Who was Epicurus?

Epicurus, pictured on the right in Raphael’s School of Athens, was a Greek philosopher who lived from 341 BC to 270 BC, and who established a philosophical commune called the Garden in Athens, where he and his followers practiced and lived their philosophy as a way of life. A sign hanging above the entrance to the Garden said: ‘Stranger, here you will do well to tarry. Here our highest good is pleasure’. That sums it up well: Epicureans are hedonists. They believed we shouldn’t try and follow the ‘will of God’, as the Stoics tried to do. We should just try and find a bit of happiness and pleasure here on Earth before we die. You can find many of the original Epicurean writings, and other resources, here.

So the Epicureans were atheists?

Not exactly. Epicurus believed that the gods existed, but that they showed no interest in human affairs. In place of divine providence, Epicureans embraced an atomistic view of the cosmos. The universe is a swirl of atoms drifting around, and everything is ‘riddled with nothingness’, as the Epicurean poet Lucretius put it. Humans happen to have consciousness, because some of these atoms luckily ‘swerve’, giving us the capacity for free will, which in turn means that we have the capacity to practice philosophy to craft happier lives. And then we die, our consciousness stops and our atoms dissolve back into the celestial stew. Certainly many later admirers of Epicureanism were atheists – there’s no real need for the gods in Epicurus’ atomistic universe, so it’s easy to dispense with them while retaining other aspects of the philosophy.

How then should we live? What is the good life?

Well, there are no absolute and eternal ‘shoulds’ in the Epicurean universe, because there is no divine providence, no cosmic law of justice. We have consciousness, free will and rationality, so we can choose what sort of life we want to lead and what values we want to hold. However, some choices will be better than others. The life-choices we make should fit with our nature: humans, like every other animal, naturally seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain. As rational beings, we should try to pursue pleasure as rationally and intelligently as possible.

How can we pursue pleasure as rationally as possible?

Like the other philosophies of the Socratic tradition, Epicureans believed that what causes humans suffering is our false beliefs. In particular, we have many false beliefs about what is necessary for our happiness. We put a great value on some external goods such as status and luxury, because we think they will make us happy. In fact, Epicurus says, many of these external goods are not good for us at all, and the pursuit of them only makes us more miserable.

Epicurus said that, for each belief or action, we should consider the pleasure it will lead to, and the pain, and then ‘measure the one against the other’. Some activities lead to a short-term spike in pleasure, such as heavy drinking, but ultimately lead to pain, in the form of hangovers, sick bodies and damaged relationships. We should restrict our desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, Epicurus says. So actually, contrary to the popular image of Epicureans as libertines, Epicurus and his followers lived quite austere lives, following a simple diet and not having many possessions.

Where’s the fun in that?

The simpler and less complicated your needs, the freer and less anxious your life. If you come to depend on luxuries, you’ll then have to work hard to support your lifestyle – and slaving away in a boring or stressful job is no fun. By restricting one’s desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, you free up more time for the good things in life: friendship and philosophy. It’s a sort of intelligent slacker philosophy that has quite a lot in common with the Idler philosophy of Tom Hodgkinson, who we meet at the beginning of the chapter. There are even some ‘life-coaches’ today, such as Stefan Streitferdt, who teach Epicurean philosophy as a way to prioritise your life and avoid unnecessary stress.

What was the Epicurean attitude to politics and the state?

An Epicurean wall in Manchester, 2012

Epicureans thought politics was a needless cause of stress and anxiety. The masses are incurably deluded, and the powerful are incurably corrupt, so it’s best to withdraw from the state, set up your own philosophical commune, and pursue the good life privately. Some Epicureans did attempt some outreach, though. Diogenes of Oeneanda paid for a large wall to be erected outside his city, inscribed with Epicurus’ teachings, to spread the word of his philosophy. In fact, someone in Manchester was recently inspired to copy his example (see right).

Isn’t Epicureanism a bit selfish then?

That’s what some critics of Epicureanism said, particularly later Christian writers, who as you can imagine thought Epicureanism was scandalous. Rival philosophical schools, like the Stoics and Aristotelians, also suggested Epicureanism advocated gross sensuality and mindless hedonism. That’s an unfair criticism, but Epicureanism could be accused of having a rather atomised and selfish view of relationships. There’s not much sense of duty or social obligation there. We’re all separate atoms seeking our own pleasure in the great void. However, some modern Epicureans have tried to forge a more political form of rational hedonism, as we’ll explore shortly.

So what’s good about Epicureanism?

What I think is particularly useful in Epicureanism is the recognition that humans are very bad at being happy. We’re great at inventing ways to make ourselves miserable. We often impose dogmatic demands onto our life: we should be richer, or we should be more successful, or we should be more popular, or we should be more pious. For the Epicureans, there are no shoulds. There’s nothing we have to do or be while we’re here on Earth. So we can release ourselves from what the psychologist Karen Horney called ‘the tyranny of the shoulds’, and just allow ourselves to be happy and enjoy life in the few decades we’re on this planet. That’s a beautiful and powerful idea. It was a big influence on Albert Ellis, the pioneer of cognitive therapy, who was a rational hedonist like the Epicureans. He agreed that many emotional disorders are caused by what he called ‘musterbating’: imposing our musts and shoulds onto reality and making ourselves miserable in the process. His therapy tried to teach people to take a more rational approach to pleasure-seeking, as this article by a student of Ellis’ explores.

You talk in the lesson about the Epicureans’ therapeutic technique of focusing on the present moment. Can you tell us a bit about that here?

Sure. According to the Epicureans, one of the main ways humans make themselves miserable is by ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. To combat this, the Epicureans developed the cognitive technique of bringing our attention back to the present moment and enjoying its gift. The present is, literally, a present.

Carpe diem, in other words.

Yes, that famous quote actually comes from Horace, a Roman poet who was quite influenced by Epicureanism. Horace’s Odes are full of exhortations to enjoy the present moment. For example, here’s the famous ode that ‘carpe diem’ comes from (the translation is Edward Arlington Robinson’s):

I pray you not, Leuconoe, to pore
With unpermitted eyes on what may be
Appointed by the gods for you and me,
Nor on Chaldean figures any more.
‘T were infinitely better to implore
The present only: whether Jove decree
More winters yet to come, or whether he
Make even this, whose hard, wave-eaten shore
Shatters the Tuscan seas to-day, the last -
Be wise withal, and rack your wine, nor fill
Your bosom with large hopes; for while I sing,
The envious close of time is narrowing;
So seize the day, or ever it be past,
And let the morrow come for what it will.

Don’t the Stoics use a similar cognitive technique?

Yes, the technique was also taken up by Stoic writers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They agreed with the Epicureans that it’s only in the present moment that we have any control. We don’t control the past – it’s already happened. And we don’t control the future. So the more we focus on the past and the future, the more we are disempowering ourselves. If we bring our attention back to the present, we are re-empowering ourselves, and being more efficient in our use of attention and energy.

We see a similar idea in Buddhism, of course, which developed a whole arsenal of techniques for bringing the attention back to the present moment. And this idea of focusing on the present moment, and our beliefs in the present, has been taken up in the last few years by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) . Both CBT and ACT insist that the way to get over emotional disorders is not by diving into the past and ruminating over all your conflicts with your parents, as psychoanalysis might get you to do. It’s wiser and more effective to bring your attention back to the present, to your beliefs in the here-and-now. As Seneca puts it: ‘What’s the use of dragging up sufferings that are past, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?’

There’s also something mystical in the technique of focusing on the present moment. It’s telling us that everything we need in life is right here, right now, in our consciousness of the eternal moment. The more we bring our attention back to the present moment, the more we can savour it, appreciate it, and enjoy the strange wonder of being alive and conscious in the universe. We see some of this sense of the mystery and wonder of the present moment in the work of Eckhart Tolle. Here’s a video of Tolle talking about Marcus Aurelius’ use of the technique.

OK, but what if the present moment is actually pretty challenging. What if we’re suffering from a serious or painful illness, for example?

Havi Carel

In the book, I tell the story of Havi Carel, a philosopher here in the UK, who discovered she had a rare life-threatening illness when she was 35. She tells me she actually found the Epicurean technique of focusing on the present moment to be very useful in coping with her illness. Before her illness, she had been very focused on the future – having children, advancing her career, building her life. With her future suddenly thrown into uncertainty, she found some comfort in appreciating the present moment, like going for a walk with her husband, or even the taste of an apple. Luckily Havi’s condition improved under a new treatment, and she’s now working to introduce a ‘philosophy tool-kit’ into the NHS to help people suffering from serious illnesses. Havi wrote a book about here experience, called Illness .

Interesting…So how did Epicureanism fare after Epicurus’ death?

Like Stoicism, it spread to Rome and was taken up by some leading Roman figures. Arguably it was less popular than Stoicism because its philosophy of personal pleasure fitted less well with the Roman military ethos. But Roman poetry was strongly influenced by Epicureanism, through Horace and another great poet called Lucretius. He wrote a strange and wonderful poem called On the Nature of Things, which describes the atomistic nature of the universe, and explains to the reader why we have nothing to fear from death. The poem was rediscovered in the early 15th century, and helped to influence the Florentine Renaissance. If you haven’t read the poem, I really recommend it. It’s one of the most modern, radical poems I’ve read, and it still has a therapeutic power. I interviewed Stephen Greenblatt, the great Renaissance scholar, who wrote a book
about the poem. He told me that reading Lucretius helped him get over his fear of death. You can read the interview here.

Tell us a bit about how Epicureanism transformed into a political ideology during the Enlightenment.

Thomas Jefferson, an Epicurean, managed to get 'the pursuit of happiness' into the Declaration of Independence

OK. Well, as you say, Epicurus’ philosophy of rational hedonism acquired a new political edge during the Enlightenment, when many philosophers argued that the aim of governments should be the happiness of its citizens. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a self-professed Epicurean, and he managed to get ‘the pursuit of happiness’ included into the American Declaration of Independence. In Britain, Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism, which argued that societies should be ordered around the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Like Epicurus, Bentham believed that the value of each action could be measured by calculating the happiness and unhappiness it would lead to. Unlike Epicurus, he thought this should be the guiding principle of governments.

These attempts to turn Epicureanism into a political ideology have to wrestle with this question: why should I care about other people’s happiness? Why not simply withdraw from society and concentrate on my own pleasure, as the original Epicureans did? Jefferson, for example, argued that we all have ‘inalienable rights’ which governments have a moral duty to protect. But that’s a much more Aristotelian idea than a Epicurean one – the Epicureans didn’t believe in any absolutes, including human rights. To take a contemporary example, Christopher Hitchens called himself an Epicurean, but his indefatigable dedication to global justice is, really, more Stoic or Marxist than Epicurean.

So how influential is Epicureanism today?

I’d say it’s hugely influential, particularly via the ‘science of happiness’, which builds on Epicurus’ idea that humans are very bad at pursuing happiness, and that we need to take a more rational approach to happiness, measuring the actual pleasure and pain that life choices lead to. The scientific measurement of happiness became a huge movement in the 1990s, with the work of people like Ed Diener and Daniel Gilbert, and it’s still a big movement today.

Happiness measurements have also started to influence public policy. As we discover in the book, the ‘happiness economist’ Richard Layard recently set up an organisation called Action for Happiness, which tries to spread happiness techniques to the masses, while also lobbying governments to get them to make happiness their main policy goal. Action for Happiness also wants to introduce ‘happiness classes’ in schools. Layard has even suggested that happiness could become a new ‘secular spirituality’ to fill the God-hole left by the decline of Christianity. You can watch a video of Layard outlining his vision here.

However, in the UK, a debate has grown among ‘well-being experts’ about how exactly the British government shoud define and measure well-being. On the one side, some Epicurean or utilitarian thinkers like Richard Layard say we should define it like Epicurus did, simply as pleasant feelings. On the other side, some ‘well-being experts’ have taken a more Aristotelian view, arguing that true well-being involves not just happiness but ‘higher’ things like meaning, engagement and transcendence. Here’s a video of one well-being expert, Charles Seaford of the new economics foundation, explaining this philosophical argument.

What do you think of Action for Happiness?

There’s a lot to like about it. I like the way the organisation tries to make people more aware of simple well-being techniques like meditation, or the Stoic technique of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But I don’t think they should try and impose their philosophy of Epicureanism or Utilitarianism onto an entire society, or teach it to children uncritically, because there are many valid criticisms you can make of Epicureanism, that have been made by philosophers like John Stuart Mill, Robert Nozick, Bernard Williams and Derek Parfitt. People should be empowered to consider these criticisms, and enabled to choose their own philosophy of the good life rather than have one particular philosophy forced on them by ‘experts’. That’s what I argue in the book: if governments want to teach ‘the good life’ to their citizens, they should teach the various different approaches to the good life, rather than pretending there is only one solution.

Are there still Epicurean communes like the Garden?

The School of Life, set up by Alain de Botton and other practical philosophers

Sort of. In 2008, the philosopher Alain de Botton, who can more or less be defined as an Epicurean, set up The School of Life , which he said he was inspired to do in imitation of Epicurus’ commune (it even has tree trunks in it, as a nod to the Garden). And in 2011, Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler set up the Idler Academy, again in imitation of Epicurus’ Garden – both schools have a bust of Epicurus in their hall. These organisations have both succeeded admirably in taking philosophy beyond academia and back to ordinary life. But they’re quite different from Epicurus’ Garden: the students don’t live together, they don’t pool their resources, they don’t devote their lives to one particular ethical philosophy or way of life. They don’t demand anything from the people who attend their classes, other than the entrance fee.

There’s also a successful self-help writer called Gretchen Rubin, you may have heard of her, who launched something called ‘The Happiness Project’ , where Rubin committed herself to trying to take a more intelligent and rational approach to the art of happiness. Her book has spawned several local ‘happiness projects’ around the world, where people get together to try and live happier lives. There may be contemporary communes even closer to the original Epicurean model. If you know of some, let me know, I’d be interested to hear about them. Or set one up!