Epicurean Self-Sufficiency - dealing with the economic downturn - part 2

Last week we began to look at the individual basic elements of Epicurus' philosophy. I'm doing this, remember, because I think that he offers us a tried and tested practical philosophy that is,

A: compatible with the 'extended way of thinking and acting' that I think defines well a functioning Unitarian congregation (whatever its collective metaphysical beliefs or those of its individual members);

B: because it is an effective strategy to employ in difficult financial, political and social times. I would add here that I think it is also a particularly effective strategy to employ in good times, but, since we are not in good times right now that is somewhat by the by for the moment. But just pocket that thought for the future. I think adopting Epicurus' basic pattern of life is an investment for life.

So, last week we took a preliminary look at the first of his three goods - Friendship. Today we'll take a look at the second Self-Sufficiency (i.e. Freedom or the Simple-life) and, next week we'll look at the third, namely the Analysed Life. Then, after Evolution Sunday (February 15th) we'll move on to his famous Four-Part cure.

His idea of self-sufficiency (or simple-living) was inevitably put forward in the context of his thinking about human desire. This can be schematized into three basic categories, those desires that are natural and necessary, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are unnatural and unnecessary.

Natural and necessary desires were for him those few things which one *really* needed simply to survive - basic food, drink, shelter and personal and community safety. Natural but unnecessary desires included that large group of things that although they undoubtedly give us pleasure such as smoked-salmon, a fine wine, a '54 Strat (see the picture accompanying this post), a pot of cheese etc. without them life would hardly be considered unbearable. Lastly unnatural and unnecessary desires included for him those for things such as social standing, political power, fame, glory, etc..

(NB: In the conversation immediately after I gave this address a vital point was brought out, namely the difficulty in ascertaining what precisely was meant, not so much by the word 'necessary', but by the word 'natural'. One contributor, for example, pointed out that desire for some kinds of social recognitions is actually quite natural. What was clear to us all was that some philosophies have assumed, and continue to assume, that it is absolutely clear what is natural or not and that can lead in some very unpleasant directions. The whole business of human sexuality is an obvious example of this. This is so important that I'll return to this subject during next week's address dealing with the third of Epicurus' goods, the Analysed Life.)

Epicurus strongly privileged the first category of desires above all others but he was no killjoy and he clearly thought the second category of desires could be fulfilled when the opportunity naturally arose and when it was clear no greater harm was going to be caused by indulging in them (remember his request for a pot of cheese I mentioned last week). But he certainly disapproved of the last category. This later category could result in a rather quietist approach and this was certainly the case amongst the earlier Greek Epicureans. However, the later, Roman Epicureans, because they were more concerned to show the applicability of Epicurean philosophy to a citizen's daily life, could become involved in political life if extenuating circumstances made it necessary. I'll explore this aspect another time.

So, with this understanding of desires in mind, we can now turn to how Epicurus summed self-sufficiency up in a letter to Menoeceus:

We regard self-sufficiency as a great virtue - not so that we may only enjoy a few things, but so that we may be satisfied with a few things if those are all we have. We are firmly convinced that those who least yearn for luxury enjoy it most, and that while natural desires are easily fulfilled, vain desires are insatiable. Plain meals offer the same pleasure as luxurious fare, so long as the pain of hunger is removed. Bread and water offer the greatest pleasure for those in need of them. Accustoming oneself to a simple lifestyle is healthy and it doesn’t sap our motivation to perform the necessary tasks of life. Doing without luxuries for long intervals allows us to better appreciate them and keeps us fearless against changes of fortune.


When we say that pleasure is the goal, we do not mean the pleasure of debauchery or sensuality. Despite whatever may be said by those who misunderstand, disagree with, or deliberately slander our teachings, the goal we do seek is this: freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul. For it is not continuous drinking and revelry, the sexual enjoyment of women and boys, or feasting upon fish and fancy cuisine which result in a happy life. Sober reasoning is what is needed, which decides every choice and avoidance and liberates us from the false beliefs which are the greatest source of anxiety
(Letter to Menoeceus 130-132).

Please notice here, I plead because it is so often missed, Epicurus is not some miserabilist proto-Protestant who rules out absolutely the occasional satisfying of the natural but unnecessary desires by some measure of drinking and revelry, sex, or the feasting on good food, but simply reminding us that in them alone there is not to be found the right basis for the kind of happiness he thinks - and I think - we are really seeking. (The story of the woman anointing Jesus with the expensive oil of Nard springs to mind here as beeing intimately related to the need to celebrate luxuriously at times, even when one is poor and amongst the poor as well as facing terrible dangers - Mark 14:3ff.) What we seek is a more stable happiness that enables us better to appreciate - to desire appropriately - these other things when they come and to be fearless against any change of fortune, such as the one we are currently experiencing, which takes them away from us.

It seems to me and many others that as a society, for at least twenty years and perhaps more, we have been silently conflating Epicurus' categories of the natural and necessary desires with those of the natural but unnecessary. Now I think there is no doubt at all that all of us across Europe and the USA, but particularly in the UK, are going to have to get used to massive drop in the availability of the things that have been satisfying our natural but unnecessary pleasures, things that have become so much a daily part of most of our lives.

It is tempting to allow oneself to feel this only as a diminishment of our life, not least a diminishment of happiness - but I protest. This collapse in our economy really is a once in a generation opportunity to rediscover the pleasures of the simplest and most valuable things in life and, as a result recover a more secure and robust happiness. As we have seen Epicurus is believes luxury is best appreciated by those who do not need it. We've never needed it but we have forgotten this. One day the opportunity for luxuries may return and by then we may have learnt to enjoy them for what they truly are, enjoyable but by no means necessary. As another Epicurean saying (Vatican Sayings No. 35) has it, 'One should not spoil what is present by desiring what is absent, but rather reason out that these things too [i.e., what we have] were among those we might have prayed for'.

But I also feel it is important to sound here a note of warning. There will be many in our society - there are now - who will not view this loss of unnecessary pleasures as a good opportunity to be grasped. I fear many people will loose their hearts and heads and not always quietly and without violence. But, if we adopt Epicurus' approach - or at least something like it - then we will not only have to hand a practical tool to help us keep our own heads when all about us people are loosing theirs but we will also have a practical method to offer people in their struggle to come to terms with changed circumstances and to help them find a deeper and more stable happiness. As Epicurus said, 'Let us share our friend's (and here I understand friends to mean, as Jesus taught, our neighbours) - 'Let us share our friends' suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern' (Vatican Sayings No. 66).
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