The Epicurean Life

13 11 2013


“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honourably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honourably and justly without living pleasantly.”

Mention the name Epicurus and most people immediately think of a well-known brand of fancy preserves and pickles. To most people an ‘Epicurean’ would be someone who indulged in a life of fine wining and dining, someone who preferred to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda, who chose cashmere over acrylic, and whose idea of heaven was a long Sunday morning lie-in reading Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson: a bit of a foodie hedonist, right?

But were Epicurus (341-270 BC) still alive today, he would certainly not recognise himself from the above description. All right, he might have enjoyed reading Nigel Slater and looking forward to some exquisitely tasty meals, but he wouldn’t be interested in gorging himself or overdoing the wine: Epicurus the philosopher of ancient Greece firmly believed in moderation and living the simple life. He has often been misunderstood mostly because of his key belief that seeking pleasure is the best way to become happy.

For Epicurus there was nothing more pleasant than spending time in a beautiful garden in deep conversation on life’s meaning with his closest friends and followers. In this garden they drank water rather than wine and were kind to each other rather than competitive. Indeed the garden at Epicurus’ home in Athens where he taught his ideas became well-known and established as the school of Epicurean philosophy, much in the same way that the Academy was renowned as the school of Platonic thinking and the Lyceum, the school of Aristotle’s ideas.

For Epicurus the lessons of the garden were a form of practical philosophy. Gathering together people who were interested in ideas of life and death was a way of helping people to work out what they really thought and to overcome their fears and anxieties. Following Socrates, Epicurus recognised that philosophy is most useful when it can be directly applied to ordinary life. Philosophy can help to shed light on puzzling problems and ethical dilemmas and offer clarity. This Epicurean way of philosophy was incredibly popular during his time and is still one of the best models for doing philosophy rather than learning about philosophy.

Critics of Epicurus portray him as an atheist and hedonist, but his philosophy was more nuanced than mere self-centred pleasure-seeking. He believed that some desires were natural and necessary, such as the desire for food, shelter and company, and that we should pursue those desires.

In tonight’s seminar discussion one of the group mentioned that in the aftermath of the typhoon some Filipinos were looting for food and that was something that we considered entirely natural and understandable given the scale of the disaster. Looting for luxury or non-essential goods, however, was not considered natural or understandable, and parallels were drawn with the disaster in New Orleans when some people caught up in that situation used the break down in social structure to their own advantage by committing crime. The question that emerged was: is justice natural? Our enquiry seemed to follow the line of thinking that justice was cultural, thus agreeing with Epicurus who claimed that justice was a social agreement not to cause harm or be harmed. He viewed justice as a form of community policing. People have to first agree on what is acceptable or not acceptable and this code of conduct is then enforced in order to protect the community. This seems entirely reasonable. Most people want to live in peace within their communities and justice is one way to ensure that people know where they stand. In peaceful communities people have no need to loot or form vigilante groups. Chaos and desperation change the rules of justice.

As we have seen in situations of chaos some people cannot resist the temptations of corruption. Is this because they lack natural justice, or is it because they know they can get away with ignoring justice in situations of extremes? Epicurus might have argued that people don’t automatically turn bad when there are no community police around to stop them misbehaving. Instead given a breakdown in any society’s structure, people will see what they can get away with. We can all understand this very human impulse. We can all act impetuously. It’s what makes us sometimes jump red lights or neglect to tell a cashier that she has failed to charge us for the item now in the bottom of our shopping bag. We bend the rules of justice to make make them fit our new circumstances, and we even have a word for it rooted in justice itself: we call it justification.

Epicurus taught that we can learn to understand our desires and so learn how to appreciate all that we have. Once we understand that what we already have can bring us great pleasure then we will be less inclined to want more or feel dissatisfied. If we read the search for pleasure as the search for well-being then these very ancient ideas make sense today. In this reading, Epicurus is a very modern-minded philosopher whose ideas are certainly compatible with contemporary Buddhist thinking about suffering and craving and living mindfully. In terms of offering us food for thought into current ethical living, Epicurus has not yet passed his sell-by date.

The Best Life

16 06 2013


Can we choose to be happy? Aristotle thought that we could. He outlines his reasons in a series of tantalisingly brief notes compiled as the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle whatever we choose, we choose because we want to be happy or fulfilled. We make decisions that are ‘choiceworthy.’

  “Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”

Aristotle’s main idea is that we never choose happiness for the sake of something else. He argued that all our choices in life are aimed at the goal of happiness. We choose the person we will marry because we are convinced that that person will bring us (hopefully) everlasting happiness. Similarly we choose to settle in places because we feel that we are going to be happy there. When we get fed up with living in, say, London, we move to Devon, or to Cambridge or Spain. Happiness draws us along the line of decision making. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is that we can’t choose beyond happiness.

Aristotle makes the goal of happiness both incredibly simple and fiendishly difficult. For a start, many people who live lives of acute desperation are often not aware that happiness is even a valid choice for them. I imagine young women who have been kidnapped as victims of human trafficking gangs rarely feel that they have any options, and that applies also to victims of any form of violence. Child soldiers; young prostitutes; sweat shop workers; the homeless; migrant fruit pickers – for many people in these situations their daily decisions are aimed at survival alone and happiness itself is a remote dream.

Circumstances must always influence happiness: you simply can’t compare the happiness of a wealthy business woman with an online empire and her children educated in independent schools with a woman who still has to carry water to her children who may die of disease before they reach adulthood. Global happiness is clearly not a level playing field.

I would argue, though, that we can still find wisdom in Aristotle’s ideas. If we are going to aim for something in life then surely it is better to aim at happiness than to dismiss it from our lives because it does not apply to our circumstances at the time? It is a rare human being who cannot recall a single happy moment. For those living the most wretched of circumstances, it is those moments of lightness and relief that keep them going and act as the bridge between merely existing and truly living.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s memoir from the ‘human laboratory’ of the Holocaust death camps builds the case that courage and hope are closely connected. If we can hope, then we have the will to live, and in order to move beyond despair we need to make fundamental changes in our attitude toward life. Frankl, a professor of neurology and psychiatry, who spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps, writes movingly of his role as mentor to those for whom the relentless brutality of camp existence had extinguished all hope…’we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop thinking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.’

The answer, for Frankl, does not lie in in the innocent pursuit of happiness, but in ‘right action and in ‘right conduct.’

Here Frankl’s ideas dovetail with Aristotle’s. For both thinkers seem to agree that happiness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of life, but a series of activities and challenges that we must overcome in order to draw our own map of meaning. Right action and right conduct means living an ethical life.

In the notes throughout his Ethics, Aristotle is vague on the question of whether happiness is a gift of the Gods. He more or less admits that he didn’t know, but that if it were a gift from the Gods then that would be a reasonable thing for the Gods to offer. He is more interested in how we can achieve happiness through our own actions. He didn’t think that fate brings us good fortune. He is not superstitious. He argues that it is better to be happy through our own efforts than through good fortune because fortune is easily lost and therefore unreliable. The Ethics is a reasoned enquiry into the elements that make up the best kind of life. One of its conclusions is that activity brings lasting happiness.

“…since it is activities that control life…no blessed person could ever become miserable since he will never do hateful and base actions. For a truly good and intelligent person will bear strokes of fortune suitably and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will produce the finest shoe from the hides given him, and similarly for all other craftsmen…”

In this idea that purposeful and creative activity brings psychological benefits, Aristotle follows Plato. This idea is central to Greek thinking on harmony. A person living in harmony lives a life that is well-suited to their talents and character. If you are suited to be a shoemaker then that is what you should do for life and if you make the best shoes possible and keep all your customers happy then you in turn will be happy.

   “Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”

Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls ‘the virtues of character,’ or good habits of mind. The term ‘ethical’ comes from habit or ethos. For Aristotle, then, the good character is ethical. He claims that ethics does not arise in us naturally. We are not born ethical, as anyone who has spent time with toddlers will recognise. Aristotle claims that we become ethical through a process of habituation. We learn the right way to act.

 “The right sort of habituation must avoid excess and deficiency.”

Aristotle advocates the middle way. If we avoid extremes of all kinds we can achieve balance and harmony in our lives and it is this sense of equilibrium that leads to happiness. For Aristotle, happiness is temperance and moderation; a state of poise and tranquillity that has echoes in Buddhist ideas of recognising that it is craving that leads to suffering.

    “For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength; and likewise, too much too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health…the same is true of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash.”

But his claims about habituation raise a puzzle: How can we become good without being good already?

Aristotle’s response is that we need to practise ethics rather than relying on theory. There is no point in reading a book about how to live a better life unless you put into action some of the ideas suggested. We become happy by doing activities that put us in a good state. We create our own well-being.

   “The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions.”

Aristotle argues that knowing ourselves is fundamental to achieving happiness. We need to observe our own tendencies on the scale of extremes and deficiencies. Are we more inclined to be passive or aggressive; active or inactive? A dreamer or a doer; intellectually or emotionally driven? Are we generous or cautious with money? When we know what we are like, we can find our own midpoint on the circle.

“Giving and spending money is easy and anyone can do it; but doing it to the right person in the right amount at the right time for the right end and in the right way is no longer easy nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy and fine.”

Which makes Aristotle’s idea of happiness sound like a goal worth pursing, not for the glow of contentment it brings, but for the motivation it gives us to shape and adjust our ethical lives so that we may become endowed with the happiness that we truly deserve.

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