“We must laugh and philosophize at the same time and do our household duties and employ our other faculties, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy.”
Epicurus, Vatican Saying 41
The cosmos: The universe is made out of matter and void. Of these there has been no beginning, the matter and the void being eternal. The world has always been, from everlasting unto everlasting. Humans are a cosmic event, creatures of Mother Earth, created by a random conglomeration of atoms, and precisely for this reason, we are a material reality. There is no such thing as an incorporeal soul, since we see that the soul reacts to stimuli, and we know that only the void is inert to stimulation.
The awareness of having been made out of sheer chance inspires us to perceive our lives as an unexpected present of nature, a delightful surprise, a fiesta to rejoice. We joyfully contemplate our existence within the eternity of the cosmos, remembering that although we are born mortal with a limited life span, we have risen in thought as far as eternity and the infinity of things, and we have seen everything that has been and everything that shall be.
Nature as ethical teacher: In an effort to discover our natural drives, Epicurus turned his attention to nature, which, he claims, is not only the creative force in the universe but is also a teacher, endowed with the overall animate experience, and of human experience, especially. Nature reveals itself in two ways: in what the senses realize and what the unspoiled infant desires. Indeed, the senses become aware of the plain reality of things; for example, that fire is hot, that snow is cold, and that honey is sweet.
None of these realities must be supported by further evidence or elegant explanations. On top of reliability of the senses, the desires that represent most authentically the desires of the human being are those of the infant, who is unspoiled by social intervention. Further, through our senses, we observe that the desires of the child are motivated by the feeling of pleasure. The child instinctively pursues pleasure as the chief good and flees pain as the chief evil, and he does this with nature herself doing the assessing in a pure and flawless way.
“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”
Inscription at the entrance of the Epicurean Garden
If we were to describe the Epicurean philosophy in a single word, it would be “pleasure.” And if we were to sum it up in a sentence, it would be this excerpt from the letter of Epicurus to Menoeceus: “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of the happy life.” With this simple statement, Epicurus establishes the emotion of pleasure as both the means and the purpose of life, in contrast to all other philosophies that introduce rational means and ends such as achievement, success, wealth, status, morality, social justice, and so on.
The emotion of pleasure (and pain) in Epicurean philosophy and contemporary science alike is a mere physical reaction, a pure somatic expression. The health of the body and a smiling face are the true expressions of happiness. Similar to the sensations of vision, hearing, and so on, the emotion of pleasure is recognized in consciousness, and in that regard, it is the crude input of our rational judgment and decision. It reflects our inner truth on the consciousness.
“Of all that wisdom provides for the fullest happiness of one’s entire life, by far the greatest is the acquisition of friendship.”
Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 26
Friendship has a prominent position in the Epicurean philosophy. It is one of the few natural and necessary desires in the pursuit of happiness. Even if we meet the rest of our needs, it is impossible to achieve peace of mind without friends. Epicurus, being practical and realistic, had set the starting point of friendship in its utilitarian dimension.
However, he added that, while in the beginning a friendly relationship may be motivated by certain benefits, it has the potential to develop into a deeper relationship, as friends find common perceptions and set common goals.
What happens today in modern societies? While all surveys show that people are happier when they are with friends, in everyday life few are willing to invest time and mental energy in a friendship. Especially for the time it takes to acquire friends, friendship sometimes loses its spontaneous character, and we need to cultivate it as we also do with work or family.
Friendly relations can take many forms: For those who cannot tolerate loneliness and have little emotional support at home, friendship may develop into a relationship of dependency. For others it may become an enjoyable way to ward off loneliness and chaos in their consciousness. For a minority of people, finally it can acquire depth and become a source of joy and personal growth.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
Friendship continued to be an alluring theme amid philosophers down to the end of the previous century, but rarely did any philosopher rank it as highly or scrutinize it as thoroughly as Epicurus did. Friendship, along with health, food, shelter, safety, altruism, and knowledge, is a natural and necessary good since we can’t be happy without it.
There is no need of proving this as we see the human being, from the early stages of his life till old age, seeking out friends and enjoying hanging out with them. Nature itself reveals that the motive of friendship is pleasure since friends meet our needs for safety, financial support, spiritual integrity, sex, companionship, and enjoyment, all of them being natural ingredients of happiness.
“The wise man when he has accommodated himself to straits knows better how to give than to receive, so great is the treasure of self-sufficiency, which he has discovered.”
Vatican saying 44
Surely, any hint of sheer altruistic friendship utterly contradicts Epicurus’ extreme declaration that only one’s own pleasure is the purpose of action and desirable for its own sake. Therefore, the inescapable riddle of Epicurean friendship emerges. How can one reconcile friendship with altruism? There have been two sorts of perspectives that try to solve the enigma.
On the one hand, there is the claim that altruism is just concealed selfishness, an involuntary result of hedonic error of judgment, or, possibly, merely unreasonable. If one is expected only to follow pleasure, and as long as pleasure is a subjective condition, all actions, no matter how altruistic they seem to be, are either egoistic or senseless. It is no surprise, therefore, to find Epicurus coldly labeled in contemporary times as an “egoistic hedonist.”1
The Epicureans, on the other hand, claim that people originally create friendships for reciprocal benefit, but eventually come to appreciate friends for their own sake, irrespective of utility. They insist that this development comes about unconsciously, from habit and everyday contact.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
Numerous references confirm that altruism is a natural and necessary good for human happiness; altruistic actions maximize one’s lifelong pleasure. To start with, it is the observation of nature that proves the accuracy of the claim. Altruistic actions are in constant motion all over the animal and human life in the innate struggle of the species to propagate.
“You tell me that the stimulus of the flesh makes you too prone to the pleasures of love. Provided you do not break the laws or good customs and do not distress any of your neighbors or do harm to your body or squander your pittance, you may indulge your inclination as you please. Yet it is impossible not to come up against one or other of these barriers, for the pleasures of love never profited a man and he is lucky if they do him no harm.”
Vatican Saying 51
Sexuality is certainly the most enjoyable experience, after water and food. The desire for sex is so powerful that it can absorb all the psychic energy from the other necessary human needs. Like every other aspect of life, it can be enjoyable if we are willing to take control of it, to cultivate and give depth and complexity to it.
Even today, sex is an issue that people avoid discussing, especially in the close family circle. The thought that sex is embarrassing is caused by our parents’ attitude, when they avoided answering or gave us some strange and vague answers when we, as children, asked them how we were born. Nowadays, parents once again avoid informing their children and wait for their sex education to come from schools.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
Little remains of Epicurus’s instruction on sexual desire and love. With limited evidence left, we are bound to recreate his views from a scattering of sentences and the experience of the Garden. On the one hand, Epicurus lists sexual contact among the natural pleasures as the saying informs us: “I know not how to conceive the good, apart from the pleasures of taste, sexual pleasures, and the pleasures of sound and the pleasures of beautiful form.”1
On top of that, sexual desires, like the desires for taste, sound, and beauty, are not necessary for survival or happiness and can be overlooked without endangering our ongoing condition. Indeed, we observe that no Epicurean text includes sexual satisfaction among the necessary pleasure, such as satisfying hunger, thirst, and protection against cold. “The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst, and cold,”2 says a quote, while another one adds, “I revel in the pleasure of my humble body, employing water and bread.”3
“Nor, again, will the wise man marry and rear a family: so Epicurus says in the Problems and in the De Natura. Occasionally he may marry owing to special circumstances in his life.”
Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, X.119
Family and friendship have been the main ingredients of our social network. They can be substitutes in the sense that more family means relatively fewer friends or overlap each other since family members can also be friends. Epicurus’s view was rather radical for the culture of his time. He declared the wise man will neither marry nor have children on the grounds that friendship is more advantageous to happiness than family.
In the course of time family took the lead over friendship, but eventually, people have redefined friendship and family, so that family members are also quite often considered as friends. Generally, family relationships are considered closer than friendship relations, but that is not a negative aspect of friendship since closeness is not an indispensable condition for friendship, as not all friends are necessarily close.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
On the creation of family Epicurus follows the suggestion of Democritus. According to an ancient source: “Democritus repudiates marriage and the procreation of children, on account of the many annoyances arising thereby, and the detraction from more necessary things. Epicurus agrees, as do those who place good in pleasure, and in the absence of trouble and pain.”1
In other words, the Epicurean position on having a family or not rests on a rational calculation of the pros and cons, and presumably, it reflects the harsh circumstances of his era. If the conditions were favorable, Epicurus may have concluded otherwise.
Epicurus assumes that the available options are two: either having a family or having good friends. He counts family members as potential friends and assumes that the choice to be made is between family members, friends, and friends of choice. In his understanding, common friendship is more advantageous than family friendship because it has the same advantages (security and support in life) as the family, but involves less costs, since the pains of rearing children outweigh the disappointments of friends. This outlook explains Epicurus’s intriguing attitude that one should not have children excluding rare conditions. However, he is known for his loving and caring for the children of his friends.
“Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.”
Epicurus, Principal Doctrine 2
Of all the fears that oppress humans, none compares to the fear of death. Its prospect causes panic attacks even for those who are not facing an immediate danger of death. By instinct, we believe that we will continue to live forever. Yet, if we did not see people dying around us, we would never come to the realization of the existence of death. Reality makes us face it to provide a way out of the terror that is caused by the prospect of the end of life.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
Epicurus proposed, as one of his main tasks, to redeem people from the fear of death. His position was that life flows within us and doesn’t think of stopping. If at any time it stops, we are indifferent because we ourselves will not feel it. He further asserts that when we die, we will be as we were before we were born.
“Look back again to see how the past ages of everlasting time, before we are born, have been as naught to us. These then nature holds up to us as a mirror of the time that is to come, when we are dead and gone. Is there aught that looks terrible in this, aught that seems gloomy? Is it not a calmer rest than any sleep?”1
According to Epicurus, the definitive end of life by death is a consequence of the physical nature of the body and soul. For that reason, he argued it would be better if we recognize aging as the normal course of life and not as a curse, and also, if we recognize and explicitly accept mortality.
Anyone who denies the reality of death also denies himself the ability to live well. It is much better to accept that it is not feasible to add years to our life and to try to add life to our years. Epicurus writes: “The correct recognition that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding on an infinite time, but by removing the longing for immortality.”2
“It is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself.”
Epicurus, Vatican Saying 65
Ancient Greek religion was polytheistic, founded on the hypothesis that there were many gods and goddesses, as well as lesser supernatural beings of diverse types. There was a ranking of deities, with Zeus, the king of the gods, having some authority over all the others, although he was not omnipotent. Some deities had control over certain elements of nature. For example, Zeus was delivering thunder and lightning, Poseidon supervised over the sea and earthquakes, and Hades ruled throughout the domains of death and the Underworld.
All-important divinities were envisioned as “human” in shape, although often capable of converting themselves into beasts or natural phenomena. While being immortal, the gods were undoubtedly not all-good or even all-mighty. They had to follow fate that overruled any of their holy powers or wills. The gods functioned like humans and had human flaws. They were associated with humans, either by helping them or punishing them for their wrongdoings.
At the dawn of philosophy, the Greek philosophers of Miletus in Ionia, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes tried to explain the nature of the world in physical terms, rather than religious. Later Heraclitus claimed that everything changes and nothing remains stable, while to Parmenides, God was a material being that extended to infinity. The most revolutionary views about the gods were expressed by Epicurus.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
The Evidence from Experience
Epicurus had no doubts that one of the primary issues he had to address in developing his philosophy was the necessity of giving an account of the gods. In this course, he had to combine and harmonize the two sources of knowledge of gods: empiricism and epistemology.
Epicurus plainly declares in the letter to Menoeceus that the criterion of common perception makes evident the existence of gods: “First believe that god is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind.”1 Cicero provides another testimony by saying: “For he alone perceived, first, that the gods exist, because nature herself imprinted a conception of them on the minds of all mankind.”2 Following Cicero, Epicurus seems to suggest that people hold an innate belief in gods, which is realized in adulthood.
“That nature of mind and soul corporeal is: for when it is seen to drive the members on, to snatch from sleep the body, and to change the countenance, and the whole state of man.”
Lucretius, On The Nature Of Things
The ancient Greek philosophers advised living according to “human nature.” This recommendation, though, led to a great deal of misunderstanding over the millennia and no less so today, because philosophers and common people alike mean different things by the word “nature.” Broadly speaking, all views could be classified as either idealistic or naturalistic. Their difference lies in the role that the instincts, the senses, the emotions, and reason play as sources of the truth. On one hand, the “naturalists” claim the sources of truth to be the preconceptions (innate drives and experiences), the perceptions, the senses, and the emotions.
They exclude reason (and beliefs) as a source of truth because they claim that, by nature, reason is a second state process of the mind, which takes inputs from the preconceptions, the perceptions, the senses, and the emotions. On the other hand, the “idealists” support that instincts are primitive, the senses fraudulent, and the emotions wild, and as a consequence, they are not trustworthy sources of reality. Instead, the only reliable source of truth is reason.
In the same vein, nowadays, the prevailing culture of consumerism opts for reason and rational thinking1 as the sources of human truth. In the face of this conflicting background, it is necessary for the ordinary man to get a grasp of his true human nature with the helping hand of biology and neuroscience.
The center of human nature is the brain2—a soft, three-pound bulk of greasy tissue. Its overall potential is still unknown, but it is recognized as the most powerful and sophisticated biological formation known in the world. This organ alone is in charge of the body’s activities, stretching from heart beating and sexuality to emotion, learning, and memory. The brain determines our thoughts, desires, and interests. In short, it is what makes us human. It is the central organ of the human nervous system and, with the spinal cord, comprises the central nervous system.
“Wherefore we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
“Why should I live? What is the purpose of my life?” The issue of “meaning in life” appears in philosophy and psychology through similar compelling questions. The term “meaning in life” is interchangeably used in this book with “purpose of life,” the “end of life,” and the “telos” in ancient Greek philosophy.
Although it has no clear definition, most philosophers and psychologists agree that the purpose of one’s life should be intrinsic to human nature, that is, it should be something that people desire for the sake of itself and not for the sake of anything else. They also suggest that the fundamental, intrinsic meaning in life is the pursuit of happiness.
The primary advocate of happiness as the natural human ultimate goal of life is Epicurus. He suggests the feeling of pleasure is the guide of human life, and the maximization of pleasure is the end of one’s life. Pleasure drives people to satisfy their needs, and when all needs are met, pleasure maximizes.
However, other approaches see the meaning in life from a different perspective. Aristotle, for example, suggests that the ultimate purpose in life is fulfilling one’s potential through virtuous actions, whereas happiness is but the natural result of succeeding in doing these actions. This approach rests on the assumption that “reason” is the intrinsic source of the good life, and pleasure is the natural consequence of rational thinking.
Other philosophers and psychologists suggest that there is hardly any meaning in life because human life is overwhelmed by pain; hence, no matter how much one tries, he ends up in misery. In addition, others agree that, indeed, there is no intrinsic meaning in life, but suggest that one should try to find his own meaning.
“Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.”
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Free will is a composite and often misunderstood idea because it incorporates two conflicting concepts: freedom and determination. Many thinkers have called free will meaningless because of this contradiction of the constituent terms. But they mistakenly combine the concepts of “free” and “will.”
It is not the will that is free, in the sense of being unlimited, but the mind. The will is determination. It is the man who is free. Indeed, first comes the unconscious mind in generating possibilities, and it is this creation of prospects which allows one to feel free and declare “I can do otherwise.”
Next appear deliberation and determination by the will to transform the prospects into reality by driving the tongue to speak or the body to move. In short, in “free will,” “free” choices are coupled with “willed” decisions. An adequate degree of determinism is critical for an efficient “free will.” Indeed, there are challenges to the exercise of free will.
The extent to which will is exercised is limited by necessity and chance. Some go as far as to argue that people have no free will at all, introducing in this way the idea of absolute determinism. The most influential deterministic theories used to be fatalism and divine intervention, followed by scientific determinism. Epicurus strongly opposed such views because they make happiness inaccessible.
Next I will explore the subject in three sections. The first section will deal with the view that there exists free will, the second with the alternative view that there is no free will, and the third will present the available evidence on the existence or not of free will, and discuss the inherent difficulties in applying it.
THERE EXISTS FREE WILL
The Epicurean Views
Epicurus was the first philosopher to have clearly suggested a component of chance into the cosmos. He denounced earlier natural philosophers1 for ascribing the origin of the universe to necessity and for turning man into a slave2 of fate. But Epicurus saw with great terror the idea of compelling destiny or necessity, which is the rational consequence of the notion of the determinism of natural phenomena.
Epicurus plainly broke away from them: “It were better to follow the myths about the gods than to become a slave to the ‘destiny’ of the natural philosophers: for the former suggests a hope of placating the gods by worship, whereas the latter involves a necessity which knows no placation.”3
Epicurus tried to keep away from strict determinism by assuming an unplanned swerve that atoms take suddenly, deviating from their paths and forming new compounds as a result of these deviations. In his interpretation of Epicurus’s theory, Lucretius described how this swerve was accountable for breaking the bonds of fate:
“Once again, if every motion is always linked on, and the new always arises from the old in order determined, nor by swerving do the first-beginnings make a certain start of movement to break through the decrees of fate, so that cause may not follow cause from infinite time; whence comes this free will for living things all over the earth, whence, I ask, is it wrested from fate, this will whereby we move forward, where pleasure leads each one of us, and swerve likewise in our motions neither at determined times nor in a determined direction of place, but just where our mind has carried us? For without doubt it is his own will which gives to each one a start for this movement, and from the will the motions pass flooding through the limbs.”4
“The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.”
Vatican Saying 8
Since antiquity, the issue of what makes us happy has been of primary importance. Some found an answer in external circumstances, suggesting that wealth and materials are all one needs to be happy. Others discovered a resolution to spirituality alone, supporting that happiness is the outcome of a mental process and therefore is a matter of internal transformation as exemplified in sacred texts of the religions of the world.
Besides, certain philosophical schools of antiquity emphasized that material possessions are indifferent, asserting that “virtue is sufficient for happiness.” Psychologists nowadays claim that research findings show both materialistic and spiritualistic positions to be true, with the latter having a stronger effect on happiness.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
Epicurus on Money and Happiness
Epicurus is the ancient champion of wise hedonism. He encourages the pursuit of real happiness, namely happiness which takes into account both pleasure and pain. What matters in living happily is not the absolute level of pleasure and pain but their difference, namely pure pleasure. Therefore, to make a decision on satisfying a desire, one needs the virtue of practical reason to make truthful calculations of the costs (pain) and benefits (pleasure) involved in the realization of the desire.
In addition to assisting us in making trustworthy evaluations and decisions, prudence cultivates over time another virtue—self-discipline. It is one thing to come up with the right evaluation and decision and another to go through the implementation of it, overlooking the alternative choices, especially when prudence may opt to defer immediate gratification to avoid a greater pain later.
“While, therefore, all pleasure because it is naturally akin to us is good, not all pleasure should be chosen, just as all pain is an evil and yet, not all pain is to be shunned. It is, however, by measuring one against another, and by looking at the conveniences and inconveniences, that all these matters must be judged. Sometimes we treat the good as an evil, and the evil, on the contrary, as a good.”
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
In the Epicurean context decisions are made consciously through logic. Logic is the mind’s filter of our desires on the one hand and the limitations of our Self and the restrictions and opportunities of the environment on the other. It has the hard task of matching our inner impulses to the capacities of the Self and the available choices of the environment.
Therefore, the act of decision is the final stage of a process that originates in the inner parts of the brain under the influence of heredity and nurture and ends up in the front part of it in our consciousness. The automatic functions of the mind disclose our needs and wants, which in turn take their biological path to our consciousness in order for us to gain satisfaction.
By entering the consciousness they are first realized by the neurons of will, which are either activated to empower the stimuli to continue their journey into logic, or they stay inert, declining to support their satisfaction. In the case that the stimuli reach logic, the latter examines if they are true, and then classifies them according to what kind they are and to their priority.
At the same time, logic acknowledges the emotions that are associated to them by observing their bodily manifestation, carries out a quick test of self-knowledge, and investigates the restrictions and the opportunities of the environment. Subsequently, as a rule logic rejects all the needs and wants that are associated with unpleasant feelings and holds the pleasurable ones for further investigation and cost-benefit analysis.
Experience and research claim that emotions are actively involved in decision-making. Emotions are essential to thought to the same extent as they are necessary in art and culture. Consideration of the emotional reactions to a stimulus usually leads to correct and effective decisions. Also, emotions are particularly useful in the evaluation of interpersonal and social relations.
THE EPICUREAN VIEWS
The Dual Psychological Model
Decision-making in Epicurus follows a dual process. The initial process prescribes the inputs of decision-making and the second the evaluation of this information and decision-making on the basis of reliable evidence. As an empiricist, Epicurus considers the information provided by our genetics and experiences to be reliable.
Therefore, reliable information is information provided by one’s character or, in Epicurus, by one’s preconceptions and perceptions. The functions of the mind are guided by the desire for pleasure. Genetically people are inclined to follow what is pleasant and avoid what is painful. Experiences, also, intuitively abide by the same rule. The pleasant feelings are the good and healthy, and the painful feelings are those which are bad and sick.
The Pursuit of Happiness in Modern Life
“Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided. Yet by a scale of comparison and by the consideration of advantages and disadvantages we must form our judgment on all these matters. For the good on certain occasions we treat as bad, and conversely the bad as good.”
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
The philosophy of Epicurus is psychological. It is the counterpart of medicine. As medicine is worthwhile as long as it expels the diseases of the body, so is philosophy worthwhile as long as it expels the maladies of the soul. Albeit the symptoms of the diseases are visible, it is often hard to detect whether their source is of biological or psychological nature. The human existence is uniform corporeal, and any stimulus affects both the soul and the body regardless of which part of it is affected first. So, to treat any disease we need to examine both for physical and emotional causes.
By nature our mind follows the pleasant emotions and avoids the painful. This is our genetic perception to living happily. In order to cope with the pressures and the complexities of everyday life, the mind needs additional guidance. This is the role that our upbringing undertakes through learning and experience, which in the course of time shapes our perceptions on the general issues of life, the diatheses in ancient jargon.
Epicurus took the safe side in developing the perceptions of his philosophy. He kept the emotions as the criterion of choice and avoidance and supported the mind with perceptions harmonized to and supportive of its physical traits. The respect and the compliance of Epicurus to the functions and the traits of human nature have established his philosophy as the Natural Philosophy.
What then are the natural needs of human beings? What are the fundamental Epicurean perceptions for a happy life? What are their implications?
THE CHARACTER TRAITS OF THE EPICUREAN
The primary character traits abiding with a philosophy of pleasure maximization,1 like the Epicurean, are emotionality, pleasure-loving, and rationality.
An Epicurean is an emotional person. According to Diogenes Laertius: “He who has once become wise…will be more susceptible of emotion than other men.”2 The wise man is capable of realizing his own feelings and those of others, can distinguish between different feelings and call them appropriately, can adjust his feelings to the requirements of the environment, and can utilize emotional information to guide his thinking, decision-making, and behavior: “Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it, we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”3
For Epicurus, philosophy is a cure: “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.”49 In this case, healing involves recovering the mind from the anxieties of life to the simple pleasure of living. People’s heartache stems from desiring things that are not necessary to live and that exceed their control, and fear the things that are not to be feared.
Accordingly, their life is drained by concerns over baseless fears and unfulfilled desires. As a consequence, they are denied the only authentic pleasure there is—the pleasure of existing. For this reason, Epicurean physics can release us from fear: it can make plain to us that the gods have no participation in the functioning of the universe and human life, and that death, being total nullification, is not to be feared.
As a rescue from our greedy desires, the Epicurean differentiates between desires which are both natural and necessary, desires which are natural but not necessary, and desires which are neither natural nor necessary. It is sufficient to satisfy the first class of desires, relinquish the last, and make wise use of the second in order to secure the lack of worries and to unveil the mere pleasure of existing:
“The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst, and cold. For if a man possess this safety and hope to possess it, he might rival even Zeus50 in happiness.” This is the seed of the feeling of thankfulness, which elucidates the Epicurean reverence to nature: “Gratitude is due to blessed Nature because she has made the necessities of life easy to procure and what is hard to procure unnecessary.”51
The Epicureans desire wisdom in so far as it carries peace of mind. Epicurus suggests a kind of wisdom that instructs how to calm and get rid of worries. This looks easy in theory, but difficult in practice since we must abandon many hardwired desires, aspire only to those we are confident of acquiring, and pass the scrutiny of reason.