Epicureans in the 21st Century

Epicureans in the 21st Century - July 23, 2017  Kathy Lovell, Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing

Story for all Ages – What is an Epicurean? 

What is an Epicurean? An easy answer is a person who agrees with the teachings of Epicurus.  But that leads to the real question - ‘who was Epicurus and what did he say? Epicurus was a Greek teacher who lived over 2000 years ago, about the same time as Plato and Aristotle.   How many of you have heard of Plato or Aristotle? (raise your hands)    How many have heard of Epicurus?  Not very many.  But it turns out that Epicurus was right about lots of scientific ideas, including the ideas of atoms, how we got all of the different plants and animals in our web of life, and Plato and Aristotle were wrong.   Epicurus grew up always asking questions about things.  As a teenager, he studied philosophy and other subjects (there were no regular schools then like we have now and he decided what he wanted to study).  When he was 18 years old, he had to report for 2 years of military service, and then he returned to his family.  Epicurus kept asking questions while he studied with more teachers and learned from them, but in the end he explained the natural world much like we do today.   In Religious Education classes and in the Coming of Age program we try to encourage youth to do what Epicurus did: ask questions, learn from others, but in the end figure out what they believe. When Epicurus was 32 years old, he started teaching on a Greek island – not at a school, but with adults who wanted to learn from him.   He was among the first to suggest that atoms are the building blocks for everything.  He thought that everything in the universe was composed of atoms in different combinations. We know this is true now, but most people then thought this was weird.  Who ever saw an atom?  Aristotle, the famous guy, taught that everything was made of fire, water, air and earth – things you could see.  Epicurus was forced to leave his home after being accused of the crime of not believing what the people in power believed about the gods and nature.  A few years later, he moved to Athens, the largest city in Greece, and started teaching his students only in his home and garden, and he did not talk in public places about his ideas.   But he wrote books and letters, and so did his followers, so we know about his ideas even after thousands of years.  Many of the things Epicurus taught about how people should live, are very similar to our Unitarian Universalist principles.  He said that all people should be treated fairly and kindly, that each person should be able to search for what is true, and that we should work for justice.  The basis of his thinking was that we should live a happy, pleasant life, free from worry and pain.  He thought people naturally tried to avoid pain – that makes sense – do you like to be hurt or be hungry?  I know I don’t.  We all try to do things that don’t hurt and that make us feel good.  We all have desires, and Epicurus saw the differences between necessary and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires are those which are necessary to keep from feeling pain.  It’s necessary to have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, a house to live in, friends and family to spend time with.  Unnecessary desires are those we often see advertised on TV or online – candy and cookies, expensive clothes, lots of toys, a huge house. Those are unnecessary desires and we should not NEED them to be happy. It’s fine to have a cookie or ice cream cone sometimes for a treat, but having cookies and candy all the time would make us sick.  Epicurus and his followers enjoyed water, bread, fruits and vegetables from his garden, and sometimes cheese – a luxury.  They were friends who helped each other, and they spent time talking and eating together.   Epicurus taught that the things we really need to be happy are the simple things, and having time to spend with friends and family is very important. 


Reading  - Excerpts from the principal doctrines –

The Principal Doctrines are a collection of forty quotations from the writings of Epicurus that serve as a summary of his ethical theory.  We will read 10 of them, giving you a few seconds between each doctrine to consider it.  

Number 3 -  The removal of all feeling of pain is the limit of the magnitude of pleasures.  When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is neither a feeling of pain nor a feeling of distress.  

Number 5 - It is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.

Number 8- No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures bring troubles many times greater than the pleasures. 

Number 15- Natural wealth is both limited and easily obtained, but vanity is insatiable.

Number 17- The just life is most free from disturbance, but the unjust life is full of the greatest disturbance.

Number 22- We must consider the ultimate goal to be understanding the real world, and reconcile our opinions with sensory experience; otherwise, life will be full of confusion and disturbance.

Number 26- The desires which do not bring a feeling of pain when not fulfilled are not necessary; the desire for them is easy to dispel when they seem to be hard to achieve or to produce harm.

Number 27- Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

Number 31- The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.,] neither to harm one another nor be harmed. 

Number 38- Where, without any change in circumstances, things held to be just by law are revealed to be in conflict with the essence of justice, such laws were never really just. 



Many people have not heard of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, or don’t know much about him, but my guess is that most of us here, and most Unitarian Universalists would agree with his main principles.  I know I am now an Epicurean.  Until a couple of years ago, I had only heard the name and connected it vaguely with gourmet food.  And that is the connection if you go online – One definition of an Epicurean is “appreciation of, and indulgence in, good food and in luxury”.  There is a website called Epicurean.com, targeted for gourmet food and wine lovers.  In reality, Epicurus promoted very simple food – water, bread, fruits, vegetables, and maybe a little cheese for a luxury.  He was interested in science and amazingly accurate in many of his views involving physics, chemistry and neuroscience.  He believed that the universe was composed of elemental particles or building blocks, called atoms, that can be rearranged but cannot be created or destroyed. Most everyone accepts that today, but it was radical and criticized in his time, and later.   Epicurus thought everything in nature can be explained by natural laws, without the need for the intervention of divine beings or anything supernatural.      Epicurus also created a set of ethical principles that did not depend on fear of a god or punishment after death.  The principles included justice for all and treating every person with kindness and respect. Does that sound like some of the Unitarian Universalist principles? – “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”   Epicurus did not take a stand on belief in god or gods-- he allowed space for each person to believe in a god, or not, as they searched for their own truth.   This is consistent with the Unitarian Universalist principle of “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning:” 

I first got fascinated by Epicureanism when I read the book titled “The swerve: How the world became modern” by Stephen Greenblatt.   It tells about how the ideas of Epicurus were rediscovered after being lost to the world for many centuries.  Epicurus, who lived a few hundred years before Jesus, wrote many documents that were widely circulated in that period, but most have been lost (a letter and a few fragments remain).  A follower of Epicurus after his death – a Roman poet and philosopher named Lucretius - wrote  a collection of poems titled “On the nature of things” about the scientific and ethical principles of Epicureanism. Many copies were made by scribes in monasteries and again widely distributed, but most copies did not survive over the next thousand years. Greenblatt tells the story of the rediscovery of “On the Nature of Things” and the impact of Epicurean ideas in the modern world.  In the year 1417 a man named Poggio Bracciolini who had worked in the Vatican, was searching for lost classical manuscripts and made a great discovery in an abbey in Germany.  He found a manuscript of “On the nature of things.” Poggio had a copy made of the manuscript to take to Italy, and then had more copies made. Then after the printing press was invented, many more copies were put into circulation.  The ideas in the rediscovered book by Lucretius had an enormous influence on the development of life in Europe during the Renaissance period and in the founding of America.  Thomas Jefferson owned at least 8 copies of “On the nature of things” in four different languages.  We know from letters that he was a self-proclaimed Epicurean.  And that was the origin of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.  

Let’s go back and look further at the ideas of Epicurus.  The goal of his life and philosophy was ataraxia, a Greek word that means not perturbed, freedom from worry, tranquility, peace of mind, or serenity.   He believed that we gain knowledge of the world in three ways.   First, Sensations are the information we receive from our senses – sight, touch, smell, taste.  This is how we come to know the physical world.  Sensations are true but may not

always be trustworthy in representing reality.  E.g. if you are out in a boat, an oar in water appears to be bent, but you know the oar is straight. This sensation needs to be examined. Second, feelings involve pleasure and pain – all animals try to avoid pain, and try to pursue pleasure, or at least the absence of pain. This has been demonstrated in research on many species – that rewarding an organism for a behavior makes the organism more likely to repeat that behavior, while punishment makes the organism less likely to repeat it. That’s a common way of training dogs – to give them a treat.  However have some of you noticed that approach does not work as well on cats? And there are complex issues involved when considering human beings.  Third, anticipations are inherited instincts – innate and biological, and have to do with social relations and with abstract ideas, like justice.  Epicurus observed that, from the moment of birth, both animals and human beings, not only reach out for food and avoid pain, but also exhibit a predisposition to fall into patterns of behavior, like wanting to help others. E.g. Young children want to help others soon after their first birthday.  These three, Sensations, Feelings and Anticipations, make up the Epicurean tripod of truth.      Let’s consider further what Epicurus really meant by the pursuit of pleasure. I will be using the terms pleasure and happiness interchangeably.  Epicurus wrote: "Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing."  Epicurus did not really teach that we should seek pleasure, but that we all do and that there are rational ways to do so.  The pleasure principle helps all animals to survive in terms of finding food and staying safe.  This concept is validated by neuroscience with an understanding of the brain structures involved.  It has been shown that dopamine released in the reward system in the brain creates the basis of our liking and wanting something, and making efforts to get it again to get the same reward. 

Epicurus claims that there are two self-imposed beliefs that do the most to make our lives unhappy or full of pain. They are first, the belief that we will be punished by god or the gods for our bad actions, and second, that death is something to be feared. Both of these beliefs produce fear and anxiety, and, according to Epicurus, are completely unnecessary. The belief that a god’s punishment would send people to Hell after death has been widespread for thousands of years. The Universalists dealt with this fear with the belief that God loves all of his people, and there will be universal salvation.  Today, many of us don’t believe there is an afterlife. 

For Epicurus, the most pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. In the opening words, Joe Cocker, a famous British musician, expressed a similar view in his song “The Simple Things”:  “we’re always wanting more than what we have, and what I’ve learned is all I really need are the simple things like happiness, joy and love in my life.”  

Is there any scientific evidence about what is needed for happiness? Yes, and the answer is not ‘to be rich.’  One of the main conclusions of research on happiness concerns the limited role that external conditions play in making a person happy. It has been found that income (at least above a minimum level), marriage, good looks, even winning the lottery only have a small impact on one’s lasting happiness. If you have the opportunity, it is ok to have luxuries from time to time, but it is unwise to depend on them for happiness.  Epicurus encourages us to enjoy unnecessary pleasures that have no negative side effects.   

Studies suggest a clear positive correlation between gratitude and happiness. Also, research has suggested that the mind that is focused on only one activity is happiest.  The advice is to fully focus on the moment you are living – practice mindfulness.  Epicurus wrote: "Let us live while we are alive." And happy people live longer (on the average). Studies have indicated that subjective well-being (the more scholarly term for happiness) contributes to both living longer and to better health. 

Now let’s consider some of the reactions to Epicurean ideas.  Epicurean philosophy had a substantial following for about 700 years.  But his ideas have had lots of enemies in the last 2000 plus years – other philosophers, pagans, Jews and particularly Christians.  Epicurus specifically said, "When we say that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of sensuality. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.” However, critics trying to discredit his ideas accused him of advocating debauchery, one even falsely saying, he “vomited twice a day from over-indulgence.” The misinterpretation and deliberate discrediting of his ideas is where the general connection of Epicureanism with luxury and overeating comes from. The Christian church especially tried to discredit his philosophy because of his scientific ideas, just like they did for Galileo and Copernicus – the scientific ideas about the natural world were not consistent with supernatural ideas or a world created by God in seven days with the earth at the center of the universe.  

Back to how we should live our lives. Epicurus notes that we need wisdom to see which pleasures are really pleasurable, and which pains may be necessary to produce pleasure. Some pleasures lead to greater pain, like drinking lots of alcohol, and so the wise person will not do that. On the other hand, certain pains, like sadness, can lead to an appreciation for life or love or compassion, which are highly pleasurable states. We should not therefore eliminate all negative emotions but only those that lead to unnecessary pains, and keep in mind the important goal of future happiness. 

That’s where our desire to work for justice comes in.  As Unitarian Universalists, one of our principles is to promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”   This fits in with Epicurean ideas of doing difficult things as part of the pursuit of future happiness. Epicurus said: It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly.  And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.”  Current efforts within our church, such as working for prison reform and immigration reform, and supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement are all part of living justly in order to live a pleasant life consistent with our values and principles. People are willing to do difficult dangerous things for both the common good of all and the personal feeling of helping others and trying to achieve more justice in the world.  At General Assembly, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and the author of the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, described his efforts to defend prisoners condemned to death.  He also told a powerful story about an older black man in a wheelchair who was attending Stevenson’s speech at a black church. The man stared at him all during the speech.  Afterward, the man asked Stevenson if he knew what he was doing. Stevenson wasn’t sure what he was getting at.  Finally the man answered his own question and told Stevenson “You are making justice”.  He showed Stevenson the scars on his head – which he got helping people register to vote in Alabama, and in Mississippi.  Stevenson’s point was to encourage us to do uncomfortable things in trying to bend the arc of history toward justice.  And doing uncomfortable and hard things is consistent with the Epicurean goal of living wisely and justly – doing the hard things can lead to a more meaningful and satisfying life.   

Another important precept for Epicurus was the treasure of friendship – He wrote: "Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship." – end quote.  This reminded me of a Girl Scout song – “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.”   A lot of evidence indicates that friendship is one of the main ingredients in human happiness.  Meaningful friendships contribute greatly to the memorable experiences that we gather throughout our lifetime.  Friends considerably increase our simple pleasures, and greatly decrease our suffering in many ways. Epicurus said "It is not so much our friends' help that helps us, as the confidence of their help."  A recent article by MSU researchers indicated friendships become increasingly important to one’s happiness and health across the lifespan, and for older people may even be more important than family relationships.  

Epicurus called his school in Athens, The Garden, because it was held in the garden of his property, and it was the first to admit women as equals. Words seen on entering the garden included:  “Here our highest good is pleasure.”  Now we know what that means.  Epicurus set up his community to promote the benefits of participating in groups bound by shared values, perceiving that humans are social creatures and thrive in company.   I see our church community as having many similarities to The Garden.  We have a covenant to treat each other kindly as part of a loving, caring community of friends.  We try to be happy, ethical individuals while working toward justice and preserving the right of all to search for their own truth. We understand that spending time with close friends, often as part of a meal, is the greatest of pleasures.  If we are to build the Beloved Community from the inside out, we can do no better than to let Epicurus point the way and continue to nurture our friendships as well as our dedication to our values and principles.  

References Greenblatt, Stephen, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  Crespo, Hiram, Tending the Epicurean Garden.  DeWitt, Norman W, Epicurus: Philosophy for the Millions, The Classical Journal 42:4, Jan 1947.  Fontaine, Michael, Review of “Tending the Epicurean Garden,” The Humanist, Jan/Feb 2015.  Frey, Bruno S, Happy people live longer, Science 331:542-3, 4 Feb 2011.  http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/epicurus/ Chopik, William, Henion, Andy, Are friends better for us than family? MSU Today, June 6, 2017.