Epicureanism is a philosophy commending subjective pleasure and the avoidance of psychological and physical pain and deprivation as the highest human goods.
Supported by wealthy friends, the sects third century BCE founder, Epicurus, was able to purchase a house and a garden outside of Athens where he met with his followers, who included women and perhaps slaves. There he wrote many treatises on scientific, psychological, and political topics, including Love, Kingship, and Justice, and discussed them with his followers. The Epicureans took their meals communally, and although sexual liberty appears to have been part of the picture, even Epicurus’s enemies did not accuse the school of gluttony, drunken carousing, or other forms of excess. As such behaviour usually produced pains in the long run, it was proscribed. Selfish behaviour that harmed others was equally contrary to Epicurean ethics. Epicurus believed one could fully engage the senses as well as the intellect without bringing suffering on oneself or others.
Where organising our personal lives is concerned, all this looks like excellent advice. But how realistic is it? The ancient Epicureans avoided participation in politics and business as grasping and undermining of tranquillity. It was their choice to “live apart” with like-minded people rather than participating in the struggles of social competition. But most of us need to show up for work in a hierarchical organisational structure, and we are beholden to a range of anonymous and demanding institutions such as tax authorities, ethics commissions, and energy suppliers. Communal, self-sufficient life on the farm with willing workers, friends, scientific books, and writing materials approximates the Epicurean ideal, but it isn’t widely available.
At the same time, Epicurean apartness looks irresponsible to anyone who is not so detached from the surrounding culture as to avoid the newspapers, blogs, and social media informing us as to the state of the world. Even our pleasant and seemingly innocent ways of living involving plane travel to lovely vacation sites, air conditioning, the generation of heaps of cardboard from ordering interesting books on Amazon, and the plastic waste generated by preparing even simple and nutritious meals contribute to the degradation of the environment. In the absence of political engagement that distracts from contemplation and that is certainly stressful and possibly dangerous, the world will continue on its path of environmental degradation and increasing inequalities of wealth and power.
To make Epicurean philosophy broadly relevant to our problems today, and to respond to the common objection that it is suited only to an elite few, some extrapolation is called for. I will mention three areas which are key in this regard. The first is the Epicurean history of humanity that suggests that oligarchy is the default condition for humankind and must be consciously opposed and controlled by legislation. The second is the quest for eternal youth and long life that attracts so many entrepreneurs. The third is the Epicurean concept of justice as harm-prevention that has wide applicability as well as profound simplicity.
The Epicureans rejected creationism and believed that all plants and animals, including humans, had sprung from a fertile earth aeons ago, the less successful variants dying out and failing to produce a lineage. According to the account given by the first-century CE Roman poet Lucretius, presumably following a lost manuscript of Epicurus’s own, humans had first been solitary animals who came together at some point into small family groups and later small tribes living peacefully and contentedly. They were not endowed with knowledge by the gods but had to figure everything out for themselves, beginning with their mastery of fire, their invention of weaving, and later the invention of metalworking. Metal led to the production of agricultural tools and weapons and eventually the accumulation of wealth, the founding of cities, kingship and aristocracy, and warfare. Law and law enforcement were brought in to stave off the violent and bloody quarrels that followed from the rivalry and jealousy of the new elites.
Social hierarchies were inventions necessitated by population growth and the ambition that arose from the possession of wealth. Professional classes of soldiers, along with parasitic priests who terrorised the populace into submission, were supported by the rest of society, and military expeditions were elements of pre-emptive offensive defence or plunder seeking.
While this account in its general outlines is anthropologically correct — Palaeolithic warfare was at best sporadic and did not involve a professional class of soldiers — it was obscured and remains largely obscured down to the present day by certain cultural myths. One such myth is that leaders and military victors possess superior virtues. Religious people see their leaders as appointed by God or even as semi-divine. Another myth is that although such views were prevalent in the past, and although we were previously governed by people who had seized power through conquest, assassination, and other scurrilous methods, democracy and voting put politics onto an entirely new footing. Now only the best qualified and most beneficent candidates could survive fierce political competition when required to present their plans and policies to the mass of voters, who most certainly knew what was in their own interests.
The Epicurean history helps us to see through both the myth of the superpowers of our leaders and the myth that, now at least, real competence to govern wisely is readily assessed in modern democracies. Politics is always in danger of slipping back into its old methods of oligarchic collusion and intimidation. Only factual information about how society works, sociologically and economically, together with a sound moral education — and a dose of philosophical skepticism — can generate the sorts of assessments of candidates that democracies aim for. Epicurean deep history also implies and that wherever resources and threats are present without specific institutions to allocate and defuse them, warfare is inevitable. Political wisdom should begin from these assumptions as the Epicurean Thomas Hobbes understood.
A second area in which Epicureanism is relevant to modern problems concerns the notion of the natural limit. Everything, they claimed, in nature from mountains to insect larvae was or is originally formed by the accretion of particles, and everything wears away eventually into cosmic dust. Yet we expect stability, and all too often refuse to accept change. Our loves and friendships, our creativity and competence, should last forever, we think, and it is an outrage when our bodies, not to mention our minds, begin to wear out.
A wise person takes deterioration as the default and prepares for it. But dissolution before the natural limit — which is different for mountains, insects, and people– is a misfortune. The Epicurean is pleased when cherished things last a long time, thanks to the extra care given them, or just good luck, and alarmed when the natural limits are foreshortened. The earth and all its living beings are indeed doomed in the long run, but they were not supposed to change so fast in such unpleasant ways.
By contrast the medical and pharmaceutical professions, along with all the purveyors of dubious supplements and techniques, are invested in prolonging human life beyond its natural limit. It has proven hard to distinguish between the morally worthy Epicurean aim of reducing or eliminating pain through technology and the morally dubious aim of prolonging life simply to generate profit.
The Epicureans argued that death is not an evil since we do not experience the condition of being dead and because there is no afterlife in which we will be punished, eternally or temporarily for our sins. This argument seems sophistical because fear of death is not the fear of being dead, but the fear of the interruption of one’s experiences and actions in the world; fear of missing out. The Epicurean might point out that it is reasonable to fear becoming blind or paralysed because of what I will miss out on. But in that case, there will still be an “I” who will be missing out, whereas with the loss of all my faculties, there will be no one. I do not fear the condition of sleep even though tonight I won’t be able to experience and act because I won’t feel deprived when I’m asleep. Still, the fact that I won’t be around to learn how the world solves at least some of its problems, what my great-great grandchildren are like, and to enjoy many more sunny mornings and warm conversations isn’t defused by the argument that death is not an evil
What I should rationally fear, however, is decrepitude; a condition in which I am a burden to others and to myself. Here we have a situation in which two opposing groups of the scientifically informed do not act consistently in our interests. One group consists of physicians with first-hand knowledge of aging and dying who are aware of the futility of many late life medical treatments and the overall pointlessness of many medical tests. At the same time, they are professionally required to accede to the wishes of patients and family members who urge them to “do everything” to prolong life. The other group of the scientifically informed consists of researchers and marketers who profit from the “do everything” mentality, and who push expensive and useless procedures or chemical compounds alleged to prevent or reverse aging. Anti-aging marketing exploits our deepest fears of becoming unattractive, stupid, and incompetent if not just dead. The Epicurean seeks knowledge and an orientation to the facts and disdains desperate struggles and foolish attempts to outwit nature.
Finally, the Epicurean concept of justice can provide much-needed orientation in political thinking. Epicurus declared that “Justice is a convention to prevent one man from harming another.” In other words, justice is not natural, although the need for conventions of justice arises from the damage humans can naturally do to other humans. As the nineteenth-century Epicurean-influenced Jeremy Bentham argued, tradition and rights, along with the will of God and other such concepts should have no role to play in formulating social and legal policy. The only consideration is who is helped and who is harmed by the arrangements and by how much. In many cases, this requires subtle calculation. The disagreeable feelings of homophobes or the disgust felt by gynophobes, are admittedly painful for them, and tradition supports them. The rich are affronted by the very idea of a wealth tax. But these pains have to be set against the relief, satisfaction, and welfare of others.
Critics of the notion of justice as harm-prevention have many objections. They argue that pleasures and pains cannot be compared intersubjectively; that it is forbidden to impose pains on one party even if doing so can relieve the pain of others, and that a rich concept of human rights must underlie all legislation. Philosophically, these objections have force and must be addressed philosophically. Michel Foucault and to some extent Bernard Williams muddied the waters by setting the glamour and mystery of archaic irrationality against utilitarian bean counting and its terrifying utopias. But consider how much good legislation has emerged from welfare-based thinking, including various forms of social security, access to education, and access to public goods such as transport, parks, and museums. And consider how much bad legislation has emerged from rights-based thinking about the economic freedom to mislead and exploit the needy and gullible, the right to bear arms, and the right to sell weapons to troubled states to further the sale of more weapons.
The Epicurean conception of justice as a convention is a critical but also a hopeful one. As circumstances change, what is just changes. This need not imply moral relativism. From our present perspective it was “always wrong” to hold slaves, to deny education to women, to stone adulterers, and to do many other things that people in former times saw as just. Insofar as the normative perspective is always “from here” (Williams was right about that), these things were always wrong. But we should keep in mind the corresponding point that practices we take to be morally acceptable today will be condemned by future generations as cruel and irrational. The Epicurean perspective allows a foretaste of which practices those might be.