Need to know
Take a moment to call to mind a few of your fondest memories, the kind of memory so vivid that you can picture and describe it in rich detail. You might recall a vacation with friends, a concert, the birth of your children, a meteor shower on a summer night, a marriage proposal, that hug that helped you turn a corner. Now, if this were a TED talk, I might ask you what all these experiences share. Then I would allow for a pregnant pause, my voice would soften, and I would answer my own question – ‘pleasure’. Those moments were pleasant, and even reflecting on them now probably gives you a small burst of comfort.
Perhaps, though, you initially found yourself struggling to identify relevant experiences, or perhaps you realise you haven’t made a memory like that in a long time. There’s nothing quite like recalling the rich joys of life to make us wonder why memories worth relishing can seem like a scarce resource in a world that threatens to overwhelm us at every turn. Epicurus (341-270 BCE), an ancient Greek philosopher who himself lived in remarkably troubled times, thinks life can offer us a goldmine of joys, at least if we learn how to seek out and savour them.
Epicurus writes that ‘pleasure is the starting point and end of living blessedly’, and that he cannot even ‘conceive’ of the human good without appeal to pleasure. The Epicureans, to use the technical term, are hedonists – they think pleasure makes life good. Anything other than pleasure is good only insofar as it produces pleasure, either immediately or in the long run. Now, I suspect you are already cataloguing pleasure’s very real dangers, reminding yourself that compulsively pursuing pleasure is the short road to a life in the gutter.
Before we consider pleasure’s risks, though, let’s take a moment to note how powerfully liberating it can be to hear that pleasure is good, that we should aim to enjoy our lives. Many people grow up ashamed of perfectly normal human desires, and others simply want to eat a piece of cake without feeling compelled to placate a chorus of scolds. Ask someone in a hospice if they have regrets, and I doubt they will report wishing they had spent more time at work and less time with friends and family. Ask them for life’s highlights, and they will produce a catalogue of their vivid pleasures resembling your own – the vibrant leaves in autumn, a boisterous dinner with friends, the love of their life, the birth of their children, the magnificence of a violin. Epicureanism encourages us to give front and centre attention to accumulating and savouring memorable pleasures in the limited time we have.
All right, let’s now permit the natural objection to reassert itself – hedonism seems like a recipe for a lifelong dependence on alcohol, a series of failed relationships, and a body enfeebled by indolence. Epicurus readily concedes that we often struggle to pursue pleasure without making a mess of it. Our failure might even lead us to believe it’s pleasure’s fault. Epicurus, though, thinks we’re doing pleasure wrong. We navigate the landscape of pleasure and pain artlessly and inattentively, sometimes without any sort of plan at all. Epicureanism aims to point us in the right direction, to help us find security and joy, to do pleasure right. First, let’s briefly explore why Epicurus endorses hedonism, then turn to his distinctive approach to pleasure.
Think it through
Humans are hedonistic animals with souped-up brains
Epicurus’ commitment to hedonism grows out of his shockingly modern natural science. Thousands of years before Charles Darwin, Epicurus argues that humans are sophisticated animals who share the world with the other beings that have thus far proven fittest for survival. Also ahead of his time, Epicurus denies that the Universe was created by a divine being for the good of humans; instead, it resulted from the determinate causal interactions of atoms, along with the occasional spontaneous atomic motion of the sort postulated in particle physics and modern brain science. For Epicurus, we are animals living in a material, non-providential Universe.
Animals avoid pain and pursue pleasure by nature (ie, they are hedonists), and our hedonism resembles the hedonism of every other sentient animal in many respects. Like other animals, we explore and process the world through sensory experience, especially our feelings of pleasure and pain. Like other animals, we fundamentally want to feel secure from external threat and experience pleasure.
Unlike other animals, though, humans have distinctively souped-up brains. We have a sense of ourselves in time, so we can plan for the future in light of the past. We can experience pleasure from calling to mind past pleasures, and we can savour current pleasures by giving them special attention. We communicate our ideas using language and symbols. We also have an awareness of our own mortality. These higher-order mental capacities increase our available psychological pleasures, but they can also introduce anxieties like the fear of death or divine retribution.
Again, though, we fundamentally desire security and pleasure because we are animals. Epicurus calls the distinctively human version of feeling secure ataraxia, commonly translated as ‘tranquility’, a stable state characterised by the absence of anxiety and the presence of pleasure. Tranquility arises from appreciating that we have acquired the material, theoretical and interpersonal resources necessary for psychological health. Though Epicurean hedonism focuses initially on satisfying needs and removing unnecessary sources of anxiety, tranquility also opens up new opportunities for unalloyed, anxiety-free joys.
Epicureans seek both tranquility and joy
When I was a kid, the Cookie Monster shoved cookies in his mouth like they were going out of style. Later, long after I outgrew Sesame Street, the Cookie Monster learned an important lesson – fruits and vegetables are ‘anytime foods’, and cookies are a ‘sometimes food’. Epicurean hedonism resembles the enlightened Cookie Monster, but Epicurus has historically suffered from two opposing misunderstandings. His opponents often cast him as a debauched glutton who lives on a diet of cookies, or, as Epicurus puts it, ‘fish and other dainties’. But many of his charitably minded defenders have over-corrected, transforming him into an ascetic who spurns cookies and disdains those who enjoy them. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Epicurus bristles at critics who, ‘from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation’, caricature his hedonism as an endorsement of ‘drinking bouts and continuous partying’. He insists that he champions ‘prudence’, understood as the art of ‘sober calculation’ about ‘choice and avoidance’. Prudence helps us determine what produces pleasure over the long-term, encouraging us to choose pains that produce greater pleasure (eg, exercising to increase health), and avoiding pleasures if they result in more pain (eg, credit card debt; hangovers). Prudence, in other words, tells us that ‘drinking bouts and continuous partying’ are not a great life strategy. Prudence keeps us out of the proverbial gutter and helps us achieve or approximate tranquility.
Tranquility, though, is not the only pleasure worth enjoying, even if it is all we strictly need for satisfaction in times of scarcity or distress. Epicurus was no wanton profligate, and nor was he a promoter of radical asceticism, a hedonist in name only. While Epicurus thinks we can readily maintain tranquility when circumstances limit us to the necessities, he encourages us to pursue and savour opportunities for joyful pleasure when circumstances allow. In fact, he thinks a baseline appreciation of having all we need allows us to appreciate extravagances more than other people. As he puts it, ‘those who least need extravagance enjoy it most.’
The art of Epicurean prudence, then, involves acquiring and maintaining what we need for tranquility, enjoying extravagances that enrich tranquility without undermining it, and avoiding whatever undermines tranquility. Epicurus introduces a taxonomy of desires to help us differentiate what we need, what is enjoyable, and what we should reject wholeheartedly. He labels these the ‘natural and necessary’ desires, the ‘natural and unnecessary’ desires, and the ‘unnatural and unnecessary’ desires, respectively. Epicurus’ terminology is unwieldy to both say and write repeatedly, so let’s call them the necessary, the extravagant, and the corrosive desires for the purposes of exposition.
Focus on what’s necessary
Unlike their oldest and greatest rivals, the Stoics, the Epicureans think we have material and relational needs that, left unsatisfied, make us anxious and insecure. The Stoics maintain that virtue alone is both necessary and sufficient for happiness – we must have virtue, and virtue is all we need. The Epicureans, by contrast, think we also need food and a few other assorted goods. While the Epicureans develop strategies for coping with adversity, they will never deny that irremediable pain is genuinely bad. Humans are vulnerable animals by nature, and we must shore up those vulnerabilities as best we can to stay alive and feel secure.
Many of the objects of the necessary desires are self-evident. We need food, water and shelter. Hunger and thirst are painful; and, left without food and drink for long enough, we die. If our access to water and food requires money, then we need enough money to eat and drink reliably. When others lack confidence about having such resources, we should not pretend they still have what they need for happiness, as might a Stoic. Meeting these basic bodily needs, though, does not suffice for tranquility. Epicurus thinks humans have relatively few needs, but they are not all material.
We also have interpersonal and intellectual needs that arise from our distinctive nature, which means that even people of great wealth can find themselves with unsatisfied necessary desires. Specifically, we need friends because we are not self-sufficient to produce what we need to survive, and we seek confidence that someone will rescue us from grave material peril or external threat. We also need trustworthy mentors to help us make sense of ourselves and the world. Our most joyful memories usually involve friends, so friends are also a great source of pleasure. We must, in short, find people we can trust.
Finally, tranquility requires a basic understanding and appreciation of science because superstition presents a grave threat to our communal and psychological wellbeing. Good science helps us predict, understand and navigate the natural world. It makes us more likely to secure what we need to stay alive, and Epicurus thinks it also removes our fear that a capricious god determines our fate. It also helps us, he argues, realise that we have nothing to fear from death. A weak scientific understanding, on the other hand, leaves us prey to charlatans and fear-mongers who encourage us to make bad decisions for our health and mental wellbeing.
Taken together, satisfying these needs produces a pretty decent life: food, drink and shelter, supportive friends, and an ability to navigate and make sense of the world without being hoodwinked by deception or made fearful by superstition. Epicurus thinks we can live a secure, satisfied and joyful life in the company of friends if we prioritise satisfying our necessary desires and can see that as enough.
Unfortunately, we often fail to secure what we need because we have misplaced priorities. We waste time chasing unnecessary trinkets at the expense of cultivating the personal relationships and understanding we need. Someone who announced ‘I want no good friends’ would strike us as perverse, but a relentless torrent of studies indicate that many people find themselves without good friends. Someone who announces ‘I enjoy being ignorant of how to protect myself from bad science’ seems similarly bizarre, yet people emptied the shelves purchasing horse de-wormer to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Even when we have what we need, we can nevertheless find ourselves dissatisfied. Epicurus thinks we fail to get what we need or remain dissatisfied despite having it because we invest ourselves in desires that are difficult, even impossible, to satisfy. In particular, we overvalue extravagances and, worse, we chase the objects of corrosive desires. The corrosive desires undercut our satisfaction by their very presence, like the fire-breathing dragon that perpetually threatens the villagers of our soul.
Root out corrosive desires
Corrosive desires are a motley crew, but they share a family resemblance. Their objects tend to complete the sentence ‘You can never have too much…’ You can never have too much money, too much power, too much profit, too many clicks, too many ‘Likes’, too long a life, etc. Epicurus calls such desires ‘unlimited’ because they contain the idea that there is always more worth pursuing. The unlimited nature of corrosive desires means we can never satisfy them. There is always more, reaching forever out into the distance, satisfaction at least one step ahead. Tranquility is a kind of satisfaction, and corrosive desires are never satisfied. If a person desires ever more, what they have is never enough.
Worse, because the objects of corrosive desires are competitive and come in degrees, they invite us to compare ourselves. We might envy those who have more or feel superior to those with less. If a particular corrosive desire dominates our mental and emotional economy, it can drown out even ethical values, tempting us to cheat, steal or stomp on others to get more of what we want. A desire for as many ‘Likes’ as possible tempts us to transform ourselves into whatever millions of people want to watch on the internet. Such desires pull us away from authenticity and meaningful relationships in a quest for the approval of people we don’t even know. Seeking maximum profit makes squashing the weak seem prudent to produce a marginally higher earnings report.
Corrosive desires leave us unsatisfied, give rise to painful emotions like envy and resentment, alienate us from others, and motivate us to act in unethical ways that leave us with a bad conscience. Let’s explore the remaining, middle category – the extravagant desires.
Relish harmless extravagances
Extravagant desires are usually for more specific, more elaborate versions of necessary desires. For example, rather than a very simple meal, you might picnic in the park with a bottle of wine. You might enjoy conversation with a close friend in a coffeeshop, a night at the movies, a concert, or a trip to the ice-cream parlour. Some extravagances might be larger – a foreign vacation, dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. What matters about extravagances is how we choose and appreciate them.
We chiefly err by treating extravagances as needs, seeing our failure to possess them as a good reason for dissatisfaction with life. Given that extravagances can prove relatively rare and can disappear in the blink of a misfortune, treating them as anything other than conditional sources of joys leaves us psychologically volatile, prone to unnecessary anxiety and disappointment. A steady diet of extravagance also, as mentioned above, can sap the joy of extravagance itself. We enjoy something more when we experience it as unnecessary, unexpected and wonderful.
Epicurus thinks we also have the wrong attitude towards extravagances when they lead us to neglect satisfying our necessary desires. For example, if we insist on fine dining when our good friends cannot afford it, then we put extravagance ahead of friendship. If our supposedly refined taste in music or stereo equipment makes us sneer at people who prefer pop radio, then we alienate others over something inconsequential to wellbeing. Friendship is necessary, and fine dining or informed opinions on French cinema are not.
Chosen well, extravagances reinforce or deepen tranquility, but no particular extravagance is strictly necessary for a satisfied life. In Epicurus’ words, extravagances ‘vary’ rather than ‘increase’ tranquility. We do not become happier because our extravagances are bigger, more numerous, or more expensive. An Epicurean will find joys in their daily life and take opportunities for more elaborate extravagances should they come along, all the while maintaining a bedrock tranquility. And seeking out these joys, especially with friends, also helps us to prepare for and handle misfortune.
You might ask yourself, then: do I have everything I need for stable satisfaction, including not only basic material goods, but also the relational and intellectual necessities? If you discover that you lack some crucial good, for example supportive friends, then Epicurus thinks your chances of satisfaction grow exponentially if you focus your energies and cut out the unnecessary desires that waste time and breed dissatisfaction.
If you instead find yourself with everything Epicurus considers necessary for satisfaction, do you recognise it as enough for a good and joyful life? Many of us have what we need, but we fail to appreciate it, to see it as sufficient. We convince ourselves we need more and more, our limitless desires carrying dissatisfaction and anxiety along for the ride. Epicurus thinks that, once you have what you need, and once you can appreciate it as everything you need, that feeling of satisfaction opens up time and energy to relish the joyful extravagances that give shape and colour to our lives.
Key points – How to live like an Epicurean
- Humans are hedonistic animals with souped-up brains. Like all other sentient animals, we want to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, but unlike other animals we have a sense of our own past and future. These higher-order mental capacities increase our available psychological pleasures, but they can also introduce anxieties like the fear of death or divine retribution, which are the enemy of tranquility.
- Epicureans seek both tranquility and joy. With the help of prudence (understood as the art of ‘sober calculation’ about ‘choice and avoidance’), Epicurus encourages us to seek and savour what we need for tranquility, enjoy extravagances that enrich tranquility without undermining it, and avoid whatever undermines tranquility.
- Focus on what’s necessary. Epicurus thinks humans have relatively few needs, but they are not all material. So focus on what you truly need – food, drink, shelter, friends, the ability to make sense of the world – and don’t invest in desires that are difficult, even impossible, to satisfy.
- Root out corrosive desires. While some might say you can never have too much money, too much power, too long a life, Epicurus says that, if a person desires ever more, what they have is never enough. The unlimited nature of corrosive desires means we can never satisfy them, so we need to avoid them.
- Relish harmless extravagances. Do you have what you need? Do you appreciate it as everything you need? That feeling of satisfaction, argues Epicurus, then opens up time and energy to relish the joyful extravagances – those unnecessary, unexpected and wonderful things – that give shape and colour to our lives.
Why it matters
Writing a book can give a person something resembling a one-track mind and, unfortunately for others, that means the topic magically worms its way into almost every discussion. My conversations with friends, family and patient strangers indicate that people find Epicureanism most appealing when they reflect on friendship, gratitude and misfortune. In fact, Epicurus ties together these important facets of life, with friendship as the central thread.
Epicurus waxes uncharacteristically poetic about friendship, writing that it ‘dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness.’ With much less rhetorical flair, he claims that ‘of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.’ Epicurus thinks that we not only need friends, but that friends contribute the most to life’s goodness. Friend groups give us confidence of support in times of material and emotional distress, and they help us learn about ourselves and the world. Sometimes only friends can effectively communicate difficult truths. For Epicurus, the crowning grace of good friends is their role in building the library of joyful memories we rely on in times of difficulty, boredom or misfortune.
A wide body of evidence, though, reveals that many of us are failing to satisfy the necessary desire for friends. Although we prize and celebrate friendship, a distressingly high percentage of people report having few, if any, close, supportive friends. Longitudinal studies show that loneliness wrecks not only our psychological health, but also our physical health. The UK even appointed a Loneliness Minister in 2018 to tackle the issue. So why are we failing to achieve something we all seem to want and that produces such significant benefits? Epicurus thinks we sometimes choose and remain in unhealthy friendships, and other times we fail to prioritise and deepen our healthy friendships. And, well, sometimes we’re regrettably not such great friends ourselves.
Epicurean friendships are grounded in two features – trust and a shared recognition of what matters in life. By trust, Epicurus means that friends can rely on mutual support in times of need or misfortune, not that we can trust a friend not to overcook the pot roast. Friends give us confidence about our future and facilitate our tranquility. In short, friends don’t make friends anxious. If we have good reason to believe that a friend will abandon us in a time of peril, then Epicurus thinks the friendship is a mere relationship, quite possibly a waste of time. By the same token, our friends have reason to expect confidence and support from us. Friendship is a source of joy, but it begins in mutual recognition of human need.
The second feature of a secure friendship – a shared conception of what matters – reinforces trust. Epicurus thinks that when we enter or maintain a relationship for volatile reasons, then our friendship is likewise insecure. Consider ‘drinking buddies’. While drinking buddies might enjoy many things while drinking, the friendship founders if one friend stops drinking. Friendships motivated and sustained by corrosive desires for beauty, status or wealth are unstable because beauty, status and wealth are themselves unstable. We can lose wealth through misfortune, and youthful beauty inevitably disappears. Since such qualities come in degrees, a friend enthralled by corrosive desires might move on to someone else when a richer, more popular or more beautiful option presents itself. Epicurean friendships, by contrast, are rooted in things largely within our control and not prone to competition – support, reliability and a rejection of corrosive desires as good reason for entering or maintaining a friendship.
Reliable friends play a crucial role in the Epicurean approach to preparing for and managing misfortune. Remember that the Epicureans, unlike the Stoics, reject divine providence, so a child’s death does not fit into a well-ordered divine plan that lies beyond human understanding. Misfortunes do not occur for the sake of some good because they do not occur for the sake of anything. As the philosopher Julian Baggini put it in The Guardian this year: ‘Epicurus was realistic enough to accept that external circumstances can make life intolerable, grief is natural and real, and shit happens.’ And when it happens, you want a friend who shows up at your doorstep, washes the dishes, does not run away if you unexpectedly start sobbing, and takes your kids to the movies so you can have some time alone. While Stoics like Seneca considered it shameful to need friends in a crisis, the Epicureans considered it perverse to deny that we do.
Friends also help us prepare for misfortune in a way more peculiar to Epicurean hedonism. Some of Epicureanism’s opponents recommend pre-rehearsing possible evils, staging a sort of mental dress rehearsal for misfortunes that might never even occur, inuring yourself against considering such events harmful. The Epicureans, though, prefer not to borrow trouble. They think we prepare best for misfortune by living joyfully with friends and cultivating gratitude for that joy by remembering it and keeping it in mind.
If you take anything away from this account of Epicureanism, it should be this: the best thing you can do for yourself is to make supportive friends worth trusting, and ensure that you deserve the trust of your friends. Then live joyfully together, sharing your private pleasures and creating shared pleasures. If misfortune strikes, and in the course of a life it generally will, you can draw on those abundant resources – your supportive friends and your rich library of memories – to distract you from pain and help remind you of life’s goodness.
And finally, you should laugh! Epicurus writes that ‘one must philosophise and at the same time laugh … and use the rest of our personal goods, and never stop proclaiming the utterances of correct philosophy.’ Correct philosophy should be pleasant, just like life.
Links & books
My book Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life (2023) explores topics not covered here, among them the Epicurean views on politics, greed, dinner parties, social media, science, sex, and death. It also addresses some common objections to Epicureanism. In a podcast for The Next Big Idea, I discuss the basics of Epicureanism with Rufus Griscom, and I cover Epicureanism in greater detail with the hosts of the podcast Lucretius Today.
For a bound copy of core Epicurean texts, I recommend the The Epicurus Reader (1994), translated by Brad Inwood and Lloyd P Gerson. Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean, produced On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), a magisterial defence of Epicureanism in verse. I recommend the Martin Ferguson Smith prose translation and the Ronald Melville translation in verse.
A wealth of open-access Epicurean texts and resources are available at EpicureanFriends.com, an online community committed to Epicurean study and practice. The materials are open to all, but posting to message boards requires a free registration and commitment to shared purpose and norms of civility.
For additional books by contemporary scholars for a non-scholarly audience, see Catherine Wilson’s guide How to Be an Epicurean (2019), and John Sellars’s short volume The Fourfold Remedy: Epicurus and the Art of Happiness (2021).
Some characters in fiction and film have been associated with Epicurean themes. For how a terminal diagnosis can lead to the realisation that one has neglected the joys of living, see Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru (1952) or the recent British remake, Living (2022). Both films are partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). The US writer Larry McMurtry claimed that Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae, the larger-than-life lawman-cowboy in his novel Lonesome Dove (1985), is an Epicurean who maintains a life-long, cantankerous friendship with Woodrow Call, a Stoic.