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 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.