Epicureanism & how Philosophy can help you find contentment.

Category : Ancient Philosophy.


Epicurus

There is a misconception of Epicurus for those who have never delved into his Philosophy. Certainly, the majority associate Epicurus with pleasure, material desires and instant gratification when infact this is not true.

Instead, Epicurus’ Philosophy generally associates genuine happiness with the study of Philosophy, or rather; the pursuit of wisdom. This article attempts to explain the reasoning behind this belief, and looks at how you can apply this to your everyday life.

Epicurus emphasised that to attain positive mental health, we should pursue Philosophy – even from a young age.

Within his letter to menoeceus, he outlined the uses of Philosophy when trying to attain happiness :


1. The 3 key tools.

To attain a good life or happiness, Epicurus outlined 3 key tools that we must adopt.

  • Friendship, to attain genuine happiness we must surround ourselves with genuine friends who care for us, and offer companionship. I think this is something that we all instinctively seek : loneliness is something that is associated, generally with unhappiness. Companionship can both be romantic and unromantic. 
  • Self – Sufficiency,  while having friends for companionship is important; we must also not become overly reliant on any person or thing. As such, we are wrong to become reliant on anything : even the state or government. We must be totally self-sufficient both mentally and physically. An example of this is presented by the fact that Epicurus lived a simple life; eating bread and olives which he produced himself, rather than being reliant on external farmers.
  • Clear reflection, the final tool that we should adopt for contentment relates to clear reflection. This is where the importance of Philosophy ties in (and is mentioned below on death.) Clear reflection allows us to properly appreciate any events that have taken place in our lives – whether that be positive, or negative. I think this has value in day to day life when appreciating what we have, as sometimes this can be easy to miss.

So the key thing to take from this is to surround yourself with companionship; but not to become overly reliant. Genuine happiness comes from within – so work on companionship being a choice rather than a need, because while friendship is nice; you should be content even in it’s absence. Once you achieve this, true happiness will follow. Finally, make sure you focus and appreciate the things you have for what they are, rather than becoming fixated on the things that make you unhappy.

2. On Death.

Death is something that any rational person will fear, given it presents an unknown to us. It is one of only 2 certainties in our life : we will all, at some stage die.

Yet, to achieve true contentment; Epicurus states that we must come to terms with death – and through rational reasoning, we must conclude that death means nothing to us. He states that only through contemplation and reasoning will we be able to fully accept death, and establish that it is something that should not be feared.

In Philosophical terms, Epicurus stated that death means nothing to us because pleasure or pain relies on the sensations of the soul. Yet, as a materialist thinker he stated that death holds no sensation – so is neither pleasure or pain, and should not be worried about.

I think this has importance in every day life when trying to attain happiness. Certainly death is something that we can shy away from and not consider – but in these circumstances, this would inevitably lead us to worry and prevent us from achieving contentment.

But if we face thoughts of death head on, we can eliminate such worries – and achieve true contentment… after all, our death is something that is beyond our power and control.

3. On Pleasure and Pain.

Epicurus mainly emphasised the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate good – thus one must aim to attain this. Counter to popular belief, Epicurus actually condemned a life driven by material pleasures on the basis that it will lead to future pain (and in life, we must seek to maximise the overall pleasure over the fulfilment of one small material pleasure.)

Epicurus outlined 3 different types of pleasure : natural and essential (like food,) natural and unessential (like sexual desires) and unnatural and unessential.

Overall, to attain genuine contentment – we must pursue only natural and essential all the time, natural and unessential in moderation, and we should avoid unnatural and unessential.

In this instance, Philosophy has importance as it allows us to avoid false desires. These are things that we initially desire because they provide us with short bursts of pleasure, but over time they will inevitably lead to pain. By avoiding these, we will be able to focus our attention to genuine pleasures that will allow us to attain happiness.

From a Philosophical perspective, Epicurus refers to this as “sober thinking,” this being our ability to rationally differentiate between false pleasures and genuine pleasures. 

On a day to day basis, to apply this – the next time you have a strong urge or desire for something – I would recommend taking a second to rationally think: will this really provide me with happiness?


To summarise,

Epicurean thought offers valuable day to day advice when trying to achieve genuine happiness and contentment.

  • Surround yourself with friends and family, but do so as a choice – be reliant on nobody and be content on your own.
  • Rationally and clearly reflect on your worries – appreciate what you have, and do not let something you cannot control; like death, get in the way of your happiness.
  • Undergo sober thinking and follow only the desires that will offer genuine pleasure.

If you do all of these things, then you will be on the path to contentment.


Thank you for taking the time to engage with me,

Feel free to leave the answers to my questions below in the “comments section,” or tweet me : @theapeironblog

Jon Hawkins.

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