let me ask you a question. Are you happy?
“Quit kidding yourself!” says Epicurus.
It is more than likely that you might think that you are happy, but in truth you do not know what happiness is. We have been born into a world of
greed and jealousy and misery. Rather than getting more and more wrapped up in it all, you ought to spend some time freeing yourself from all of it.
You may have guessed at this point that this week we are talking about Epicurus, the man who may or may not have been the creator of the first hippie commune in recorded history. He might also have been the philosopher to inspire the birth of the American dream.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself, first things first.
Epicurus was an influential philosopher of the Hellenistic age of Greece. He was born to the island of Samos in 341 BC and would navigate the treacherous period of Greek history immediately following the death of Alexander the Great.
After traveling the Mediterranean for a number of years as a young man, being careful to avoid political persecution from unfriendly tyrants and even other philosophers, Epicurus settled in Athens in 306 BC. Here he would remain for the rest of his life. It was in Athens where Epicurus laid the foundation for an ethical philosophy that would thrive for hundreds of years after his death.
What exactly was the Epicurean philosophy?
Epicurus believed that philosophy had failed to provide for the needs of the everyday citizen. So often, the philosophers of ancient Greece concerned themselves with questions of metaphysical, epistemological, and cosmological importance.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that most philosophers were contemplating questions that would never enter the realm of consideration for the common citizen.
When these philosophers did consider questions of ethics, they very often aimed at making people “good” and “virtuous”, whatever that means. Epicurus took a different route.
He dedicated his life to answering one of the most troubling, and most important, questions there ever was.
What makes people happy?
Even in classical antiquity, the world was a bitter and materialistic place. Much like today, people assumed that things like money, status, luxury, as well as sexual and romantic relationships would invariably make them happy.
The problem with such things, Epicurus noted, is that we consistently run into pitfalls whilst in pursuit of them.
Acquiring money, for instance, often entails enormous sacrifice. Backbiting behavior and long hours at the office are almost always a prerequisite for wealth. Romantic relationships, another example, might seem appealing, but they are so often marred with jealousy, backstabbing and infidelity.
From these observations, Epicurus began to grow uncertain that we could find our happiness by acquiring more and more. He proposed, instead, that we learn to rely on less.
Epicurus suggested that, instead of engaging in romantic relationships, that we give ourselves to friendship. It is with friendship where we find true human altruism. People tend to be more generous with their friends, less possessive, and all around decent when it comes to friendship.
Also, we shouldn’t devote ourselves to work we hate just so we might acquire enough money in the hopes that we will one day be happy.
Instead, we should find work that we can engage in on our own or with small groups. Work is fulfilling, Epicurus believed, when we are contributing to the welfare of humanity. In short, we should pursue work that we feel makes a difference.
With this philosophy in mind, Epicurus did something that many people often talk about doing, but never get around to actually doing. He purchased a plot of land with a large house and invited all of his friends to come live with him. It would become known as “the Garden” and it was more than just another school of philosophy.
While it is believed that the Garden was located somewhere near Plato’s Academy, Epicurus’ institution was different from a typical school. If we wanted to get specific, we might classify Epicurus’ Garden as a community of unincorporated teachers, philosophers, and manuscript writers all living and working in a shared space.
With this in mind, we begin to think of the Garden, not as a school at all, but as a commune of sorts, perhaps the first one in recorded history. The inhabitants of the Garden were interested in studying happiness and finding true happiness. They practiced a uniquely Epicurean style of happiness; namely they pursued pleasure while avoiding pain and anxiety.
Source: RC Groups
This remote community where people practiced a quasi-hedonistic philosophy necessarily lent itself to rumors.
Diogenes Laertius, the author of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, tells us that all manner of accusations were hurled at Epicurus and his Garden. It was said that they (the inhabitants of the Garden) were all ignorant of philosophy, that they threw crazy orgies every night, and that Epicurus himself vomited twice a day from over indulging in wine and that he slept in a bed filled with naked virgins.
Diogenes assures us that such rumors were untrue.
“But all these people are devoid of sense. The preponderance of witnesses speak of the insuperable kindness of our philosopher to everyone, whether it be to his own country who honored him with bronze statues, his friends who are so numerous that they could not be counted in whole cities, or all his acquaintances who were bound to him simply by the appeal of his doctrines.”- Diogenes Laertius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book X)
Such thinking demonstrates an ignorance of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus did not tell us that ALL pleasures were good or that overindulging in pleasure was good. He insisted that subtle pleasures were the way to go, friendship being the most important. More significantly, we must free ourselves from our fears, anxieties, and uncertainties that often plague us if we wish to be happy.
The happy man is the one who has banished his fears, even his fear of death, and who lives pleasantly, surrounded by his friends and his philosophical companions.
“Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; what is good is easy to get, and what is terrible is easy to endure.”- (The four-part cure of Epicurus, as found on the Herculaneum Papyrus)
The Epicurean Garden would flourish during Epicurus’ lifetime. This is attributed largely to the organization of the Garden, which did not force its inhabitants to partake in shared property or to necessarily support the Epicurean leaders. A happy result of these two rules was that the leaders became accountable to the followers while future conflicts over money were often averted.
Even after the death of Epicurus, the Epicurean Garden continued to thrive. This, again, is due largely to the organizational abilities of Epicurus, who left a last will and testament detailing the efforts for the continued preservation of his school.
Unlike many other schools of philosophy, Stoicism and Platonism for example, the Epicurean philosophy remained largely unchanged in the ensuing centuries. Several hundred Epicurean communes were established around the Mediterranean.
Epicureanism was initially shunned by the Roman world, but eventually found advocates in the form of the Roman writers Gaius Amafinius and Rabirius. However, both men where criticized by Cicero for their unpoetic prose style and the clumsy manner in which they attempted to bring philosophy to the common people.
Ultimately, Epicureanism would not find great favor in Rome in the same way that Stoicism did. However, the Epicurean philosophy, as well as the Epicurean communes, did flourish in lands that were far removed from Rome. Western Turkey, for instance, was very hospitable to Epicureanism; so much that in the ancient city of Oenoanda, a civic official named Flavius Diogenes ordered the construction of a wall inscribed with numerous Epicurean writings in the 3rd century A.D.
At this point you may be wondering, ‘Gee…whatever happened to Epicureanism and all those ancient hippie communes?’
Well, it’s funny you should mention it.
As was common, the survival of an ancient philosophy depended on its compatibility with the doctrines of the next major institution that
would arise in the history of the Western world- Christianity.
Unfortunately for our Epicurean friends, their ways of thinking were not in line with the dogmas of the church. For starters, the followers of Epicurus did not believe in an after life. To make matters worse, they were not even entirely sure there was a God!
The early Christian writer, Ambrose of Milan succinctly presents the incompatibility of Epicurean ideas on pleasure and the doctrines of the church in his letter written to a Christian congregation at Vercellae in 396 A.D:
“Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomae, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.
“But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?”
The Epicurean denial of any divine entity also came under fire by Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation:
“In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction.”
Things went down hill for the followers of Epicurus from here on. The Epicurean communes which had popped up around the Mediterranean were shuttered by Emperor Justinian I who, in the early sixth century A.D., ordered the closing of all pagan schools that conflicted with the church.
This has been a rather lengthy article, don’t you think?
Stick with me on this last bit, because there might just be a happy ending for Epicureanism.
So the philosophy fell into decline some time in the late fifth century A.D. That was the last anybody every heard of it, right?
Epicureanism made a few surprising resurgences throughout history. In fact, you might just be surprised at who is a follower of Epicurus.
“As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” –Thomas Jefferson (Letter to William Short, 1819)
That’s right, folks. Thomas Jefferson, always a brave advocate for the classics, was a fan of Epicurus. He even goes so far as to refer to the philosopher as “our master, Epicurus”.
It has been suggested by some that TJ even slipped a piece of Epicurean philosophy into the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that the pursuit of happiness was inherent to human nature and human dignity. After all, you will remember that the Epicureans were all about their pursuit of happiness.
So yes, it is entirely possible that the American dream was originally proposed several thousand years ago by a Greek philosopher in a nondescript garden in suburban Athens.
Whatever you want to think about the Epicureans, that they were the original hippies, enemies of Christianity, or the intellectual scaffolding for the American dream, it is interesting to note the amount of influence they have had over the course of several thousand years.
They were a unique school that sought to free people from their fears and present them with a realistic path to a tranquil happiness. Their mission is perhaps best summarized by the inscription that Seneca tells us was once emblazoned upon the entrance to the Garden itself.
“Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.”