What being an Epicurean means to me

This essay by Jordan Crago was posted originally on The Modern Epicurean.

In the beginning of 2018, there was nothing especially wrong with my life. I had a comfortable long-term relationship approaching its fourth year; we lived together in a plain flat with our pets; I had a group of friends only an hour’s train ride away; I had a stable job; I was studying towards a humanities degree; and I was taking part in my local Church of England church, having converted to Anglicanism the year before. The problem? I was growing increasingly unhappy. And my future appeared to offer just more of the same.

Despite having been an atheist all my life, a powerful religious experience convinced me to convert to Anglicanism in 2017, in the hope it would improve my well-being. I knew of psychological evidence which says that religion makes people happier, and I remembered the anecdotal evidence given by grateful, joyful, even ecstatic people who “found God” from when I grew up in South Africa, a highly Evangelical country.

And indeed, while I did experience episodes of ecstasy about God’s overwhelming love, especially in the first couple of months after my conversion, on the whole my time as a Christian was more negative than positive. Doubt about the incredible (and by incredible, I mean not credible) theological doctrines assailed me from the moment I awoke until the moment I slept. And unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in finding a secularised version of Christianity which held on to what I liked—the spirituality—and rejected what I didn’t like; the supernaturalism.

If you try to weed out the elaborate supernaturalism of traditional Christianity—for instance, by re-interpreting Heaven as the state of “being one with God” and God as “the ground of being”—you wind up with a religion which looks and feels almost nothing like Christianity. For example, the ‘Our Father’ prayer makes sense if you believe you are communicating with an all-powerful personal entity, but not with an impersonal abstraction like “the ground of being.” For all its good intentions, liberal Christianity is underwhelming at best, schizophrenic at worst.

So I faced a choice: give in to my doubts and lose my religion, or do battle with my doubts to retain my religion. I chose the latter option and threw myself headlong into the study of Christian apologetics. And while I’m grateful for my study of apologetics—it introduced me to philosophy and taught me how to think—it didn’t achieve what I hoped it would. I wanted to find answers that would vanquish my doubts and light a blazing fire of faith, but it succeeded in maintaining little more than a flicker.

Worse than the doubt, however, was the guilt and self-loathing I felt about my repeated and numerous sins, especially of a sexual kind. I lived with my partner, whom I loved and who brought me joy, but the deacon who baptised me made it clear that as I grew in faith, I would need to rectify what he implied was the sin of my living in a sexually active relationship outside of wedlock. But how could I? How could I withdraw from a relationship I believed to be true and good? More and more I felt that far from improving my well-being, Christianity threatened it. As Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke wrote:

Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound:

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,

Created sick, commanded to be sound:

What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?

Passion and reason, self-division cause.

Is it the mark, or Majesty of Power

To make offences that it may forgive?

About a year after my conversion, I renounced my faith. I’d had enough of the doubt and discomfort it brought, especially in my regard for myself and for others. Before Anglicanism, I had been a socialist. I celebrated the differences and individuality I saw in society. I was tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Now I was a stuffy conservative. I condemned the degeneracy and immodesty I saw in society; the very same degeneracy and immodesty I saw in myself.

It was around this time I discovered Epicureanism. This philosophy is often mistakenly associated with fine dining and gluttony, but in point of fact the prime goal of Epicureanism is to remove the unnecessary and irrational pains of the body and worries of the mind that threaten tranquillity. Given that I have long suffered from anxiety and long yearned for peace of mind—the more intense for having survived Christianity—it’s little wonder why I was so immediately attracted to the philosophy of Epicurus.

As well as its vision of the good life—a tranquil life crammed full of pleasure—I was deeply attracted to its vision of the universe. There is no divine design or destiny, according to Epicurus; life is governed by the blind interplay of atoms in the void. Thus, there’s no divine all-seeing surveillance camera whose prohibitions on, say, whom you live with, you need fear or condemn yourself by. All you need to do is structure your life as wisely as possible to minimise misery and maximise happiness; primarily by cultivating close friendships and living cheerfully in a blessedly indifferent universe.

Epicurus taught—and I found out—that the price of religious belief is often guilt and fear, and he taught—and I found out—that freedom and happiness is only possible when you stop fearing God. Only when you recognise that the world is run by blind natural forces can we live rationally, freely, and happily. Not only because the Epicurean rids herself of a self-imposed Big Brother, but also because the Epicurean tries to accept reality as science presents it.

Probably the most famous element of Epicurean philosophy is the argument for why the fear of death is irrational. Lucretius sets it out like this: death isn’t an event that happens to you, because when you’re dead there isn’t a ‘you’ that anything can happen to. Everything is physical according to the Epicureans, and nothing is supernatural. You don’t have a soul that lives on, you have a mind which depends for its existence on your body; so when your body dies, so does your mind, and so do you.

I don’t think too many people are impressed by this argument; I’m not. Most of our fear about death isn’t a matter of rationality, it’s biological. None of the animals from which we’re descended could ever have survived had they not feared death. Even so, meditating on death and trying to reconcile yourself to it is very much in line with modern CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which aims to make your reactions to unavoidable hardships more positive.

Also, Epicurean hedonism is, I think, in line with modern psychological approaches to well-being. Unlike the stereotype of a hedonist, the Epicurean doesn’t devote herself to short-term bodily pleasure, but to long-term mental tranquillity. Epicurus taught that our primary aim in life should be to free ourselves from pains and anxiety, and to be moderate in our enjoyment of pleasure, lest we end up being pained by the negative consequences thereof. For as Epicurus says: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.”

In essence, Epicurus taught that to attain a good life all we need is the right attitude. If we have the right attitude we can, regardless of whether we’re wealthy or powerful, live pleasanter lives than great kings. If we lack this attitude, no amount of wealth, power, or fame can help us. What Epicurus calls tranquillity, Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness.’ Synthetic happiness comes from our good thoughts about our lives. If things seem bad at first, we can ‘fake it ‘till we become it’. And while ‘synthetic happiness’ is constructed in our minds and bodies, it is every bit as real as the happiness that comes, for example, from major success.

So, what does being an Epicurean mean to me? It means subscribing to a worldview strongly associated with science and the metaphysical assumptions it makes: first, there is no God; second, although the fear of death and other inevitable hardships is ineradicable, it can be softened by the empirical techniques of CBT; and finally, happiness depends not on trusting prayer and divine authority, but on trusting your own feelings and desires, and devoting yourself to enjoying and giving enjoyment to others, making sure never to harm yourself or others.