I had heard that in his letter Epicurus speaks of the need to live a simple life, but I was confused because prior to reading the letter myself, I’d always associated Epicurus’ name with almost hedonistic pleasure. After all, wasn’t he the one who wrote: “Pleasure is the end… freedom from pain in the body and trouble in the mind”? Is he not associated with fine wine and gourmet food? Just look at the definition of the word “epicurean”!
So, I waded into this work wondering what I would take away from my reading of the letter. First, I discovered that, according to the translation I was reading, Epicurus does not so much say that pleasure frees us from pain as he says that pleasure by definition is an absence of pain. He goes on to clarify his position stating:
“It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. ”
So suddenly my whole view of him is turned upside down! Who is this guy anyway? I mean, if these “pleasures of the flesh” are not the pleasures he speaks of, then how are we to find this pleasure? He seems to be saying, we will find pleasure when we learn to do without the pleasures of the flesh. How very ascetic of him!
To use his own words:
“We regard independence of outward things a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health, and enables a man to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.”
And so, we must learn to appreciate those things that we have – our friends, our health, nature – and appreciate the things we can easily obtain, seeking out the pleasure in these things, and not waste our time and our lives in search of that which is more difficult to obtain, for those things are the least natural of all things. Why should I need Belgium chocolates when I have figs growing on a tree outside my window? Why should I desire an Italian suit when I have pants of homespun cotton? If I can learn to content myself with what I have and then see any luxury that happens into my life as something extra – something that perhaps adds to my pleasure but does not define my pleasure – then, and only then can I be free of pain.
Ah, but if only it were so simple. In the days to come I will continue to explore these ideas and this great philosopher. For now, I will leave you with the words of another great philosopher who came to mind when I was reading this letter.
“When you find out you can live without it and go around not thinkin’ about it, I’ll tell you something true, the bare necessities of life will come to you!” Not sure where that came from? Check out this link! I promise you won’t regret it!
But let me continue to read.