The Life of Epicurus — Defining the Meaning of Happiness
I I had to choose something to designate as the one constant reason behind all the actions almost every person takes throughout their life, it would be the pursuit of happiness. We as humans care so much about things like money, social status, romantic and familial relationships, and friendships only because we falsely think that those will lead us to achieving true happiness in our lives.
But, this is where a great mystery of life lies. Even when some people have amassed large amounts of money, have high social status, have a strong romantic relationship, and tons of friends, many of them are dissatisfied, and are essentially unhappy. On the other hand, there are also people that have almost nothing and yet are quite happy with their lives. So why is this?
Well, the most important step of figuring out why would be a definition of what happiness really is. What can truly make us happy? Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, tried to answer this mystery as he explored the true nature of happiness, and the best way of life to achieve it.
Note: Some of Epicurus’ philosophies discussed in this article (especially those involving gods and death) may be controversial, but I ask you to consider and analyze his points carefully, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with him.
Epicurus was born in 341 B.C.E. in the Athenian colony of Samos. After entering adulthood, he studied under followers of Democritus (the first person to describe atoms) and Plato. Because of this, much of his early work actually focused on metaphysics and the building blocks of the universe, which he argued, just like Democritus, was made up of atoms. However, for this article, we’ll skip over these theories and focus instead on his exploration of happiness and the way to live life. If you want to find out more about his metaphysics theories, check out these resources:
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Epicurus is one of the major philosophers in the Hellenistic period, the three centuries following the death of…
The major source for Epicurean doctrine is Diogenes Laertius' third-century C.E. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a…
Death and God
Before defining the way to achieve happiness, we must discuss two things that Epicurus thought stood in the way of us achieving true happiness because of the anxiety and stress it brings for many people: the concepts of death and gods.
The Mind and Death
Epicurus was one of the first to define the relationship between the mind and the body. In popular culture at the time, the mind was defined as something like a “soul” that had no material existence, was distinct from and in control of the body, and lived on after the death of the body. This led to the idea that, based on the actions performed throughout life, the soul is either gifted with an eternity in heaven, or condemned to suffering in hell. However, Epicurus argued that the nature of the mind was also physical like the body, and that it was actually an organ that resided in the chest (since the Greeks believed the chest to be the seat of emotions). He argued that only if the mind was bodily would it be able to interact with the body. Then, Epicurus argued, it must follow that the mind cannot exist following death since the atoms making it up disperse, just like those making up the rest of the body. So, he stated that the lengths people go to in order to ensure a desirable afterlife were simply futile because there was no such thing as a life after death. On top of this, he argued that death was also nothing to be afraid of, since:
Death is meaningless to the living because they are living, and meaningless to the dead… because they are dead.
The Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Benevolence of God
Epicurus also had quite an uncommon view on God compared to the popular culture at the time. Epicurus believed that God cannot be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and benevolent (all-caring) all at once. Epicurus argued that if God knew of our suffering and the existence of evil, cared deeply about us, and had the power to do something about the evil and the suffering, then it must follow that evil should not exist. And yet, clearly, evil exists all around us, and therefore, Epicurus says, it is not possible that God can be all three at once.
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? They why call him God?”
Many, including people that existed during his time, take this argument as proof that Epicurus was in fact an atheist, but this is likely false.
According to him, we view gods as happy and satisfied entities, but this cannot be true unless they did not concern themselves with the suffering and miseries of humankind. Therefore, Epicurus thought that gods should only be viewed as idealistic entities whose characteristics and lives we should try to emulate, instead of being afraid of their anger and wrath.
A common argument to these views on both death and gods was the question of why one should live a moral and just life if there were no repercussions? Epicurus says living a just life and avoiding crimes is in one’s self-interest since there will always be anxiety and psychological suffering over the fear of detection if one does commit crimes. Such a state of anxiety and fear is not helpful towards living a happy life, and therefore, should be avoided.
Yup. He wasn’t afraid to tackle big topics and come up with controversial ideas. As much as you might disagree with these points, it may still be beneficial to dissect his ideas, read more about them, and try to understand where he came from, and why exactly you disagree with him. But I’m not here to comment on the validity of Epicurus’ thoughts, only to share them. So, at last, let’s move onto his views on happiness and how to achieve it.
New Secret Unlocked: Path to Happiness
When tackling a problem as big as finding the true definition of happiness, you’d think that the answer would be extremely convoluted and almost mysterious. But nope. Epicurus presents an easy-to-understand definition in this following quote.
Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.
In this, Epicurus makes the claim that the secret to happiness was the feeling of pleasure, which influences and is the source of every decision we make in our lives. Therefore, the pursuit of our desires to gain pleasure was the ultimate path to happiness.
Now, looking at his definition of happiness, it is easy to think that Epicurus believes in following our desires and living a lavish life full of food, sex, and whatever else brings us pleasure. In fact, even at the time, Epicurus’ competitors spread rumors about how the school he had founded, known as the Garden, lived such lives full of luxury with lots of food and orgies. But this is far from what Epicurus actually meant.
According to him, a life with pleasure was simply one free of pain, whether physical, mental or spiritual. He writes, “the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear, and once this is obtained, the tempest of the soul is quelled”. When one is in pain, they pursue pleasure, but this simply leads to an endless cycle of pain and pleasure, which most people are stuck in. Instead of constantly pursuing pleasures and indulging oneself, the aim is to attain a neutral state that Epicurus called ataraxia, or “freedom from worry”. This point clearly comes across in his beliefs on the concepts of death and gods, which he believes simply bring one unnecessary worries and a state of mental and spiritual instability, taking us further from a state of happiness.
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.”
Further, Epicurus also believes that one requires great wisdom to be able to distinguish between pleasures and pains that should be pursued, vs. others that should be avoided. For example, though drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes may bring some pleasure to individuals in the present, they only lead to much greater pain in the future, and therefore should be avoided. On the other hand, though it might be painful and difficult to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy life, it brings enormous pleasure in the long term as one is able to avoid degeneration and disease of the body. So, what’s the best pleasure to pursue?
Epicurus says that a man that pursues the stable pleasure of knowledge instead of pursuing the ever-changing pleasures of the body will be able to attain true happiness.
Epicurus also stresses that it is important to pursue this knowledge with like-minded friends. He thinks that friendship is key to living a peaceful and happy life, so it is important to surround oneself with friends and engage in the pursuit of knowledge and happiness all together. This was his idea behind founding the Garden, which was essentially a commune of all his friends living in the same building, and sharing public spaces. His followers set up hundreds of such communes all around Greece, and though they soon fell apart, the thousands of Christian communes that exist around the world today were derived from the Epicurean communes.
So, in all, Epicurus believes that the pursuit of a neutral state of ataraxia by the pursuit of knowledge and tranquility with one’s friends was the ultimate path to living a happy life. Most people concern themselves too much over concepts like death and punishment by gods, which only brings us pain and suffering. By shedding these worries and using one’s wisdom to pursue only necessary desires, the perpetual cycle of pain and pleasure can be exited.
Exercise yourself in these precepts day and night both by yourself and with one who is like minded; then never, either in waking or in one’s dreams will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.