I’m planning to do a series on other philosophies of life that may be of interest to Naturalistic Pantheists and followers of natural spirituality. So far we’ve looked at both Druidry and Philosophical Taoism. Today we will look at the ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism.
Epicureanism has a bad name. After two thousand years of bad mouthing by it’s enemies, Epicureanism today is believed to be about rampant hedonism and the pursuit of worldly materialism and pleasures. However, a little digging reveals that this was not the case in the ancient world. Instead it is a philosophy that supported empirical scientific endeavour, rejected superstition, emphasised moderation of desires and accepted all people equally, including slaves and women. Epicureanism was created by an ancient greek named Epicurus around 300 BCE. It was one of four competing schools of the time, the others being Stoicism, Skepticism and Platonism. While popular at the time, the reason Epicureanism has since received such a bad name is because it emphasised as its basic premise the idea that the two main drivers of human action are pleasure and pain, that we all ultimately pursue pleasure and happiness, while avoiding pain and suffering. Epicurus thought that all that is judged good or bad is based on its relation to pleasure or pain and he emphasised pursuit of pleasure and happiness as the goal of human life. Most people will read those last few lines and think it confirms their views that Epicurus was a rampant hedonist just as they originally thought, however Epicurus goes deeper, much deeper.
The first thing Epicurus points out is that pleasure is no good if it leads to a lot of pain later e.g. getting wildly drunk will lead to a hangover the next day and you may do things you regret and have to apologise for. Overindulgence in cakes and sweets will lead to pain later in life, with heart disease and obesity. Epicurus therefore suggested not rampant hedonism but moderation. He defined pleasure primarily in terms of the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is a “Tranquillist” rather than hedonistic view of pleasure. This ideal of Tranquillity acts as a guide for how we are supposed to live.
Epicurus argued that one of the major reasons why we lose our tranquillity, our calm and peaceful mind, is because of fear and anxiety. This can be caused by many things but a key factor for him was fear of the gods, fear of death and fear of the afterlife. Amazingly in tune with modern science, Epicurus taught an empiricist, materialistic view of the universe, agreeing with Democritus that the universe is made up of atoms. He argued that we should only believe what is tested through direct observation and logical deduction and that to escape fear of death or the gods, one must study the nature of all things. This led him to conclude that the gods, if they existed at all, did not intervene in human affairs nor care about humanity at all. He argued therefore that there was no point in fearing them as they were not involved in human affairs or the human realm. He went further to argue that the soul was not immortal but also made of atoms and that when we died the atoms would disperse just like the body. Therefore there was no life after death and no experience after the body dies. If that is the case, then there is nothing to fear from death because we won’t exist once we’re dead. By realising that we do not need to fear gods or worry about an afterlife, people are freed from superstition and fear and can live peacefully and in tranquillity.
The second part of tranquillity is avoiding pain. Most pain comes from the pursuit of desire. Epicurus taught that we have three types of desires – some are natural and necessary (for life, well-being and happiness), some are natural but unnecessary, and some are neither natural or necessary. He argued that we should only pursue the first. Examples of desires that are both unnecessary and unnatural are wealth, power and fame. Epicurus called for a quietest existence and thought if we try to pursue desires for wealth or power or fame then we are exposing ourselves to many forces that can reduce our tranquillity and give us pain. They are desires that have no limit and lead to more want. They are not natural but are imposed upon us by society. Many of us will not attain them and this causes us stress and pain. And not only that, but if we achieve our desires, all things will eventually be taken from us anyway and that will cause us more pain. He argued therefore for moderation in our desires and pursuing only what was necessary. He said we should be content, live simply and reduce our desires. Very little wealth is needed to meet our survival needs. He argued that we should live anonymously, and drawing little attention to ourselves, avoiding things like politics because it generates ambition and fear of others.
Epicurus argued that to be happy, apart from avoidance of mental anguish and bodily pain, one needs three things – friendship, freedom and an examined life. Epicurus believed that friendship was very important but he did not support marriage. He believed our social needs were best met by having a close group of like minded friends around us and with whom we could discuss the important aspects of life – like philosophy. He believed that freedom came from being self sufficient and he lived away from the city in a commune type garden living off the land. Finally, he believed in the importance of an examined, philosophical life.
Epicurus promoted a life of simplicity, self control and moderation, free from bodily pain and mental fears like death or the supernatural. A life of happiness and tranquillity, being self sufficient and surrounded by friends. He argued for a life pursuing not physical pleasures like food and sex (he advocated a simple diet), but one pursuing the pleasures of the mind – intellectual pursuit, researching science (not speculating on things we cannot know), listening to music, a walk in the park or in nature, aesthetics, health and longevity – pleasures that can be pursued endlessly with little pain or cost.
I believe that as Naturalistic Pantheists, the philosophy of Epicureanism has a lot to teach us today, especially about moderating our desires, pursuing mental rather than physical pleasure and leading a calm, tranquil life. What do you think?