Now that the Christmas season is over, everyone is thinking about getting back to normal again. Perhaps some are regretting the overindulgence. Perhaps some are thinking of giving something up. I think New Year is, with so many grim days ahead and so long to wait until spring, a terrible time to try to deny yourself the things you enjoy. That’s why I want to tell you today about the Epicureans.
Today, the word Epicurean mostly means someone who enjoys fine food and drink. But there’s actually a lot more to them than that. Epicureans are the followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived between 341 and 270 BC. Epicurus did not put any faith in the gods, nor did he believe that there was a life beyond death. For him, the only life was this one. We should live it well and in good company. He believed that pleasure was the most important thing in life. The way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and gain knowledge about the workings of the world and learn what it is that makes us truly happy. We should stop believing in an afterlife and fearing the gods; avoid politics and people who are annoying; surround ourselves with trustworthy and affectionate friends; and, most importantly, be an affectionate, virtuous person worthy of trust. This would lead to a state of tranquillity called ataraxia and a life free from fear and from pain. Sounds good doesn’t it?
I have written a lot in the last month about shadowy figures watching over people to see if they were bad or good. For Epicurus and his followers there was no Saint Nicholas, no Krampus, no Icelandic trolls watching over them. Nor did they need to worry about upsetting the gods, because they weren’t watching either. It is people who do bad things and people who are upset by that. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the gods, it’s just that they couldn’t really see any evidence of them intervening in human lives. There were four possible reasons for this: The gods either wanted to eliminate bad things and could not, or could but did not want to, or neither wished to nor could, or both wanted to and could. If they wanted to and could not, then they were weak – and this doesn’t sound very godlike. If they could but did not want to, then they were spiteful – which is equally foreign to a god’s nature. If they neither wanted to nor could, they were both weak and spiteful, and therefore not gods. If they wanted to and could, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then did bad things come from? Or why did they not eliminate them?
The Epicureans answer to this was that the gods would not and could not intervene, not because they were malevolent but because they were living in the blissful state of ataraxia. The gods did not create the universe, nor did they punish or bless anyone but they were supremely happy, a condition all humans should strive for in their lifetimes. Therefore Epicurus encourages us all to pursue pleasure. Not to overindulge as this causes us suffering. Pleasures of the mind are more important than those of the body so, far from being people who wanted the best of everything, the Epicureans believed that what you ate was less important than who you ate with. Nor did they believe in breaking the law. Because the fear of being found out and the shame and pain associated with punishment takes away pleasure. Laws and punishments, for them, were to protect people from harm and leave everyone free to pursue the goal of happiness. So laws that did not contribute to human happiness were not just.
It wasn’t that they believed virtue was a good thing in itself, only that it served as a means to gain happiness. Therefore, one does nice things, not because it is noble or because the gods want you to, but because it cultivates friendship, which leads to a pleasant life for us. Putting ourselves first, as long as we cause no harm along the way, is a good thing to do. If we choose things that make us happy, we will meet other like-minded people and be even happier.
So, if you were thinking of giving up everything you like and taking on a new and punishing regime, it’s worth remembering the Epicureans thought physical pleasures should be moderated not censored, indulged and not feared. We only pass this way once and we should make the most of it. If you are going to give something up, make it something you hate, not something you enjoy.