CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART V

“Lathe biosas.” – Motto of Epicurus.1

In our search for contentment, we have already considered the ancient Greek systems of Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Skeptics, and the Stoics. However no Western philosophy, ancient or later, addresses contentment more directly than Epicureanism. Its founder, Epicurus spent one year at the Plato’s Academy, but developed his philosophy after exposure to the Cynics. He is mistakenly seen as a proponent of pleasure-seeking, but  his philosophy is more sublime; happiness comes from diminishing anxiety by forgoing the pursuit of pleasure, attaining only physical necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and averting unease. He clearly is not a proponent of later Hedonism which bases happiness on maximizing pleasurable experiences.

The ethics of Epicurus is based on his materialist metaphysics: we can know nothing of the supra-sensual world, reason is limited to sensory experience, the will is free, the soul dies with the body, and there is no interaction between humans and gods should they even exist. Philosophy exists to guide us in our search for happiness within this reality. For Epicurus this consists of a life “exempt from every kind of disquietude.” Even virtue is not an end in itself, but rather an indispensable means to contentment since it is not possible ultimately to have a pleasant life without behavior that is prudent, honorable, and just.

In his own words:

When therefore we say that pleasure is the chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasures of the debauched man, or those that live in sensual enjoyment…But we mean freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from disturbance. For it is not continued drinking and revels, or the enjoyment of female society, or feast or fish or other expensive foods that make life pleasant, but such sober contemplation as examines the reasons for choice and avoidance, and puts to flight the vain opinions from which arises most of the confusion that troubles the soul.”2

Here we have not Hedonism, but a rational approach to tranquility and well-being through the avoidance of pain and grief. For Epicurus, wisdom is the great liberator, freeing us from bondage to the passions, fear of the gods, and dread of death and teaching us how to bear misfortune. Wisdom alone offers lasting pleasure from the simple goods of life and the quiet pleasures of the mind. Consider how little is needed to a wise content – fresh air, the cheapest foods, a bed, a few books and a friend.  Likewise the wise person does not burn with ambition or lust for fame nor envy the good fortune of others always avoiding  “the fevered competition of the city and the turmoil of political strife.” Instead the wise person seeks the calm of the countryside and tranquility of body and mind.3

(continued next post)

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1”Live unobtrusively.” from Durant, Will, The Life of Greece.  Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 645.

2Ibid., page 647.

3Ibid., page 648.

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