Epicurean Friendship - dealing with the economic downturn - part 1

A theme that has come up in different ways during and after the previous two conversations is that what many of us are looking for - at all times and certainly no less than now - is happiness.

But there are many possible meanings of that word and many of those are very shallow indeed. Now I cannot speak for you, you can do that in minute (at the end of the blog), but I can speak for myself and a philosophy of happiness that I have increasingly come to trust over the past twenty odd years namely, that of Epicurus.

NOTE: Lest anyone think this is an eccentric or unusual position for a Unitarian to adopt I point you to a letter written to William Short in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in which he says he considered himself 'an Epicurian' and he considered 'the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.' In the same letter he also said, 'Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others.'

Epicurus' (341-270 BCE) philosophy is centred on happiness. What this means in practice has regularly been misunderstood over the centuries and his philosophy is popularly believed to have approved of a hedonistic love of all things fine and expensive and of encouraging the kinds of excessive lifestyles that have contributed so much to our culture's present woeful spiritual, philosophical and economic situation. But, in truth, Epicurus was famous in his own time for his very modest and restrained lifestyle. In relation to food and drink there is a well-known anecdote told of him by Diogenes Laertius saying that he was content with 'just water and simple bread' and that he asked one of his followers to send him 'a little pot of cheese' so he could 'indulge in extravagance' when he wished (10:10). Indeed, it is reported that he once said if he got his bread and water he would 'gladly rival Zeus in happiness (Aelian, Miscellaneous Histories 4.13).

Epicurus concept of happiness is centred on the Greek word 'ataraxia' which means 'a state freed of pain and anxiety' - or tanquility - and he thought that we could attain this by 'modest means, judicious limitation of one's desires, and conscious resistance to any and all forms of superstition'. D. S. Hutchinson, a modern authority on Epicurus, notes that:

The fundamental obstacle to happiness, says Epicurus, is anxiety. No matter how rich or famous you are, you won't be happy if you're anxious to be richer or more famous. No matter how good your health is, you won't be happy if you're anxious about getting sick. You can't be happy in this life if you're worried about the next life. You can't be happy as a human being if you're worried about being punished or victimized by powerful divine beings. But you can be happy if you believe in the four basic truths of Epicureanism: there are no divine beings which threaten us; there is no next life; what we actually need is easy to get; what makes us suffer is easy to put up with. This is the so-called 'four-part cure', the Epicurean remedy for the epidemic sickness of human anxiety; as a later Epicurean puts it, "Don't fear god, don't worry about death; what's good is easy to get, and what's terrible is easy to endure" (Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson: The Epicurus Reader, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1994, p. vii).

In addition to these four truths Epicurus thought that there were three goods, friendship, self-sufficiency (i.e. freedom) and an analysed life. (Below is Alain de Botton's excellent introductory programme on Epicurus.)

Now I briefly spoke about these things before back in early October after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in an address entitled "As the markets tumble - meet Epicurus" and I refer you back to it. However, I bring us back to the subject today because since October the really serious nature of our economic problems have become much clearer to us and the next year, at the very, very least, is going to be very hard for many of us. As I said in October this need not be a wholly bad thing especially if the situation encourages us in any way to follow Epicurus' advice then we will have taken a vitally important step towards a genuine and deep happiness. A step we might not have realised we really should be taking until very recently.

Over the coming weeks I'll take us in turn through Epicurus' four-fold cure and his three goods but today I'll begin with friendship.

To some extent Epicurus is simply making an obvious point which is that friendships help happiness and we all aware that those who have a good network of friends are much more likely to come through a bad period well than those who find themselves, or who make themselves, alone. But to this basic point Epicurus added the thought that it was of even greater help to be in the *constant* presence of one's friends and, to this end, he set up his famous Garden Academy where his friends lived together in close proximity though in their own private quarters. It is important to note that his group was not proto-communist.

Now I am aware that it is unlikely that any of us is going to do anything quite like Epicurus today - who could afford it and where would we find the space? - but, having said that, it seems to me not inconceivable that this church could consciously provide some of the things that Epicurus' Garden Academy provided. As some of you will know I have been talking about this in various ways for the last six months.

In fact there is more than talking going on - some real action is being taken. So we have the restarting of the Wednesday Evening conversations and also the new series of lunchtime concerts starting this Wednesday. Both of these provide an open opportunity for people to meet, talk, enjoy each other's company and insights and to form new friendships or at least new and close friendly relationships with others. These more conversationally orientated morning services (the evening services have long had such a space) are also an attempt to bring people together in more intimate and supportive ways. Then there is the relatively new blog and the very new Facebook page for the church. Again both of these initiatives are attempts at drawing people together to talk, think and eventually, I hope, to act together.

Now, in my head at least, these initiatives are not just shallow, surface attempts to attract more members and raise our profile - though I certainly won't be discouraging this if it occurs! - but a conscious attempt to create a modern Epicurean Garden Academy which believes that a individual's life is more likely to be fulfilled and happy if they have access to a dialogical community that is dedicated to the creation of, at the very least, friendly supportive relationships between people and, at times capable of enabling even deeper, intimate and lasting friendships to develop. I'm not pretending that we'll all be friends with each other in quite the same way we are with our truly close friends - this simply cannot be done -, but, if we can get the balance right and organise ourselves properly, we can begin to offer each other a measure of friendship and support that is vital at all times but particularly so in times of depression and what may prove to be a time real economic and social hardship.


Hiram said…
I mention Epicurean ideas in an article I wrote for my blog entitled Death and the Skeptic here:


You share many of the ruminations about how great it would be to have Epicurus' Gardens again, and I've been studying the world of live foods, superfoods, etc. in light of Epicurus' hedonism also because there is no clear boundary between what we eat and our states of mind. Many foods promote wholesome states of mind and body, and ataraxia.

I think we should be bringing Epicurean discourse into discussions on ethics more frequently, and attempt to continue the work that Epicurus's school would have done if their development hadn't been arrested, I think neuroscience and other fields have a lot to add to Epicurus.