The Epicurean Life
Commonplace Newsletter #012
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Definitions have a way of changing over time. Especially, for some reason, when it comes to the various branches of Ancient Greek philosophy.
Before it referred to the stony faced suppression of emotion, ‘Stoicism’ referred to the nuanced and psychologically sound means of pursuing tranquillity that Seneca and Epictetus championed.
Before it referred to an attitude of jaded and scornful negativity, ‘Cynicism’ referred to the rebellious, ascetic, deeply radical worldview espoused by Diogenes, the original punk.
And before it became a lazy and hazy term for indulgence ‘Epicurean’ meant something quite different. Something much more balanced and nuanced and life-affirming. And it is this that we are going to delve in to today. Because pleasure is a powerful principle when considered correctly. Which is just what we are going to do.
Our man Epicurus (341-270 BCE)
The Pursuit or Pleasure
‘Strangers, here you will do well to tarry; here, our highest good is pleasure.’
~ The sign at the entrance of The Garden
As this essay is concerned with pleasure- mine, yours, and the very concept thereof- I don’t want to bog us down in technical definitions or in sketching out a biography of our man Epicurus. This would not be pleasurable for either of us. And it is also not strictly essential to our purposes here today.
What you do need to know in a single sentence is this: Epicurus was a philosopher who espoused pleasure as the highest good and who created a commune among olive groves and away from the city to live in accordance with this belief. The commune was called The Garden. And the sign at its entrance, as you have seen, told prospective fellow travellers exactly what was what.
Now, this idea of a pleasure-centred commune conjures up images of rampant hedonism and revelry and chaos and unwashed proto-hippy decadence. More Exile on Main Street than Exodus from the rat race.
But this reaction is misleading. It does not speak to what Epicurus actually saw as the vision of a life well lived. Epicurus was too wise and psychologically savvy to fall into the hedonic trap that captures so many of us moderns who are out to have a few laughs and a good time before we have to pay the toll to Charon.
In truth, our man defines true pleasure thus:
‘By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.’
So we are talking more subtraction than addition here. Via negativa.
Rather than the consumption and orientation towards more, more, more Epicureanism rightly understood is about refinement of choice and those pleasures that are simple and sustainable.
Drugs and drink and ultra-rich food is not a sustainable mode of pleasure-seeking. Hangovers, comedowns and aching organs day after day is not pleasurable. So, your honour, I have heard. And the hedonist lifestyle, whether it be for substances or luxury, soon becomes as numbing and droningly repetitive as the most menial of jobs.
Those who have trod such paths know this. It is simply the wrong tree to bark up. As our man, in perhaps his most famous aphorism notes: He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.
So what does a life of true pleasure look like?
The Limitation of Desire
“Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”
As with all things, the truth of pleasure is that the mind must be set aright first. Most people, at least judging by surface appearances, are terrible at being happy. And they have a talent, or at least a wilfulness, towards making themselves miserable.
Look at all of the guilt and the knowingly unhelpful attitudes and practices that are perpetrated around you every day.
Given this, I find it absolutely no surprise that my most resonant and popular essays have been those concerning commensality or going for a nice walk or learning to embrace your life in all of its ordinary magnificence.
Such things are neglected measures, they are simple and sustainable and life-affirming pleasures that people today absolutely crave. These things are truly Epicurean.
But these are not Epicurean times. Not yet. In a world of hustle culture and gurus and consumerism and mimetic envy and rivalry people do not give themselves the simple permission to actually enjoy life.
This is a simple point, a stupefyingly simple point, but one which in all of our quasi-sophistication we suppress: If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, why are you continuing to do it?
Why are you not doing what you can to reduce or remove the Misery Tax that you are paying?
I really do think that much of this is simply a question of granting ourselves permission to enjoy our lives.
(If you need an external agent, then I myself personally give you permission to be happy. For what it is worth).
It is simply a question of prioritisation and focus.
Epicurus’ whole point and the whole necessity of The Garden experiment was that happiness needs to be taken seriously and worked at. Not joylessly and in the spirit of ticking boxes and jumping hoops and one-upping some imagined audience, but in the way that one works to achieve mastery in any other pursuit. One invigorating step at a time.
Food and Friendship. Gardening and Gratitude.
“The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future.”
“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
So we’ve said what the good life does not consist of. We’ve said it begins simply with prioritising happiness and letting go of the hedonic traps which do not actually bring sustainable pleasure. All well and good.
But what does Epicurean pleasure actually consist of? What actually went down in The Garden?
Well. We know that above all that Epicurus believed that happiness was to be found in friendship. It was to be found- as the Stoics also argued- in focusing on what is actually under your control and not stressing about that which is not under your control. It was to be found in conversation and good simple food and tending to a garden and watching the clouds roll by.
It was to be found in all of those contentment-inducing things which are the preserve of platitudes. Things so commonplace because they are so correct and so neglected due to us assuming that we don’t have time for them.
Now, you could say that all this is selfish. But how do you fill up someone else’s cup if your own cup is not full?
Though there are ethical arguments and nuances to the life based on pleasure (and we can get into that in the comments section below), surely it is worth at least attempting, in the spirit of inquiry, to gear life towards the simple, vital and eminently achievable goal of living well. After all, if you search your heart you will find that nothing feels as wonderfully, truly and deeply pleasurable as doing good and helping others.
So the first step to true such happiness, then, is to simply keep that goal in mind. Indeed, Epicurus would always end all of his correspondence with this beautiful two word exhortation: Live well.
It is both the perfect instruction to the self and the perfect thing to wish for a friend. And so from now on I will be doing the same with you.
Until next time,
Thanks as always for reading. It’s hugely appreciated. In these screen-mediated times it is easy to forget that there is a real life person at the other end of this newsletter, giving up a few minutes of their free time to read my words. I am grateful for you doing this.
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