By McKinley Powers
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who can be considered by the layman as the working class hippy of the ancient Greeks, but modern society has transformed his memory into a gross departure from his actual teachings. The most famous of these offenders being the popular website Epicurious, a site for food recipes and various other food related articles and forms of media; except one can only wonder why given the fact that an important statement of Epicurus conveys something to the effect of, “The company one shares a meal with is far more important than the meal itself.”
This vastly ironic misconception of Epicurus as one who enjoyed excesses in fleeting, physical pleasures like ridiculous desserts and alcohol likely spawns from the simple description of Epicurus’ philosophy as a method of achieving pleasure. While Epicurus certainly was all about pleasure and the pursuit of happiness and pleasure dominated his ethical thought and philosophical teachings his pleasure was found in one simple concept: the lack of pain and worry. He himself was even a celibate vegetarian, i.e. one of the folks least likely to indulge in physical, worldly pleasures you’ll ever find. His pleasures were found in his mind and in his friends and family.
Pleasure to a true Epicurean is a lack of pain both physical and mental, a state called ataraxia. Pain can arise from worrying about debts, from associating with troublesome people, from eating too much even. Pain is a slightly misleading word given its modern context but one can replace it in their mind with discomfort, like the nagging feeling you get when you’re saving that massive project for the very night before it’s due. For this reason Epicurus said it’s best not to be involved in politics, a field notorious for stressing people out. On the opposite side of this, he did not encourage any particular means of pursuing positive pleasure; he was all about a state of balance, a neutral condition void of pain which could be warded off with knowledge and wisdom. Apart from the more minor things which a person combats daily to reach tranquility Epicurus said there are two main, self-imposed things which cause us the most mental pain.
These two acts, one rather irrelevant to modern day folks and one enduringly relevant until we all become robots go as follows: fear of punishment by the gods and fear of death. The former was an incredible departure for the religious atmosphere of Greece at the time, everyone was freaking out about the afterlife and the gods and an ultimate punishment and all these religious pains, but Epicurus was playing it cool. He stated that the gods were so far away from Earth and so inconceivable that they did not spare humans any mind at all, they just straight up didn’t care, mommy and daddy are in another state so throw the party no worries. The latter of those self-imposed difficulties I feel will continue to plague the states of mind of humans for our entire existence until/if we transcend our biological obligations to die. Epicurus told us that death is quite simply the cessation of one’s perception, their senses, and their ability to be. Death comes and we depart, when it is here we are not, it has nothing to do with the living because when there is life there cannot be death so what is there to concern oneself with? In some words it is simply not the business of humans, and he even went as far to say that a wise man (the state which everyone should strive to obtain) should not hassle themselves with funeral rites. He encouraged such a disconnect, such a distance from this problem everyone faces and revolutionized ancient Greek thought about the gods and combatted the decadent social trends of the time and what does modern society remember him for? Fancy brownies.
I leave you with these parting words in hopes that you will carry on the memory of Epicurus as a man who lived without excessive physical pleasures, who spoke against fear and worry and strove for a neutral peace of mind as the highest form of happiness. I hope you will consider his ideas on mortality and perhaps think twice next time you feel that your sorrows will be corrected with just one more cookie. And finally, that you will never, ever refer to a ‘foody’ as an epicurean, because that would cause me significant pain.