Today we’ll be looking at my favourite school of philosophy, Epicureanism; a brief view of what it is, how it’s shaped my outlook, and how it can help your faith-walk. (This is a brief overview of Epicureanism. I don’t have time to list all of the intricacies of it, and others have already written better articles doing that than I can. I’m just hitting on key elements here. I highly suggest you do more study on your own.)
Epicureanism is the branch of philosophy founded by, as you might guess, Epicurus. Founded in the late fourth century before Christ(B.C.), Epicureanism was one of the dominant schools of thought in the Hellenistic period. Originally a rival of Plato, Epicureanism eventually died out in favour of Stoicism(my second favourite). It also gained a bad reputation during the ‘age of enlightenment.’
Epicurus’s philosophy was that in order for people to be happy, that they should do what brought them pleasure. This is where it gained its reputation in the ‘enlightenment.’ This, however, is derived from a misunderstanding of the type of pleasure an Epicurean should seek. The pleasure Epicurus spoke of was not the kind one would think of within hedonistic societies(think 1st century Romans). The pleasure he sought was of a restrained kind. The pleasure one should seek is one that is prolonged. Overall happiness, not temporary.
If you think of someone who enjoys fine meals, they’ll only be happy while they’re eating. After their meal, what makes them happy is gone. Now they must pursue their next meal in order to be happy. The Epicurean would find no fault in having a nice meal, but the pursuit of endless nice meals. This cycle is what Epicurus opposed. As he once wrote “He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing.” This sentiment is echoed in Ecclesiastes 5:10 Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. This thought can be applied to any number of vices. I’ll let you use your imagination.
This is also why Epicurus was opposed to he or his followers seeking political office or fame. It gave too much room for people to develop egos and chase after an ever-fleeting desire. If you work to hold yourself above another, then you aren’t happy with yourself as is. If you have a need to be glorified, then again you aren’t happy with yourself as is. How many times in our modern world do you see people so desperate to be or stay famous that they allow it to totally take over their lives? If you need people to like your pictures online in order to be happy, then you don’t really know what it means to be happy. If today you want 10, tomorrow you’ll want 100. Then 1000, and so on. It never ends. Happiness should come from within, not without.
Where Plato had ‘The Academy,’ Epicurus had ‘The Garden.’ He and his followers lived on a shared land. They grew food, read books, discussed philosophy. He argued that a simple life, being surrounded by friends, being removed from the trappings of a modern world was the best way to find sustained happiness.
In fairness, I must point out that Epicurus had a theology that was opposed to Christianity. He, like most Athenians, believed in the pantheon of gods. Unlike others, however, he believed that the gods didn’t interact with humans as others did. For this reason he found it pointless to fear god/s. He also believed that, while humans have a soul, that the soul dies with the body. While the idea of soul-death is contrary to the Christian idea of eternity, people could stand to learn from Epicurus’s attitude toward death. He taught that death was a natural part of life, and that it should be welcomed without fear. His rationale was that he didn’t exist before he was born, therefore he should not fear not existing after his death. This gave rise to the Epicurean expression; ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.’ Many people of faith could stand to share this sentiment when facing death. When it’s your time to go, it doesn’t matter how much you fight and plead. It’s better to be at peace with what is to come next.
In Acts 17 while Paul is spreading the gospel he speaks with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He goes to the Areopagus where people exchange ideas. Some people mocked him, some believed and follow him. Epicureanism thrived in the area before, and for awhile after, the Acts of the Apostles. In that time many followers of Epicurus formed farming communities outside of the major cities and somewhat cut themselves off from the world. They lived communal lives dedicated to study and simplicity. I’ve heard it said that these communities later easily transitioned into Catholic monasteries after the word was spread because the life of an Epicurean is similar to that of a monk. I haven’t found enough reliable information to state that as fact though, so bare that in mind.
So how can this help us today? I would argue that while humanity has progressed in most areas in the past two thousand years, human problems remain the same. People still chase things they think will make them happy, whether it be superficial or trivial.
To draw on my own experience. I’ve known people who have said something along the lines of ‘One day I’m going to buy a Lamborghini.’ Will owning a certain car make them happy? I did some price checking for this post. A new 2020 Lamborghini Huracan spyder will costs around $280,000. A used 2019 lamborghini huracan spyder will costs around $210,000. Does one year and $70,000 change the car you bought? It’s value is fleeting, and so to the happiness it brings.
I’ve owned some nice cars before. They’re great and all. My friends always liked them. Here’s the thing, no one knows how much work goes into making a car look nice every time you take it out. I had to clean my cars almost daily. One speck of dust, and the whole thing looked bad. Everytime I would go to the mechanic I knew I would her the words ‘special order.’ For those of you not in the know, “special order” is code for “it’s going to cost a lot, and we know you’re going to pay it.” You know how sometimes when you’re driving on a freshly asphalted road and you hear tar being slung up onto your undercarriage? Yeah. And, I’m not going to start talking about hail damage. What looked good to my friends, was an endless headache to me.
This extends beyond cars. Whether it be clothes, jewelry, people, or the occasional soirée. Life was different then. It was the ice age. There’s a quote from the movie ‘Empire’ that always stood out to me at the time. ‘For everybody– everybody– money is what life is all about. Getting it, keeping it, losing it, holding it… needing it, living it and dying for it. You have to look like you got it, whether you do or not. That’s how you get respect. You gotta put your money on display the right way.’ It was the culture. That’s all I have to say about that.
As I gradually grew up, and most of my friends didn’t, I stopped putting my energy into the frivolous. I noticed that the less money I threw around, the less people wanted to be around me. Finding out that all of my friends weren’t as close to me as I thought was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m always one for a learning experience. So begs the question, was I happy? Temporarily, maybe. Holistically? No.
This reminds me of an episode I watched of ‘The Twilight Zone’ titled ‘A nice place to visit.’ In the episode a man, Rocky, dies. He wakes up to find himself in the afterlife with a guide, Pip, standing over him. Pip tells Rocky that he is there to provide him with anything he wants. At first confused, Rocky ultimately decides that he’s somehow made it to heaven. Throughout the episode Pip gives Rocky everything he asks for. He goes to casinos, and always wins. He has an endless supply of women whenever he wants. At first Rocky is overjoyed. He has everything he’s ever wanted. After awhile, however, he becomes bored. He knows he’ll win every time he goes to the casino, he knows the women won’t turn him down. At the end of the episode he’s talking to Pip and tells him that he’s grown tired of heaven and wants to see what the other place is like. Pip laughs, and points out to him that he’s been in the other place the whole time. Rocky tries to leave his apartment, but the door won’t open. He’s trapped, for eternity.
I know the trapped feeling. Fortunately I was able to escape before it was too late. My journey to faith has been a long one, and I’ve had a lot of areas of study influence the way I see the world over the years. The car I have now is a far cry from the ones past. It’s old, loud, and may not really be considered road-safe. Do I care if it’s dirty? No. Do I care if it gets a dent? Not at all, it already has plenty. I rarely dress nice anymore, unless the occasion calls for it. Most of my clothes have holes in them because I haven’t been bothered to buy more. Instead of trying to impress people, I spend my time reading, studying, or gardening when the weather allows. I value simplicity.
Will I ever buy a new car? Maybe, if the need arises. Will it be a Lamborghini? No, they’re impractical. (And, I don’t fit in sportscars well.) Will I ever build a nice house? Maybe. I wouldn’t care to live in a moderately nice house. Having a den where I could study and smoke cigars would be agreeable. And, I would love to have a large garden. It wouldn’t be anything like Donald Trump’s $100m penthouse, though. It’s not my style.
The big takeaway that I’ve learned is that it isn’t the things that determine how happy I am. I’m what determines how happy I am. Would it be neat to have a bowling alley in my basement? Yeah. Am I going to kill myself until I get to a point where I can build a bowling alley in my basement? Nope. Right now I don’t even have a basement. If that ever happens I’ll enjoy it. If not, I’ll find enjoyment in something else.
So how does all of this affect matters of faith? The biggest issue when talking about the acquiring of things comes back to money. Whenever speaking of money the first verse that always comes to mind is Matthew 16:26.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
What is the worth of the soul? Can a Christian in good conscience sit in church, being called to help those in need, while also hoarding money? To what end? This leads me back to Matthew 6:19-21
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This idea was further spread by Paul in his first letter to Timothy(6:10;17-19).
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
Moving on from money to the Epicurean idea that one shouldn’t pursue glory for oneself, we can look at Matthew 6:1-4
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Can we arrive at all of these conclusions without studying pre-christ greek philosophy? Yes, you can. I can keep making points about the comparisons of Epicurean philosophy and Christianity until I fall asleep. You don’t have to study anything outside of the bible to develop a better relationship with Christ. Personally, I like to study anything I can get my hands on. In my opinion, the study of Epicureanism will lead to a better relationship with yourself and those around you, and from there you will be in a better place to walk with Christ.
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