Epicurus and the Good Life

03 March 2012

This week’s conversation is about Epicurus and the Good Life.  Now in common parlance an epicurean is one who is “fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking.”  But the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was decidedly not an epicurean in that sense of the word.  His philosophy is actually pretty far removed from epicureanism as ordinarily understood.

Epicurus did  acknowledge that desires for good food and fine wine were natural.  But he actually dismissed such desires as entirely unnecessary.  And he seemed to believe that in the long run the pursuit of them would set you up for a life of pain and distress.  The real key to human happiness, on his view,  didn’t involve the pursuit of luxury or excessive sensual pleasures.  Rather, it involved the absence of bodily pain and mental distress.

But I don’t mean to make it sound as though he was entirely opposed to what we might call positive pleasures.  He just thought we should pursue positive pleasures of the right kind. Those would be pleasures brought about by the satisfaction of what he called our natural and necessary desires – simple desires like the desire for food, or for the company of good friends.  He also counted that the state that you are in when you are free of pain and mental distress not as a neutral state of neither pleasure nor pain, but as a positive, though, “calm”  state of pleasure.

 Now calling some desires natural and necessary may seem to suggest that other desires are unnatural and/or unnecessary.  And that is exactly what Epicurus thought. We already gave an example of a natural but unnecessary desire – the desire for fine food and drink  -- with the emphasis being on the fine, here.    An example of a completely unnatural desire is the desire for immortality -- a desire borne of the unreasonable  fear of death.

Though I am sure some will think that desire not to die is the most natural thing in the world and is perfectly rational too, Epicurus thought that that desire  just gets in the way  and prevents us from living well.   The desire for immortality is bound to go unsatisfied.  Unsatisfied desires are the main cause of pain and anxiety.  One of Epicurus’s main philosophical aims was to help people free themselves from such desires and to refocus them on the simple and easy pleasures that come from satisfying our natural and necessary desires.   If we just rid ourselves of things like the desire for immortality and face death with equanimity,  he seemed to believe,  everything would be alright.

Part of me thinks that Epicurus needs to read his Shakespeare, however.  He tells us that   death is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.  It puzzles the will and makes cowards of us all.  It is intrinsically and naturally loathsome.   If Shakespeare is right about that, it would seem quite reasonable to fear death.

But I can see Epicurus insisting that Hamlet just proves the point.  Ask yourself why Hamlet finds those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune so unbearable.   It’s surely partly because his own fear that death would be even more unbearable than life feeds into and magnifies his already high level of anxiety in sort of s self-sustaining feed-back loop of anxiety.   As a consequence he whines on and on about his life and how miserable he is.  And the self-inflicted whining prevents him from taking pleasure in his life.  

 I can hear someone  objecting that has a point. As bad as life may be, death is even worse.  In fact, it’s infinitely worse, since it last forever.  

But in reality,  I think that Hamlet really doesn’t have a point.   I admit that depending on exactly how you die, the act of dying can be a bad thing.  Who wants to die in a horrible and painful fashion or in some fruitless forlorn war?  But the state of being dead?  That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing.  It’s a non-thing!   When Hamlet dies, Hamlet isn’t in some awful state.  He’s just, well, gone.  Once Hamlet is dead, there is no Hamlet left to experience either suffering or joy.

You may wonder whether that’s a comforting thought.  After all people do seem to find the  prospect of infinite oblivion horrifying.  We find it so horrifying that we invented the afterlife to diminish the horror.  So it’s not like we’re prepared to embrace infinite oblivious as a panacea for all that ails us in life. 

 But by Epicurus’s lights,  the idea of an  after life is not only a false comfort,  but a completely unnecessary one in the first place.  People should be no more horrified by  the infinite oblivion that follows  death than they are by the infinite oblivion that precedes birth.   The one is no better or worse for them than the other. 

 If you’re going to just take one thing away from Epicurus’s philosophy,  this last point is an extraordinarily good candidate.  It is, I think, one of his most profound and important insights.  But there’s a lot more to Epicurus than this.   He is a fascinating and provocative philosopher.  And I’ve just scratched the surface of his rich and complex system in this blog entry.   But if you listen in to our episode,  you’ll learn a lot more about the intriguing, profound, widely influential, but also widely misunderstood philosopher, Epicurus.

Comments (30)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

If you want to live an Epic

If you want to live an Epic life, keep it simple and true.
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Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I'll ponder it awhile. But, I

I'll ponder it awhile. But, I'll also leave kind readers with this small thought: Most anything, religious; philosophical; scientific or political, we tend to alter to suit the relevency of the times. In so doing, we forever alter the initial intent of that with which we have tinkered. It is an evolutionary progression, intertwined with the human propensity to change those things that may be unacceptable or inconvenient. Does any of this sound familiar? Look around you. Ponder it awhile. I have.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

A propitious birth, the

A propitious birth, the opportunity for a good life and an easy death, who wouldn't opt for Epicureanism?
But, if one's life was in the context of a perfect storm of misfortunes (as was the case with Plato), who wouldn't turn to Stoicism or escape the material world into an imaginary reality, as Plato did? (The poet, Robert Frost, once mocked the philosophy of Plato in a paraphrase: "The woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in heaven or in someone else's bed.") The tragedy of Western philosophy is that the views of Plato rather than Epicurus has ruled for more than two millennia.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Monday, March 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Carpenter, as usual you have

Carpenter, as usual you have told us how things really work -- insights that philosophers need to know as much as they need to know the outcome of their own particular kind of rationalism. So, Arvo, you can see the true "tragedy of Western philosophy": as the Carpenter points out, no matter how sage the philosopher, no one will do what the philosopher says unless it serves one's "wants," (not one's "needs").

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Hmmm, uh ,what---oh I just

Hmmm, uh ,what---oh I just got up from my afternoon nap. Plato's views a tragedy? Let me see: Billy Shakespeare wrote tragedy, didn't he? The Russian---whose name I cannot spell (the Gulag guy...) once mocked Ernest Hemmingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Who cares, really? I read Hemmingway although I found his prose maudlin, in a grandiose sense. One of Bob Dylan's songs had a line in it that I can only vaguely recall: something about Robert Frost and Jesse James??? Huh?---oh yeah; I just woke up---never mind, then. Heh---------------------------------------. Hasn't someone said that Shakespeare was a fraud, or never existed, or some other brou-ha-ha? Doesn't matter much now, does it? No. And it never did. Unless one believes in some sort of immortality. Everything dies. But, it seems doubtful that non-human life worries about that---I did not feel guilt with my last bite of venison. I am glad his progeny will not likely stalk me with a 41 magnum pistol. My good luck...must watch where I drive though. We make history---not always well; but, not all ways poorly. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ...

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

mirugal: I tend to agree with

mirugal: I tend to agree with your general outlook but believe that the problem goes deeper.
Consider that twenty-five centuries ago, an educated Greek, Egyptian or Babylonian understood that the world was spherical and envisioned it fixed in its firmament much like a pearl in an oyster. Alternatively, one could think of it as an intimate, comfy womb-like universe with the sun, moon and stars all equidistant from Earth. Then along comes a gadfly, Heraclitus of Ephesus, who declares that the only constant is change and reality is a river, ever flowing and ever changing. The philosophers were aghast. Some turned to skepticism while the most prominent sought to save permanence. The most successful and influential was Plato, who concluded that the material world was a shadow, or an imperfect copy of a genuine reality that could be found only in an abstract world of ideas.
Fifteen centuries ago, under the influence of Plato and Christianity, an educated European accepted that the Earth as flat and motionless at the center of an orderly and perfect universe. A millennium of enforced permanence called the Dark Ages passed before science erupted, not with convincing evidence but with gunpowder. Humankind now has the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons and soon with genetic weapons will be able to incapacitate or destroy select segments of the human race. So, where is philosophy and religion if not still struggling to get out of the Dark Ages. (To be fair, American philosophic pragmatism has regained some of the insight of Heraclitus but there is still much catching up to do.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

"The most successful and

"The most successful and influential was Plato, who concluded that the material world was a shadow, or an imperfect copy of a genuine reality"
Shadows are real too, aren't they?
=
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Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

As a modern-day Buddha has

As a modern-day Buddha has been known to say: And just so. We find, in the course of thought and ensuing discourse, that we agree upon some things and not on some others. Which came first, chicken or egg? We have puzzled over that one for a couple of millinea at least. But it is actually a koan, of sorts, because neither the chicken, nor ITS egg came first: the dinosaur and/or ITS egg did. The Carpenter sounds like an old, experienced fart; Mirugai: a thinker; and Arvo? An analytical paleontologist, along the lines of Stephen J. Gould---sorry if that offends---I do not know you (or--maybe, I do?)---but I calls 'em as I sees 'em.
All of you are quite right, I believe. Arvo was likely most direct when stating that the problem goes deeper.
1. Science and religion have an enmity borne of ages. Religion probably came first, and therefore claims dominion over the souls and affairs of men. Take me on faith, it implores...for I and my tenets are unassailable.
God says so. End of story.
2. Science is the young pup in the kennel. But, even so, science began when the first fire-maker (or fire-preserver) burned his fingers. He did not wish to do that again. So, science began. Now, see, science is smart and takes nothing on faith. And science has proven wrong many aspects of faithful foundations. Older dogs chew up young pups. And, religion, along with its cousins, superstition and ignorance, are formidible older dogs.
3. And, as such is just so: the duality of religion and science is, I submit, ONE of the deeper problems. There are, of course, several others. My brother and I discussed this topic after he asked me what I thought was mankind's biggest problem. I said I thought it was fear. We are still working on this one.
It seems we shall never overcome our deeper problems, although we solve the shallower ones everyday. Weren't some of you saying that anyway? No? Not exactly---O.K.
Well,---we cannot agree upon everything, can we? Love the blog; love the originators and commenters,

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 8, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

This is a most unusual blog:

This is a most unusual blog: It does not sell the inherent intellectual prowess of its creators; does not pander to un-associated interests---if my spider sense is not fogged by my exhaustion---; and, as stated, it does not question the intelligence of its' commenters, or as someone might say: anything(within reason) goes. Keep on, fellow-explorers---keep on. I'm fished---what? (oh, I'm fished is an old colloquialism for: you've fished me in.)
Maybe you know it better as: you reeled me in. Or better yet: I'm hooked, but---I'm hooked has a such a poor brain-feel about it (social paranoias about drugs and all...)
oh, well....................................................., sure.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

No, Michael, shadows are not

No, Michael, shadows are not real---they are but illusions cast from real objects by the physics of light and optical effect. If we could always believe our eyes and ears, all things we witness through those faculties might, in some ephemeral manner, be real. But inasmuch as we cannot, they are not. I suppose we have strayed far from the original topic of this post. But maybe not so far really. Epicurianism (or: "the good life") is a horse of many different colours. Or, metaphorically speaking, one man's meat is another man's poison...sometimes, literally...

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Shadows are not real?

Shadows are not real?
Are you sure about that Harold?
It seems Plato had a hard time with shadows being real in a cave as well.
Perhaps Ken and John you could do a future show on the reality of a shadow, Pato's cave, illusions, the science of physics or the measure of nature, light and optical effects, or more simply: what is real? I for One have no shadow of a doubt that shadows are as real as light, or that night is but a real shadow of the light of day.
Thanks again for the wonderful place to think and write,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Re the chicken and egg. Time

Re the chicken and egg. Time to settle this one. A proto-chicken laid an egg that became the first chicken. Thus the egg came first. The proto-chicken was not a chicken.
Now that that is settled, at least in my mind, the point I found most interesting in the Epicurus discussion was the notion that much of which philosophy has long concerned itself, "being", "virtue". "truth", "beauty", etc. is not much more than an unfortunate result of humans having acquired language. We make up these concepts, communicate them, then argue and fret over them as though they exist.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

As to the reality of shadows,

As to the reality of shadows, I have to agree with Michael. As a former civil engineer, I tend to take a simple and practical view of things (bearing in mind the proviso of Albert Einstein that an explanation can be as simple as possible, not any simpler).
Reality, as I understand it, implies freedom from deception, something that is as it is with or without anyone being cognizant of it, and something constantly changing or in flux. What has bothered philosophers is that if everything is undergoing constant change, then nothing "is." Even some modern "process philosophers" seem to take the view that only the process is real but Heraclitus was more pragmatic, observing that, "In change is rest."

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Once again, we are caught up

Once again, we are caught up in terms which may (or may not) convey Michael's message of truth. Shadows. Illusions. Reality. Fred said the same thing, essentially, that I read before---something about dinosaur's eggs, etc. And then there is of course, deception: not uniquely a human propensity, but certainly refined by us over several millinea (at least). Heraclitus aside, "the only thing constant IS change" (emphasis mine). If everything is "real", then this means (I suppose) that shadows and illusions are real---as are deceptions-real in the sense that WE recognize them. But this is leading back to the circularity of chicken and egg, isn't it?
Tim, you are lucid and we sometimes think on similar tracks---help me out here? There are these separate realities*, and I cannot seem to fathom them. So, why is that? Am I ignorant---are they realities, or homo-constructs, borne of the imaginings of philosophers and scientists such as ourselves?
I keep thinking about Pinker's work; the meaning(s) of life; and semantics generally. We just keep playing with that damned chicken and egg: Perhaps, the yolk is on us, hmmmm? Probably so.
Good Night Friends,
The Carpenter.
(* the allusion is to Carlos Castaneda's A SEPARATE REALITY, from an earlier century...)

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 16, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Shadows? Real? As real as

Shadows? Real? As real as political ideologies, I guess. But I won't get ground up in this one. No thanks. Been reading S.J. Gould some more. WONDERFUL LIFE, to be exact. Inasmuch as this post has had much ado about the good life, I was interested in Gould's OEOs concerning the life of Charles Doolittle Walcott. Seems that Charlie was a better than middling paleontologist and scientist who made interesting discoveries in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. Thing is, that after Charlie made these discoveries, he got caught up in his own unfinished legend...became, as Gould noted, an administrator, and as such, lost his first love: applied science. Oh, there were tragedies in Walcott's life---just as there are tragedies in the lives of us all. C.D. Walcott accomplished many great things and had, by any reasonable measure, an exceedingly good life.
But, if Gould's account is anywhere near truth, Charlie Walcott regretted not getting the Burgess Shale job done.
"And just so." Indeed. Many times we defer certain aspects of The Good Life, believing we shall someday get back to that which made our lives worthwhile in the first (or second) place. As with another many of us, Charlie Walcott just ran out of time---and did not seem to know it until the year he died.
Friends, family, acquaintences and strangers ask me: How are you? People pose this question to other people everyday---either MEANING it, or merely making inane banter, based on current social and cultural standards.
My new response comes from a line in a pop melody (I forget which decade---they all are seeming the same now): "...it's all been a pack of lies..." Tell me about The Good Life, if you think you know what that is. I'll listen. I might even agree---to some point. Life is wonderful and it is a wonderful life. But, things just don't work out the way we plan, do they?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

The philosopher, Barrows

The philosopher, Barrows Dunham, provided an amusing vignette of two college professors who get into a philosophical debate in the college cafeteria after one of them chooses brown bread for lunch and is led to defend his choice with the words, "It is good to be healthy." Under rigorous philosophic questioning, he is forced to admit he doesn't know what he means. But, when the table is turned, and the interrogator is required to defend his skepticism, he is forced to admit that he doesn't mean anything at all; he is merely grunting approval or disapproval ("like a pig at the trough," suggests his colleague).
That, suggests Dunham, is the danger of carrying philosophic analysis too far. The question then is, when we talk of the good life, democracy, reality or any such concept, are we saying anything beyond grunting approval or disapproval of some particular?
By the way, I would say that a mirage may be real but the water it seems to offer is not. "This statement is false," appears to be a real statement but its meaning is not: the statement is true if it is false and false if it is true. In any case, I enjoy the shadow (shade) of a tree on a hot day whether the shadow is real or not.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, March 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you, Carpenter, I

Thank you, Carpenter, I consider it a blessing to be asked to help. I just spent four days one-on-one with a Zen practitioner, doing nothing but talking, telling stories with a point, and observing his practice, day to day. While looking for instruction on such matters as "Is there any way to make it easier to plunge a beautiful, energetic, young crab into boiling water?" Or, how can one express how one feels in the presence of the "largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world" which has been torn in half by a hurricane, to the tree? Philosophically, my methods have previously centered on a duality that I call "Matter/Consciousness." My Buddhist friend, of course, like MJA of this blog, teaches that there is no duality, either in concept, or in fact. (I think). He says our practice should be to try to "leap over the one and the whole." By which I take him to mean that, even though it may be impossible to finally accomplish, keep practicing the mental work that will free you from thinking of everything as "me, and all," or "the individual and the all," or "single, and the universe," or "one and none (binary)," or "one and infinity," or... you get it, I am sure. So, Carpenter, all I am suggesting is that philosophers are fortunate in one great respect: they will listen to any good argument, and think about it, and give it the credibility that good arguments deserve. Then trust the skills that you have built up by having practiced contemplating ideas. The philosopher's exercise is to sit in a comfortable chair, and think about stuff: to have the powers and the ability to make this something you want to do, is just plain and simple wonderful.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 19, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you for making me feel

Thank you for making me feel normal. When I tell people I look forward to death they think I'm depressed and suicidal. But I look at it objectively and would compare it to vacation or retirement if you would. Working is hard and you look forward to days off. It doesn't mean one wants to quit their job. There are enjoyable working days, too. :-)

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 23, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Thought so, TS---just

Thought so, TS---just checking though. I suppose the gulf between religion and philosophy is not so great as I once imagined. It is confusing, at times---but we are in it for the long haul, yes? And, mas o menos, we/and/or it may sort it all out. If that is supposed to happen. Still---it is hard to discern WHAT is supposed to happen, isn't it?
Well,---there I go again---heh,heh. Questions. All these questions. Hmmmph, said the camel.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 25, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

The Pythagoreans, a community

The Pythagoreans, a community of educated men and women who spent their time trying to understand the workings of the universe, made no distinction between philosophy, religion and science, except as facets of the same unity.
Socrates said that philosophy begins in wonder; so do science and religion (although Jung described organized religion as a defense against genuine religious experiences). Since pantheism has no official heresies, its weakness is that it provides no reason to hate and oppress, no defense against anything and little guidance.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 26, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Facets---yes we have those in

Facets---yes we have those in many regards, don't we? We CREATE the strengths and weaknesses of our beliefs, because they have neither without our sanction and cooperation; they are nothing without homo sapient consciousness; nothing without cultural and superstitial (similar to superficial) iconographies. I have had discussions and arguments with scientists, philosophers and my brother concerning symbology and symbolism. Most traditionalists and conservatives assert that we can neither persevere nor advance, in any evolutionary sense, without our symbols. My contention is that such antiquated notions have held us back---or, to re-iterate what another commenter has noted: we always get what we have always gotten because we always do what we have always done. One example of this notion is coming up, this coming November...

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, March 29, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Symbols, paradigms, and the

Symbols, paradigms, and the patterns of evolution and history -- what is anyone to make of them? With respect to politics, Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the parliament of Iceland, put it nicely when, after noting that for the first time in history Iceland had a pure Socialist government added, "But nothing has changed because it is part of the system and the system doesn't change, you see." (Imagine such frankness form North American politicians,) While it seems quite rational to have strong opinions, in the bigger scheme of things, what does it matter who wins in November? It is not the President, Congress and Senate who decide the bigger issues. Money was intended to be a medium of exchange; instead, it has concentrated power in an international plutocracy and put it in control of governments?

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, May 10, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

DESIRE

DESIRE
It is important to distinguish, when discussing desire, between ?wants? and ?needs.? And then, consider the Epicurean desire to be ?free from pain,? and how that plays.
 Capitalism is the economy of ?I want??: it is socially selfish and wasteful. Socialism and communism are the economies of ?this is what you need?: this is the only way to mediate the ?ever increasing competition for ever dwindling resources," but they are dictatorial and authoritarian.
 Fear of death? Epicurus frees us of this fear by saying that there is only matter (and void). So when matter dies, there is nothing left; since consciousness is not material, it (whatever it is) ends. But my view is that consciousness is not material, and so is not subject to the rules of material existence. It is a second kind of thing: and if you need definitions, just the word ?consciousness? is sufficient to define it. Death is either: 1. The end of consciousness (the closest analogue is sleep ? very pleasant); or 2. Some continuation of consciousness. Why assume it has to be unpleasant? And to a philosopher, even if it is unpleasant, it will be fascinating. So since we can?t know what such consciousness after death might be like, go ahead and think about it, and speculate about it, and, as E might say, if it pleases you or eases you, make up some rules and ideas about a good afterlife that appeal to your ?needs.?

bfryer's picture

bfryer

Thursday, May 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I listened to this show while

I listened to this show while driving home from the airport and would have loved to have called in. It has a lot to do with "Terror Management Theory". From Wikipedia: In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.[1][2] The theory was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, andTom Pyszczynski.[1]
These guys are writing a book about TMT, due to come out from Random House someday...
There was also a really interesting documentary about this called Flight From Death, as well, which you can watch on Hulu. http://www.hulu.com/watch/173530

doug.pinkard92@post.harvard.edu's picture

doug.pinkard92@...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

The link between Freud and

The link between Freud and Epicurus runs through Nietzsche: the influence on him of the latter in turn influencing the former.

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ytg0408

Sunday, February 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

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