In the midst of today’s constant chaos and madness, we often forget to spare a moment to pause and ponder. What is the point of life? Why do we do what we do? Or perhaps, most significantly – what makes us happy? Is it living in the lap of luxury? Is it a life of intoxicating drinks and illicit drugs? Or is it the choice of promiscuous behaviour? Our happiness is a common concern that we are often illiterate to act upon, and is one of the oldest tribulations in philosophy. Many hedonistic philosophers along the years have constructed different doctrines based on the pursuit of happiness. Epicurus, for one, knew that the focal point of our lives should naturally be pleasure; to lead a life of contentment and joy.
Hedonism itself (the Greek term for pleasure) assures us that pleasure is a good worth seeking and when dominant, leads to the ideal human life. Nowadays, society frequently diverts us onto a life of self-indulgence and sensual delights, straying away from the true definition of epicurean philosophy onto gluttony and frivolity. Far from excessive indulgence, Epicurus found happiness in simplicity; an easy life where pleasure is maximized through the absence of pain, whether it is mental, physical or spiritual.
No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.
Furthermore, on the anatomy of pleasure; Epicurus advises us to distinguish our pleasures in order to achieve true wisdom by asking; of each thing, is it natural? And is it necessary? There is an animalistic aspect to humans we cannot ignore – we have natural needs that need to be fulfilled to be able to live; we need things such as food, water, and sleep. Ignoring such desires will only result in pain.
Although it is also natural yet completely unnecessary to long for matters like sex or sweets which give us a sense of bodily pleasure, we should not seek them out, but rather enjoy them if they come our way and savor them in that moment. We should not seek the absence of pleasure, neither should we seek a redundant pleasure that once removed can cause us pain.
The only pleasures Epicurus emphasizes the riddance of are the unnecessary and unnatural pleasures. If a pleasure carries more pain than pleasure, it should be avoided – like working an unpleasant but high-paying job to afford the latest luxuries, but then having to suffer the consequences of a tremendous workload and the negative physical and mental effects of stress. This is not always the case, pain is bad in itself but it can sometimes lead to more pleasure, such as education.
Additionally, it is hard to find stillness and moderation amongst this modern world’s chaotic habits, surely an expanding collection of luxuries or an increasing rate of sexual partners who fulfill specific satisfactions does not point to a lack of pleasure. Yet, we are often ignorant of the consequences – take addictions or a declining health, for instance; momentary ecstasies tend to rob us of other pleasures and can turn into a habit, thus becoming vague and reducing our happiness in the long run. So take personal pleasures in moderation with ample consideration and care, and you will maximize pleasure – an occasional luxury is fine, but what is enough is little and the simple life is a happy life, besides “with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten”.
Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.
In Ancient Greece, Epicurus set up a school known as The Garden, where people exchanged teachings and lived in the scarcity of anxieties. This allowed for the growth of friendships through face-to-face interaction (since Epicurus believed friendship is the key to the highest blessings in life), as opposed to nowadays’ fixation on technological communication (where crucial aspects such as body language and facial expressions are dismissed). Does that mean we should discard social networks? Not at all, but the awareness of their use is vital and they shouldn’t surpass the importance of true friendship.
With life’s pleasures come life’s pains, and while Epicurus emphasises that loneliness kills, he also rationalised that if gods, or God, do exist, they have no concern for the human world and are infinitely remote. Consequently, he found ultimate vitality in ridding ourselves of anxieties and fears that spoil our contentment through an apprehension of the way things are. Therefore, he recognised the ever-existing presence of natural pains/displeasures, like illness and death. In his belief, intense pain is temporary and prolonged pain is not as severe, but both can be endured. However, other pains are often derived from false beliefs such as death or those regarding the gods/God; thoughts that mentally consume and distress us.
That which is blessed and immortal is not troubled itself, nor does it cause trouble to another.
Many possess the belief that the gods, or God, are constantly poking around in the universe, getting caught up in human affairs as if they have the capability to threaten or endanger us when in reality, they have no concern for our world. Our world is limited in an infinite space composed simply of atoms and void. So if the gods, or God, do indeed exist, they do not intervene with our lives and we have no reason to fear them – what isn’t painful when present should cause no pain when it is anticipated. Something else we tend to fear is death. Epicurus reassures us that “death is of no concern to us” – all we have is the here and now, so why should we fear something we cannot experience? When the soul does dismantle after death, we feel no pain so there is nothing to fear, for “when we are, death is not. When death is present, we are not”.
Subsequently, we should rid ourselves of these fears, there is no need to fear the gods or God or worry about death, and what is good is easy to get, and what is terrible can always be endured. We can base our life off of Epicurus’ ideas and create our own personal Garden in our minds; distinguishing our pleasures, desires and pains, setting happiness as our aspiration in life and acting carefully with forethought – without any disturbance from unnecessary fears. Epicurus’ philosophy on happiness is simple yet complex, just like happiness itself – so take it with a pinch of salt and you will surely gain some perpetual, valuable insights for life that will help pave your way in your own pursuit of happiness.
Written by: Michela Muscat