Idle Idol – Epicurus
A FERTILE MIND
Most people think of Epicurus as the philosopher of self-indulgence.
But his ideas for living were pragmatic and subversive.
By STEPHEN ARMSTRONG
Do you remember how it felt to be a child? Do you remember running simply for the sheer joy of running, rather than stepping slowly down a flight of stairs because your head doesn’t fancy the jolt? Do you remember laughing so much that you were sick, rather than sneering slyly from the side of your mouth? Do you remember scoffing fish fingers, playing games with your best friend, trying to work out why the moon travelled with you when you rode your bike down the road and going to sleep every night without worrying about what tomorrow held? And now suppose that we could take you back there. We wouldn’t make you a child again, we’d just cart you off to a little retreat we’d prepared for you. We’d probably take you to a garden, because childhood always seems to be spent in gardens, and there you’d find all your best friends who just wanted to sit and talk to you and play games with you all day long. Imagine that you didn’t need to work again, that you could find all you needed in this garden – all the food, all the shelter and all the clothes for your back in one lush, green sanctuary. Imagine if the only concern of everyone in this garden was to relieve you of your anxieties and ensure that you spent your life as pleasantly as possible, with good, solid nutritious food, fresh spring water and the odd golden home-brewed beer for those days when you’d put a couple of honest hours into the vegetable beds.
You want some? You want to go there? Now? Because this place is real, my friend, and people live there. Or rather, it was real and people used to live there. It was real when the philosopher Epicurus was alive and it was the heart and home of his school of thought. It was called The Garden and it defined the Epicurean life. But this may come as something of a surprise to you because that’s probably not how you think of the cove. You probably think Epicurus ate and drank and gorged himself on fine wines and rich food. You probably think he craved expensive clothes and elegant houses. Let’s be honest, you probably think he larged it big time when in fact he just wanted to play in a garden.
Epicurus was an unusual philosopher. He was unusual for many reasons – firstly in that few philosophers deal with human emotion rather than cold, rational thought but also, and most significantly for us, he actually thought he’d worked the whole problem with everything out and that it was quite simple to fix the world. Having worked it out, he then went off and put his theories in to practice. Which is rare in any walk of life, I’m sure you’ll agree, but doubly rare in philosophy.
That head in the clouds theorising that we associate with capital P Philosophers (“hey, what if this whole world is a dream…”) meant little to the eminently pragmatic Epicurus. As he put it so succinctly himself, “any philosopher’s argument which does not therapeutically treat human suffering is worthless; for just as there is no profit in medicine when it doesn’t expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy when it doesn’t expel the sufferings of the mind.”
And so how is it that most of us think of Epicurus as a shorthand for an incredibly expensive existence rather than a lifetime spent with good food and good friends in a quiet retreat, avoiding working for anyone else and spending the days quelling anxiety? Well, the Christians for a start. They had it in for Epicurus for a number of reasons. One, he didn’t believe in God or the afterlife. Well, that’s not strictly speaking true. He sort of believed in the gods. He thought they existed in intervals between worlds in a state of perfect happiness and had no interest in the affairs of humans. The idea that disaster befell us because we had crossed the gods was ridiculous to him – although clearly not to his contemporaries or the Pope.
Two, he agreed with Democritus and thought that all matter was made up of atoms – essentially declaring that Plato’s idea of ideal forms was bunkum as far as he was concerned. Even now he is attacked on Creationist websites like Family World News for just this theory, with southern Baptists believing that this sort of godless horror led directly to Darwin. The idea was also somewhat controversial in a society where Plato was philosophy’s nearest equivalent to Steven Spielberg – any idea he came up with was sure to be a banker. Indeed, ideal forms was the closest thing to E.T. that classical philosophy traded in. (You know about ideal forms even if you don’t think you do. Plato thought there were ideal forms of everything – horses, love, forks, trousers and so on. These existed more as an idea or a dream and everything in the real world was a pale reflection and a weak attempt to imitate these ideal forms. Incidentally, he also thought that men and women were created together as a whole being then split up and put on earth. Your job is to find the missing bit of you. Hence your Other Half.)
Epicurus didn’t agree. He thought our life was simply this life on earth. No Heaven, no Hell and above us only sky. He believed that we could perceive everything we needed to know and that what we sensed was all there was. There were no ghostly shapes off in some netherworld showing us just how wrong our view of perfection could be. There is this life, this universe and all of its atoms and void and we can rely on it.
This wasn’t his idea and his idea alone. The natural philosophers like Democritus and Epicurus’s teacher Nausiphanes created these theories. They also went on to argue that this material universe is pretty much pre-determined. Fate rather than free will, if you like. Epicurus, however, would have none of that. He believed we could determine our own future and could decide on our course through life using reason rather than religious fear. Again, not popular with the church.
Finally he was dismissed by the clergy because he argued that pleasure is essentially good, when any New Testament devotee knows that we were born to suffer and should accept our lot with meek supplication. Thus, when the church was busy rehabilitating the likes of Plato and Aristotle in the first millennium, they decided to erase this hedonist and his dangerous ideas.
After all, how could you persuade people that they suffered from original sin if you gave credence to dangerous ideas like; “I don’t know how I shall conceive of the good if I take away the pleasure 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.” Or how about; “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life. The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.”
Having said that, it’s not entirely fair to attribute all of Epicurus’ bad press to Christian Rome. He was frowned on in his own time as well. Because men and women, free people and slaves were all allowed to join his school of philosophy in a Greece which felt that such matters were really for the concern of free men alone, he was regularly accused of sponsoring secret orgies. He was attacked for debauchery and accused of stealing all his decent ideas then locking himself away to gorge on posh grub and shag innocent followers. The idea that feelings and pleasure were legitimate subjects for philosophers and that the avoidance of pain had real value was dismissed as an open invitation to get away with everything short of murder.
Timocrates, the brother of Epicurus’ friend and garden dweller Metrodorus, spread rumours about the school, saying that Epicurus had to vomit twice a day because he ate so much. Diotimus the Stoic published fake letters which purported to show Epicurus drunk and in a mad sexual frenzy. Horrendous rumours spread about the licentious behaviour that the philosopher believed was essential to life. However if you were to boil down his beliefs to just one thing, Epicurus believed in friendship.
“Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you eat or drink.”
He also believed in freedom. He felt that allowing your boss – be they employer or political master – to tell you what to do couldn’t help you achieve happiness. This is where the garden came in. With his followers he brought a house and a garden on the outskirts of Athens in 306 BC where they grew all the food they needed to live. It wasn’t the finest food in the world, just simple, rural fare. But it did for them. It gave them time to think, which is the third of Epicurus’s ingredients for a happy life.
The Garden was incredibly productive when it came to thought. Metrodorus wrote twelve books whilst he was there. The community talked and wrote and argued all the time in a bid to understand the way the world worked so that they could stop worrying about what was going to happen to them. Epicurus felt that if he could conquer fear, he could live a happy life. And, in a sense, this is where the most fundamental misunderstanding of Epicurus comes in. He saw pleasure as the absence of pain. For him, having enough food and clothes and shelter to keep you from hunger and cold, having good friends to talk to and freedom from control by another and being able to think through and dismiss any other fears meant you could live in happiness.
In fact, an idler himself subsequently arrived at a suitable definition of the Epicurean life. Jerome K Jerome edited the second incarnation of The Idler in the 1890s, taking on Dr Johnson’s original in his own sweet way. In his first book Three Men and a Boat, he becomes enraptured by the advice of his friend George who, whilst packing for the river trip, urges his companions not to think of the things they could do with, but the things they couldn’t do without. Jerome is delighted and draws up a life plan that our Greek friend would have been proud of: “Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasure, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water.”
It’s hard, given this passive, mannered approach to existence and visualising the bliss of the Epicurean retreat, to imagine how such thoughts could be subversive. But, in time, Epicureans became the Seattle protesters of their day. In the AD 120s, in the marketplace in Oinoanda in Asia Minor, they took to spreading anti-commercial messages through vast advertising hoardings 80 metres long and four metres high.
“Luxurious foods and drinks in no way produce freedom from harm and a healthy condition in the flesh,” read one. And; “one must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is overflowing.” The anarchist statements of their day protested to shoppers as they shopped, trying to persuade them that shopping wouldn’t bring them the peace they so desperately sought.
And so perhaps they were right to be wary of Epicurus and his followers. Whilst Plato and Aristotle and Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer sought to explain the world, Epicurus falls in to that small and eminently dangerous band of thinkers, alongside Sartre and Marx, who sought instead to change it. So think carefully before you dismiss us who hide in our retreat as irrelevant fools who think and eat and do little to affect the world. When we finally leave, we’re going to be trouble.