What Will Make You Happy? Epicurus has some suggestions...

I recently watched the documentary, Philosophy – A Guide to Happiness, and was particularly struck with what Epicurus had to say on the subject. British philosopher Alain de Botton, explains some of Epicurus' philosophy in layman's terms, without minimizing his unique and still relevant message. Watch this part on Epicurus, of the six part series, and see whether it will resonate for you the same way it did for me?

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was born on the island of Samos in Ionia. At 19, went to Athens to study at the Academy. Three hundred years before there were any Christians, the philosopher Epicurus founded (306 BCE) a school, or rather college, in a small house and a garden in Athens. ‘The Garden’, as it is called, also published books.

The school he founded was particularly egalitarian, accepting women and slaves. Epicurus, it is said, wrote 300 books. Sadly, only fragments survive.

Epicurus had little patience with religion, which he considered a form of ignorance. He was particularly eager to help people loose their fear of the gods. He did, however, also say that the gods existed, although they lived far away in space somewhere and had little or nothing to do with people on earth. Atheism, you see, was still illegal in Athens!

One of the most persistent issues concerning belief in God is the problem of evil. Epicurus's argument still holds up:

The Teachings of Epicurus

The Study of Science
*There are two kinds of enquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words.

*In a joint philosophical debate, he who is defeated gains in so far as he has learned something new.

*It is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and sexual indulgence, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for everything to be chosen or avoided and banishes those beliefs which are the cause of the greatest agony of the mind.

*We must laugh and philosophise and manage our households and look after our other affairs all at the same time, and never stop proclaiming the words of the true philosophy.

*Of all the things that wisdom advises to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the greatest is the acquisition of friends.

*We do not need the help of our friends so much as the confidence that our friends will help us.

*Friendship dances round the world, summoning every one of us to awake to the message of the happy life.

*The beginning and the greatest of all these good things is prudence. That is why prudence is more valuable even than philosophy itself: it is the source of all the other virtues.

*Let nothing be done in your life which will cause you to fear if it becomes known to your neighbour.

*The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom.

*A free life cannot acquire great wealth, because the task is not easy without slavery to the mob or those in power; rather, it already possesses everything in constant abundance. And if it does achieve great wealth, one could easily share this out in order to obtain the good will of one’s neighbours.

*We should not spoil what we have by desiring what we have not, but remember that what we have too was given to us by fortune.

*Everyone leaves life as though he had just been born.

*Sweet is the memory of a dead friend.

*Let us share our friends’ suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern.

*"I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind" – written on the gravestones of followers.

Foretelling the Future
*No means of predicting the future really exists, and if it did, we must regard what happens according to it as nothing to us.

*Dreams possess neither a divine nature nor prophetic power. They arise from the impact of images.

Historical Evidence
Epicurus 341-270 BCE. Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) circa 99 – circa 55 BCE.

None of Epicurus’ major works survives in its entirety, but of his many abbreviations and summaries, three survive because they are quoted in Lives and Sayings of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, an otherwise unknown third-century-AD compiler.

One, the Letter to Menoeceus, gives the basic outline of the Epicurean approach to personal happiness. The Letter to Herodotus gives the basic outline of the Epicurean materialist philosophy of nature, and the Letter to Pythocles concerns natural phenomena in the sky (which many thought to be caused by the gods).

The so-called “Principal Doctrines”, a group of forty short remarks, were collected so that the basic principles could be easily memorised.

There is also a collection of sayings, the so-called “Vatican Sayings” as well as fragments from Epicurus’ works and small portions by other writers, some from charred books found in Herculaneum, the Roman city engulfed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The most useful evidence is contained in a poem in Latin by Lucretius. His one great poem, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), expounds the philosophy of Epicurus.

There are also remains of an inscription, estimated to have totalled 25,000 words originally, from a colonnade built in Oenoanda in Asia Minor about 200 AD.


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Replies to This Discussion

The three essentials to a happy life so says Epicurus are...:

1.) "*Of all the things that wisdom advises to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the greatest is the acquisition of friends."

2.) Living an economically self-sufficient life is another key to happiness. Epicurus moved out of Athens with a group of friends, creating a commune. Their lives were simple, they owned few possessions, but they were financially independent and FREE.

3.) To be truly happy Epicurus believed that one needed time to reflect on one's life. That an analyzed life was a requirement of true happiness.

Watching this video and reading a bit more about Epicurus and his philosophy on happiness, it struck me how contemporary his ideas were on this subject. Having grown up in the late sixties and seventies, and being an aspiring 'hippie', most of us felt the same way as Epicurus did about what would make our lives most meaningful, satisfying and content. Certainly a reflective life was a requirement, many of us wanted to escape the corporate world and chose to live simply and self-sufficiently. Communes sprung up all over the country. City kids struggled to learn to grow their own food, make their own clothes, gaving up the materialistic lifestyle they were raised in. Friendship went hand-in-hand with living communally. We shared what we little we had and willingly helped one another. Even if you didn't live in a commune, the sense of community amongst all hippies was everywhere to be found. It was easy to identify one another, we all liked to dress alike, and wherever I traveled across the country, I could count on this community of like-minded peers to offer a helping hand. Filled with the optimism of youth we believed we could change the world, and were determined to do so. Anyone else here remember those golden/olden days? Writing about it now reminds me of the lost legends of Camelot... Has anyone ever lived or thought about living in a commune? Do tell....
Wow! I don't know what to say but that this was and emotional/intellectual tour-de-force for me. I recently discovered Epicurus and read a little of his philosophy. The video and your comments couldn't have more succinctly stated his philosophy. As a Boomer child of the 60's I too have long harbored a desire to abandon the "rat race" and spend my time in a simpler life style. I just yesterday found the "Think Atheist" site and immediately signed up. I have recently been attracted to bicycle touring and have been reading multiple journals of those who have dropped out of the rat race and are traveling the world full time on their bikes with the only possessions they have with them. Over all they appear far more happy than most and they are constantly surprised with new friends, experiences and appear to have freedom. I myself am currently raising my children and awaiting their eminent flight from the nest, at which time I would like to adopt a more Epicurean lifestyle. Possessions are a weight that just seems to pull you down (additionally their continual need to be acquired is environmentally unsustainable). I have recently been attracted/intrigued by the "small house" movement.
Back to Epicurus. His 3 things for happiness appear so right and have continually struck a chord with me. Friends, Freedom, Time to Think(study, inquire, explore, debate, grow in knowledge). I believe the 60's hippies didn't have the resources to accomplish the Freedom (self-sufficiency aspects) or the Thinking (perhaps to anti-knowledge/intellectual??) to be successful.
Thanks for the post....
Allen, thank you for commenting on this post, I'm glad to know that someone did appreciate what Epicurus said about the true meaning of happiness. I grew up and was apart of the counter culture of the late sixties and seventies, and agree that many were very unrealistic and too idealistic about their desire to live an alternative lifestyle and bring about change the existing 'establishment.' The failures of the hippies were well publicized, but there were some significant success stories as well. A few communes from that era have managed to still exist. Fancy that....

The life lessons that the hippies fought to change, are the same issues that are still relevant and back in fashion by those who now fighting to raise the consciousness about corporate interests and the impact of climate of change...

Watch this video, I think it will strike a chord with you as well.

I liked this video. I too am a child of the 60's. Easy Rider was my favorite date movie for a long, long time. Somewhere on Think Atheist I saw a trailer for another movie just released or about to be released about the downside of communes. I for one think the movement away from the strictures of the 50's and its conformist culture was a good thing. The problem was that too many of the hippies got carried away with the hedonism, drugs, and anti-intellectualism. I love freedom, but even Epicurus was not a hedonist. He sought pleasure (or an avoidance of pain) but was after the Greek idea of a "good life" (entailing intellectual thought and exploration). Ultimately for me the 60's provided enough questioning that I questioned the religion I was brought up in and found it wanting. I then explored (intellectually) Eastern thought and although somewhat liberating found it wanting also. I ended up (not that one ever ends up because science is always pursuing the next answer) becoming a "scientist" (skeptic, rationalist, intellectual, empiricist). That was probably because all Religion, be that western, eastern or wherever, involves either faith (unquestioning belief in some authority) or revelation. I don't trust authority (the hippies had it right there) and one woman's (or man's) revelation is theirs alone and has no reference to reality (there the hippies were wrong - Jack Nicholson couldn't get Dennis Hopper's meanings when they were both stoned - Easy Rider!!). So I think Epicurus had it right, Friends (that are intelligent, intellectual and not religious), time to think and reflect and freedom. Sorry about the long post.


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