Travels with Epicurus

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EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

Epicurus (341–270 BCE) was the founder of the eponymous Epicurean school of philosophy. He taught in his garden and around his table, attracting a wide range of students including – unusual for his time – women. A prolific writer, he penned numerous essays, books and letters about his philosophy.

Sadly, like Machiavelli, his name was taken in vain in more recent times, and its meaning perverted. We think of Epicureans today as gluttons, hedonists and selfish elites seeking their own sensual gratification; as atheists and grubby materialists; 180 degrees from what Epicurus himself taught:

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind. For it is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit.
Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is prudence. Wherefore prudence is a more precious thing even than philosophy: for from prudence are sprung all the other virtues, and it teaches us that it is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honorably and justly, nor, again, to live a life of prudence, honor, and justice without living pleasantly.

Thanks to modern writers and philosophers like Daniel Klein and some dedicated folks online, the real teachings of Epicurus are seeing a revival of sorts, and the historical record corrected.

It’s similar to the revival in Stoicism, another classical school of thought that in some ways complemented and in others competed against Epicureanism (some would say they were aggressive rivals). Unfortunately for the latter, most of Epicurus’ works have been lost and what we know of his teachings are from a small handful of letters, some collected aphorisms, a poem (De rerum natura) by the much later Roman poet and Epicurean, Lucretius, and a biography by the third century CE scholar, Diogenes Laërtius (and a few mentions by other philosophers such as Seneca and Cicero, mostly as a challenge to Epicurean beliefs).

I have generally leaned towards the Stoics in my own views, in part because much of what they wrote seems to parallel the teachings I learned from Buddhism (many ideas were shared between the ancient Mediterranean world and the Buddhist kingdoms of Asia through trade and visits). And in part because there is much more literature by and about the Stoics available to read. But what there remains from Epicurus is certainly worth contemplating:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life. Epicurus.

It seems the original Epicureans shared many similar ideas with their contemporaries, the Stoics — except when it came to politics. Epicurus held that people should stay aloof from politics because it could only lead to trouble (well, he was right on that). He advocated seclusion, albeit not from friends. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed it was a moral and civic responsibility to participate in the political and social affairs of the community. I tend to side with them on that: we have an obligation to contribute to our community, trouble notwithstanding.

I also like the Stoics’ emphasis on virtue and living a just life. Stoics, too, seem more willing to accept and deal with pain, challenges, stress and difficulties, rather than withdraw and avoid them. Stoics taught that perception formed how we are affected by these things, and that perception can be learned or changed through experience and study.

For me, though, it’s like political parties: each has its strengths and weaknesses, no single one is the sole owner of truth or perfect policies, nor is any one leader so charismatic as to blind me to the truth or stop me from questioning. I lean towards one or the other party at different times, but don’t hew to any one party line any more than I strictly follow any philosophical school. Blind loyalty to any ideology never struck me as very wise. One should look for wisdom everywhere, not just in the echo chambers we’re already familiar with. But I digress.

Travels with EpicurusTravels with Epicurus is a small, 2012 book by Daniel Klein about his own personal adventure in self-contemplation. The examined life, as seen from a cafe on a small Greek island. Coffee, retsina and contemplation. An idyllic, enviable setting for it: a modern Walden if you will. And while Epicurus plays a central role in Klein’s musings, he’s not the only philosopher onstage (enough so that I would dearly like to have a bibliography of his sources; something the book sorely lacks).*

Klein is coauthor with Thomas Cathcart of several layperson-oriented, light and fun books about philosophy that I’ve read and enjoyed (e.g. Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes). He also wrote the foreword to the 2012 Penguin Classics’ edition of Epicurus: The Art of Happiness (the first modern edition of Epicurus’ works since 1926).

What attracted me to Travels with Epicurus was the combination of breezy travelogue and observation with Klein’s philosophical musings and contemplation. The narrative gently meanders through several schools of thought and writers, not simply one, while observing and commenting on the daily life on a small Greek island (Hydra). The people and events give Klein the inspiration to ponder his own life. I have notebooks from my own travels with similar, albeit less erudite, musings. There’s something about distance and difference that makes us reflective.

What also attracted me is how Klein – 73 at the time of his writing, not that far from my own age – was thinking about both his past and his future, something that I have been considering myself more of late. Not in a morose or morbid way, but to take stock and accept that biology has pressed its cold, inevitable hand on me. As I approach 70 (a septuagenarian so soon… the very notion of being that old bemuses me no end), there may not be many more years in which I can enjoy life, so I had best make of that time what I can. And that includes pondering in my own way the questions of meaning, value and existence. Hence the attraction of the works of others who have walked that same path towards self-knowledge.

Epicurus himself taught that our main source of anxiety was our fear and denial of death. In his letter to Menoeceus, he wrote,

…the future is neither ours, yet not wholly not ours, so that we may not expect it as sure to come, nor abandon hope of it, as if it will certainly not come.

Presaging Shakespeare’s soliloquy in Hamlet about the future (death) as the “undiscovered country” from which no one returns (Act 3, Sc. 1). And a great Star Trek reference, if you saw the film. One of Epicurus’ doctrines (from the letter to Menoeceus, above) is,

Death is nothing to us, because a body that has been dispersed into elements experiences no sensations, and the absence of sensation is nothing to us.

Epicurus didn’t believe there was an afterlife (“…when death comes, then we do not exist.”) He also had some rather modern ideas about religion. He didn’t deny the existence of the Greek gods, but instead believed they were above and beyond involvement with mortals, in both death and life, and did not interact personally with us. To ascribe to them human emotions and values, he wrote, was wrong:

For the statements of the many about the gods are not conceptions derived from sensation, but false suppositions, according to which the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings the good by the gift of the gods. For men being accustomed always to their own virtues welcome those like themselves, but regard all that is not of their nature as alien.

Epicurus also believed the goal of living was to attain a happy, tranquil and peaceful life, free from fear and pain (including fear of both death and the gods). Pleasure was the absence of suffering, a rather Buddhist-style approach, not a call for self-indulgence. He believed in moderation, sobriety, self-sufficiency and the company of friends and that we should all act ethically and morally to avoid the pain and fear guilt bring. That much is evident from the surviving works. Not as much on the morality-virtue side as the Stoics, but apparently also less angst over age and death.

Much of what else he believed or taught has been pretty much lost, or filtered through the works and opinions of others. What stands out for me was Epicurus’ commonsense comments on death and the afterlife.  Epicurus wrote to Menoeceus, that death “…is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Cicero and Seneca both wrote wisely about age and death from a Stoic perspective (Cicero less dedicated to the school, but still influenced by it – read his essay, De Senectute).

There are, however, several key difference between Epicureans and Stoics, many of them outlined here (from an Epicurean perspective) and here (from a Stoic view). Chief among them is what they viewed as the greatest good: pleasure for Epicureans, virtue for Stoics. I still lean towards the Stoics.

Sitting outside on my front porch in the warm sunlight, with a glass of wine, my wife beside me, a book open on my lap, watching the late afternoon sun set, I can almost be forgiven for finding resonance in Klein’s writing about his own moment, with a glass of retsina, watching the sun set over the Aegean. Would that I had his intellectual muscle and education, to be able to weave together the stories and ideas and thoughts of all those he has read and studied, as he does so easily in this little book.


* The single thing that annoyed me in Travels with Epicurus was Klein’s defence of his smoking (p. 106-109), something he claims gives him “pleasure,” although it comes across as rather lame. I’m pretty sure Epicurus would not agree that any addiction fits well with the idea of being free from pain and suffering. Epicurus said,

No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

It must be a very selfish “pleasure” that causes suffering and is even lethal to the user and others. I suspect that Stoics would be more alert to the consequences of an action and try to avoid it when it is unquestionably both harmful and stupid. But the rest of the book was delightful.

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