What Epicurus Can Teach Us about Freedom and Happiness

Joey Clark

I had been covering the presidential election on talk radio, and my mind was a cracked and scrambled egg. So I picked up a book, at random, as a means of trying to put my Humpty Dumpty brain back together again. I started reading excerpts from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things and slowly I felt more at ease, as though I was picking up on a long lost conversation with an old friend.

Epicurus appears to have intuited the thought of classical liberals and modern libertarians from Thomas Jefferson to Friedrich Hayek to Ayn Rand.I imagine Lucretius himself felt he was carrying on with a long lost friend when he wrote On the Nature of Things as an ode to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Though only fragments of Epicurus' philosophy have survived from antiquity – biographer of the Greek philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius, claims he was "a most prolific author and eclipsed all before him in the number of his writings: for they amount to about three hundred rolls, and contain not a single citation from other authors" – his influence has proved to be monumental for those willing to carry on the dialogue he started.

Through the work of Pierre Gassendi, Epicurus' thought inspired many Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton. Incredibly, Epicurus even appears to have intuited the thought of classical liberals and modern libertarians from Thomas Jefferson to Friedrich Hayek to Ayn Rand.

In his treatise, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises makes a claim about British economic theory:

It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism. It substituted an autonomous rational morality for the heteronomous and intuitionist ethics of older days. Law and legality, the moral code and social institutions are no longer revered as unfathomable decrees of Heaven. They are of human origin, and the only yardstick that must be applied to them is that of expediency with regard to human welfare.

So who was this fountainhead of a philosophy that “consummated the spiritual, moral, and intellectual emancipation” of the human race?

Who Was Epicurus?

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher who claimed the cosmos was eternal and merely material, made up of atoms and void. Yet, breaking with his predecessor Democritus, he considered the universe indeterminate. In the realm of ethics, Epicurus taught that the purpose of human life was the pursuit of happiness, which could be achieved by the measured study of the natural world and adherence to a prudent and temperate hedonism.

He counseled men not to fear their own death, saying,

Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. 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.

He considered friendship as the utmost means of securing wisdom, saying,

Friendship dances around the world, bidding us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness...The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that in the limited evils of this life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.” 

He advised men to avoid vain ambitions such as the pursuit of fame, exorbitant wealth, and political power for their own sake. Rather, he thought wise men would be "strong and self-sufficient" and "take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances."

To Epicurus, pain is a natural evil, pleasure a natural good, with the ultimate pleasure being the absence of bodily pain and tranquility of the mind. From his Letter to Menoeceus:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.

Nevertheless, because Epicurus claimed the ultimate aim of happiness is to find pleasure – and not virtue or knowledge unto themselves – many of his contemporaries and later critics would uncharitably accuse him of advocating debauchery, one even saying he “vomited twice a day from over-indulgence,” and that his understanding of philosophy and life in general was wanting.

Epicurus taught that the purpose of human life was the pursuit of happiness.One might hear the very same smear today from mainstream American partisans in regard to libertarians, i.e. that liberty lovers are simply “pot-smoking republicans” or libertines who barely understand life and are too drunk on utopian dreams to see clearly. In this same vein, many reproached Epicurus (as they do of libertarians today) for his aloof stance on politics as apathetic and his notion of justice as too transactional.

“Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit,” writes Epicurus in his Principal Doctrines, “to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.” Elsewhere he writes, “We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.”

Accordingly, Epicurus set up his own school, “The Garden,” where he offered philosophy to anyone, even women and slaves – an unheard of practice at the time, which many contemporary critics saw as proof of his penchant for depraved behavior. Why else would one invite women and slaves into one’s abode other than revelry? Was he actually going to talk to them about ideas?

Thankfully, we have Diogenes Laërtius to defend Epicurus from his detractors:

But these people are stark mad. For our philosopher has numerous witnesses to attest his unsurpassed goodwill to all men – his native land, which honored him with statues in bronze; his friends, so many in number that they could hardly be counted by whole cities, and indeed all who knew him, held fast as they were by the siren-charms of his doctrine...the Garden itself which, while nearly all the others have died out, continues for ever without interruption through numberless successions of one director after another; his gratitude to his parents, his generosity to his brothers, his gentleness to his servants, as evidenced by the terms of his will and by the fact that they were members of the Garden...and in general, his benevolence to all mankind. His piety towards the gods and his affection for his country no words can describe. He carried his modesty to such an excess that he did not even enter public life.

Thoughtfulness and Synthesis: A Remedy for Cynicism

This is only scratching the surface, but the more I have studied Epicurus, the more I have found peace of mind in the midst of this horrible election. The more I immerse myself in his teaching, the more I can feel my cynicism, worry, and want melt away.

Of course, Epicurus alone is not enough to cure the cynicism in my heart, but by heeding his advocacy of prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, and friendship, I am more than halfway there. I am pleased to say “I too am an Epicurean,” just as Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1819.

In fact, Mr. Jefferson goes on in his letter to William Short, showing a penchant for synthesis and thoughtfulness rarely seen in American politics today, as he ventures a quick survey of moral philosophers throughout the ages (emphasis mine):

I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained. Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disguising his work at times with some Stoicisms, and affecting too much of antithesis and point, yet giving us on the whole a great deal of sound and practical morality. But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others.

So, here we have Mr. Jefferson offering up to his friend in a single letter what Deirdre McCloskey has offered in three vast volumes as the basis of bourgeois virtue and modern Western achievement – a synthesis of pagan and Christian virtue guided by the light of reason and hope in man’s spirit.

Put simply, the Greek and Roman virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice; the Christian virtues are the virtues of faith, hope, and love (but the greatest of these is love).

The Sleep of Reason and Lack of Dreams

By this standard, American politics has largely lost this balance in my estimation. This presidential election has shown both outright irrationality and a cynical game of over-reliance on prudence and love. We let our boundless ambition for power and wealth, as well as our untrammelled compassion, get the best of us.

Reason without hope ourselves and our character as a people produces an arid landscape for the mind.Where is our temperance in the face of binary choices and ultimatums offered by the State? Where is our fortitude in the face of our so-called leaders’ fear mongering? Where is our hope in the future separate from the intuitionist, mystic’s approach that the State can do anything for us at any time, including impose our so-called virtue on others? Where is our sense of justice for those who differ from us, for those both foreign and domestic who wish to live differently and at peace?

Where is our balance?

Well, they have all gone out the window in one way or another.

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters,” says Goya, yet,” united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Life without reason, indeed, produces monsters, but reason without hope in ourselves and our character as a people, without a willingness to dream beyond the whims and ambitions of the political moment, produces an arid landscape for the mind. Little can grow in such a climate other than resentment, apathy, and conflict. And lo and behold, unrefined cynics are sprouting up left and right in this drought of 2016.

So, my message to you (and to myself) is balance, my friends, balance. Keeps your wits about you.

Do not fall into quietism or fatalism; seek happiness with a zeal – in friendships and long conversations, in the pleasures nature has provided us, in the fruits of our reason and imagination, and in the avoidance of vain ambitions for power over others.

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