THE STERN LOOKING FELLOW at left is Epicurus, a Greek philosopher of the early third century BCE. Considering that his name is linked to a way of life that puts a premium on sensual pleasure you might have expected him to look a bit more cheery, or at least a little fleshier.
Granted, his facial hair does have the look of something expertly squeezed from a pastry bag – but after that you’d be hard pressed to find something in that face that suggests a reckless devotion to high living.
There’s a good reason for it: it was an approach to life he neither pursued nor advocated.
The historical Epicurus was the founder of a serious and enduring philosophical school with a philanthropic aim: to free individuals from fear of the supernatural, death, and the afterlife. He advocated a view of the world that was wholly material and morally neutral and encouraged his followers to focus on the only two things that he believed make human beings happy: experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain.
For true Epicurians, pleasure and pain are broadly defined (they’re not solely physical) and always subordinate to their context. There are some pleasures that only lead to greater pain and so should be avoided just as there are some pains that, since they lead to greater pleasures, are worth enduring.
In Epicurus’ system, money means almost nothing. Yes, it’s good to have enough to meet basic needs, to provide a level of material decency and freedom from the discomforts that abject poverty engenders; but money can never be a source of happiness because (a) getting and holding on to it are sources of anxiety; and (b) it satisfies no innate need or desire.
Epicurus knew something very important about human desire: It has no natural limits. Once satisfied, desire will invariably raise the ante wanting more, better, and different tomorrow. Since it’s the nature of desire to operate upon us in this way, and since the power to satisfy desire varies from person to person but is in every case limited, Epicurus concludes that in order to be happy it’s imperative to bring our desires into line with our capacity to satisfy them. Ironically, in the Epicurian system, it’s restraint that’s recommended, not excess. Nothing is ever enough for someone who regards enough as insufficient is one of just a few score of sayings directly attributable to the curly-bearded one that have come down to us.
In the Epicurian system, it’s restraint that’s recommended, not excess.
By all accounts the philosopher lived a simple, frugal life, and enjoyed the company of many loyal friends. He maintained that friendship, like good health, is a pleasure we can never have too much of, tire of, or grow out of. Epicurus evidently prized it above all others – yet, we never speak of someone with a gift of friendship as an epicure. Perhaps we should start.
It’s regrettable that in the world of food and wine we know today there is so much emphasis placed on the starred restaurant, the meal of a lifetime, the wine so rare and expensive only a segment of One Percenters will ever get to taste it. I’m often asked what my favorite wine is. My answer is always the same: “The one in front of me.” Who knows if I’ll ever taste another?
I admit that tasting the food of a gifted chef or the wine of a rare vintage is a peak experience and that such memorable moments are pleasant to recall. But I don’t think I would ever say that such events have made me happier. I think of happiness as something you build on from one ordinary day to another as you enjoy good wine and food as a matter of course and cultivate satisfying relationships. I want to make my everyday life better, not run from one fiesta to another.
Epicurus would remind us, that even those with very modest resources can still fill their cup of happiness to the brim. Delicious food and agreeable wines aren’t hard or expensive to come by and friendship, that jewel of pleasures, costs nothing more than a willingness to accept and return it.
Surely at that rate we can all afford to live in luxury.
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