The word “Epicurean” today is used to describe someone who values comfort, luxury, good food and the finer things in life. Since the word is derived from the name of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, it seems to follow logically that this conception of epicurean living would be an offshoot of his overall philosophy. However, this could not be further from the truth. The reason for such a widespread misconception about Epicureanism (the doctrine of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus), is because of its link to Hedonism.
Hedonism, which is a philosophical doctrine or school of thought from ancient Greece, argues that happiness is nothing more than the accumulation of pleasure and the reduction of pain. In other words, pleasure is intrinsically good, and pain an intrinsically bad. As such, pleasure should be sought out and pain avoided and the more pleasure you have the least pain, the happier you will be. The goal of hedonism is therefore to maximize net pleasure (minus pain). Epicurus was in fact a Hedonist, which is why he is so often associated with today’s notion of an Epicurean, as someone who values and seeks out sensual pleasures.
The reality is, Epicurus defended a position that widely differs from this oversimplified version of his philosophy. It is true that we must seek pleasure and avoid pain, according to Epicurus. However, not all pleasures are created equal. Some experiences, which may seem pleasurable on the surface, are actually more likely to lead to suffering and great dissatisfaction. In order to know which experiences we should seek out, Epicurus separated human desires into three distinct categories: 1) Natural and Necessary desires, 2) Natural and Unnecessary desires, and finally, 3) Unnatural and Unnecessary desires.
According to Epicurean philosophy, natural and necessary desires include such things as the desire to eat, drink, have sex, sleep, avoid pain, etc. These are, generally speaking, easy to satisfy. If we are hungry, we eat. If we are cold, we put on warmer clothing. As a rule, Epicurus believe that no harm can come out of satisfying these most basic desires. The second category of desires, natural and unnecessary desires, are for the most part natural desires found in the first category, but satisfying these basic natural desires can take different forms, it is possible to transform our basic desires into unnecessary desires. For example, if we are hungry, we desire to eat, but any nourishing food will do. Desiring food, is not the same as desiring lavish feasts, or even particular tastes, such as sweetness, or saltiness. The same can be said with respect to clothing. We need it to be warm in colder climates, or to protect us from the sun, but this has nothing to do with following the latest fashions. Many desires of these kinds are still natural, but they are not necessary and Epicurus believed we should only satisfy such desires in moderation. On the whole, we should content ourselves with very little and only permit ourselves occasional excesses. In other words, our daily life should be characterized by simple meals, with an occasional splurge for such things as alcohol, or desert or other such treats. In limiting ourselves in this way, we are able to more fully appreciate our occasional treats, whereas if lavish meals become a daily occurrence, we begin to take it for granted and no longer appreciate it as much. The same logic applies to many aspects of our lives. It is natural to seek shelter and to have a bed in which to sleep. It does not follow from this that we need a large house filled with all sorts of things that we seldom use. Epicurus realized that to fully appreciate the finer things in life, we must not abuse of them. We must satisfy our natural unnecessary desires in moderation. We should get used to having a simple diet made up of nutritious foods, sufficient to sustain our energy levels throughout the day, and only occasionally splurge on something fancier. If we need a mode of transportation to get to work, we should see it for what it is: a means to an end. An older reliable car should be chosen over a brand new luxury model. Better yet, avoid the car entirely, and get a bicycle instead. This will allow us to keep our bodies fit while performing the same function as a car.
The final category of desires, unnatural and unnecessary desires are describes by Epicurus, as the desire for money, power, celebrity. Such desires are best avoided entirely. This is because such desires, unlike our natural desires, have no natural limit. Thus, they will never satisfy us. When I am hungry and I eat, I cease to be hungry. I am satisfied. When it comes to such things as money, power and celebrity, the desire can never be satisfied because I can always desire to be richer, more powerful or more famous. It is, therefore, impossible to get enough. As such, attempting to satisfy such desires will lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. This phenomenon is present in our society. If you ask people how much money they need to be happy, most people will tell you they need a little bit more then whatever it is that they make. This is true no matter how much a person makes.
Epicurus lived a simple life. He had a simple diet, and a simple home. He appreciated the simple things of life, such as taking long walks in nature, discussing philosophy with his pupils, and when he was old and his body was seek he took pleasure in reminiscing about many of the happier moments of his life. By all accounts Epicurus died a happy man.
What can we learn from the philosophy of Epicurus? We can learn that happiness has little to do with how much we have, and a lot to do with appreciating the simple things in life that make us happy, whether it’s spending time in nature, with friends, playing an instrument, or a sport. What we must realize is that it is important to enjoy these activities for their own sake and not do it to be rich or famous. Living a simple life, with peace in your heart, will make you far happier than all the riches of this world. Appreciate what you have, be content with little, and help others do the same.