Fea­ture Luke Slat­tery: Epi­cu­rus and the plea­sure prin­ci­ple

The philoso­pher Epi­cu­rus saw in­sa­tia­bil­ity as a disease – and pro­posed a cure that still res­onates to­day, writes Luke Slat­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Luke Slat­tery’s Re­claim­ing Epi­cu­rus: An­cient Wis­dom that Could Save the World,

THE Hel­lenis­tic age, usu­ally dated from the death of Alexan­der the Great in 323BC to the con­sol­i­da­tion of Rome af­ter the bat­tle of Ac­tium in 31BC, fa­thered the three great philo­soph­i­cal schools of epi­cure­anism, sto­icism and scep­ti­cism. Th­ese ther­a­peu­tic philoso­phies arose in re­sponse to a world that had been re­made by pow­er­ful and largely de­struc­tive forces. But they are still rel­e­vant — in the case of epi­cure­anism, pro­foundly rel­e­vant — to our life to­day.

Epi­cu­rus and his fol­low­ers — a sur­pris­ingly broad group in­clud­ing men and women, free ci­ti­zens and slaves, and at least one re­formed pros­ti­tute — aban­doned the city of Athens for a garden out­side its walls. Their guid­ing prin­ci­ple was the pur­suit of plea­sure, which they un­der­stood not so much as the ful­fil­ment of de­sire as its ra­tio­nal mas­tery.

There is an un­canny con­tem­po­rary dy­namic to the epi­curean ideal. It was ham­mered out in a van­ished world of for­ti­fied towns clus­tered around the elec­tric-blue Aegean many cen­turies be­fore in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and overde­vel­op­ment. Yet it is a phi­los­o­phy in which we can see our­selves and our most ur­gent needs — for a bet­ter and more sus­tain­able way of life — re­flected from a great dis­tance. Epi­cu­rus taught his fol­low­ers how to be happy with­out god and how to be happy with less.

The phi­los­o­phy of the garden ad­dresses the most ur­gent mo­ral ques­tion of the 21st cen­tury: how do we re­spond to the es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion? Epi­cu­rus posed this ques­tion long be­fore it was a ques­tion by giv­ing voice to the ideal of hu­man be­hav­iour guided by nat­u­ral lim­its. ‘‘ 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 said. ‘‘ 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.’’ In this he was prophetic. In their mid-2012 book How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, Bri­tish econ­o­mists Robert and Ed­ward Skidel­sky ar­gue against a disease by the name ‘‘ in­sa­tia­bil­ity’’, which they de­fine as ‘‘ that psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tion that pre­vents us, as in­di­vid­u­als and as so­ci­eties, from say­ing ‘ enough is enough’.’’ Epi­cu­rus was the first philoso­pher in the West­ern tra­di­tion to di­ag­nose the disease of in­sa­tia­bil­ity, and the first to pro­pose a cure.

Epi­cure­anism has some­thing to say on the sub­ject of our col­lec­tive need to tame ram­pant ma­te­rial de­sires to slow the pace of run­away con­sump­tion. And it has much to say about the uni­ver­sal quest for hap­pi­ness — an age­less con­cern with a par­tic­u­lar late-mod­ern in­flec­tion. For large num­bers of con­tem­po­rary peo­ple who lack be­lief in a god or any other su­per­nat­u­ral force see hap­pi­ness in en­tirely sec­u­lar terms. Epi­cu­rus un­der­stood the geld­ing of de­sire and the search for hap­pi­ness as one and the same thing: in fact it was im­pos­si­ble to have one with­out the other.

Once the lay­ers of mis­un­der­stand­ing and dis­tor­tion have been peeled back from the epi­curean tra­di­tion it stands re­vealed as a di­rect chal­lenge to the de­struc­tive ethos of con­sumerism in so­ci­eties of abun­dance and gross in­equal­ity. Epi­cu­rus was an Athe­nian cit­i­zen, born on the is­land of Samos in 341BC. He died in 271, leav­ing his garden to his dis­ci­ples. Af­ter draft­ing a will and tes­ta­ment he wrote to a friend de­scrib­ing his last day as ‘‘ bliss­ful’’, set­ting his present suf­fer­ings against the ‘‘ glad­ness of mind’’ in­duced by mem­o­ries of ‘‘ our past con­ver­sa­tions’’. It is likely that the cir­cu­la­tion of this doc­u­ment played a vi­tal role in the creed’s pop­u­lar­ity, for in the view of Ro­man philoso­pher-states­man Seneca, writ­ing in the 1st cen­tury AD, the phi­los­o­phy of Epi­cu­rus was truly dis­cov­ered only af­ter his death — ‘‘ and did he not then ac­quire a shin­ing rep­u­ta­tion?’’

The phi­los­o­phy of the garden was con­ceived as ther­apy for a trin­ity of com­mon ill­nesses — anx­i­ety, greed and lust — by a man who de­clared him­self con­tent with water, bread, weak wine and a ‘‘ pot of cheese’’. Plain dishes, Epi­cu­rus be­lieved, ‘‘ of­fer the same plea­sure as a lux­u­ri­ous ta­ble’’. This may have been a steely pos­ture de­signed to de­flect sus­pi­cions that Epi­cu­rus and his fel­low he­do­nists, united in fel­low­ship be­yond the gaze of no­ble Athens, were hav­ing too good a time. It sounds im­prob­a­bly self-deny­ing. But it does con­vey a key point about the epi­curean ethic: it was not then, in the first few cen­turies af­ter its birth, what it has be­come now. A con­tem­po­rary epi­curean is lit­tle more than a gas­tro­nomic fetishist: a foodie. The sage him­self, by this mea­sure, was cer­tainly no epi­curean. An in­scrip­tion placed out­side the com­mune 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?

In fact the only plea­sures of the ta­ble cel­e­brated by Epi­cu­rus are those of con­ver­sa­tion. One should never, the epi­curean creed im­plies, eat alone. Friend­ship was not only an epi- curean good in it­self; it de­liv­ered real prag­matic ben­e­fits, for friends united in com­mon pur­pose be­come al­lies in times of need. Yet the epi­curean garden was fra­ter­nal with­out be­ing com­mu­nis­tic. Mem­bers of the school were en­ti­tled to hold their goods and prop­erty pri­vately; there was no com­punc­tion to share any­thing other than friend­ship, good­will and a sim­ple meal. ‘‘ Friend­ship goes danc­ing around the world,’’ Epi­cu­rus rhap­sodised, ‘‘ an­nounc­ing to all of us to wake up to hap­pi­ness.’’ And while other an­cient philoso­phers prac­tised an in­dif­fer­ence to­wards grief — even at the loss of a favoured child — Epi­cu­rus felt this at­tempt to cau­terise our­selves from sor­row with a stoic stee­li­ness of heart was ul­ti­mately in­hu­man and ‘‘ ap­a­thetic’’.

One of epi­cure­anism’s strik­ing in­no­va­tions, and the rea­son a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of the creed makes a pow­er­ful claim on us, is that it sug­gests a way to re­shape so­ci­ety with­out re­course to al­tru­ism. It is not that epi­cure­anism is shorn of com­pas­sion. But ul­ti­mately it is not for the hap­pi­ness of oth­ers but for per­sonal hap­pi­ness that one em­braces Epi­cu­rus.

It is noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous that such a ven­er­a­ble phi­los­o­phy, and one that has been sav­agely dealt with by its ad­ver­saries, re­tains its fresh­ness and vigour af­ter 2300 years. The fun­da­men­tal hu­man needs whose ful­fil­ment Epi­cu­rus saw as the con­di­tion for hap­pi­ness — sim­ple sus­te­nance and friend­ship — are re­turn­ing to fo­cus on a global scale.

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