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Epicurus For Today

Luke Slattery argues that the ancient philosophy of the Garden offers an attractive answer to some of the challenges of the modern world.

An elaborate faux Roman villa, replete with coffered ceilings and a lavish ‘Vesuvian’ color scheme, rises above the Pacific coast at Malibu. Why location scouts didn’t seize upon it for the Coen brothers’ comedy Hail, Caesar is anyone’s guess. But it’s best thought of as another kind of prop. Built by John Paul Getty to house his art collection, the Getty Villa connects the contemporary world with an ancient philosophy that could change the world for the better; or, at least, make a difference. Getty modelled his villa on a partially buried seaside mansion at Roman Herculaneum, a victim of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is known as ‘the Villa of the Papyri’ because it housed a vast collection of papyrus manuscripts. Most of these are on Epicurean themes.

Epicureanism was the world’s first ‘green’ philosophy. When people turn to the ancient therapeutic philosophies, or arts of life, they tend to look to resolute Stoicism for succor. But Epicureanism, which insists that we learn to be happy with less, is a better fit with the anxieties du jour.

The reason Epicureanism is not often mentioned in this context is that for more than two thousand years it has been misunderstood. Today Epicureanism is regarded as a form of gastronomic connoisseurship. In antiquity it was the exact opposite.

Epicurus (341-270 BC) abandoned the city of Athens for a house and garden outside its walls. The communards who followed him adopted the pleasure principle as their guide: the purpose of life is to maximise pleasure. But they understood pleasure not as the fulfillment of desire so much as its rational mastery. The richest pleasure of all, Epicurus believed, was freedom from suffering. “By pleasure,” he insisted, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.”

A troubled soul, Epicurus believed, had two main causes: fear of death, and runaway desire. He tried to banish the first by pushing back against superstition. There is nothing to fear in death, he taught, because when you’re alive death is elsewhere, and when you’re dead you won’t be there – or words to that effect. Then, once irrational fears of the afterlife are swept aside, the Epicurean can attend to this one finite life. And as for desire, Epicurus counseled a disposition very close to Eastern ascetic simplicity: we are to shun the pursuit of unnecessary pleasures – of new sensations, more possessions – and instead take deep pleasure in simple things. As some of the few surviving fragments of writings by Epicurus explain, he aimed to live frugally at peace amid ‘nature’s wealth’. So there were no antiquarian cook-offs in the Epicurean garden, no tastings of the finest Retsina (if there ever was such a thing as fine resinated wine). Meals were shared, although property was not. Epicurus declared himself content with water, bread, weak wine, and a ‘pot of cheese’. During a siege of Athens he kept his community going with a store of beans, which must have been both a culinary and an olfactory challenge for all concerned.

An inscription placed at the entrance to the Epicurean garden conveyed something of its presiding spirit:

“The host and keeper of this place, where you will find the pleasure of the highest good, will offer you freely cakes of barley and fresh spring water. This garden will not tease your appetite with the dainties of art but satisfy it with the bounties of nature. Will you not be a happy guest?”

Getty Villa
Getty Villa, Malibu
© Bobak Ha’eri 2007

The Epicurean Cosmos

Attempting to explain the movement of the world’s constituents, Epicurus held that although its atoms tend to fall in a straight line, they are liable now and then to deviate, or swerve. This primitive version of the particle theory of matter has profound psychological and ethical implications, since the swerve in nature allows for human freedom. By imbuing the basic stuff of matter with an erratic, unpredictable quality, a ‘free movement’, Epicurus hoped to release mankind from the chains of predestination. Without this swerve, none of us are responsible for our actions, since they would have then been determined, as a second-century AD Epicurean, Diogenes of Oinoanda, explained. The end result of a deterministic world is that “all admonition and censure are nullified and not even the wicked” can be justly punished.

Our planet is one among many, Epicurus argues. But Epicurus’s philosophy resolutely denies the existence of a spiritual or abstract, supernatural world – such as was offered by the Platonic, then Christian traditions, and even Stoic cosmology, which insists on a determined universe infused with the breath of a cosmic god. Epicureanism, most importantly, rejects all thought of a postponement of happiness to a paradise in the heavens. At the point of death, Epicurus believed, we simply dissolve into the basic constituents of the universe, the atoms.

It was this courageous questioning of received ideas about religion that encouraged his followers to picture Epicurus as a liberator, a breaker of shackles, a champion of humanity – a saviour. “Therefore Superstition is now in her turn cast down and trampled underfoot,” writes Lucretius in celebration of his master’s atheism, “whilst we by the victory are exalted high as heaven.” Lucretius views Epicurus as a philosophical freedom fighter who has turned religion on its head so as to exalt man – an image that was to exert a formative influence many centuries later on the young Karl Marx. There is much of Epicurus – who was the subject of Marx’s doctoral dissertation – in the young revolutionary’s early thinking. The Marxist notion of the philosopher as change-agent takes its heroic colours from Lucretius’ celebration of Epicurus the liberator. And Marx’s vision of the Communist utopia, in which a man might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” has a distinct Epicurean cast.

Happy Simplicity

The Epicurean message, stripped to its essence, really is a call to liberation – from a superstitious fear of death, and from destructive desire. Its less-is-more ethos is remarkably, improbably, providentially relevant, twenty-three centuries after it was first articulated. As the late College de France scholar of antique philosophy, Pierre Hadot, explained, it enjoins us to “learn to be content with what satisfies fundamental needs, while renouncing what is superfluous. A simple formula, but one that cannot but imply a radical upheaval of our lives.”

If translated into contemporary terms, this thinking might compel us to temper our mania for consumption; for more cars, more gadgets – more stuff. What gives Epicureanism its contemporary usefulness is that it talks not of an angst and guilt-ridden need to make do with less – the dilemma, broadly speaking, of eco-minded people – but of the rich pleasure to be had from doing so. It’s essentially an egoistic or selfish philosophy with altruistic consequences. So the philosophy of the garden addresses an urgent ethical question: how do we manage the threat of global warming caused by human over-industrialisation, and the crisis of environmental degradation that ultimately follows? Epicurus answered this question long before it was a question by invoking the idea of natural limits as a guide to action: “He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect,” he wrote. “Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict.” Time and again Epicurus and his followers return to the theme of limits: “One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”

It might seem to make no sense to airlift a philosophy of deep antiquity twenty-three centuries on from its origin and expect it to precisely dovetail with contemporary needs, and yet it is eerily prophetic. Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s 2013 treatise, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, is a critique of exponential economic growth that opens with a quote from Epicurus: “Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little.” And a few lines from the Epicurean poet Lucretius, penned at the height of paganism, also strike home in the age of the smartphone:

“While we can’t get what we want, that seems
Of all things most desirable,
Once got,
We must have something else.”

It should be remembered, however, that the philosophy of Epicurus is very old, and despite its contemporary resonance, is now and then rather strange. For example, believing in the absolute authority of the senses, Epicurus considered the sun no bigger than an orange because it seemed that size to the naked eye. Even in the domain of ethics, where Epicureanism is at its most attractive, its various dictates mix the reasonable – “There are three motives to injurious acts among men – hatred, envy and contempt; and these the wise man will overcome with reason” – with the ludicrous: “The wise man will not make fine speeches… Nor will he dribble when drunk.” On the other hand, it is remarkable just how directly the Epicurean ideal speaks to many contemporary needs. In antiquity this ideal was distilled to a quatrain of spare yet beautiful phrases:

“Nothing to fear in God;
Nothing to feel in Death;
Good can be attained;
Evil can be endured.”

This tetrapharmakos, or ‘fourfold remedy’, shows us how to achieve the Epicurean ideal of being happy in this moment, to stop postponing our joy – to, in the famous formulation of the Roman Epicurean poet Horace, “Seize the day!”

Epicurean Economics

Just how practical for contemporary people is the ‘radical upheaval’ (in Hadot’s phrase) implied by Epicureanism? Chicago University philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a world authority on Hellenistic philosophy, argues, “The whole world cannot organize into little Epicurean communities; such communities are always parasitic upon the economic and political life of the larger world.” And yet I would counsel against a too-ready association of the Epicurean spirit of retreat with a bare, primitive, passive, parasitical existence. The nineteenth century French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau – little known outside his native land, although he was the first to coin what would become the Durkheimian notion of anomie – wrote a beautiful work of Epicurean advocacy and analysis titled La Morale d’Epicure. In it he points out that the lines with which Lucretius ends Book Five of his magisterial poem De Rerum Natura amount to a “doctrine du progress intellectual et moral de l’homme” and are a passionate hymn to creativity and social dynamism achieved by building upon simplicity:

“Seafaring and farming, city walls and laws
And arms, roads, clothing, and all such other things,
All the rewards and delights of life,
Songs, pictures, statues curiously wrought,
All these they learnt by practice gradually
And by experiments of eager minds
As step by step they made their forward way.
So each thing in its turn by slow degrees
Time doth bring forward to the lives of men,
And reason lifts it to the light of day.
For as one concept followed on another
Men saw it form and brighten in their minds
Till by their arts they scaled the highest peak.”

In ancient statuary, Socrates is invariably pug-nosed and ugly. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor, looks like a guy you can trust. Epicurus, eyes set deeply behind a furrowed brow, is permanently cranky. He’s no voluptuary, no gastronomic bore. He’s a radical with a burning idea. It burns fiercely still.

© Luke Slattery 2016

Luke Slattery is a Sydney-based writer, and an honorary associate in the University of Sydney’s department of Classics and Ancient History. He is the author of four books, including Reclaiming Epicurus (Penguin, 2012).

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