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.


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.


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.