Epicurus and the desire for minimalism
Epicurus (341–270 BC), the Greek Philosopher and Thinker, turned towards Philosophy already early.
He wrote numerous books and treatises on his perception of happiness which sadly have been lost over the years.
Epicurus is associated with the theory of lust which is often misunderstood and linked to materialism and copious lifestyles.
In this context defamatory statements in form of obscene letters were circulated. Also, the true meaning of his teachings was altered and publicised by his fellows which led to distortions of the general picture people had of Epicurus.
For my research I drew on the book "Epikur, Wege zum Glück" (Epicurus, Paths of Happiness) (Anaconda Verlag, 2011) which contained summaries of excerpts and quotations from his writings.
My main points:
Epicurus stated that lust is the beginning and end of a happy life
Every study on Philosophy starts with the following question:
Why do we seek the advice of Philosophers? Why do we read the old writings? To learn more about our soul? Why do we suffer and how do we reach quiescence and bliss?
What is desire and what leads us to our ruin?
To Epicurus, the purpose of Philosophy was to understand the following:
What are the true needs of man and how can we distinguish these from self-imposed fallacious needs?
Not every inner impulse for a desire must be quenched, but rather one should consult reason which shall help us questioning these impulsive desires.
In other words, one should pause for a moment to reflect how strong that desire is, where that desire is coming from and how controlling that desire is. At the same moment one could ponder whether to devote oneself to that desire or not. That's where reason comes into play.
From his biography we know that Epicurus did not possess a grandiose mansion, he didn't partake opulent meals and didn't amass riches. He lived minimalistic and frugal and this is exactly what he relished because according to his teachings it wasn't quantity that led to happiness but the quality of individual goods.
On that point, the Vatican sayings contain the following quote:
"He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing"
From his writings there are three important points defined by Epicurus which he always repeated:
To him friendship was one of the most valuable assets. According to his writings one should make sure not to dine alone because good compay is a major profit in life.
He also said: "It is not so much our friends' help that helps us but the confident knowledge that they will help us in times of need" Vatican Sayings Ep.34
To him, friendship was a pure pleasure gain, because only in friends we recognize ourselves and perceive that we exist and things we say find an echo.
The sympathy and concern of a friend helps us to remain ourselves and to feel ourselves. When trust predominates we feel secureness.
By implication lust is salvation from physical and spiritual pain.
With that, we are not talking about shallow circles of friends in whose company we may still feel alone. To the contrary, it is about true friendship. Friends that care for our emotional life and not for the way we look.
It is hard to find just one or two true friends in life, friends that are there for you because a foundation of trust is established.
This recognition and appreciation of a friend grants spiritual happiness.
Many people try to attain recognition firstly by gaining material assets.
Did he see me carrying a Prada bag? Did he notice my new car already?
One tries to gain respect and recognition from people that don't care for us - is that the sideshow of materialism? Shouldn't we invest our energy in cultivating a friendship or even to find a friendship in the first place?
Reading the biography of Epicurus one learns that he gave up his employment to live in freedom, that means with less money and less earnings but following his own rules instead, manifested in a communal life among friends and a garden to provide sustenance which also served as an oasis of nature and space for meditation.
The above described picture induces a longing: who does not wish for this kind of freedom? The yoga practice rooms in the city are crowded, in summertime everyone fights for a little piece of grass or one rides towards nature in an overcrowded train. And yet that is exactly what we are looking for: tranquility & nature, good company and good food.
In modern times and in this fast-moving lifestyle, gaining freedom has a different price. What Epicurus describes is to me the classic dropout from society. I admire everyone that has the courage to do this. Sadly I haven't mustered that courage myself yet but I am trying to incorporate these Epicureian rules into my lifestyle.
The next point he addresses is:
What do we do when we are troubled by sorrow and grief? And what does reflection mean specifically?
In plain terms: think about your sorrows and ask yourself, where does this confusion or this discontent stem from?
Write down these events and emotions. This shall help you to better assess the situation and to arrange your inner self.
If we follow Epicurus by making nature serve us, i.e. contemplation surrounded by nature, it will give us strength and serenity.
If you read my other article about nature and forests you will find that I can only confirm this. Nature provides serenity.
But let's return to the thinking of Epicurus: he was not against materialism and luxury but of the opinion that these things didn't really make people happier, possessing nothing BUT money. Vice versa it wouldn't make people unhappy if they had friends but no money.
Epicurus also said that man's natural necessities were bringing happiness:
Friends, freedom, reflection, food, shelter, clothing.
If we look at the Epicureian connection between happiness and money, the following will convey:
1. Money is already satisfying in small earnings and does not increase satisfaction with bigger spending.
2. even if we spend large sums, Epicurus is convinced that happiness will not be increased by the sum we spend
3. Money should be available to cover our natural needs in order not to suffer or to feel pain.
Epicurus recommends asking the following questions with every purchase:
What would happen to me if I quench that desire and what would happen if I didn't?
How would I fare without that purchase and haven't I been happy before the purchase?
Personally, asking myself these questions helps me with during shopping fever. It relieves me from this addiction.
Researching Epicurus has definitely helped me in determining what I really need and what is really important to me in life.
Applying a thought pattern, asking myself at every purchase how that purchase relates to my happiness, helped me reflect on life's essential basics.
Thinking back I do not think of material things that I afforded by lots of saving, thinking back I think of the memories of beautiful places with friends, of my experience there, the vacations, the meeting of people, this makes me indulge in nostalgia.
In this article I have tried to summarize the essentials of his teachings. His natural philosophy has not been covered within this article. I will try to approach that in another article.
I hope you have liked this article and I am looking forward to a lively exchange of thoughts.