The current financial crisis in Greece that threatens another economic downturn in Europe and in the rest of the world, should give us pause to think of how we live. For the financial meltdown in Greece is not just about money. It’s also about the everyday lives of millions of people whose lives have been badly affected. A crisis of such magnitude is a good time to stop and consider if there is a better way to live. As the Greek poet Seferis muses in his poem Denial, “we lived our life, a mistake! And so we changed our life”. This is a time for transformation.
Transforming our lives is what the philosophy of Ancient Greece was all about. Greek philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle and the Hellenistic philosophers of 3rd century BC that comprised the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics and the Sceptics, saw philosophy as therapy for the soul.
Their philosophy was eminently practical, designed to assist its practitioners to live the best lives possible. They identified the ultimate goal of life as the attainment of eudemonia or happiness and philosophy, especially ethics, with the pursuit and cultivation of wisdom. Although in agreement with Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics that an ethical lifestyle is necessary for happiness, Epicurus, unlike them, identified happiness not with virtue but with pleasure. Epicurean happiness aims at relief or freedom from anxiety through the enjoyment of pleasures and avoidance of pains.
Epicurus like Aristotle thought of happiness as the highest good valued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Unlike Aristotle, though, he identified happiness with pleasure as pleasure according to Epicurus is the highest good that everyone pursues for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. He was led to this conclusion through the observation that our common experience shows that from the time we are born we seek pleasure and avoid pain. So it is natural that we should consider pleasure to be the highest good and pain the greatest evil. For Epicurus it is freedom from pain and anxiety that measures the relative merits of different activities.
The best activities are those that produce the greatest pleasures and the greatest pleasures are those that relieve the most pain and anxiety, those pleasures that are most conducive to peace of mind or ataraxia. Those are the pleasures we should prefer if we are wise. Freedom from pain and anxiety that leads to ataraxia or tranquillity is the recipe for Epicurean happiness.
What Epicurus is advocating is a simple life as the one most likely to result in freedom from anxiety and pain. For those who seek pleasure in luxuries and living beyond their means are likely to suffer pain unnecessarily either as a direct result of the adverse events of luxurious lifestyle or through the inability and thus frustration of always satisfying their desires for luxurious living. Self-sufficiency based on a simple lifestyle that is easy to maintain is for Epicurus our natural blessing. For the natural necessities in life are easy to obtain and those which are difficult to obtain are either natural but unnecessary or unnatural and superfluous. As he says, “bread and water produce the highest pleasure when someone who needs them serves them to themselves”. Add to that a few olives, cheese and some wine, and you have a feast.
In keeping with his belief that what is desired is not always desirable, Epicurus also counsels the cultivation of virtues such as prudence, courage, justice and moderation. For these provide the best means for enabling us to pursue the right pleasures and avoid the ones likely to cause us pain and unhappiness. Desires that result in greater trouble, pain and unhappiness than the pleasure they produce, are not desirable for that very reason.
Epicurean happiness as the pursuit and satisfaction of simple and natural pleasures that are easy to fulfil and whose enjoyment does not require too much effort or consumption is a good practical philosophy for us today. At a time of increasingly financial crises such as the one in Greece, scarce resources, and the degradation of the natural environment through run-away consumerism, Epicurean happiness is eminently green and sustainable. It contrasts sharply with the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures that are amoral, self-centred, consumption driven and environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable. Epicurus is the true Master chef for our times. The recipe of his philosophy in a nutshell is “don’t worry, be happy”. And the surest way to accomplish that is the pursuit of a simple and natural lifestyle, one that nourishes both body and mind.
Dr Edward Spence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), Charles Sturt University.