And the Philosophy of Happiness
[This story was originally published here.]
There’s a good chance you don’t really know Epicurus. Yet, I bet many of you have heard of someone being Epicurean. No doubt it is an idea, a philosophy, that people often assume is all about ‘pleasure-seeking’.
Epicurus was actually the first philosopher to start a school of thought focused on happiness. Yet, his name and ideas have been slandered slightly. Yes, he did focus on pleasure in his philosophy and teachings and writings, but it wasn’t the drunken orgy many people think of. (That’s Hedonism.) Epicurus’s ideas were more about avoiding pain and taking advantage of modest pleasures.
Before Epirucus (341 BC) and his school of philosophy about happiness (307 BC), philosophers of the West pretty much focused on one thing: how to be a good person. So it seemed a bit sensuous and libertine to take the noble occupation of philosophy down the road of happiness. Something most philosophers of that time didn’t seem important or ‘correct’.
Still, he believed in what he was doing and whether we agree with the following ideas or not, they have no doubt played a role in our lives today. And if we take the time to consider them now, we may find they still have a role yet to play in our modern lives.
Epicurus liked to keep things in threes. I like that. And for writing an article about him and his ideas, it makes for a nice clean presentation. First, let’s start with the 3 mistakes we typically make as humans when looking for happiness.
We are obsessed with love. We think we need romantic relationships. It was just as true for humans 2500 years ago it seems despite all the cheesy romance novels and catchy pop songs we have today. Now, there is a type of love that goes beyond ‘romantic’ love or lust. This isn’t talking about that kind of love. We are just focusing on the Eros type of love here.
- Epicurus observed that in marriage happiness and love almost never went together. Even today, if you are expecting marriage or romantic love to being the key to happiness, you will no doubt be disappointed… time and again.
- Even without marriage, romance may bring high doses of pleasure, but with it comes jealousy, misunderstanding, hostility, and quite simply… pain. It isn’t bad to experience these aspects of life. No doubt Epirucus did himself at some point before he grew a great white beard and started a commune based on his philosophy. With pleasure comes pain, but Epicurus didn’t believe that was happiness.
- Even if you think you’re smarter than those pesky ‘feelings of love’, sex is still a complicated beast to tangle with. And because people are well, scared, defensive, etc, affection is usually not in correct harmony with sex.
Whatever type of romantic relationship you find yourself in or you feel leads to ‘happiness’, Epicurus came to the ultimate conclusion that it isn’t a safe bet to find personal happiness in a sensual relationship.
On the other hand, he believed strongly in friendship. With friendships, we don’t get possessive. We don’t hurt the other person. Most of the time we are polite. He thought we didn’t spend enough time with friends. That we never found the time for friends after work and family, or they just lived too far away.
Just like love back in the old days, people have always been driven by money. They choose jobs that they think will give them wealth and praise. Yet, once again, this seemingly sure way to pleasure often backfires into a life of jealousy, backstabbing, and frustration.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t find careers that suit us. Epicurus believed that happiness with our work most often comes when we work alone or in very small groups. Where we can see our contributions. Where we can see how we might actually be making or doing something that might improve the world if only one person at a time.
At the end of the day, according to Epicurus, it isn’t dollars or prestige we want, it is a sense of purpose and accomplishment born from our efforts, our sweat, and our struggles.
Beyond money, Epirucus thought our dream of living in luxury was the next mistake when it came to finding happiness. When I, or Epirucus, say ‘luxury’, we aren’t just referring to gold watches, fast cars, and maids. Luxury in how it is used here is more of our common desire to want a beautiful home with lovely decorated rooms and charming views.
Still, Epicurus looked beyond that desire of luxury and thought what we really wanted from that was a sense of calm. And even though a home on the beach may seem like the answer to providing you with all the calmness the world has to offer, it can’t give you anything that you don’t bring with you.
Being calm is an internal quality.
It comes from looking at yourself. It comes from looking at what you worry about and analyzing yourself to figure out why you worry about those things. It comes from knowing and understanding ourselves. If you see a person that manages to stay calm, it isn’t because they built a house on the beach away from the chaotic world. It is because they removed the outer world from the beach they have within.
For us to achieve this sort of calmness today, we may go to a shrink to ask for help. Yet, that wasn’t a thing back then. So, Epicurus suggested giving ourselves more time to read, relax, write, and most importantly, find a good listener. A person that is compassionate, but also clever, somebody Epicurus would have called a philosopher.
So what’s the solution then? Get divorced and become a commune-hippie or monastic nun?
Well… kind of?
Epicurus put his philosophy into practice and you may find it does look very similar to the above-mentioned concepts. In fact, it was straight-up stolen in the west by the Christians who felt threatened by these Epicurean communes that were just fine on their own and not falling under the wave of Christian domination. So the Christian Church, just kind of destroyed the name of Epicurus and used the exact same philosophy to ‘create’ what we now call western monasticism.
Here is what Epicurus created in his pursuit of happiness:
- He bought some land and moved all of his friends there with him. Forget only visiting his friends from time to time. He built a nice, modest little place outside of Athens where he and his friends could live side by side in a permanent way. Everybody had their own rooms, yet the ground floor, as well as the grounds around, were dedicated as common areas. Everyone ate together and you could always find someone to talk to in the common area should you need to. Even the children were looked after in what could be considered an agenda. It truly was the world’s first commune.
- Nobody worked for anybody else. The people that joined no doubt gave up a big part of their income, but in return, they were allowed to focus on work that made them feel fulfilled. People naturally found they enjoyed cooking, making furniture, painting, or farming. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had plenty of underlying fulfillment, pride, and happiness.
- This group of people would also find time every day to talk and reflect on their worries. They would try to help each other and understand themselves through reason, analysis, and insight. They were philosophers mastering the great questions and their own psyches.
Epicurus’s ideas started to catch on. All around the Mediterranean, Epicurean communities started to open up and draw in 1000s of followers. These places began to thrive and continued to do so for generations until you know… the Christians came. A very jealous and aggressive bunch, they brutally suppressed the Epicureans by the 5th century AD.
The essence of Epicureanism did survive though through Christian monasteries, which were coincidentally ‘invented’ in, you guessed it, the late 5th century.
Even Karl Marx said Epicurus was his favorite philosopher and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the man. What we call communism today is really just an authoritarian, militaristic, and depressing version of Epicureanism.
Yet, it wasn’t just Christians and Communist that stole from Epicurus’s philosophy of happiness. Capitalism saw its advantages as well. The Christians stole it and renamed it. (Is there anything original in that religion?) The Communists took it and ruined it. The Capitalists took it and used it to make money off of you. At least everybody stayed true to their name.
Advertisements today basically take the three key principles of Epicureanism and sell you a false version of it. They confuse what they know you need to be happy and sell you something they promise will make it happen. Let’s do some examples for clarity.
- Beer commercials sell us ‘friendship’. They give us friends at parties to dance with and buddies to sit and watch the game with. They sell the smiles and hugs of friendship in the ad, but all they give us is the beer we often drink alone.
- Car commercials will give us the feeling of accomplishment through hard work in their marketing genius, but of course, give us nothing of the sort in the fancy mechanical machine we buy and use to drive to work.
- Travel agencies promise serenity and relaxation with just one week of cruises and beaches. Yet, no beach or boat can provide calmness unless we are capable of it ourselves.
It’s clever of marketers to use Epicurean philosophy. They focus on our real needs. They excite us by showing us what we really need: friendship, calmness, and fulfillment. Yet they fail to actually alleviate or satiate the needs they evoke in their commercials. They just get us to buy things we don’t need and will eventually disappoint us by failing to uphold the subtle promise it made from the commercial to the product.
If people were aware of these tactics there would surely be an outrage and lawsuits of false advertising.
Epicurus wasn’t militant in his desire or manner to help us. He simply invited us to change how we understand ourselves and perhaps how we could look at our societies as a whole. We shouldn’t go running after all these things we think we need to be happy.
We should, however, stop and think about happiness in a serious way. We should approach it in a philosophical way as one man did almost 2500 years ago.