions fit together well. One of the reasons that we should live simple lives, pleasing ourselves, and letting go of fear, is that there are no transcendental ideals like virtue or sin; the world is simply material and therefore we should be pragmatic. Obviously, the belief that the gods exist doesn’t seem to fit as well—which is probably why the Epicureans were often accused of atheism anyway. The Epicureans may have just felt that they’d better say they weren’t atheists, rather than get killed or exiled for heresy. Epicurus’ point was that you should live as if there are no gods, because even if they do exist, they don’t interfere with our world in any way.
II. The History of Epicureanism
Epicurus was born in 341 B.C.E. inheriting some ideas from previous Greek philosophy, such as Democritus’ theory of atoms, rationalism, and the pursuit of happiness, but dispensing with Skepticism, Plato’s ‘forms’, and Aristotle’s focus on virtue and politics. Altogether his philosophy was materialist, rationalist, pragmatist, and egoist—in other words, very modern. Some think that Epicurus might have been influenced by Buddhism with its belief in letting go of fears and desires to achieve total peace. Although he was against mysticism (because he was a materialist), Epicurus shared the Buddhist belief that the important kinds of pain and pleasure in life were all mental, and sought to become perfectly anxiety-free. Epicureanism became one of the three most popular philosophies in Greece, competing with Skepticism and Stoicism.
Epicurus and his initial followers / friends lived together in a community in the philosopher’s home, called the Garden, and established other communes, until Epicureanism, which lasted nearly 600 years, became repressed by the Christian church and faded away for a time.
We don’t have many of Epicurus’ original words, mainly just a few letters, although he wrote hundreds of documents, but one of those letters included a list of his philosophical propositions, and his philosophy was described in detail by several later Greeks; still, there are some gaps in our knowledge of what Epicurus actually thought.
Christianity, ironically, both disliked and adopted Epicureanism, in different ways. The church had to be against it because it denied the existence of an after-life, which was Christian heresy; and Epicureans had a permissive attitude towards sensual pleasures regarded as sin. But while the church promoted an image of Epicureanism as unbridled hedonism, the actual Epicurean prescription, of quiet simple moderation, influenced the Christian notion of a good life.
Still, Epicureanism disappeared under Catholicism until the 17th century when it was strongly promoted in a couple of books by a French Priest, Pierre Gassendi. Ever since then, Epicureanism has been influential again, agreeing well with the rationalism and pragmatism of modern western philosophy; Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean.
But Epicureanism never escaped from the distorted image Christianity had cast on it, signifying hedonism or “an appreciation of fine food and drink” in modern popular thought. Still, you can see other modern philosophies that seem to echo Epicurus’ original philosophy; Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, Libertarianism, and rational Egoisim all share much with it.
III. Controversies about Epicureanism
Is Epicureanism hedonistic?
Hedonism is the pursuit of personal pleasure as life’s highest goal. It has always been interpreted as encouraging over-indulgence in sensual pleasures. The Stoics accused Epicureans of hedonism, the Christians accused Epicureans of hedonism, and Epicureanism has come to mean something close to hedonism in the modern popular mind. But the Stoics and Christians were trying to demonize Epicureanism because it directly contradicted their focus on virtuous self-denial, and seemed atheistic, even if they denied it.
It’s true that Epicureanism promotes a permissive attitude towards sensual pleasures, but does not recommend pursuing them for their own sake. To Epicurus, pleasure meant “freedom from anxiety” and he believed that too much indulgence in sensual pleasures could lead to mental disturbance and pain; he noted that feeding one’s craving for food and drink just leads to wanting more, and health problems. And intense romantic relationships also lead to emotional pain—eventual grieving for lost loved ones if nothing else. In fact, Epicurus himself remained celibate, out of his desire for peace of mind, but he didn’t require his followers to deny themselves sensual pleasures, just recommended moderation.
So, Epicureanism is clearly not hedonism, but it is more accepting of hedonism than Christianity.
IV. Quotes about Epicureanism
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus
This quotation of Epicurus nicely summarizes what is most unique about Epicurean attitudes toward pain and pleasure. That it ties together enjoying pleasures with letting go of desires, a seeming paradox—but this quote explains how they go together. It also implies that you should get the most enjoyment that you can out of a little—a very pragmatic attitude!
“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing. If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?” – Epicurus
Known as the Epicurean paradox, this famous line of reasoning could be an argument for atheism, a sincere question, or simply justification for living as if there are no gods, which was Epicurus’ public stance. But, really the paradox does seem most like an argument for atheism, and Epicurus seems to have disliked religion immensely, so it’s fair to wonder if he only said he believed in the gods to avoid arrest; after all, he was a pragmatist!
V. Epicureanism versus Stoicism
As is often the case, two belief-systems which are close to each other may disagree more violently than two with nothing in common. This seems to be the case with Epicureanism and Stoicism, both paths emphasizing peace of mind and freedom from disturbing emotions, through moderate or ascetic living. However, these philosophies oppose each other strongly in theory. Stoics believed in becoming indifferent to both pain and pleasure, while Epicurus supported enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain—except when one might lead to the other (which is often). But, although Epicurus believed that pleasure was the goal of life, he defined pleasure as much the same thing the Stoics pursued—peace of mind. So, both groups tended to live apart, quietly, downplay ‘the passions,’ and cultivate happiness in simple comforts. They disagreed more in theory than in practice.
VI. Epicureanism in Pop Culture
Example #1: American pop culture in general
Modern thinkers have noted that mainstream American culture is quite Epicurean, at least theoretically; that is to say that America was (according to the Declaration of Independence) founded for the pursuit of personal happiness. And it is considered normal to live for pleasure in America. Most Americans also believe in the separation of church and state and rational pragmatism in general, all Epicurean attitudes. Perhaps it is a poor comparison though, because Epicurus defined pleasure as a peaceful state of mind free from desires and fears, which does not seem very American!
Example #2: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
This late 80s pop tune by the immensely talented Bobby McFerrin (the song is 100% acapella) seems to express the best spirit of Epicureanism – and not just superficially; they lyrics explain that worrying about problems is worse than just having problems. Epicurus also thought it was more valuable to develop a worry-free mind than a materially comfortable life.