The Garden of Epicurus: Our Perennial Search for Happiness

by Jacob Burgess

 

Epicurus was a Hellenistic philosopher from the 3rd century B.C. who believed himself to have discovered the formula for true happiness. Although most of the three hundred books Epicurus wrote have long been lost, fragments of his writings still remain. From these few surviving words, we can attempt to understand his philosophy. While he may have lived more than two thousand years ago, his ideas could still be applicable in the world we live in today.

Epicurus saw desire as a negative force that lures us away from true happiness. He believed that anxiety could only be dispelled by taming our wild desires to put our minds at peace. Happiness, he argued, can be found in understanding the innate beauty that is present within nature and existence itself. Our desires are a perpetual illusion; we seek them with the belief that they will bring us happiness only to realize once we have obtained them that they aren’t enough. Our eyes then become fixed on some other insignificant pleasure. Epicurus called this fruitless pursuit the “disease of insatiability,” emphasizing that “[n]othing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” Epicurus proposed that the cure for this disease is to learn how to be satisfied with what meets our fundamental needs. We have water to quench our thirst, food to satisfy our hunger, and friends to keep us company. Epicurus called these fundamental needs “natural pleasures.” Anything else we may desire, such as fame, wealth, and power are all what he called “unnatural pleasures” which must be renounced in order to find happiness in this life. As long as we have good people surrounding us, we are well-fed, and we have ample time to reflect on our lives, we have the ingredients for happiness. These ideas sound rather contrary to those perpetuated through current media; we are constantly bombarded by advertisements attempting to convince us that there is something missing from our lives: we need more clothes, a nicer car, or a better television. Epicurus would have understood our addiction to such luxuries; they are our way of sifting through the void and attempting to grasp at something that resembles happiness. He would have likely told us that we will never find what we are looking for, because what we are looking for is already in our possession.

Epicurus and his followers withdrew from their society and created a fruitful garden beyond Athens. There, they practiced the philosophy of Epicurus, living simply and engaging in rich conversation with one another. Epicurus is often attributed with being one of the first Atheists; his argument against the existence of God is still rather popular today. The argument goes as follows: If God wishes to prevent evil but is unable to do so, then he isn’t omnipotent. If he is able to prevent evil but doesn’t want to, he must be malevolent. If he is willing and able to prevent evil, then it is not clear why evil still exists. If he is neither willing nor able to prevent evil, we can’t call him God (God being understood as a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent being). Taking influence from the Atomists, Epicurus believed that the cosmos was composed of two things: atoms and void. Upon death, we dissolve back into the Earth from which we came; there is no afterlife awaiting us. We will be neither punished nor rewarded for our actions in this life. Epicurus, however, did not think this reason to fear death; on the contrary, it is a reason to pursue with greater enthusiasm happiness and fulfillment within the life we have. The statement “death is nothing to us” is one of Epicurus’ most famous quotes. We can be happy without God, Epicurus taught, and we can be happy with a life lived in simplicity.

Although Epicurus was a Hedonist, he did not believe in luxury of any kind. He is said to have owned two cloaks, and he lived off of water, weak wine, bread, and olives. Epicurus argued that simple dishes offered the same amount of pleasure as fine dishes. When he wanted to “indulge,” Epicurus would ask for a pot of cheese. When speaking of excess and luxury, Epicurus wrote: “One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is overflowing.” He also argued that we should live in harmony with nature rather than having sovereignty over it, an idea that is still relevant today, particularly in debates over climate change.

Many other philosophers living in the time of Epicurus practiced a stoic indifference towards grief, refusing to mourn even at the loss of a child. Epicurus thought that the refusal to mourn was inhuman, and he believed that grief itself isn’t contrary to reason. However, we shouldn’t lament the death of a loved one because, according to Epicurus, if we measure the limits of pleasure by reason, it is offered in an equal amount in both limited and unlimited amounts of time. If we understand the limits of our bodies and dispel of our fear of the future, we have the capability to live a complete and perfect life. If one lives by the principles of Epicureanism, he or she can look forward to saying the following when faced with imminent death:

“I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, . . . we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.”

–VS47

Those of us left behind after the passing of a friend can take pleasure in the knowledge that they lived a good life, leaving the world a better place than it was before they entered it.

Epicurus believed that friendship was one of our fundamental needs, but he was suspicious of passionate love as he believed it had the power to replace reason. Both friendship and sex are perfectly natural, but love, Epicurus argued, is merely an idea dictated by society and thus unnatural. Furthermore, because Epicurus believed that love was a desire that could not possibly be satisfied, to pursue it was to condemn oneself to unhappiness. Although he thought sexuality is natural as it is necessary for the survival of humanity, he observed that it is not essential to the survival of the individual. Our sexuality can disturb our peace of mind and cause suffering, and so Epicurus thought it best for a wise individual to abstain from sexual relationships. This is advice that would seem rather difficult to follow, and perhaps Epicurus’ proposal is unrealistic. He himself took no wife and fathered no children, so it is difficult to speculate whether Epicurus would have changed his opinions on love if he had met the right person. Is the amount of happiness we receive from love once we find it worth the pain caused by its pursuit? This is a question that is ultimately up to the individual to answer.

The garden of Epicurus was the first philosophical school to admit women on principle rather than exception, and Epicureans believed their philosophy could be easily extended to anyone, intellectuals and commoners alike. Epicurean communes were immensely successful, and at the height of their popularity there were over four hundred thousand of them from Spain to Palestine. The Christian church converted these into monasteries in the fifth century, but some elements of Epicureanism remained. The teachings of Epicurus are sometimes compared to Buddhism or Taoism, urging its followers to live a simple, peaceful, reflective life. By setting some time aside to reflect on one’s life and to think about the joys that come along with our existence in a world that gets busier and noisier every day, we can perhaps bring ourselves a little closer to happiness.

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