Epicurus II

Epicurus explains (in the Letter to Menoeceus) that when he considers pleasure the basis of happiness he does not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the dissolute but rather the state of being physically free of pain and mentally without anxiety. And, since the bulk of his writing was in science and natural phenomena, we can guess that Epicurus was being honest. The goal of life, according to Epicurus, was to reduce needs to greater self-sufficiency so that the absence of luxuries is not painful. Pleasure comes from simple things; even bread and water is a pleasure to one who is hungry. Epicurus tells us that he does not drink, dance, pursue sexual pleasure or eat too much fish (132a) — not because there is anything wrong with them but because they will bring pain if indulged.
Epicurus reminds us of a voyeur, a burned Pavlovian dog, an old man who has learned his lessons the hard way but only minimally. Not much wisdom or insight for either the profligate or the wise, certainly not the solitary. The young and healthy have de facto license under his advice. Perhaps the modern term “Epicurianism” gives him too much credit.


Epicurus does not sound like a hedonist but perhaps a discrete voluptuary. Rejecting the Stoic moral duty, he is free to pursue the course of least resistance, like the character in Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray” who gets rid of temptation by yielding to it. With no sense of morals, Epicurus cannot complain about fortune or pain, of course, hence the pursuit of pleasure, but mildly. He admonishes a young man’s sexual passions but owns: “Follow your inclination as you will, provided only that you neither violate the laws, disturb well-established customs, harm any one of your neighbors, injure your own body, nor waste your possessions.” At the same time he notes that this being impossible it is best to leave off sexual passion altogether. But Epicurus would fit at a men’s club or dinner party, the glib amoralist for whom immorality consists of risking pain. This sort of polite decadence is fashionable for society but makes no sense in solitude.

Simplicity V

Simplicity cannot be understood without complicity. In our attempts to achieve simplicity in the material sense, we must also be conscious of the source of our material sustenance and possessions. Since few solitaries and hermits will be completely self-sufficient, we consciously or unconsciously acknowledge our tacit relation to others through the so-called marketplace. However, not only being conscious of the relation but also becoming aware of where our material things come and who made them is important in giving authenticity to our simplicity. It does no good to live as solitaries but off the labor of exploited people we never see or about whom we seem indifferent while partaking of their labor. This realization will make our choices better informed, our consciences more tranquil, and our progress in simplicity more fruitful.