Epicurus: Cheese, Wine, Friendship, and Keeping Out of Trouble
Hello again! Yesterday, we were looking at flourishing, virtue, and the eudaimonic happiness of Aristotle. Today, we are going to take a different approach and talk about pleasure.
Epicurus was a philosopher who was into pleasure in a big way. He claimed that no pleasure in itself was a bad thing. Happiness, for Epicurus, is about maximizing pleasure. And that is all.
This sounds like a recipe for disaster. What if you take pleasure in doing terrible things? But Epicurus has an answer to this. He thinks that the problem isn’t pleasure itself, it is that we are not very intelligent in how we approach pleasure.
Who Was Epicurus?
Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the island of Samos. He served in the army while still in his teens, and this gave him a taste for travel. He traveled around the Greek world studying and teaching philosophy, settling in Athens in 307. Like Aristotle, Epicurus set up his own philosophical school. He called it “the Garden.” It was different from many other philosophical schools at the time. It was more like a religious community. Epicurus’s followers lived together in the Garden and practiced his doctrines. Epicurus put a high value on friendship, on community, and on living peaceably alongside others. He died in 270 BCE after going through the agonizing pain of kidney stones. Accounts say that he remained cheerful, capable of enjoying the pleasures of life, until the end.
Getting Smart about Pleasure
Epicurus took pleasure seriously, but his insight is that pleasure is something we’re simply not very good at. We’re bad at thinking about it, and we’re bad at actually living pleasurable lives. Epicurus wants to change that.
He begins by making an important distinction. There are two kinds of pleasure, he says. The first kind is kinetic pleasure, and the second kind is static (sometimes called katastematic, but let’s keep things simple!).
Kinetic pleasures destabilize or unsettle us. They unbalance us and throw us off course. An example might be the downward spiral of a film star on a drink and drugs binge. It’s not that there isn’t pleasure in binging. It is only that this is pleasure is destabilizing and leads to a great deal of pain.
Static pleasures, on the other hand, do not lead to further pain. They are simply pleasurable, without after-effects. Epicurus once wrote to a disciple, asking for him to “send me a small pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.” This is not very rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s a good example of a static pleasure. Good food, shared with friends, out in the garden … this is a static, uncomplicated pleasure.
Freeing Ourselves from Disturbance
If you want to live a happier and more pleasurable life, Epicurus says, you should distinguish between these two kinds of pleasure and cultivate static pleasures that don’t disturb your equilibrium.
Try this out: Think about the things you find pleasurable. Write them down in two columns, like this.
|Static pleasures (pleasures with no ill effects)
|Kinetic pleasures (pleasures that lead to further discomfort or disturbance)
Now all you have to do to live a life of more equilibrium is more of the stuff on the left and less of the stuff on the right!
Epicurus called the freedom from disturbance that comes from this, ataraxia: a state of calm contentment where you are not stirred up by the difficulties of the world.
It sounds easy. But if you look at those two lists and are honest with yourself, you will see that to take Epicurus at his word would involve radically changing your life and rethinking the pleasures and desires that you pursue.
Epicureanism continued to be popular into Roman times. But it was not without its critics and its rivals. We will look at one of those rivals tomorrow: the philosophical school known as Stoicism.
All the best,
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