A hunk of cheese.
A glass of watered-down wine.
The company of a good friend.
That, according to the most influential philosopher of the Hellenistic Age, is pretty much the summit of human happiness. Epicurus of Samos (341 bce–270 bce) inherited an Athens that had been broken by the Macedonian might of Alexander the Great and a philosophical tradition that had been hobbled by the abstract metaphysical excesses of Plato. Over the course of his long life, he crafted a powerful return-to-Earth approach to philosophy and science that it took humanity the better part of two millennia to rediscover, appreciate, and ultimately miss almost the entire point of.
As we tend to do.
Epicurean today, depending on who you ask, means either a philosophy devoted to a Dude Bro worldview of 110 Percent Exxxtreme Pleasure Always, or A Guy Who Enjoys Food a Lot and Will Tell You about How Much He Enjoys Food. A Lot. Both of those conceptions of Epicureanism, however, are fundamentally holdovers from the Middle Ages, when nothing was so foreign to the reigning system of thought as Epicurus’s matter-of-fact philosophy that death is final and not to be feared, the gods don’t intervene in the world, and metaphysical speculation is almost entirely worthless.
Rather than argue against Epicurus’s individual criticisms of theoretical Platonic approaches to science and thought, these medieval theologians decided to bury the whole Epicurean system as an unlearned excuse for debauchery and excess unworthy of the name of philosophy and certainly not a proper topic of contemplation for a religious soul, and there, excepting a few hot pockets of dusty philosophy nerds and humanist historians, it has largely remained.
Nothing, however, was further from Epicurus’s point than the round-the-clock orgy-mongering of which he is accused. Born in Samos to Athenian parents, he traveled to Athens at the age of eighteen to fulfill his two-year military obligation, only to join his parents in exile in the city of Colophon after the death of Alexander the Great and the ensuing chaos caused by the dissolution of the Macedonian Empire. Athens had fallen, never to rise again, and Epicurus had a ring-side seat for the final blows.
Other philosophical schools witnessed the Athenian Crash and came away from it with hard-scrabble lessons about the need to manfully submit to the crush of fate. Skepticism and Stoicism both developed as means of coping with an Empire that was crumbling and an intellectual system that had become so divorced from reality as to be effectively useless—Stoicism through a cult of disaffected virtue and Pyrrhonian Skepticism through a disinterested tranquility motivated by a mistrust of being able to know anything meaningful beyond appearances.
This was not Epicurus’s solution. He looked reality hard and steadily in the eyes and found, hey, it ain’t so bad. We die, but nothing of us survives that death, so really we’re not around when it happens, so why worry? The gods probably exist, but they have nothing to do with anything on Earth, meaning that supplicating them, praising them, and fearing them are all equally pointless and so can be dropped from one’s life with no repercussions. Life comes with pain, but pain can be lived with, and to be really happy all you need to do is secure a few basic things. Don’t seek fame or indulge in luxury, because they bring more anxiety for their loss than they bring pleasure in their attainment. Have sex if you want, but don’t get too crazy with it, because that way lies addiction, which also produces more stress of a longer duration than the sex itself alleviates.
Basically, seek what you need; enjoy it with full appreciation for what it is; and seek friends, not gods. When he returned to Athens armed with this philosophy, he set up a school at his home called the Garden, which was known for its core philosophy of equality—man or woman, aristocrat or slave, all were welcome, and all were encouraged to address each other as friends in their journey to lead a more pleasant life. Though the Garden gained notoriety as a place where licentious orgies surely must be happening well-nigh constantly, its students revered it as a place of simple communion and balanced intellectual effort, causing Epicureanism to last as a functioning philosophical school far beyond its more austere contemporaries.
So, yes, freedom from fear of death and the gods, love of friendship as a human’s central need, and a championing of sufficiency over excess—wonderful, very modern, full marks. But what I love most about Epicurus is something that we as humanists tend to overlook in our mad dash to embrace his ethical and moral modernity: his physics. One of the hallmarks of pre-modern (and, some would say, current) science was a tendency to make definitive statements about which of several explanations of a phenomenon is definitely the right one based not so much on the data at hand but on which explanation fits best with one’s personal system of natural philosophy.
To this tendency Epicurus responds in the Letter to Pythocles, “When one accepts one theory and rejects another which is equally consistent with the phenomenon in question, it is clear that one has thereby blundered out of any sort of proper physics and blundered into mythology” (section 87, transl. Inwood and Gerson).
Not content to merely state this principle, Epicurus spends the rest of the letter showing how it works in principle, going through several different meteorological phenomena and explaining how each has several different possible explanations, none of which we can judge among the data currently at hand, and about which we must therefore reserve judgment until we discover more, no matter how difficult it is to refrain from picking the one that lines up best with our personal philosophy. The whole letter is a tour de force of scientific restraint peppered with more than a few jaw-dropping moments when Epicurus comes achingly close to modern descriptions of physical phenomena two thousand years before the fact.
In his time at Colophon, Epicurus was exposed to the atomistic philosophy of Democritus, whereby the movements and interactions of tiny indivisible particles careening through the void create the world as we know it. Though he modified Democritus’s viewpoint somewhat to accommodate some notion of personal agency, it was through the lens of atomism that he viewed the span of the universe’s history, hypothesizing that myriad other worlds must exist and that, on some of them, through sheer chance, atoms combined in a way to make life possible, as they did on ours. There is nothing in our origins that requires the divine, merely what we would today call a statistical combination of an unfathomably large number of elementary particles stumbling occasionally into the creation of life, but most often into the production of inanimate masses.
Epicurus died at last in 270 bce, the center of a vast circle of friends and a thriving materialist conception of the cosmos. He had written some three hundred works during his life, of which today we have only three complete letters, two collections of maxims, and a smattering of questionable fragments; but the ideas of Epicurus were made immortal two centuries after his death by another figure beholding a crumbling world, the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 bce–55 bce). His De Rerum Natura is one of the treasures of the late Roman Republic, an Epicurean journey through the cosmos rooted in the startling insights of atomism, which manages to say astoundingly accurate things about solar formation, particles that transmit genetic information, the slowing of light when not in a vacuum, and a half dozen other eerily modern hypotheses beside. He raised Epicurus’s jovial theories shared among friends to the level of epic art, and today it is hard to think of Lucretius’s sweep without hearing the laughter from Epicurus’s Garden urging it on.
It is probably too late to return to Epicurus’s model of cheese-and-friend–based sufficiency. Technology and affluence have made us great chasers of Fame and Stuff, most likely to our anxious detriment, but just as you can’t unsquash a frog, you can’t unmake the consequences of a vastly interconnected world afloat on the ubiquity of cheap plastic and cheaper bandwidth. But as long as we keep Epicurus in our rotation of People We Think About, there is a chance we might insert a small mantra into our knee-jerk online retail therapy lifestyle: Wouldn’t I be happier just buying a hunk of smoked gouda and calling over a pal?
FURTHER READING: There are two common Epicurus Readers available, one featuring translations by Eugene O’Connor (Prometheus Books, 1993) and the other by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson (Hackett Publishing, 1994). They both have largely the same texts, both comprehensibly translated, but the introductory material differs. O’Connor focuses on the biographical and historical background of Epicurus, while the Inwood/Gerson has an intro by D. S. Hutchinson that’s more an analysis of his place in philosophy and science. For a nice sourcebook in the differences between Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism, I’d pick up Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings also by Inwood and Gerson (Hackett Publishing, 1988).