He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing.
Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.
Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.
These are the words of Epicurus, a greek philosopher commonly associated with his view that "pleasure is the greatest good." Like much of history and philosophy, like much of all communication in fact, the actual intent of this idea gets lost in translation though because we don't always take the time to learn the definitions that others are using. Especially, as in cases like this, when they use more subjective words like pleasure or good. This is probably why philosophers often prefer to use obscure greek phrases like eudaimonia for happiness or welfare, ataraxia for peace and freedom from fear, or aponia for the absence of pain. We use these words to snap others out of their preconceived notions in the hopes that they will open their minds and engage in true dialogue to seek mutual understanding. At least, that's a generous view of why some people employ obscurantism in their writing.
In that spirit, I was reminded of two other foreign words when I was reviewing the philosophy of Epicureanism for this week's post. The first, came from an article about the Danish concept of hygge (sounds sort of like HYU-gah). Roughly, it means "coziness," "togetherness," and "well-being." "It's like a feeling, and it's big at Christmastime. The candles, the food, being with your family." I love naming this concept to help us own it, seek it out, and strive for it. Clearly Epicurus, with his emphasis on the importance of friendship, would approve. Once we're with those friends though, it's important to stay on the right side of the haimish line with them. I came across this concept in a New York Times op-ed from David Brooks in 2011. In that essay, Brooks describes an African vacation he took with his family where he stayed at two different types of camps. "The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel. I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality. It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more comfortable ones did not." This is such a beautiful description of the importance of philosophical contentment in life. Back to some quotes from Epicurus on this:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
These are great words to glean from Epicurus, which is one of the reasons why he is still worth studying. For a look at his larger works in the context of modernity though, here's what I had to say about his survival among the fittest philosophers:
Epicureanism (3rd Century BCE) is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus. Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism.
Epicurus was an atomic materialist. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Ok, so far.
Needs to Adapt
Epicurus believed that pleasure is the greatest good. But the way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from hedonism as it is commonly understood. Life, not pleasure, is the sole intrinsic good. The observation that “this life is all there is” is correct. The conclusion that “we ought to just enjoy it then” ignores the fact that progress is required in order to hold on to life. Fortunately, after billions of years of evolution, we do derive pleasure from applying ourselves to this effort. A fuller understanding of pleasure is required to consider this belief system. The simplicity with which it is represented is often dangerous.
In practical questions, the feelings of pleasure and pain are the tests. Pleasures of sense however are subordinate to the pleasures of the mind so the renunciation of pleasure or the endurance of pain is often a means to a greater pleasure. The cardinal virtue then is prudence, which is shown by true insight in calculating the consequences of our actions as regards pleasure or pain. Prudence is a chief virtue, but pain and pleasure are not the ultimate tests. Life or death is the ultimate test. If the environment changed so that pain was required to survive, we would suffer this pain. We already do.
Epicureanism admitted abstruse learning only when it serves the ends of practical wisdom; hence logic is subservient to physics, which in turn is subservient to ethics. It has hard to say ahead of time what learning is abstruse or not. It may all lead to knowledge that is crucially connected to our long-term survival. In a vast interconnected web, no form of learning is absolutely subservient to another.
Epicureanism emphasized the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. It states that gods, matter, and souls are all made up of atoms. Souls are made from atoms, and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to their bodies without escaping. Humans have the same kind of souls, but the forces binding human atoms together do not hold the soul forever. Nonsense theories before science uncovered what atoms and bodies actually are.
Not much survives intact from 2300 years ago, but perhaps that's to be expected. However, a great lesson can still be taken from this school of thought about what is truly important to lead an "epicurean" life, and why the definition behind that word—as behind all words—is vitally important too.