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Epicureanism and the ‘Good Life’

Sunday, 3 September 2017  | Rex Dale

Epicureanism in its times

The principal rival of the Stoics in Greco-Roman times was the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). But there were two other schools of thought that can be briefly mentioned. The first was Cynicism, which was the total rejection of all codes of conduct. (The modern day meaning of the word is quite different.) This, it was promised, would give freedom from the burdens of life, particularly the burden of other people’s expectations. Its enemies called it ‘living like a dog’, which is how the word Cynic is derived. The second was Scepticism, whose followers kept all viewpoints at arm’s length and took a wait-and-see approach.

Fear, friendship and pleasure

Epicurus, from his early teens, took a keen interest in philosophy, but by his late twenties he was dissatisfied with what he had learned and decided on a way of thinking of his own. He had reacted to Stoicism, believing it to be deterministic. Epicurus was a pragmatist and was impatient of learning that seemed irrelevant to the main purpose of gaining well-being, or peaceful living (Ataraxia). He was greatly interested in the ‘atomistic theory’ proposed by an earlier philosopher, Democritus, which states that all of reality and all the objects in the universe are composed of very small, indivisible and indestructible building blocks known as atoms - not because he was pursuing what we now call physics, but because he could see in it a solution to some of life’s dilemmas. His concern was with what was then described as ‘ethical’ (in the older sense means how to navigate life) matters: ‘We declare pleasure to be the beginning and end of the blessed life, or if that was not achievable, at least freedom from pain’.

Epicurus took particular interest in two fears that hampered people’s lives and pulled them down: the fear of death and the fear of the gods. Using the atomistic theory, he viewed the soul as something that permeated the whole body and that communicated sensation to the body. On death, the soul leaves the body and dissolves into the original atoms, so death is not to be feared. Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, but he said that they dwell afar and are not concerned with human affairs.

Epicurus wrote a lot of books, most of which have been lost, but a good deal of his philosophy has been reconstructed. Epicurus had the support of wealthy people who assisted him in establishing communities. He spent the first 35 years of his life in Asia (modern-day Turkey), but the time came to move to Athens. If you had something to say, this was the place to be. At Athens there were already two philosophical schools: the Academy, which represented Plato’s teaching; and the Lyceum, which represented Aristotle. (The Stoics had not yet arrived.) A house with land was purchased and Epicurus established a community. The garden was soon to be known as The Garden, for that was where a lot of discussion took place. Quietude of mind, or at least freedom from pain, was to be the object of the community. The reason for human maladies (dis-ease) was to be the subject of philosophical enquiry. People came to live as permanent residents. Women and slaves were admitted. Residents were to keep out of political life, though all were encouraged to follow public discourse. When a politician came down hard, he was to be welcomed and given succour. The food was simple and basic: bread, olives, vegetables and cheese. Epicurus himself drank only water, but a limited amount of wine was available daily.

Friendship was a top priority. Without it, life was just dust and ashes. In this 21st century, friendship is surely a subject ripe for discussion. In a survey of Internet users when people were asked how many friends they had, some said they had more than 100. When asked how many of those would give support in difficult times, the number was greatly reduced, and was often none at all. Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have coined the phrase ‘distant intimacy’. How different is the view of friendship as seen in the biography of G. Campbell Morgan. During a particularly stressful part of his life, when many goals he had been aiming for now seemed unachievable and he was laid low by setbacks, someone sent the following quote, originally by Dinah Maria Craik, that exposes the shallowness of present day-thinking:

Oh the comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh the thoughts, nor measure words, but pour them all out just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away’.

Life is to be measured by pleasure, or at least freedom from pain, said Epicurus. This led to some wild rumours. Even though Epicurus affirmed that the pursuit of pleasure was not to lead to harm either to oneself or others, there is still the question of how reliable a guide to the outworking of life is this aim. The answer to that was to be found in community life, keeping one’s wants to a moderate level and living inconspicuously.

It is hard to deny the benefits of pleasure. It is what keeps the natural world going. Where it is noticeably absent, people develop sicknesses, relationships become strained and violence can ensue. In the words of Hobbes, life becomes ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

A Christian view of pleasure

Christianity seems very much in favour of pleasure. Jesus attended a wedding, which is very much a celebration of pleasure as well as commitment, and I am sure he entered into the spirit of the festivities. But He went one step further. When the wine ran out, He turned the water into wine. And very good wine it was! I think it is Calvin who says somewhere how remarkable it is that humans do not just drink water and eat raw food as the animal world does. We drink beverages and food that require careful preparation to get the best flavour. Then it is often served on to crockery that pleases the eye. This is a God-given capacity.

At the same time, the pursuit of pleasure can lead to dead end roads and even disaster. I am not necessarily thinking of the irrational pleasures of drugs and the appalling consequences. There is the pursuit of what may turn out to be mirages. Life and literature are full of this sort of thing. A TV program I like to watch, but which frequently disturbs me, is about people who set out to build their dream home, a home which will bring earthly bliss and make all of life’s difficulties melt away. It usually happens that the project takes a lot longer and a lot more money than was expected and there are many griefs along the way. At great personal cost they get there eventually, but it seems that this is supposed to be the sum and substance of life.

Christianity recognises the place of pleasure in life. Indeed, some Christians at certain times in their lives have found that pleasure is enhanced by their faith: as the lines go, ‘Earth around is sweeter green! / Something lines in every hue / Christless eyes have never seen’. But there is another side. Christians are sometimes called to forgo a legitimate pleasure for the sake of a great cause, or even ultimately for God. Then there are moments when Christians go through dark times, as reflected in some of the Psalms, when our capacity for pleasure is sharply diminished. These times have various names: ‘wilderness experience’, ‘the dark night of the soul’, ‘the slough of despond’, ‘aridity’ or ‘accidie’ (which has been translated as weariness of heart). One could spend a lot of time on this great subject, but for now let me briefly refer to accidie. Evagrius Ponticus described it as the restless boredom that could envelop a monk, overcoming the soul and suffocating the mind. It was particularly evident in the middle of the day when the sun was at its most intense, so it was termed the ‘noonday demon’. Our sense of well-being can be due to more than one factor: spiritual, social, biochemical and even environmental. These dark experiences can either be disastrous or ‘soul building’ and productive of some great literature.

There is a further aspect to Christianity and pleasure (or lack of it). The Anglican poet, George Herbert, wrote a poem that describes God making man and woman and ‘having a glass of blessings standing by’. Various blessings are bestowed until the glass is nearly empty. Then ‘God made a stay’. There was a concern that ‘He would adore my gifts instead of me… so both should losers be’. And so, along with God’s gifts, there was ordained a ‘repining restlessness’, so that weariness of spirit would ‘toss him to my breast’.

The legacy and decline of Epicureanism

There are many commendable features to Epicurean life. There was community life, good conversation and tasty, nutritious but inexpensive food. And there was an amazing connection with a type of advertising, though of a different sort from what we are used to. In about AD120, in the Greek town of Oinoanda in the southwestern corner of what is now Turkey, an enormous wall was built and inscribed with a huge number of Epicurean slogans. It was funded by Diogenes, a very wealthy local citizen. The slogans were warnings for shoppers who might be expecting their expensive purchases to bring them happiness.

Epicureanism never achieved the intellectual standing of Stoicism, and it was seen to be culturally wanting, perhaps because people were discouraged from watching Tragedies. Sexual fulfillment was not considered essential to ataraxia. Unions between a man and woman were encouraged ‘if it seemed right’, but ‘falling in love’ was warned against as it made ataraxia vulnerable and a person’s judgment could be affected.

Epicureanism attracted many people for some hundreds of years, until it succumbed to various forces, including Christianity, which was more outward looking. It sounds very 21st century that Epicurius became ill with prostrate problems. In his last days, he took strength from the friends who surrounded him. Modern day Athens has not preserved The Garden. It is now a dumping ground for battered and disused taxis. You can see it on Alain de Botton’s DVD – ‘Guide to Happiness’.

Rex Dale is a graduate of UWA spending much of his retirement reading and writing. Rex’s earlier related article, Seneca and the Good Life, was published by Ethos in April 2013.

This article first appeared in Rex’s book Insights From Greco-Roman Times and a Christian Response (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2014). Reproduced and edited with permission.

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