Epicurean Philosophical Counselling

The Epicurean philosophy provides the most suitable and capable framework on which to base an effective and pragmatist approach to philosophical counselling. Epicurus first declared that empty is that philosopher’s discourse which offers therapy for no human passion. Just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not expel the sickness of body, so there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the passions of the soul.

Since antiquity the task of the practical Epicurean philosophy has been seen to “expel passions of the soul” by providing precepts for a balanced, happy life. Such life has been thought to include simple natural pleasures wisely chosen.

We all practice philosophy. The only question is whether we do it so self-consciously and well, or unconsciously and poorly. Our beliefs shape the course of our actions and a culture’s philosophy determines the character of its civilization. As long as these remain unconscious and unexamined, they control us. By becoming aware of them, their origins, nature, conflicts and consequences, we gain control of them and thereby our lives.

The quest of a “life one finds significant” goes back to Socrates’ idea that a life not properly understood, not philosophically interpreted and directed, “the unexamined life,” is not worth living. Such a life is victim to chance, source of constant disappointments, and is a continuous struggle linking one day of fear and toil to another. Only a life endowed with meaning, realistic goals and perspectives is potentially enjoyable in the long term. This is the point of Epicurus’ idea that one ought to follow pleasure subject to what modern philosophy would call a utilitarian calculus of potential effects, within the limits of the externalities imposed by circumstances one cannot control. According to Epicureans, within such a perspective, regardless of how much actual pleasure one might be able to obtain, one’s life could be considered a “good life”; one based on a strategy or life plan that is sound, natural and guided on seemingly indubitable inclinations of human nature: to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

The Epicurean views of pleasure are a sound foundation on which to build an essentially pragmatist approach to a modern complex environment. The argument rests on the idea that many of the cognitive, emotional and volitional problems for which people seek counselling today are caused, or at least exacerbated, by the dominant duty and “success” bound culture, by a corresponding duty driven morality and material well being. The Epicurean philosophy is practically useful for helping clients find a balance between external pressures and “hedonistic” duties to themselves.

Epicurean ethics treats hedonistic duties to oneself as superior to any external duties or influences. The absence of this innate need of indulgence may account for the claim that a person can be highly moral, highly valued by her community, and successful by the standards of the society and yet utterly unhappy. The idea that one can be a morally perfect and successful and yet commit suicide out of misery is consistent with the duty bound morality and material well being. In practice, and especially in philosophical practice, this is unacceptable and needs serious “philosophical intervention.”

One may note that as early as in Hellenism the external ethics of virtue (arising from the fulfillment of moral expectations of the community), or arête, preceded the Epicurean ethics of the good life. Epicurus in fact argued in favor of seeking a good life filled with moderate pleasures in opposition to the already dominant external ethics that placed pressures on the individual arising from moral expectations.

The wheel seems to have turned once again since then, and the dominant modern ethics is again an external ethics of demands on the individual. Casting the external moral demands in a pragmatist light, in the sense of interpreting their fulfillment as a means to address guilt is an essential strategy in philosophical counselling. This strategy is fully compatible with the introduction of an Epicurean view of happiness as a quest of moderate pleasure. A combination of these two strategies is a particularly effective approach to addressing the modern neurosis of guilt through philosophical counselling.

The prevalent source of mass neurosis of today is partly caused by the rampant fabrication of needs that are increasingly difficult to satisfy; as Epicurus stressed, that insatiable is not the stomach, as the many say, but false opinion about the stomach’s boundless need to be filled. In any situation where feelings of deprivation are caused by the unavailability of something that we perceive as necessary, “false opinion” is likely at work. Epicureans believed that philosophy’s therapeutic task was primarily to dispel false opinions and liberate the “student” (client) from the feeling of deprivation, usually not by procuring what is missing, but by removing the conviction that what is missing is necessary.

It is easy to see how these Epicurean views negate the currently prevalent, idea of “richness of needs” and its industrial perversion through the marketing of happiness through consumption. Social expectations dictate one’s perceptions of one’s own needs, thus relative deprivation affects all people from different social strata. For someone, relative deprivation is a lack of food and shelter compared to one’s peers who don’t suffer such predicament. For others, however, relative deprivation will arise from not owning designer clothes, a luxury car or house, where other members of the same social stratum possess all these things. Epicurus suggests that the cure for the ills arising from inauthentic needs, induced by the society, which cause anxiety and feelings of deprivation because they are difficult to satisfy, is to take control of our consciousness and become autonomous, not only in relation to external influences but to our desires, which are not necessary to living happily.

Much of our distress, both individually and collectively, is not amenable to medical intervention, and time does not appear actually to heal all wounds or solve all problems. When we do not know our own minds and proclivities, we may be unable to discover why sleep does not come easily, or why a career no longer seems fulfilling, or why the general sense of dissatisfaction will not lift, or anxiety will not pass into peace and calm.

Epicurean counsel combines the affective and the rational side in “talk therapy”. It suggests following pleasures that are affordable and easy to reach. The pursue of simple pleasures is to the Epicureans the safest way to avoid disturbance. Disturbance is a form of pain, which by definition is an evil. Epicureans in contrast to the Stoics who do it out of rationality in order to be in “ accordance with nature” go a step further and suggest that virtue, such as rationality, rather than being “an end in itself ”, a moral standard, is merely a means to attain the greatest safe level of pleasure. Living wisely means maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain, including that pain which is caused by certain pleasures, in which case one must abstain from such pleasures. Consequently, the most innocent pleasures, those that involve peace and quiet, such as conversations with friends, intellectual work and moderate care for one’s body, are among the preferred ones for Epicureans. Unlike the Stoics, Epicureans insist on practice aimed to develop a sensibility to enjoy such pleasures, to turn them into positive, affirmative affect of satisfaction and joy, even if the pleasures themselves are everyday little things. This is where Epicureans provide a potent tool for philosophical counselling for anxiety, guilt and the pervasive issues with self-fulfillment that dominate many clients’ problems.

Acting altruistically and selflessly fundamentally neglects the need to honor one’s own desires to the extent necessary for a happy life. A person with exceptional sexual desires may be unable to satisfy such desires with one person, and may embark on sexual experimentation with multiple partners. In a conservative community such behavior might be very difficult to justify. One’s sexual extreme sexual behavior could hurt, socially or morally confuse others. It is unclear how values such as “necessary pleasure” or “optimum quality of life” would be convincingly expressed in such a situation. Here again the prevalent attitude is the restrictive morality model, rather than the philosophy of life model of ethics characteristic of the ancient philosophical schools. This appears the greatest problem of the modern ethics in a practical context, because it is socially focused and leaves the individual and her needs “out in the cold” as long as external expectations are satisfied. Epicurean ethics on principle does not shy away from the option of pursuing “extreme” pleasures, because contingently any pleasure is good, and any pain is bad. Experientially though Epicureans believed that extreme pursuits of desires tend to cause more pain than pleasure in the long term, hence they argued that moderation is the most conducive to pleasure not visited by subsequent pain. However, if it was possible to pursue pleasure recklessly without having to endure painful consequences in the future, such extremism of desire would be in principle entirely compatible with Epicurus.

The types of pleasures recommended by Epicureans arise from moderation; they do not jeopardize the needs and pursuits of others, and are thus compatible with most visions of a good society, founded on general interest and the mutual respect of rights and interests. Epicureans advised those pursuing a happy life to withdraw from public affairs, live in a community of friends who share the same values (brought to life in the Epicurean “Society of the Garden”), not be involved in politics, and generally, live a “life unknown”. Such a lifestyle does not militate against the rights and interests of others. However, even hedonism so conceived is not likely acceptable for an absolutist view of the good society such as that characteristic of Kant’s rationalist ethics.

From the point of view of applied philosophy there appears something fundamentally defective with moral doctrines that allow the unhappiness of most to constitute a morally desirable social environment as long as external duties and largely formally defined expectations are fulfilled. The assumption that this is part of a “rational human nature” appears little more convincing here than the equally plausible Epicurean claim that ‘humans naturally desire pleasure and avoid pain’.


Epicureanism as a Foundation for Philosophical counselling 

Aleksandar Fatic, The University of Belgrade