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The Three Goods

In philosophical and ethical parlance, a good is that which should be sought for its own sake, a thing of intrinsic value.  Virtues, such as honesty, justice, liberty, are goods.  In Epicurean teaching, there are three main goods out of which all other virtues flow.

Friendship

Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends. – Epicurus

Epicurus saw friendship as the most important ingredient for happiness and as a type of insurance against life’s difficulties.

It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us – Sayings, 34

It’s clear that there is mutual benefit in friendship.  But association is more than I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.  We become who we are, develop an identity, through socializing. Association is one of the most fundamental experiences for humans: we acquire even the most subtle of influences from our associations. From our accent and our patterns of speech and the things that we pay importance to, to our values and our attitudes in life: association is the forge in which our personalities evolve.

Discerning between wholesome and bad associations is a basic task of every philosopher.  No person of wisdom wishes to waste time with fools who are frivolous, except perhaps in the case of souls who are awakening to more mature ways of thinking and living.

It’s impossible to replicate ancient Epicureanism without engaging our friends in philosophical discourse: by blending the analysed life with the ideal of friendship, we are properly practicing Epicureanism. While writing about ancient Epicureans, Norman Dewitt mentioned that they employed a system of mutual correction by which they were able to apply the teachings.

The Society of Friends of Epicurus was founded with the vision of becoming an ongoing attempt at experimenting with recreating Epicurean friendships and communities.  It’s not difficult to imagine that the teaching on Death is nothing to us would have been experienced as a warm consolation when imparted within the context of a loving community of friends.  This is a quite different experience from the cold, calculated doctrine that one would encounter in academia.  The embrace of a friend transforms a doctrine into an experience of human empathy, love, phylia, which Dewitt in fact identified as the fuel on which the Epicurean tradition runs.  For this reason, I believe that it’s impossible to truly replicate the practice of Epicureanism, as it was lived in antiquity, without a Society of Friends.

But even beyond the context of practicing philosophy, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects that good friends have on well-being, happiness, safety and security.  We’re able to be ourselves, we gain confidence, we’re better able to laugh at life and at ourselves, we laugh more, we feel stronger, our enjoyment of pleasures is increased and our ability to tackle difficulties is enhanced with the help of friends.

Analysed Life

An Epicurean is a pragmatist who doesn’t practice philosophy for its own sake, regardless of how valuable, noble, and esteemed wisdom may inherently be, but as a means in the pursuit of happiness, and ergo must develop a firm resolution to be happy and discipline his own mind.

Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Sayings, 46

Happiness is an art and a science. Today, we know how the brain works when happy or stressed, what foods contain the tryptophan that synthesizes into serotonin, the chemical of happiness. There is a burgeoning science of happiness. There are specific and useful methodologies, both philosophical and empirical, that can make one a happier person, some of which require consistency and discipline.  We can apply a scientific approach to them and figure out which ones work for us.

There is no expectation of happiness without an analysed life. Certainly, an Epicurean must be at least introspective enough to study his or her desires, dismissing many of them as incompatible with happiness and imperturbability.

We’re never called on to do what hurts.  We just do what hurts out of ignorance and habit.  Once we see what we’re doing, we can stop.

– Steve Hagen

All this inner work requires a firm resolution and conviction. So does the cultivation of wholesome friends, the attainment of autonomy, and many of the other psychological and social tasks assigned by Epicurus, which together constitute a complete program for well-being.

A person who has not made the resolution to be happy will be dragged like a pebble in the river by wasteful distractions, hatreds, capricious and mindless desires, and a general lack of discipline. He may encounter moments of joy here and there, but many of these joys will be mindless, gone before he can relish them, and without the conviction and the means he may lack the tools to deal with life’s baggage. If it’s hard for even many mindful people to be happy, for mindless and thankless people it’s entirely unexpected.

The mindless will sometimes drown in even the vainest of unnecessary suffering whereas the mindful will avoid unnecessary suffering, and otherwise accept with humility and wisdom the limitations imposed by nature.

Autarchy

Self-government, independence, and autonomy, and the liberty that comes with them, are the third good. This autarchy is not just fiscal and monetary, but also emotional and mental. Emancipating ourselves from the misery of unnecessary and capricious wants is a form of autarchy.

In antiquity, Epicurus devised the method of living in a commune known as the Garden.  In it, they enjoyed cultivating the Garden not just for pleasure, but also for food.  The scribes that worked in the Garden lived off of the fees from their work replicating the scrolls and educational material they produced, and from fees paid from lecturing and teaching.  Any business in which we find pleasure and affords us with sustainability would constitute a modern Garden.  Epicurus favored self-sufficiency and self-employment over wage slavery.

Something must be said here about Epicurean politics.  Although Epicurus advised his followers to avoid politics, clearly the act of not participating in the dominant culture’s schemes is a political, even a subversive, act.

One thread that is noticed throughout the tradition of philosophical materialism is the concern with human relations between equals.  We see it in Marx, who wrote his dissertation on Epicurus’ materialism, and we see it in Sartre whose existentialist theory evolved into a Marxist theory of inter-subjective (rather than subject-object) relations not based on domination.

The ideal model for human interaction for Epicurus is friendship, which again is an inter-subjective, egalitarian model.  It’s interpersonal rather than a subject-object model.  His Garden was known to be a place where women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse with men as equals, a tradition so progressive in its day that it was deemed scandalous.  Here, we can see how liberated, how removed from cultural consensus Epicurus was, and we can see the fruits of this emancipation.

A free person is unable to acquire great wealth because that is not easily achieved without enslavement to the masses or to the powers that be. Instead, he already has everything he needs, and in abundance. But if by chance he should have great wealth, he could easily share it with his fellows to win their goodwill. – Sayings, 65

Epicureanism is apolitical in order to preserve ataraxia, but it’s also profoundly subversive and political when we consider the implications of autarchy, which is often contrasted to anarchy as a more analysed and balanced alternative.  Self-sufficiency and autonomy of the individual can only lead to liberty and an ethical system that places full responsibility on each person and promotes cooperation among fully sovereign individuals rather than dependence or domination.


The Four Remedies

It’s generally believed that it was the Epicurean philosopher from Syria Philodemus of Gadara who organized the core of the teachings into the Four Remedies, the Tetrapharmakon in Greek.

There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism.  However, the Four Remedies are known to be the core of the doctrine:

Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure

In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus –who 2,300 years ago was among the first to propose the idea of the atom– argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears.  For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as “Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering”.

The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death.  Among them, the most memorable is the following:

“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not”

The latter two positive statements lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this process of an analysed life, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain. The best things in life are free.

“The wealth required by nature is limited and easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity; Do not spoil that which you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus

One of the first tasks of every convert to Epicureanism is to become mindful of her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating.  Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us.  The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky.  There are so many things we take for granted in our hectic lives, particularly when we live in the city.

As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain.  We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it.  In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time.  In nature, no condition lasts forever.  The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate.

Then there are mental pains and anxiety.  These are systematically worked through via the cognitive therapy of working with our desires and mindfulness.  The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind.  It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste imperturbability, ataraxia.

One technique to try out is to stop and start again.  If we catch our minds degenerating into negative thought streams, we can try the mantra “Live as if Epicurus was Watching“.  It really does work, if used with intent.  One becomes mindful.  A chilly, snowy winter no longer feels like slush beneath our feet.  Instead we may notice the snowflakes in the distance and the beautiful colors of winter.  Sometimes at my mindful recollection of this mantra, what used to bother me no longer really matters.

A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful and develop a resolve to protect our minds.

External Links:

Read Death and the Skeptic, an article written by yours truly for The Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association, on Epicurean and Buddhist teachings for coping with death


Jeffersonian Epicureanism

I Too Am An Epicurean – Jefferson, in his epistle to William Short.

Epicureanism evolved shortly after Alexander the Great’s conquests and death.  Alexander’s short-lived empire had been divided into four kingdoms and there was much intrigue and struggle for power in those days, so that when Epicurus warned against involvement in politics and life in the polis, he was criticizing a particularly rabid form of politics.  To this day, the adage Live Unknown is still followed by many Epicureans who would rather avoid drama and greed for power in order to protect their ataraxia, and the philosophy retains much of its original anarchic spirit.  This is perfectly legitimate.

But Thomas Jefferson, the politician, embodied a distinct expression of the philosophy.  What characterizes Jeffersonian Epicureanism, versus the Epicureanism of any other philosopher?  What makes it distinct?

Firstly, it’s engaged and does not shy away from politics, and it therefore represents an evolution, or maybe even a reform of the original.  Epicurus perceived the desire for fame as a vain desire.  But what if fame happens?  What if fame is acquired in the pursuit of other, maybe higher or nobler, values and desires?  What if one can manage to live a life of imperturbability while engaging in the world?

Whatever failures or successes may have been accomplished through this, this was Jefferson’s experiment.  What he gave us, in the process of being true to his conscience, was his own Epicureanism as part of our American national legacy.

As he wrote the natural right to the pursuit of happiness into the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson left the fingerprints of an Epicurean in the document and articulated his American Dream as an attempt at establishing a national sort of Epicurean Garden, an experiment where a whole society during an entire era of humanity would now be given the opportunity to seek happiness as the most obvious, natural of human rights.

Furthermore, his commentary on the life of Jesus, where he took the Gospels and cut off all the supernatural claims, keeping only the ethical teachings, was also an expression of Epicurean naturalist conviction.  He was a philosophical materialist and had no need for the supernatural claims.

The Jefferson Bible is a commentary, and not just an editorial process –which, on its face, it seems to be– because, in cutting off the supernatural (and ergo UN-natural) portions, Jefferson was adding valuable, naturalist commentary to the life and ethics of Jesus, and fundamentally engaging in philosophical discourse.  The Jefferson Bible is an expression of the founding father’s secular humanist philosophy.

And so we find three unique attributes in Jeffersonian Epicureanism: it’s engaged and political, it’s anchored within the facticity, the narrative, and the context of our national history, and it’s influenced by altruistic Christian ethics, which he believed counterbalanced the philosophy of Epicurus.

Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. – Jefferson

Not all of us feel the need to balance hedonism with an altruistic ethical teaching, particularly because many of us see the Epicurean teaching mission as a philanthropic one: we are giving humanity a science of happiness and liberation from ignorance.  In spite of its peculiarities, Jefferson’s Epicurean faith was no less sincere.  In his letter to Short, Jefferson hints at his commitment to doing the introspective tasks assigned by Epicurus by discerning between different types of desires, and insisted on defending “the true, not the imputed teachings” of Epicurus, whom he calls his Master.  He also cultivated his own Garden, which has today evolved into a type of national museum.  Thomas Jefferson was as devoted an Epicurean as one gets.

By naming these facts, I am not saying that the Society of Friends seeks to practice a specifically Jeffersonian, or Christian-Humanist, form of Epicureanism.  But we acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate his legacy and his place in our history, and we amiably welcome Christian-influenced Epicureans who look to Jefferson, Epicurus, and Jesus as culture heroes.

Thomas Jefferson: Pro Epicurus / Contra Plato; a compendium on Jeffersonian Epicurean thought by Cassius Amicus

Atheists for Jesus, a movement to rescue Jesus from superstition which was championed by biologist Richard Dawkins

Articles from The Smithsonian Magazine, The Humanist, and Frontline on Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

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