Though I read Aristotle, Plato, and Seneca – in school and after – I’d previously never made it to Epicurus, a philosopher I therefore knew only through the eponym ‘epicurean’: from the OED, “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.”
This past week, however, I actually dove into Epicurus’ direct teachings. And, on at least one level, his legacy in our vernacular is well-deserved. Consider:
“I don’t know how I shall conceive of the good, if I take away the pleasures of taste, if I take away sexual pleasure, if I take away the pleasure of hearing, and if I take away the sweet emotions that are caused by the sight of beautiful forms.”
“The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.”
But on further reading, it becomes clear that our current usage of ‘epicurean’ miss Epicurus’ intended mark, at least in some rather important respects.
While Epicurus extolled pleasures, he was first and foremost interested in simple ones. “Send me a pot of cheese,” he once wrote to a friend, “so that I might spread it on bread, and have a feast any time.” Indeed, most of what Epicurus ate were vegetables grown in his backyard garden. Sure, he was happy to eat richer meals, too. But he doubted whether those foods – or the finer thing more broadly – actually made for a better life. As he explained, “one must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is already overflowing.”
Epicurus didn’t believe that having more was bad, but rather that it wasn’t sufficient or necessary for happiness. As he succinctly put it, “nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied by little.”
So what did Epicurus think was necessary for happiness? His list is rather short:
1. Basic shelter, clothing, and food.
2. Good friends with whom to enjoy it.
3. The freedom and flexibility to spend our days as we choose.
4. And some time each day reflecting and self-analyzing.
Less flashy, perhaps, than the eponym he’s come to define. But, so far as I can tell, not at all a bad recipe for a good life.