Increasing happiness and decreasing suffering have been the goals of humanity since the dawn of time. I’m guessing that’s a basic biological response that evolved to enable self-preservation. This is not anecdotal wisdom. Anyone can observe this by watching domestic and wild animals. If you pay attention to your own responses, you’ll notice it present within your mind.
Nearly every religious and philosophical school has pondered the question of enhancing human lives. Many dissertations and hypothesis have been composed by deep thinking people. As a result, many religions and philosophies have been invented to provide templates for us to follow. Nearly all of them have been found to be impossible to follow naturally. Most of them require some form of coercion or negative reenforcement in order to control human behavior. This observation was also noticed more than 2,200 years ago by the ancient Greek, Epicurus.
Epicurus was born to Athenian parents on the colonial Aegean island, Samos, in the year 341 BCE. While Epicurus was serving in the Athenian military, The Samos expelled his parents and the rest of the Athenian colonists. This was due to the death of Alexander the Great and the dissolution of his empire. After, Epicurus’ military service, he rejoined his family in Colophon and started his teaching career.
Epicurus founded his school called “The Garden”. The aim of the school was to investigate how to live the ideal lifestyle. Detaching themselves from political discord, they studied philosophical discourse and encouraged deep friendships among themselves. The community members lived a simple lifestyle.
Epicurus along with his close friends, Metrodorus, Hemarchus and Polyaenus co-founded Epicureanism. This school eventually became one of the three leading movements of the Hellenistic era. Seneca reported the inscription on the gate to the garden. “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” Unusual for its time, Epicureans allowed women and slaves as members.
Epicurus taught his scientific philosophy based on the Atomism of philosopher Democritus. Basically, Atomism teaches that things are made up of tiny, indivisible particles or atoms. Atoms have particular weight, size and shapes depending upon the material they are part of. These atoms are in a constant state of very rapid movement. Epicurus deduced that all the collisions, reboundings and random entanglements prevent determinism. Epicurus parted company from Democritus on major philosophical points but did retain Atomism as one of his core beliefs.
This led to him teaching that the universe is not the creation of a divine will. He figured that the Gods might be seen as ideal beings and as role models for life, but they are disinterested in the affairs of humanity. This point of view was, and remains, unpopular with conventional, religious thought.
“If God(s) listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.” Epicurus
Epicurean philosophy is sensation based. Pleasant sensations are basically good and painful sensations are basically bad. After carefully observing animals and humans, he concluded that the ultimate core includes the seeking of pleasure.
There are two types of pleasure. The kinetic pleasure is that which satisfies the physical organism and entails the absence of painful sensations. The second pleasure is that of mental activity. Thoughts and actions that enhance a state of mental well-being are good. Thoughts and actions that cause stress, worry, and fear are bad.
“A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.” While we may believe that the accumulation of overt wealth and ceaseless consumption of food and drink might seem pleasant or good, on the surface, it really is not good. Greed leads to much unhappiness and overindulgence in food and drink leads to illness and suffering, so that is bad.
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” Because Epicureanism has been interpreted by other schools and religions as heretical, it has been greatly misrepresented and slandered. In fact, in modern times, Epicureanism is misunderstood as the same as hedonism. It has been continued to be vilified by conventional thinkers and religious leaders.
The other major part of Epicureanism is friendship. In Epicurus’ times and our own, the world is awash in violence and warfare. There has been a constant effort to create enemies, scapegoats and disputes. Epicurus felt that politics and the competition of public life caused much of this ill state of affairs.
He believed that a fair system of civic justice was an important foundation of society. His essential theory of justice stated justice is a contract among people to neither harm nor be harmed. This justice is only valuable if it is useful to all the community.
He felt that it is necessary and beneficial to enter into friendly relationships with like-minded people. The friendships are not only useful and utilitarian, but are quite pleasurable and good in and of themselves.
If Epicurus were to summarize his own philosophical teachings, he’d likely boil it down to advocating the life without the pursuit of glory, wealth and power.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders this Epicurean thought, “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”