What Made Epicurus Different
Once upon a time, there was a crazy group of Greek hippies called the sophists, headed by a guy called Callicles. The basic reasoning behind the sophists’ philosophy was that unchecked hedonism isn’t actually bad. The goal in every person’s life should be to acquire exactly what they want, according to their ethical egoism.
Plato very quickly and succinctly shot down this way of living in his dialogue. Within it, Socrates uses a hypothetical man as his example. This man’s sole ambition in life is to scratch himself constantly. Oh, and to do so in public, regardless of how gross other people think it is. Surely such a man is living the best life possible, and should be applauded and admired by everyone for fulfilling his simple, disgusting dream!
Needless to say, ethical egoism fell out of favor and was replaced by the slightly more practical hedonism. The hedonists believed that the best life could be lived by getting whatever you wanted, so long as that thing (or those things) are admirable and good.
The philosopher Aristippus tells us that what is good is pleasurable, and what is bad is painful. As such, we should seek out pleasure constantly. In other words, indulgence is a great way to live your life! I mean, the Israelite king Solomon even gave it a go, so what could go wrong?
Well, a lot of things can go very wrong. What happens when your pleasure winds up leading to pain? What will you say when your smoking habit leads to emphysema or a heart attack? What about that nasty hangover that follows a night of pleasurable drinking, or the liver disease that may come down the road? And if you’re having all the sex you could possible handle, there’s no risk of STDs, right?
Enter Epicurus, the philosopher who’s going to help us get our lives in order today. The goal of his philosophy was to obtain pleasure, but without undue indulgence and through careful consideration of and classification of your desires.
Thomas Jefferson, former President of the United States, once wrote, “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
Classifying Your Desires
Among desires, some are natural and necessary, some are natural and unnecessary, and some are unnatural and unnecessary, arising instead from groundless opinion.
Epicurus believed that to pursue what is pleasurable, avoid unnecessary pain, and live sufficiently, it was necessary to classify your desires. This will help put your priorities in order and help you cut back on the useless junk that you don’t need.
First of all, write out all of your desires. Not just your big dreams, like that mansion you want to build, Rolls Royce you want to drive, or that vacation you want to take, either. Instead, write out all of them, whether it’s three meals a day, a good night’s rest, electricity, etc. What are your current bills? Write them down. What are your dreams? Write them down. This is an inventory of everything in your life and everything you want in life.
Natural and Necessary:
A desire that is natural stems from basic human biology and psychology. For example, we desire food because we’ll starve without it, and we desire a sense of security because we become stressed without it. Both of these things are natural and necessary.
Place a check mark next to everything in your list that is both natural and necessary.
Natural and Unnecessary:
Other things might be natural, but unnecessary. For example, we need food to survive and something to drink lest we starve to get dehydrated. However, do we really need to eat that expensive lobster? Do we really need to drink that expensive wine? These are natural desires, but they aren’t necessary. We can satiate our hunger easily enough through a simple, yet nutritious meal; and a glass of water will quench our thirst.
The general rule is: if it won’t kill you to forgo it, it’s probably unnecessary.
Place an X next to everything that is natural but unnecessary.
Finally, there are the desires that don’t stem from our biological necessity. That’s not to say that these desires are bad, just that they are largely fueled by culture and aren’t necessary for us in order to survive. Things like smartphones, money, fame, books, your Medium account, etc. These things make up the stuff that brings us pleasure, and our primary job is to balance them with the potential pain that seems to always accompany them.
Place an O next to every desire that is unnatural.
Analyzing Your Desires Further
Evaluate each of your desires by this question: ‘What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is attained, and what if it is not?’
Think about your desires and how you classified them. Weigh the costs (pains) of each desire and consider what other needs that desire fulfills. Here’s an example:
Cost: $50ish/month through StraightTalk, not to mention the initial cost of the phone.
Other desires it fulfills:
Can call for help if I need it (safety, natural, necessary), can more easily stay in touch with friends and family (social, natural, unnecessary), browse the Internet and play games (entertainment, natural, unnecessary).
Other ways to fulfill this desire:
Desire can be partially fulfilled with a cheap flip phone, but I consider the cost of a smartphone to be worth it.
Active Pleasures and Static Pleasures
The next step in organizing our life is to figure out which pleasures are active (require doing something in order to maintain them) or static (a pleasure that comes naturally). Eating food, for example, is an active pleasure, but not being hungry is a static pleasure.
Epicureans tend to prefer static pleasures to active pleasures, for Epicurus felt that a good way to avoid the over-indulgences of hedonism is to focus on the pleasures that occur naturally and continue indefinitely until something disturbs them, such as becoming hungry or thirsty, becoming lonely, or winding up in some kind of danger.
Active pleasures, on the other hand, take maintenance, and, especially if they are fulfilling some unnatural desire, are prone to being done in excess. They are limited in duration, and often stop once the original pain (such as thirst or sense of danger) has been eliminated. They can also be used as a distraction to replace some kind of pain. If you’re laid up after surgery, for example, playing a video game might be a nice distraction.
Some activities will also cause temporary pain, but lead to a static pleasure that you enjoy. For example, if you desire a toned, muscular body, exercising is a must. Exercising can be painful, but having a body you’re happy with is a static pleasure.
You know what to do next! Classify your desires as being active or static.
Finally, Determine What is Sufficient
You’ve spent a long time with your desires now, so it’s time to determine how much is enough. The goal of Epicureans is to live in tranquility, cutting out as much unnecessary pain as possible and pursuing pleasure, especially static pleasure.
Some of these are easy to classify. Going back to eating food, the idea is to attain the static pleasure of being full, or not hungry. As such, it is a self-limiting desire. Unless you’re eating gourmet food, for example, you won’t be tempted to overindulge, thus your desire will be satisfied painlessly and static pleasure will be quickly attained.
Because of this, the desires that natural and necessary tend to be easy to satisfy. Desires outside of this (expensive wine, a big house, etc.) are harder to fulfill and must be weighed against their cost, or pain, to acquire and keep them. This makes it easier to appreciate what you have, especially if it doesn’t cost you much.
We regard self-sufficiency as a a great virtue not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have.
The final exercise is to look back on the list you made that weighed the pain and pleasures of your desires. Check off what is easiest to satisfy with an X, things that are moderately difficult with an O, and things that are very difficult with a Z. By satisfaction, I mean moderate satisfaction.
Finally, record your plan for achieving these desires and/or eliminating what you don’t desire.
That’s how to apply Epicureanism to modern life and walk away happy.