Thoughts of Epicurus: The Good Life

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the third century B.C., and was a massive influence on the Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius. Epicurus was an atomist, who believed everything, including the mind, was corporeal. One of the greatest questions Epicurus asked was ‘how do we live a good life?’ For Epicurus, living a good life also meant becoming happy, yet what was it that Epicurus believed consisted in the good life?

One of the crucial acts in the art of happiness is, according to Epicurean philosophy, the renunciation of the gods and no fear of death. It is fear of death and fear of the gods that keeps us from becoming happy. Epicurus wrote that because death is without sensation, it is nothing to him, simply because it is without sensation and so cannot truly mean anything to him-the fear of death is irrational.

Pleasure is the absence of pain. The limits of pleasure go as far as pain can be removed, both mental and bodily and so this is a negative view of pleasure. Moreover, Epicurus believed that bodily pain is not continuous, and bodily pain is not usually greater than bodily pleasure, and if it is, it is uncommon and does not generally last for more than a few days. No pleasure is bad in itself, yet pleasure may at times cause disturbances much worse than the pleasure itself, so we must be careful.

To live pleasantly, we must be sensible, noble and just. Likewise, to be sensible, noble and just we must be living pleasantly-they are dependent on each other.



Lucretius and becoming happy


Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.

Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.

The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.

Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.

So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?

Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.  

If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.