Weekend Epicureanism

by Anitra Pavlico

I have been a practicing Stoic for a few years now, with lulls here and there. Stoicism provides a compelling framework for living in a purposeful and ethical way. The question in my mind is, is it perhaps a little too compelling? In other words, not much fun?

One obvious response is that a philosophy of life is not supposed to be fun. It is supposed to give us tools for how to approach living, how to structure our thoughts and goals. Any enjoyment of life may proceed if it does not entail harm to others or ourselves, but it is not an explicit concern of a philosophy whether we enjoy life or not. In fact, it seems pleasure is more likely to conflict with one’s particular philosophy or creed than conform to it or peacefully coexist with it. Or maybe that is just what my experience with Stoicism leads me to think. I have started to realize that perhaps Stoicism is not for me–at least, not all of the time. Maybe on the weekends, I can take a mental vacation from Stoicism and switch camps to Epicureanism.

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Epicureanism and Stoicism at first glance appear to be as different from one another as two philosophies can be. For the ancient Stoics, virtue was the supreme goal of life; Epicureanism, meanwhile, holds that the aim of life is pleasure.

Stoicism’s main focus on virtue, or aretê, is a noble goal, one that envisions us maximizing our wisdom, our fortitude, our generosity toward fellow humans, and the temperance of our desires. It can give an idle mind a direction and impetus. To pursue virtue, there are certain mental tricks we keep in mind, such as that there are some things that are under our control and other things that are not. We should concentrate on the former, which includes our thoughts, words, and deeds. To everything else, we should be indifferent–including pleasure.

We are not to trust emotions, say the Stoics, so even if it feels very natural to become angry when someone cuts you off in traffic, this behavior is something outside of your control, and so it should be nothing to you. Life involves a constant struggle to suppress the instinctive workings of the brain. Unfortunately, along with negative emotions, positive emotions are also deemed to be not undesirable, exactly, but something of a distraction that we should not strive for per se. The ancient Stoics considered emotions to be something arising out of our immediate impressions (phantasiai) of life, which may or may not be an accurate or well-founded reflection of reality.

Stoicism, while not as grim as popular belief would have it (we are usually hearing that someone was stoic as his village burned), is unconvinced about the importance of pleasure. In fact, some Stoic spiritual “meditations” typically involve contemplating terrible things happening and how you would endure them using Stoic principles. Even apart from these so-called exercises of premeditatio malorum, the ideal state for a practicing Stoic is one of “spiritual tension” (tonos) that involves an unceasing mindfulness (prosochē) of one’s own thoughts and desires, and adjustment in accordance with Stoic precepts. Seneca wrote that the pursuit of virtue requires “all your efforts” during “all your waking hours.”

Whereas the Stoic’s desired state is one of spiritual tension, Pierre Hadot writes that the Epicurean believes that

To cure the soul, it is not necessary, as the Stoics would have it, to train it to stretch itself tight, but rather to train it to relax. Instead of picturing misfortunes in advance, so as to be prepared to bear them, we must rather . . . detach our thought from the vision of painful things, and fix our eyes on pleasurable ones. . . . Epicureanism preaches the deliberate, continually renewed choice of relaxation and serenity, combined with a profound gratitude toward nature and life, which constantly offer us joy and pleasure, if only we know how to find them. [1]

My experience with Stoicism has been largely beneficial. It keeps my mind occupied on positive themes, and as long as I don’t suffer from a vague sense of exhaustion due to constant vigilance and attention to how I could improve my thought patterns, it can actually lead to much greater peace of mind. In time one grows confident that one could not be doing any more to be a good person, to serve one’s fellow humans, or to grow closer to something approaching wisdom. It has occurred to me, however, that I sometimes–or usually–do not make time for enjoyment of life. It is something that is simply–forgotten as I go about my days. The ancient Stoics would approve: Musonius Rufus says the philosopher in training must habituate herself “not to love pleasure, not to avoid hardship,” and for Epictetus, someone who was “elated over pleasure” would not impress him. For Seneca, the notion of “fleeting pleasures” is at odds with “enduring good.” I must confess, though, that training my mind to relax and fixing it on pleasurable things, instead of playing mental games like imagining how I would cope with the death of the ones I love most, sounds pretty appealing.

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The two schools are not actually so different as they might seem. As Hadot has noted, both Epicureanism and Stoicism highlight the crucial importance of living life in the moment and shaping your thoughts and actions in accordance with that moment’s exigencies. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations that we should “concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present).” Likewise, Epicureanism advocates examining your thoughts and actions as they are happening, and living in accordance with certain precepts. The poet Horace, who famously wrote, “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow,” was an Epicurean. The Epicureans lived by a tetrapharmakon, or a four-pronged approach to philosophy as therapy for the soul: “Do not fear the gods, do not fear death; what is necessary and good is easy to obtain, and what is evil is easy to endure.” Hadot emphasizes that both schools had sayings such as these that practitioners could keep “at hand” and reflect on throughout the day.

Additionally, as John Sellars discusses in Hellenistic Philosophy, neither Epicureanism nor Stoicism is concerned with material goods. Epicureanism preaches simple living, and Stoicism likewise advises us to curtail our desires if we want to be sure of achieving them. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote: “When we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumptions . . . but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul.” This is just what Stoicism is advocating–living in a certain way so as to achieve the tranquility that comes with it.

Epicurus’s focus on pleasure is more subtle than it would at first appear–it is not materialistic and is actually rather restrained. He taught that the things we need are few, and as long as we are not lacking something necessary to live such as food or drink (which should be “simple and inexpensive,” by the way), and as long as we are not in physical pain, then that is a state of “static pleasure” for which we should feel grateful. “Active pleasure,” on the other hand, is more in line with what we moderns would consider pleasure, such as eating a delicious meal or knocking back some vino. Epicurus was sensible about these things, though, and recommended that we think about whether that meal or wine would cause us greater inconvenience in the future than pleasure in the present. He also stressed that active pleasures are merely a means to reach a state of static pleasure. [2]

Contrary to the popular misconception–both now and at the time–Epicureanism is not synonymous with hedonism. Like Stoicism, it is concerned with ways to live an honorable life, suffused with wisdom and philosophical contemplation. Cicero addressed these misconceptions in On Ends, with his Epicurean speaker saying, “Epicurus, the man whom you denounce as a voluptuary, cries aloud that no one can live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and no one wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly.”

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In addition to the obvious benefits of an ethos that highlights enjoyment of life, Epicureanism has an additional selling point: it does not discount past experiences. Stoicism breaks the world down into things that are up to us and things that are not. The past is something that we clearly cannot control, so we should not dwell on it. I think that approach normally works well, because it is usually associated with putting negative experiences behind us. But what if the experiences in the past were good? I have not encountered much in the Stoics that indicates they placed any importance on this. The Marcus Aurelius passage quoted above also says that if “you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past,” then you can achieve tranquility. Musonius Rufus argues that philosophy is so difficult because, unlike other fields, we do not start from a blank slate–we need to unlearn all of the bad behavior and habits from our past.

Cicero writes that the Epicurean, however, “remembers the past with gratitude.” Since this is the case, it is arguably to the benefit of our future selves to enjoy the present moment. According to Cicero, the Epicurean “enjoys perpetual pleasure, for there is no moment when the pleasures he experiences do not outbalance the pains.” In addition to looking fondly on past memories, he “grasps the present with a full realization of its pleasantness, and does not rely upon the future; he looks forward, but finds his true enjoyment in the present.”

Not only is Stoicism lacking a certain lightness that I’ve been craving, but if I am being realistic, it–along with any other philosophy that pits thoughts versus emotions, including Epicureanism–is not in line with what we now know about the brain’s neurochemistry. It can be comforting to think that we can train our “minds” to harness our emotions, but it is not accurate; it only appears that way sometimes. The brain does not have separate centers for thoughts and for emotions. Rather, it is a complex organ that is constantly evolving based on inputs it receives from outside. I can’t pretend to understand the science, but it does seem as if the past is far from irrelevant in terms of how our thoughts and emotions today continue to evolve and manifest themselves. [3] Remembrance of past enjoyment continues to shape the brain in the present. A philosophy that is full of mental rigor and that discounts enjoyment in the present misses out on an important element of living, and short-changes the future self in the process.

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[1] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995).

[2] See John Sellars, Hellenistic Philosophy (2018).

[3] See, e.g., Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite,” Nautilus, Aug. 3, 2017, at http://nautil.us/issue/51/limits/emotional-intelligence-needs-a-rewrite