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 ‘ataraxia’ 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 ataraxia 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 ataraxia 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 ataraxia 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 ataraxia 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 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 monotheists, starting with the Jewish people for whom the name itself remains as a curse in their vocabulary. As an extension 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.
- A recommended Reading list on reddit
- 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
13 thoughts on “Epicurism”
My problem with Epicurism as presented here is that it seems that you are equating happiness with pleasure. It has long been my understanding that pleasurable acts often produce consequences that may actually serve to diminish one's overall happiness. Pain is the antithesis of pleasure, not happiness. I tend to take a more balanced approach by saying that in order for pleasure to actually contribute to a person's happiness, that person must have intimate knowledge of how painful the opposite end of the spectrum can be. This, to me, explains the heart of the problem of human greed – often humans are born that see so very little pain that they must continually find some truly exorbitant pleasure in an attempt to increase their own happiness. Greed offers false rewards to its practitioners by convincing them that more pleasurable experiences will lead to their overall happiness. Only a keenly maintained balance between pleasure and pain can make someone truly happy. Just my two bits…
"(friends are free)" I'm surprised to hear a well known socialist make this claim…after all, friendships DO require a fair amount of human labor. Not that it really diminishes your point though.
Well either I didn't present Epicurism correctly here or I was misunderstood 🙂
I do not equate pleasure with happiness. I claim that the absence of pain (hedony) can lead to happiness.
What you say is indeed true and it is something that Epicurism warns against. This is what I explained above about the diminishing returns of luxuries.
Well, I meant 'free' as in 'gratis' but in any case, the "labour" that one exerts in getting friends is by itself painless, which is also why from an Epicurean perspective, it is free.
Reinforcing an idea.
While I don’t disagree with Epicurism, It can be seen that most of the affluent have no problems with sustenance, shelter, and friendship. It is the imbalance there-afterwards of the “luxuries” (not excluding experiences as being a luxury) that when not equalized, often causes unhappiness. It comes down to the chemical dependencies in the brain, and what people are conditioned to perceive as pleasurable through the eventual effects of greed and even human competitiveness. Beyond basic needs, these impacts on happiness are all conditioned social effects. Individual perceptions of a luxuries’ value (undeniably largely socially influenced) and a balance there of is the largest determining factor of one’s happiness after basic needs are met.
>In the case of food and shelter, the cost is very low
Unfortunately there are many places where you may lack food and shelter. In case of famine you have no food, in case of war you have no shelter – this is true for many countries from Africa, South America, South Asia to even ex-USSR states. Sometimes it is easier to achieve a luxury for a dweller of a "developed country", than to satisfy need for a dweller of a "developing" one.
Yea, but even in those places, food and shelter are cheaper than everything else usually.