Often mischaracterized as a rather debaucherous form of hedonism, Epicureanism actually focuses on the removal of pain and anxiety from our lives, and champions a calm ‘philosophy as therapy’ approach in pursuit of life’s highest pleasure: mental tranquility.
Throughout history, perhaps no philosophy has been slandered as much as Epicureanism. Famous for placing ‘pleasure’ as the highest (and only) good, the teachings of Epicurus drew fierce criticism across the ancient Greco-Roman world from those who saw pleasure as subordinate — as well as subsequently throughout Christian Europe, which connected much pleasure to shame.
The modern English word ‘epicurean’, meanwhile, has come to mean someone devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially from luxurious food and drink. And this is what the word ‘pleasure’ may bring to mind, too: sensory indulgence.
But this characterization of Epicureanism — that it’s a debaucherous, even debased philosophy — is a grave injustice to Epicurus’s actual teachings.
While Epicurus’s philosophy does champion pleasure, it also places different types of pleasure in a strict hierarchy. And, for Epicureans, by far and away the most important type of pleasure is ataraxia, literally meaning ‘not being troubled’, but usually translated as ‘tranquility’.
So, while we can and should enjoy sensory pleasures guilt-free, we should never do so in a way that threatens our peace of mind. For Epicurus, every decision we make should be guided by what leads us closest to ataraxia.
As he clarifies in his Letter to Menoeceus (which features in our list of Epicureanism’s best books):
When we maintain that pleasure is the end [goal], we do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.
So, far from a program of reckless hedonism, Epicureanism is actually a philosophy focused on removing pain and anxiety, enjoying simple pleasures, and ultimately pursuing a life of tranquility.
As the Roman poet Lucretius puts it in his important Epicurean work, On The Nature of Things, the aim for an Epicurean is as follows:
To avoid bodily pain, to have a mind free from anxiety and fear, and to enjoy the pleasures of the senses.
So, how can we live lives of tranquility? Well, Epicurus’s answer is that the bulk of our fears, anxieties, worries, and yearnings are caused by false beliefs we have about ourselves and reality.
Epicurus wants to show us that we already have everything we need to live happy lives, but that our false beliefs about the world cause us anxiety and lead us astray. (In this way, Epicureanism shares much common ground with Stoicism and Buddhism, the top works of which can be explored in our reading lists of philosophy’s best books — and we outline the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism here, the Stoic dichotomy of control here, and the Buddhist concept of anātman (no-self) here).
Through careful and proper use of reason, Epicurus wants to demonstrate that many of our fears and worries are baseless. He thinks that by conducting philosophy as therapy in this way, we can relieve ourselves from many of life’s pains.
Epicurus identifies four major examples of such pains, and offers philosophically reasoned solutions to them. As such, Epicureanism is sometimes labeled the ‘fourfold cure’ or ‘fourfold remedy’ (tetrapharmakos), which distills the first four aphorisms of Epicurus’s Principal Doctrines:
Follow these four mantras, Epicureans advise, and you’ll be well on your way to living a tranquil life of ataraxia, a happy life free from anxiety.
We explore the first two of these in our articles covering Lucretius on why mortality (and the afterlife) are nothing to fear, as well as Epicurus on the true nature of death.
For the remainder of this article, let’s consider the third mantra — what’s good is easy to get — to see Epicurus’s therapeutic approach to philosophy in action.
Epicurus identifies that many of us falsely believe that contentment depends on gaining access to lots of elusive stuff. Following his therapeutic approach, he seeks to undermine this and any other false beliefs we might have about what we think we need for happiness.
He begins by questioning: what do we really need for a happy life?
Modernity might very well try to convince us that we need quite a lot: we need a big house, a new car, the latest gadgets, the most fashionable clothes.
We might feel the need to pack our lives with certain experiences, too — the luxury holiday, the fancy restaurant, the unmissable show. And, of course, to pay for all this, we need ever-more money.
While the particular products and experiences may have changed a little since Epicurus’s day, the sentiment has not: in his writings, Epicurus recognizes that humans must anxiously navigate a great swirling whirlpool of desires, pressures, and expectations on a daily basis.
To help us navigate this whirlpool, Epicurus puts forward a simple system for working out which of our desires are good for us, and which can be ignored.
To start, Epicurus strips things down to the basics. What do we actually need for physical survival? Food, water, shelter — that’s pretty much it. Epicurus calls our desires for these essentials ‘natural and necessary’.
Now, what if beyond a basic range of essentials, we fancy treating ourselves with nicer food, a variety of drinks, and more comfortable, better located shelter? Again, these are perfectly natural and reasonable desires, though not entirely necessary. Epicurus thus buckets these desires as ‘natural but not necessary’.
Everything else? You guessed it: virtually every other desire is ‘unnatural and unnecessary’. You do not need the latest phone; you do not need a faster car; you do not need a whole new wardrobe.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have such things; but by recognizing you don’t need them — and that they serve no natural purpose — you can undercut any anxiety you might feel in not having them.
Reflecting on what we really need to live happy lives in On The Nature of Things, Lucretius puts it poetically:
It is plain to see that our bodily nature needs very few things to banish pain, and to furnish us with many pleasures that are enjoyable from time to time. Nature herself does not complain if the halls are not full of golden statues of youths holding flaming torches to light up the banquets that go on all night, or if the house is not sparkling with silver and gleaming with gold, while the music echoes round the gilded rafters. For by the riverside, stretched out on the soft grass under the shade of a tall tree, people can relax and enjoy themselves far better without all that expense, especially when the weather smiles on them and the spring scatters the green meadow with flowers.
Ultimately, then, when we expose the true nature of many of our desires, Epicurus thinks we should feel comforted by the fact that many of them have absolutely no bearing on our survival as beings. Many add nothing of real value to our lives, and trying to fulfill them just causes unnecessary stress and worry.
What we actually need for survival is very little, and — in contrast to our more extravagant desires — relatively easy to secure. As Epicurus puts it:
One who understands the limits of the good life knows that what eliminates the pains brought on by need and what makes the whole of life perfect is easily obtained, so that there is no need for enterprises that entail the struggle for success.
Try to identify the unnecessary and unnatural desires in your own life. We all have them. The trick lies not in ignoring or repressing them, but in recognizing them for what they are: unnecessary and unnatural. In the pursuit of true happiness and mental tranquility, Epicurus tells us, they are often more trouble than they’re worth.
It’s one thing to agree with Epicurus, it’s another to actually apply his advice. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we live in times of rampant global consumerism. We are bombarded by finely-tuned advertising algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves, and that tell us any and every problem we face is solvable through the acquisition of some shiny new product.
No one is immune from this injection of desire, but one way we can limit its impact is to remind ourselves of what we actually need.
Treating yourself to that nice new coat should be seen as just that: a treat. It’s not necessary — and in fact those whose lifestyles demand ever finer things will find that the pleasures associated with their acquisitions plummet with time. If you’re experiencing diminishing returns on your pleasure, it means your expectations — your perceived ‘status’ baselines — have been raised to unsustainable, anxiety-inducing levels. As Epicurus puts it:
Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little.
By all means enjoy the finer things in life; but recognize them as the finer things in life, Epicurus tells us. Don’t take them for granted, and don’t come to expect or require them all the time.
Your long-term mental health should never be sacrificed for the short-term gratification of the consumerist treadmill. Indeed, if he were alive today, Epicurus would be yelling at us all to get off the treadmill, and to free ourselves from such detrimental, unnatural, unnecessary mental disturbances.
In his therapeutic analysis of desire, Epicurus thus hopes to have revealed to us that we don’t need much to live happy lives. Though we may believe we do, through careful philosophical reasoning we can see that this belief is false. Our actual needs are relatively easily met: as long as we have food, water, and shelter, we can live in tranquility — and, by living simply, we can more fully enjoy the occasional treat.
Easing our anxiety around our accessibility to happiness is just one aspect of Epicurus’s fourfold cure, which itself is just one part of his therapeutic approach to philosophy.
Indeed, though Epicureanism is typically associated with a debaucherous form of hedonism, the life Epicurus recommends could not be further from this. His main focus is to provide everyone with the tools they need to identify mistakes they make about reality, dispel the anxiety such mistakes cause, and live lives free of suffering in the pursuit of ataraxia (to see why some philosophers find even this mitigated form of hedonism troublesome, see Nozick’s Experience Machine).
To further explore Epicureanism and six more hugely influential philosophies for life — including Stoicism, Buddhism, and Existentialism — check out our new course, How to Live a Good Life (According to 7 of the World’s Wisest Philosophies).
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