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An Epicurean Ideal

David Suits fearlessly pursues a materialistic life of simple pleasures.

In 306 BCE, Epicurus, who was then about 35 years old, purchased a house on the outskirts of Athens. He invited people to stay in this Garden (as it came to be called) in order to discuss philosophy and to live a relatively simple and self-sufficient life in the company of friends and fellows.

The Garden was the first of many such Epicurean communities, and was still in existence five hundred years later. The promise of the Garden was simple: happiness. This Epicurus described (somewhat misleadingly) as a kind of pleasure.

Apparently all people were welcome, including slaves and women. The fact that some of the participants were women, and the fact that the Epicurean message had something to do with pleasure, were no doubt important reasons why some outsiders sought to characterize the Epicureans as wanton pleasure-seekers – a reputation which Epicureans were constantly having to fight against, even down to the present day.

Pleasure was indeed a key concept in Epicurus’ teachings, but it was precisely not the pleasure of orgies or of fancy food and drink or other luxuries. (Nothing on epicurus.com or associated web sites would be pursued by an Epicurean.) Rather, to an Epicurean, a pleasurable life was one free from physical pain, and much more importantly, free from anxiety and mental turmoil. A wise Epicurean would be a careful and prudent person who maintained a life of calm simplicity.

The ultimate goal for Epicurean philosophy was ataraxia, which is peace of mind, or tranquility – characteristic of a life which perceives no serious problems. Ataraxia requires above all the removal of certain very disturbing fears found in most people and in most cultures: fear of the gods, fear of the afterlife, and fear of death. Let’s consider them in order.

Fear of Gods

Like Democritus a generation earlier, Epicurus was an atomist. Atomists said that the universe consists of an infinity of in-divisible (= Greek a-tom) particles moving about in nothingness. Everything is a combination of atoms – usually a temporary combination, because the impact of free atoms crashing into something will eventually break it up. Since there is an infinity of atoms, there are an infinity of worlds, many of which are like our own. In between the worlds is mostly empty space.

If everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too. But the gods have a unique feature: they inhabit the space between the worlds. So the gods are free from the hazards of wayward atoms. Thus the gods are eternal. But this also means that they can receive no information from the worlds, and they can have no causal effect on any world. These Epicurean gods, then, are quite unlike the usual Greek conception of gods as super-beings, focusing their attention on humans in order to cause them fortune or disaster and requiring humans to offer sacrifices or other propitiations, which sometimes seemed to work and sometimes not. Epicurean gods were not to be feared, because they could do nothing to you. They could not even know about you. The gods were rather to be emulated: the gods remain undisturbed, and that is precisely what we ought to strive for.

Fear of The Afterlife

Many people think and thought that after death there will be another life, possibly an unpleasant life in the underworld. Uncertainties about what this afterlife will be and what miseries it might bring are grounds for anxiety, and such anxiety interferes with a serene life.

Epicurus had a remedy: if everything is made of atoms, then so are we. We are different from other things in having a soul, but the soul, too, is made of atoms. (Apparently they were exceedingly fine, slippery atoms, and difficult to contain.) At death both the body and soul are dissolved. There can be no such thing as life after destruction. Consequently there is no afterlife to be afraid of.

Fear of Death

But annihilation without an afterlife is precisely what many people dread. Epicurean theory provides a remedy for this tranquility-disturbance: everything which is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, can ultimately produce pleasure or pain, either directly or indirectly. But death, which is the destruction of a material entity, cannot result in pain, simply because after the destruction of the experiencing being there is no longer any being to experience anything. Other people might regret your death, of course, but you will not be able to.

Once you realize that your death will have no consequences for you because there will no longer be a you, then you should realize that there’s nothing to fear, not even in advance. That is to say, there’s no point in fearing (or regretting, worrying, or being anxious about) something if you know that when it happens it cannot possibly cause you any pain, either directly or indirectly. “Death,” Epicureans say, “is nothing to us.”

The Simple Life

Once these three most serious fears have been dealt with, only relatively trivial problems remain – trivial in that they are usually solved without much difficulty: enough food to keep the body healthy, and a community of friends to help with the life of the mind. Friends also make the necessities of life easier to get, and so friends are useful for many ordinary situations, and for an occasional emergency. Friendship is therefore important for purely egoistic, instrumental reasons. But good friends eventually become valuable ‘in themselves’, as we sometimes say. A simple life is easy to achieve and easy to maintain in the company of friends. This is not to say that luxuries and special pleasures are to be avoided. A prudent person will not go looking for them, but will enjoy them if the opportunity presents itself.

The general Epicurean principle is, if you discard all desires which are difficult to satisfy, you will probably be exempt from anxiety and frustration. This means you should avoid public life, which tempts you with power and riches. The pursuit of these easily causes mental turmoil and the loss of friends, and usually you feel unfulfilled even if you do get the power you wanted. In any case, there’s no end to it: you always want more. “Live unknown” is an injunction attributed to Epicurus.

Anarchy In Arcadia

Just as Epicurean friendship has an instrumental value, Epicurean social justice has to do with the utility of social relationships. Epicurus is quite clear that any concept of justice as something more or other than what is useful, for mutual associations, and ultimately, for tranquility, is, well, useless. In particular, laws inconsistent with utility are not part of justice.

For Epicurus, justice involves a contract (or agreement or understanding) of mutual non-interference – a contract ‘not to harm or be harmed’. A just society would require a great tolerance of others, then. If people act in ways that don’t interfere with you directly or indirectly, the Epicurean response is to leave them alone to pursue their own goals in their own ways. One of the greatest modern advocates of personal liberty, J. S. Mill, was explicitly indebted to a rich Epicurean tradition.

If a society were populated with only wise Epicureans, there would be no need for an explicit contract not to harm, because wise Epicureans would have no motive to harm. So not only are Epicureans tolerant, they also have no desire for power, whether power to obtain goods or power over others. Since such desires interfere with tranquility, wise people would not be motivated by them. Epicurean theory, then, seems to lead to a vision of utopia where fairly satisfied people live in security with each other, dealing with each other when and how it would be in their interests to do so, and otherwise leaving each other alone.

This sounds anarchical. But Epicurus was not explicitly an anarchist, and so we may wonder whether an ideal Garden-type community might instead have a very limited government, whose main function would be to help resolve disagreements and to keep potential trouble-makers in line.

This seems unlikely. For one thing, it’s not clear why a government would be the preferred tool for resolving any disputes. And in any case, wise Epicureans – satisfied, prudent people living amongst friends – would not look for coercive solutions. In an ideal society, the coercive power of a government would be worse than useless; it would be an interference in the good life and antithetical to Epicurean principles. This is why Epicurus founded his Garden as a retreat from, and an alternative to, the polis [Greek city state] as a community ruled by force.

On the other hand, any less-than-ideal society would contain many people who were not wise Epicureans. In such a society, prudent people will want security not from each other but from these imprudent people – people who do not know their own long-term interests and who might pursue power and therefore interfere in the lives of others. In this case, perhaps some sort of very minimal government could have a peacekeeping role. However, it is not clear that even this limited role should be given over to a government rather than to private security forces, say, or perhaps to ad hoc committees or vigilante groups whose members would come together temporarily in order to confront a particular breach of the peace.

The Ideal is Not Social

The Epicurean agreement not to harm might seem rather incomplete: it seems to leave out some issues which people usually think of as important for justice, such as public happiness or social welfare. An agreement not to harm is not an agreement intended to ensure the general welfare; it is not for the sake of the community, but only for the benefit of individuals qua individuals. So Epicureans seem to be merely self-interested and not truly social. Epicurean communities, such as the Garden, did indeed tend to be somewhat self-sufficient and isolated, and therefore seen by outsiders as being disinterested in others, as not participating in the larger social structures. So Epicureans were seen as poor citizens.

Probably most people would not find Garden life very attractive; it could seem ultimately unfulfilling. But that would not surprise Epicurus. He knew that most people are raised to believe that power and riches are desirable, that death is to be feared, and that a life of simplicity amongst friends would be unsatisfying.

It may be true that most Epicureans were mediocre citizens, but it was not their intention to participate in civic affairs. The purpose of the Garden was simply to show how personal happiness can be achieved. It was to be achieved not by trying to create a utopia, nor by reorganizing society, but rather by reorganizing a person’s knowledge and beliefs – which is to say, by giving the person instruction in philosophy.

© David B. Suits 2008

David Suits is a Professor at the Philosophy Department at Rochester Institute of Technology, NY. He thanks Christine Sage Suits for her corrections and comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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