Boy, Did I have Epicurus Wrong

In her remarkable book How Philosophy Can Save Your Life, Ms. Mccarty walks us through ten different philosophical systems that comment on different aspects of human life.  The first of these, and one close to my heart is a study of simplicity.  She chooses for her philsophers Epicurus and Charlotte Joko Beck.  What struck me in reading through this section is what a mangled impression one gets of the philosophy of Epicurus from the words in the language derived from his name.  Epicurean almost always refers to luxurious and tantalizing in a degree that goes far beyond common sense.  And yet, if the excerpt below is any indication, we have received a false impression of what Epicurus is really all about.

from How Philosophy Can Save Your Life
Marietta McCarty

"Those have the sweetest pleasure in luxury who least need it. . . . To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries, disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune" ("Letter to Menoeceus").  

To these ears, at least, this sounds a great deal like St. Paul's assertion that "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor."  What Epicurus seems to point to is not allowing the good things of the world own us.  When we allow them to get their claws in and was luxury becomes necessity, we've lost a little bit of ourselves to it.  Think about it--how many of us now "need" e-book readers, computers, iPods, iPads, laptops, cell phones, and all of the paraphenalia that seems to accompany contemporary life  But how many of these things to we NEED really--how many have actually improved our lives in some substantive way?  I'm not trying to say that all such items are worthless, 'but rather that we have so completely sold ourselves to them, we're no longer in a place that allows for objective analysis of actual utility.  And I sit squarely in the center of that "we" and "us."  I am not exempt, as exhibited by the fact that I type here on my laptop with my cellphone at my side and my iPod playing Debussy piano preludes as I wait for the three-second water boiler to stream water through the nearly instant ginger tea basket.  All luxury that leads to slavery.  Now I have to find some way of toting all of these "necessities" from place to place, rather than just going myself. Now I must care for them and must guard the bag that contains them rather than treating them like my suitcase (isn't it Iago who says "Who steals my purse steals trash?"--so too with my suitcase). 

You get the point.   There's much to mine here, much to think about, much to parse, and much to mull over--do we really want the simple life, or do we want the simple life on our terms?  Terms that inevitably complicate it.

Works of Epicurus in translation on the Internet.


  1. I had the same reaction when I encountered Epicurus in his own writings for the first time.

    I have some serious disagreements with him, but he's not the luxury loving, pleasure-seeking person I had thought he was, based on what I had heard about "epicureans.

  2. If you ever get the chance, Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things is one of the most complete surviving works of Epicurean philosophy, and well worth a read.

    I had the chance to read Book III in Latin in college (and the whole thing in English translation) and it was the first time that Latin poetry really "clicked" with me as being beautiful in its expression, rather than simply a thorny translational puzzle.

    E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen...

  3. Darwin,

    I've read Lucretius, but did not have anyone guiding my sense of it, so I didn't read it as Epicurean. So, I guess I'll have to dip into it again.



  4. I recently read Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle and one of the central characters always called himself Epicurean...and then finally read Epicurus. It was a similar 'ah ha' moment, causing further reflection as well.


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