Epicurism is the life’s philosophy which explains how humans do not need anything else to be happy except the absence of pain. Further to that, it points out that this absence of pain (or ‘hedony’ as it was state was named) can be achieved with three very easy to have resources. Food, Shelter and Friendship.
This is not a wild concept but is based on rational thinking about the way humans work. In order of importance any human will first seek to secure his sustenance, then his shelter and finally his social needs before anything else. These things are as undeniable as gravity and based on our evolution.
Epicurism then builds from that and points out that anyone can be perfectly happy without anything more than these three fulfilled. The very fact that a human required these three before they can be happy is what constitutes them as needs.
This does not mean that someone cannot have other things that make them happy but what it does mean is that those things do not constitute a need but rather a luxury. This has the very obvious implication that when your luxuries conflict with your needs, it is the former that needs to be sacrificed or you risk being in a state of pain.
That humans do not wish to be in a state of physical or emotional pain I believe goes without saying. As humans we only have only one life and as such what we wish more than anything is to have this life be as pleasurable as possible. Ultimately, that is the main goal any of us has and we differ only in the ways we try to achieve it. Epicurism then simply says that the way to achieve this is to be in hedony1 as much as possible, for being in pain makes life less pleasurable for the duration.
But what happens if the absence of a particular luxury brings us pain? What if we’ve grown to “need” it? In those cases the easiest solution is generally to condition ourselves not to require it any more. From an evolutionary perspective it is certainly not necessary, so our need of it is obviously the result of our social environment; something we’ve just grown used to. As such, it is also something we can eventually discard.
But why would we want to? Why not get our needs and our luxuries? The answer is that everything, from needs to luxuries requires a degree of “pain”, in the sense that before we can secure food, shelter or any luxury we need to (usually) do something unpleasant, usually work. Fortunately food and shelter, being items that everyone needs, are generally affordable no matter your finances. On the other hand, the cost of luxuries increases exponentially.
So the best action for us is to simply compare the intensity and duration of the pain we have to endure to get anything, to the duration of hedony we’re going to have through it or the pain we’re going to suffer without it. In the case of food and shelter, the cost is very low (friend are free), if not trivial while the pain of not having either is immense. In the case of luxuries however, we quickly discover that they have diminishing returns. The more expensive the luxury, the less the extra pleasure we receive from it. On the other hand, it might very well be the case that the pain we have by trying to achieve the luxury we’ve turned into a “need”, is bigger than the duration of the hedony we will receive.
The best practice any of us have make is to discard any “need” for luxuries. By doing this it means that when times are good, we can enjoy them without any extra cost, while when times are bad, their absence does not create any further pain. We maximize the time we spend in hedony and on average our life is lived in a happier state.
This may be a quite long explanation but the concept is quite simple and surprisingly effective. Being materialistic, it is absolutely compatible with modern science (as it is not based on any metaphysical bullshit) as well as with any other philosophy which does not force you into a contradiction to your needs. As a matter of fact, using Epicurism as a philosophical base reinforces other concepts. From Atheism to Humanism, to Anarchism.
What Epicurism isn’t
Epicurism, like all philosophies and ideologies which are threatening to the status quo (I will post why another time) has been the target of severe and concentrated slander. So much in fact that the contemporary definition of it, has ended up meaning the exact opposite of the original concept. Mainly that an Epicurean tries to live as luxuriour a life as possible or that it is someone who selects a particular hedony (in the modern meaning) and tries to get as much of it as possible.
It is telling that those who most enthusiastically engaged in this tactic of slander have been the Jews for whom the name itself remains as a curse in their vocabulary. As an extention this hatred was inherited by the Christians of whom the Roman emperors were quite eager to extinguish this threatening thinking. There were others of course, such as the Stoics who were staunch supporters of Aristocracy. The trend is clear.
Unfortunately this misconception has persisted since the modern age but hopefully, slowly, this will change. I hope this post will help a bit towards that goal.
If you know me even a little, you’d be aware that I don’t like labels particularly, especially labels based on a historical name as that sounds dogmatic, in the sense that I believe the words of a dead guy are perfect and he could do no mistake. You may be asking yourself why I choose to describe myself firstly as an Epicurean. The answer is quite simple really. As a general philosophy, this is the only name that exists to define it.
- The Epicurus Wiki – A great resource on all things Epicurean.
- Epicureanism – Encyclopedic article at Wikipedia.
- The Principal Doctrines – 40 significant quotes.
- MyPhilosophy – A category on this blog in which I post articles from this particular perspective
- Other (self-identified) Epicurean bloggers @ Scoutle
- Do not confuse this with the contemporary meaning of the word of course. The definition of hedony in Epicurism as I explained at the start, is simply the absence of pain [↩]