Why Read Epicurus?
When a wise man advocates pursuit of pleasure, should he be rejected outright?
History has not been kind to Epicurus, one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Greece. At least, not as kind as it was to the Stoics, for instance. His influence has faded over the centuries.
He make sense even now. What did he teach?
1. Seeking pleasure is natural, and right. With caveats.
2. Virtues (like courage, justice, and esp. moderation) help us enjoy pleasure and avoid pain.
3. All pleasure is good but not all pleasures are choice-worthy, just as all pain is an evil though not all pain is to be avoided. Reason & qualify.
4. Fear of death & fear of God lead to needless suffering
5. Death is annihilation. We just cease to exist. Why fear death?
6. Gods are just ethical ideals. They have no influence over our lives. Why fear the Gods?
7. Live unnoticed. Don’t draw attention to yourself. A tranquil life is therapeutic.
8. Pursuit of fame, glory, power & wealth disturbs tranquility. Avoid them.
9. Surround yourself with good friends. Good company offers great pleasure.
10. Distinguish between three kinds of desires: 1. natural and necessary (like food, shelter) 2. Natural though not necessary (like luxury food, grand houses), and 3. Neither natural nor necessary (like power, wealth, fame).
11. The first kind of desires are limited, easily fulfilled and should be indulged. The third kind of desires are unlimited, vain, empty, not easily satisfied and should be shunned. The second kind of desires are enjoyable, if and when available, but should not be pursued.
Epicurus lived an easy life in his garden, where he also taught, enjoying the company of friends & students, pursuing simple pleasures, neither shunning society nor pursuing a busy social or political life. He was quite popular and influential. He passed away aged around 70 after a long bout of urinary infection. We don’t know how the philosopher of pleasure faced pain & death.
Now, he is a little obscure, less noticed, less followed, less read and less understood. As he may have preferred.
He seems to have written a lot, most of it lost. Even his rivals couldn’t ignore him. Seneca admiringly invokes him to support his own stoic views. Marcus Aurelius quotes him. Montaigne writes about him. Cicero and Plutarch criticise him, but sound polemical.
Today, epicureanism is often associated with devotion to sensual pleasures, luxury, fine dining & wining. Epicurus would just smile, shake his head, and go back to tending his garden.
Pursuit of pleasure? Yes, of course.