“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.
Epicurus notices that the infant is most happy once he has released himself from the pains of his needs. He then concludes that the natural end of his life is reached once his mind is freed from the worries of unfulfilled desires.
Therefore, nature teaches us that pleasure is the guide to life and pleasure maximization the purpose of it. More precisely, Epicurus claims that the purpose of our lives is to experience as much pure pleasure as possible over our lifetime. By pure pleasure, he means the pleasure that remains after taking into account the pain involved in reaching out.
The society: Human beings have been fighters and winners. We earned our survival and claimed our happiness through struggle by employing the unique capacities that nature endowed us with. Nonetheless, we are born powerless, in need of care and training for many years, and in this manner, our character—our beliefs, habits, desires, emotions, and thoughts—is finally shaped by the society we grow in. Consequently, the moment we take over the responsibility of our lives, we have become reflections of society without being aware of it.
Sadly, society is neither healthy nor interested in our personal well-being; it has contaminated us with its diseases, and above all, it has taught us false beliefs with regard to what is valuable and worth trying for. In this way, we see ourselves chasing down things that are hard or impossible to accomplish, namely, luxuries, wealth, power, fame, and first and foremost, immortal life.
Desire: Epicurus claims that desire is the source of the emotion and therefore of pleasure. In turn, the source of the desire is the belief. The presence of the belief arouses the desire, and its elimination takes away both the cause of the desire and the desire itself. If we have learned harmful habits and addictions that generate disturbing desires, then we can unlearn them and rewire our brains based on healthy beliefs.
Epicurus claims that desires are either “natural” or “nonnatural”. The “natural” desires have a limit, for example, a plate of food and a plain shelter. They can be filled up; they do not make excessive or implausible demands. Their scope is simply to carry on with the healthy functioning of the body and the calm condition of the mind. But this, Epicurus insists, can be accomplished with limited material means that are often ready to hand.
The “nonnatural” desires, on the other hand, are a result of teaching and culture. They are empty and limitless because they are overblown by fallacious beliefs. Unfounded social perceptions educate us not to be satisfied with what is easily accessible but to crave things that are either totally unfeasible (immortality), very difficult to attain (luxuries), or without any explicit ceiling of satisfaction (wealth, fame, and power). The nature of empty longing, then, is not limited but infinite. On the other hand, in Epicurus’s words: “Gratitude is due to blessed nature because she has made life’s necessities easy of acquisition and those things that are difficult of acquisition non-necessary.”
Emotional problems are not inherent to emotions, as such, but are symptoms of the underlying desires and beliefs. In this manner, we can take some control over our desires by managing our beliefs. Memorization and meditation are helpful practices in hardwiring healthy beliefs in our brains, capable of replacing false beliefs or establishing new ones. The maxims of the Epicurean school are meant to play this role.
Pleasure: Epicurus suggests the feeling of pleasure to be the primary motivating power in life. It is the beginning and the end of the blessed life because the pursuit of pleasure rules and integrates all of our choices. He assumes that throughout our lives, our decisions and actions are motivated by the desire to enjoy as much pleasure as possible and suffer as little pain as possible.
Everything other than pleasure is but a means to it. Epicurus holds that nature itself provides the evidence that pleasure is the objective for all living beings, indeed the predominant objective. Animals and infants seek it from the day they are born, meaning that they go after it instinctively and are not motivated by social teaching. Pursuing it just happens naturally.
When pleasure is deficient, we get anxious. The cure is to reintroduce pleasure as the guide of our lives and, also, master an effective strategy to satisfy the mix of desires that maximizes pure pleasure. These are the natural desires as reflected in the uncorrupted infant.
Natural and necessary pleasure: Epicurus does introduce a hierarchy of desires; nonetheless, no mention has been found in any of the remaining texts as to their particular hierarchy. However, an intimate look at the available bibliography allows us to spot the few things that Epicurus considers natural and necessary to happiness. Health, food, and shelter cover the needs of the body. Safety, friendship, and altruism discharge the needs of the soul, and finally, knowledge responds to the needs of the intellect.
Health: In ancient times, as nowadays, health referred to the body and indirectly, if at all, to the mind. Health used to completely belong in the competency of the practitioner and the physician. For Epicurus, on the other hand, health is a dualistic good. It is health of the mind and health of the body. He claims that the body and soul are both corporeal; they are intimately intertwined and respond in synchrony to pain and pleasure.
All reactions are psychosomatic. Therefore, he declares: “Let nobody put off doing philosophy when he is young, nor slacken off in philosophy because of old age. For nobody is either too young or too old to secure the health of the soul.”
Epicurus believes that human health rests on healthy beliefs. Without philosophy, the mind is sickly. The body, too, even if it is in great shape, will eventually get sick. Philosophy is part of health, not just an instrument of cure. Healthy philosophical perceptions make us healthier. On that account, the Epicurean therapist is keen to bring to light the sense of health and disease, the sense of what it means for one to be getting better and worse.
For, most of the time, we instinctively refuse to admit that our desires are harmful and our beliefs diseased. We can misinterpret our health as being fine, when really it is not. This may be because we are used to our current condition and suppose it is normal, or the symptoms have not made themselves clear yet, or we may be misguided by false cultural beliefs.
Food: The natural desire for food is necessary for survival and the proper functioning of the body. Food needs to be healthy and adequately nutritional to sustain the healthy functioning of the body and the soul. In our time, food is not only a means of survival but also a vehicle of pleasure through taste, companionship, and amusement.
According to the circumstances, we can be content with bread and water; on occasion, we can add some cheese, as Epicurus did; we can also add any kind of food and drink as long as we can easily afford them. Cravings for unlimited quantities of food and drink, junk food, gastronomic delicacies, and expensive diets may be natural but are non-necessary.
They are mostly based on false beliefs about our needs. We can enjoy them, but we should not get accustomed to them so that we can’t do without them. In the words of Epicurus: “Frugal meals deliver a pleasure that is equal to that of an expensive diet when once all the pain of need is removed.”
Shelter: As with food, we have a natural and necessary desire for shelter. Everyone can choose the kind of shelter that suits his conditions. Poor and wealthy can equally please themselves as long as they adjust their desires to their capacities. Walls provide protection from the cold and rain with the maximum pleasure being the availability of a shelter. If it is well decorated and the furniture is luxurious, it hardly increases pleasure; it may only differentiate it.
An Epicurean wrote that it is better to sleep on a couch and be free from fears than to sleep in a luxurious bed and be full of problems. All this is made obvious by reasonable thinking. Similarly, the function of clothing is to avert pain arising from cold, and the resulting pleasure is natural and necessary. Being such, it cannot be increased but only embellished.
Safety: Safety is also a natural and necessary good, whereas uncertainty is an evil. By nature, we seek security and avoid risk. Social beliefs and habits, Epicurus says, teach us to look for safety in the wrong places: in wealth, fame, and power, whose usefulness bears a disproportionate cost because their fulfillment comes after a struggle. Instead, we should adjust our beliefs and habits to the suggestions of nature.
For example, we can train ourselves to live in the present and be neither troubled by the past nor worried by the uncertainty of the future. Besides, we can limit our desires to the natural and necessary. Such desires can easily be satisfied without us having to rely on the future for them. The flexibility of desires is also a plausible means of making the achievement of happiness more up to us. Inflexible desires may induce us to take high risks to satisfy them and become more vulnerable to chance. Having said that, Epicurus opts for friendship as the greatest source of security.
Friendship: Friends, like health, food, shelter, and safety, are a necessity. They meet our needs for companionship, enjoyment, and safety—essential components of happiness. Friendship is too valuable to be left to chance and opportunity. Epicurus regards the acquisition of friends as the most precious of all preparations for a happy life. To this end, a certain pleasantness of speech and behavior is essential. “Wear a smile,” Epicurus recommends.
He also suggests being very discriminate in making new friends. Two sorts will be turned down at the start: “Neither is he a true friend who is continually seeking help nor he who on no occasion associates friendship with help.” Again, for safety reasons, we should “make relations friendly where possible, where impossible, at least neutral, and where even this is impossible, avoid contacts.”
The Epicurean philosophical communities created conditions for the development of intimate relationships and deep friendships. Nowadays, we do not have the chance to live in a tranquil Epicurean community, relying on the support of Epicurean friendship. We must go home to our family and peers and try to establish our circle of friends on our efforts.
Altruism: Epicurus holds that pleasure is the only motivating drive of human behavior from infancy to adulthood and that a human’s purpose is to maximize his lifelong pleasure. The misconception is to conceive of Epicurus as an egocentric hedonist, interested entirely in his own pleasure. In fact, Epicurus also finds pleasure in helping others. When Epicurus adopts the role of a teacher who calls people “to awake the world to the blessedness of the happy life,” he may remain a hedonist, but not egoistic. If accurately called, he is to be named an altruistic hedonist.
Knowledge: Knowledge is one of the natural and necessary goods to happiness. It is indeed both natural and necessary since our minds consist of memories of information, either innate or acquired. Originally, nature establishes our needs and provides the capacities to fulfill them. In turn, society takes up the role to provide us with further information in order to train our capacities and apply them in the current conditions of our lives. Epicurus draws our attention to the likelihood that this information may not be always true.
For instance, our senses show reality, but the information we get from them may, on occasions, be deceitful. Again, our emotions reveal reality, but may be illusory because of the presence of false beliefs. For this reason, Epicurus invented the canon of truth as a method of distinguishing mere reality, or opinion, from the truth. In this, he suggests that to come up with truth, any information has to be confirmed and not disputed by other reliable evidence.
It turns out that reason often fails in its attempt to make out the true from the false. We often make false decisions because we are extremely self-biased in interpreting the things related to us, either out of ignorance or in the effort to defend our egos. Knowledgeable friends, experts, and wise people are better qualified to find out our truths than we can on our own. Experience shows that third parties are more objective in interpreting our thoughts and feelings. This finding was, in fact, the essence of the Epicurean cure: the discovery, that is, of our stressful beliefs and habits in a friendly environment of trust and mutual care.
Natural and unnecessary pleasure: The Epicurean philosophy is concerned with individual happiness: the health of the body and the health of the soul of the individual. Everything else is but instrumental to it. Human beings have common capacities and functions, and therefore Mother Nature is our common teacher on what the true meaning of life is, as well as the guide to fulfilling that end.
Along with our common human needs, each and every person has his own unique needs, defined by his character and the external conditions. For example, many struggle to procure the essentials of living. Others enjoy spiritual goods. A few enjoy safety and emotional support through friendship. Some are able to procure all the natural and necessary goods and enjoy the highest pleasure possible and live happily.
Thereafter, Epicurus claims, no experience is capable of enhancing pleasure more; the only thing that further pleasant experiences can accomplish is to fill up our free time and provide variety in our lives. These may extend from the simple pleasure of the senses, nature, exercise, traveling, humor, sex, family, the arts, philosophy, science, and others.
Nonnatural and unnecessary pleasure: The uncorrupted human creature lives in harmony with nature and enjoys the pleasure of life. Conventional education, though, overloads his mind with false beliefs that mislead him into thinking that the highest pleasure comes through luxury, wealth, fame, power, and, above all, immortal life. The adoption of these ideas pushes him further from the happy life rather than closer to it, since their possession bears far greater cost than benefit, and their preservation causes constant unease. It is like a sort of baggage that he has to drag through life.
Such desires, Epicurus says, are neither natural nor necessary. He is persuaded that the primary source of human suffering are the troubles derived by the above limitless desires, which do not allow us to have any rest or lasting pleasure. Hopefully, he claims, the exact desires that give rise to worry are also the desires that are based on false beliefs, and likewise, the dismissal of such beliefs will take away the desires and the trouble.
Wealth, fame and power: The Epicurean wise person will neither appreciate wealth nor carelessly disregard it and end up on the street, hungry and sick. He will philosophize and, at the same time, laugh and take care of his possessions for the present and for the future. The wealth that is needed to satisfy his natural and necessary desires is limited and easy to obtain, whereas “a free life cannot acquire great wealth, because the task is not easy without slavery to the mob or those in power.”
In fact, Epicurus defines wealth as the financial means that allows us to satisfy our natural and necessary desires. Contrastingly, the common perception of a wealthy person is someone who is able to finance all his desires. To make the distinction obvious, Epicurus recommends that the way to make somebody wealthy is not to give him money, but to reduce his desires.
The Epicurean perspective toward wealth compares to the approach toward political power and fame. Political power and fame are actually valuable if they provide security against the uncertainties of life. Now, Epicurus argues, political power can bring some security, but far better security “comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many.”
The fear of death: The boundless desires, Epicurus claims, are primarily generated by the covert fear of death. The insatiable concentration of wealth creates the illusion that the wealthy are immune to death since misery looks like edging toward death. The same holds for the “blind lust for honors and power.”
All are mistakenly and unreasonably conceived as a means of keeping death away. The love of life is natural in all living beings, and so all creatures try to avoid death as much as possible, but they are not obsessed with their own vulnerability or find refuge in beliefs of immortality.
The fear of death is not inherent in our nature. We see that the unspoiled child is unaware of death and only by experience and teaching forms his perceptions about it. On top of that, we see that people across cultures hold separate views on the nature of death. For Epicureans, the fear of death is largely a result of religious teaching.
Religion took advantage of our innate desire to sustain our lives and made the false promise of the immortality of the soul. This belief is superstitious and senseless, formed by fraudulent and ill-founded beliefs about the gods and the soul. It is dreadful because it makes people rely on priests, rather than on their own minds. And priests excite human fears further, intensifying people’s reliance on them. Religion has worsened our relation to our death, filled us with the dread of the hereafter, and made us far more fragile than we were.
Lastly, Epicurus holds that the fear of death is largely the fear of losing the good things of life. However, he disputes that the word “lose” is relevant to the deceased, seeing that to lose something, one must exist before and after the loss, and the dead do not survive death. Death, therefore, is neither bad nor good, for the dead. It is nothing.
The fear of gods: This fear is exacerbated by the religious beliefs that gods made the world and they manage the natural phenomena. Consequently, Epicurus realized that freedom from disturbance requires having a firm knowledge about physical matters because they have ethical consequences: “If we had never been burdened by suspicious fears about things in the heavens, and about death, lest it might be something to us, and by apprehending the limits of pain and desire, we would not have had any need of the science of nature.”
Natural science provides convincing evidence that the natural phenomena are regulated by natural causes, while, at the same time, there is no evidence that they are controlled by any kind of divine power. The cosmos has always been; gods rest in ataraxia, in the middle of the worlds, indifferent about the cosmos and the living beings. To believe that they are interfering with the world, Epicurus claims, is an impiety unworthy of their nature.
Decisions: Happiness, in Epicurus, originates in the roots of the human mind; it is the instinct of survival that reveals pleasure as the guide of our lives. Initially, our nature sets the foundations of our brains and prescribes our subjective inclination toward pleasure. Then, nurture plays its part in the shaping of our character, through experience, education, and social teaching. Our beliefs and habits, Epicurus argues, are at the heart of our thoughts, sensations and emotions. They are also deeply rooted in our minds, mostly unconsciously.
In sequence, thoughts, sensations and emotions flow into the consciousness and stimulate it to make a decision and take action. Hopefully, Epicurus insists, we are not bound to submit to the demands of the instincts or the society. Nature, in its ultimate wisdom, endowed us with free will and reason; these capacities allow us to be aware of our inner impulses, evaluate their importance in our lives, and make reasonable decisions.
This two-stage model of decision-making, consisting of both automatic, unconscious functions and willful, conscious functions, makes us responsible for our lives, worthy of praise or blame.
Reason: Pleasure is the central motivating power in human beings; a life short of pleasure is not worth living, says Epicurus. He continues: “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself: but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures.” Therefore, he introduces “practical reason”, as the most suitable virtue to investigate the reasons of every choice and avoidance, and to expel the false opinions, the chief cause of the turmoil that takes possession of the souls of men.
Indeed, in Epicurus, anyone interested in living a life of pleasure will have to be wise (and temperate, courageous, and just), since peace of mind depends on satisfying the right combination of desires. One has to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages for every envisaged action to minimize the influence of fortune: “Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be directed by reason throughout his whole life.”
The wise use of reason helps to keep us away from the pains of nonnatural desires. Food, shelter, and medical treatment can be procured without being dependent much on future successes or undertaking long-term commitments. The more we rely on the future, the more we become vulnerable to chance and necessity. At the same time, Epicurus calls us to plan our lives ahead and make provision of it.
Changing ourselves: The unconscious mind holds the secrets of our lives, and consciousness is the means to disclose and change them. Epicurus suggests learning as the means to change ourselves. As we learn, our brain actually reforms itself on the basis of our new experiences. It may be likened to a soft substance that is continually being reshaped by our daily experiences, and for that reason, we are the architects of our minds.
We need the mediation of philosophy to transform ourselves in line with the messages nature sends us through our feelings. This is not as easy as it may look. The motivation for change rests on the full awareness of the need for change, as well as on the existence of the willingness to change. Thereafter, the first step is to separate the good desires from bad, the healthy from the sick. Then comes the diagnosis of the false beliefs which generate the bad desires, and lastly, to apply the therapeutic treatment through an adjustment of our beliefs.
Free will: That said, a question begs for an answer. “Can we change our minds?” This is, in fact, a double-sided question. On the one hand, it asks whether human beings have any free will at all, and on the other hand, it asks how the envisioned change is to be realized. In the course of time, there have been religious, philosophical, and scientific views that outright rejected the existence of free will.
For instance, scientific views, both ancient and contemporary, have claimed that the physical laws governing the universe and human beings define a prescribed future for both nature and people. Also, religious and philosophical views claim that the driving force in the universe is a divine, invisible hand of spiritual or material nature that providentially designed it and operates it.
Based on observation and experience, Epicurus strongly rejected such deterministic views suggesting that chance breaks up the chain of events and generates new structures and developments. Human intelligence and volition, for example, are accidents of organic life.
Also, accidental deviations of stimuli in our minds can arouse new thoughts and emotions and eventually lead to unexpected decisions and actions. Contemporary evidence confirms the Epicurean views that chance is a reality intrinsic in nature.
Responsibility: Claiming control over our minds and taking responsibility for our decisions are essential to making changes in our lives. No matter how fortunate we are, if we do not know how to control our mental energy and experiences, we will never be happy. There is a lot of pain around us, but there is also joy, and it is up to us what to pay attention to.
Self-sufficiency: Epicurus claims the pillar of happiness is self-sufficiency (autarkeia). Self-sufficiency is an innate inclination of beings derived from the instinct for self-preservation. We are born vulnerable and completely dependent on our parents, but we see that naturally, we strive to discover our own capacities and eventually become autonomous. Inevitably, in the early stages of our lives, we have to compromise our desires with the demands of society and, often, become totally dependent on it.
Epicurus suggests that claiming our independence and self-sufficiency is an essential step in the path to happiness on the grounds that the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom. We must be free to abolish sick beliefs and introduce healthy ones suitable to our character and invulnerable to chance and necessity. The instruction to live in accordance with nature is, in large part, the foundation of self-reliance.
Optimism: Another foundation of happiness is optimism: the expectation of future freedom from pain. In the words of Epicurus: “The body cries out to not be hungry, not be thirsty, and not be cold. Anyone who has these things, and who is confident of continuing to have them, can rival the gods for happiness.” Certainly, the confidence about the future rests not only on self-sufficiency, but also on the expectation of pleasure to come. This is a natural tendency of human beings. No one can endure life, let alone be happy, in expectation of pain.
Neither does anyone think that his life is going to end any time soon. By nature, the human being is optimistic and intuitively draws a plan of a life filled with pleasure. He is not content simply with the pleasure of the instant. He has in mind the whole prospect of his life and instinctively draws a lifelong plan for it. He is disposed to withhold some present desires in order to satisfy future ones, or he may have to contain or remove desires for which present fulfillment may have harmful future results.
Epicurus advises us to avoid the unpleasant side of life, to live not in fear of death or god’s punishment or to pay attention to religions, the consumerist, and other false philosophies; to not hope, and to not seek the impossible.