The Pocket Epicurean
The Pocket Epicurean
As long as there has been human life, we’ve searched for what it means to be happy. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus came to his own conclusion: all we really want in life is pleasure. Though today we tend to associate the word “Epicurean” with indulgence in the form of food and wine, the philosophy of Epicurus was about a life well lived even in the hardest of times. As John Sellars shows in this concise, approachable guide, the ideal life envisioned by Epicurus and his followers was a life much more concerned with mental pleasures and the avoidance of pain. Their goal, in short, was a life of tranquility or contentment.
In The Pocket Epicurean Sellars walks us through the history of Epicureanism, starting with the private garden on the edge of ancient Athens where Epicurus and his students lived in the fourth century BC, and where women were as welcome as men. Sellars then moves on to ancient Rome, where Epicurean influence flourished thanks to the poet Lucretius and his cohort. Throughout the book, Sellars draws on the ideas of Epicurus to offer a constructive way of thinking about the pleasures of friendship and our place in the world.
"I recommend Sellars’s book to anyone who wants a short, plainly stated introduction to Epicurus’s primarily ethical thought. . . . For someone with this desire, I know of no book more suitable than Sellars’s The Pocket Epicurean."
“Lucid and scholarly.”
Independent, on the UK Edition
“Sellars expertly expounds Epicurean ideas. . . . and he knows the Greek and Latin Epicurean texts thoroughly.”
Guardian, on the UK Edition
“Not only an excellent introduction to the history of Epicurean philosophy, but also a helpful guide to facing the manifold anxieties of modern life.”
The Idler, on the UK edition
“In this brief and eloquent book, Sellars takes us through the basic arguments of Epicureanism with wonderful clarity, distilling the essence of an ancient philosophy that speaks with increasing urgency to our troubled times. It is an exemplary guide, and I recommend it enthusiastically to readers of all ages and all walks of life.”
David Konstan, New York University
"By the end of the volume, one has a good sense both of the importance of Epicureanism in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, its primary goals, and the ways in which one could still effectively apply Epicurean ideas to one’s own modus vivendi."
Bryn Mawr Classical Review
Table of Contents
1. Philosophy as Therapy
2. The Path to Tranquillity
3. What Do You Need?
4. The Pleasures of Friendship
5. Why Study Nature?
6. Don’t Fear Death
7. Explaining Everything
Epicurus inherited their citizenship. When he turned eighteen, Epicurus travelled to his family’s native city, perhaps to complete the military service required of Athenian citizens. Around the time that he was due to return home, his family, along with other Athenian settlers, were expelled from Samos, and Epicurus found himself wandering from place to place for a few years. For a while he lived in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, where he started to teach philosophy and met his lifelong friend Hermarchus. The locals did not take kindly to his Athenian manner of public philosophizing, so Epicurus, Hermarchus, and perhaps a few others moved on to Lampsacus on the mainland of Asia Minor, in the general vicinity of ancient Troy. There, over a number of years, Epicurus built up a school of loyal followers, although this time they kept themselves to themselves, having learned from the experience in Mytilene. Eventually this community of kindred spirits decided to move to Athens, where Epicurus bought a patch of land just outside the city walls. This became known as simply the Garden, and it was where Epicurus, his friends, and new admirers lived together in a simple life of self-sufficiency. The Garden flourished as a philosophical community for over two hundred years. It may have been brought to an end when the Garden was destroyed during an extended siege of the city by the Roman general Sulla in the early part of the first century BC, although Epicureans certainly continued to live in Athens afterwards.
Epicurus led his community of philosophers for some forty years. Together they shared a simple, communal life. Although other ancient philosophers had argued that friends ought to share property in common, the Epicurean Garden was no commune and each person retained their own private property. As we shall see later, this was important for Epicurus’s own distinctive conception of friendship. When he died, Epicurus left both the Garden and his library of books to Hermarchus, his oldest friend, who took over as head of the community. Epicurus’s birthday became a regular feast day and statues were erected in his honour. A cult of Epicurus developed, just as it did around the Buddha in India. Pliny the Elder reports that this continued among Roman admirers of Epicurus, who offered sacrifices on his birthday and carried around small portraits of him. This might make Epicureanism sound more like a religious movement than a philosophy based on dispassionate reason. Yet in the cases of both Epicurus and the Buddha, these were simply acts of admiration for mortal men preaching advice on how to overcome human suffering.
The devotion of Epicurus’s followers could sometimes be extreme. Some five hundred years after Epicurus first came to Athens, an elderly admirer in a small town in Lycia (now south-western Turkey) erected a huge wall covered by a colonnade onto which he inscribed the philosopher’s words for all to read. His name was Diogenes. The wall no longer stands but many of the blocks that once made it lie scattered around the ruins of the town—Oenoanda—and parts of the original inscription have been reconstructed. It’s estimated that it was over forty metres long. Diogenes had carved into his wall his own accounts of Epicurean philosophy, along with sayings by Epicurus himself. Why did he do this? The expense must have been enormous. Fortunately Diogenes tells us himself near the beginning of the inscription: he did it in order to help his fellow citizens, whom he thought might benefit from some Epicurean therapy. Most people, he wrote, ‘suffer from a common disease, with their false notions about things.’ This confusion is endlessly spreading, Diogenes continued, for people infect each other like sick sheep. His inscription is intended to provide remedies; it is a medicine that brings salvation from false beliefs. Diogenes was confident that he had the right medicines, for he and other Epicureans had already put them to the test:
We have dispelled the fears that grip us with- out justification, and, as for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum.
Diogenes’s accounts of Epicurean ideas were written in the form of letters, including one on physics and one on ethics. In this he was following Epicurus himself, who also wrote letters to friends summarizing the key ideas in his philosophy. There are three that survive: a letter to Herodotus (not the famous historian) outlining physical theory, a letter to Pythocles on meteorology, and a letter to Menoeceus concerned with ethics and, more broadly, how to live a good, happy life. These letters are among our most important sources for Epicurus’s ideas.
In the opening lines of his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus presents his philosophy as something fundamentally therapeutic:
No one should postpone the study of philosophy when he is young, nor should he weary of it when he becomes mature, because the search for mental health is never untimely or out of season.
The notion of mental health—literally ‘hygiene of the soul’—is thus nothing new. Philosophy is of perennial importance, Epicurus continued, because it is the one thing that can help us attain happiness, which, he added, is the one thing that we are all after: ‘when we have this we have everything, and we do everything we can to get it when we don’t have it.’
Can philosophy deliver happiness? For Epicurus the key is to attain a calm, tranquil mind. How do we get there? We do so by overcoming the twin perils of frustrated desires and anxiety about the future, and Epicurus thought that his philosophy had powerful remedies for these two causes of psychological disquiet. It is by taking on board his arguments about these things that, he claimed, we can achieve the happiness we all desire.
In this sense Epicurus’s philosophy is indeed a form of psychological therapy. As we noted earlier, Albert Ellis saw Epicureanism as a type of cognitive psychotherapy, standing alongside Stoicism and Buddhism in holding that our emotional disturbances are primarily a product of how we see the world and as such something that we can control. But if that’s the case, why did Epicurus also write letters dealing with physics and meteorology? What do these subjects have to do with mental health? The answer is simple: many of our fears and anxieties are the result of failing to see things as they really are, whether that’s not truly understanding what we need in order to flourish or imagining threats that don’t really exist. It is knowledge of how the world works that will set us free, Epicurus insisted.