Epicurus was a philosopher that began flexing his intellectual muscles only a few decades after the death of Aristotle. Born on the island of Samos, Epicurus would spend his life traveling across much of Greece before winding up in the philosophy headquarters of the world, Athens.
He is often accused of being a hedonist because his philosophy would appear to define good, ethical behavior as anything that is pleasurable… but this is not necessarily correct.
HOW TO LEAD YOUR LIFE
What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”
A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.
Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us,
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”
According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.
DEATH IS NOTHING TO US
Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.
We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.
Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.
“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO EPICURUS?
Epicurus founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.
A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.
Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.
True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’
WHAT’S THE TAKEAWAY?
Well, one of the biggest, most helpful lesson from Epicurus is no doubt that reconciling our fears of death can make us lead happier lives. It’s also worth saying that we should take pleasure in the simple things. It’s better to need less than have more.
In ancient Greece, prior to being written down, stories were recounted orally. Due to that, memory played an important part in the life of an ancient Greek storyteller. The Odyssey for instance, had 12,110 lines – and each one of those had to be recited by memory – a seemingly impossible task today.
Did the Greeks simply have better memory than we do now? Probably not… but what they did have was methods to improve their memory. These were helpful to recall the epic poems or narration… today the techniques are useful for tests, orations, and just as importantly, exercising your brain to avoid age related memory loss.
One of the methods invented by the ancient Greeks to improve their memories was the Method of Loci. This technique is known alternatively as the Memory Journey, the Memory Palace, or the Mind Palace Technique.
According to the Roman orator Cicero, this technique was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos. Cicero goes on to relate a story in which the sophist was invited to present a lyric poem at a banquet in Thessaly. Shortly after he presented the poem, Simonides was called outside, during which the roof of the banqueting hall suddenly collapsed. The other guests were crushed to death, many of their bodies mangled beyond recognition.
This made it difficult for the identification of the dead, which was required for their proper burial. By consulting his visual memory of where the guests had been seated around the banquet table, Simonides was able to identify the dead. It was from this experience that Simonides realized that it would be possible to remember anything by associating it with a mental image of a location, thereby developing the Method of Loci.
Visualization to Enhance Memorization
The Method of Loci relies on mentally visualizing the things that one intends to remember. These objects are placed in a particular order in various locations along a familiar route through a place, e.g. a city, house, workplace, etc. A mental journey with a starting and an ending point is made. Therefore, when you wish to remember, for example, a shopping list, or the points of a speech, you only need to go on this mental journey in order to remember each element. This memorization technique may be further enhanced by making the images more vivid. For instance, the mental images may be accompanied by mental smells and sounds.
The Method of Loci memorization technique was popular in the ancient world and was used up until the middle of the 17th century. It was eventually superseded by phonetic and peg systems. However, recent research has shown that the memory palace technique can be very effective.
So, take on the challenge… next time you go grocery shopping, for instance, attempt this technique to memorize your shopping list. It will be a good way to improve your memory and keep the brain in tip-top shape.
Today we are going to start off with one of the most important tenets of Stoicism… but before we do, a quick historical recap for those just joining us.
Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.
The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
While the lessons from Stoicism will pop up a few times in the classics challenge, this one is perhaps the most important one to start with…
You may know it as the Serenity Prayer, now popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
What is interesting is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of stoicism. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.
Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.
Do you really have any control over the traffic?
Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.
We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.
“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)
So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock on the freeway? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?
We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.
Again, in the words of Epictetus:
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph’ hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
So for yourself, take a moment to analyze what you have don’t have control over, and find ways to accept that…as well as the things you can change and alter (and remember, that includes your reactions to things outside of your control).