by David Greer
In the mid 1990s, I asked an assortment of people to describe their favorite simple pleasures. As I expected, the responses were wide-ranging, everything from feelings of accomplishment (perfecting a Chopin étude on the piano) to intimate moments (nursing a baby) to bringing order to chaos (the zen of vacuuming). There were innovative comforts (storing sheets in the freezer for hot summer nights) and quirky delights (reading Hegel at 3 am at the all-night diner) and uninhibited messy moments (eating watermelon shirtless on a sweltering day with juice and seeds dribbling down your chest).
I remember being struck both by how pleased interviewees were to be asked about their pleasures, which they often described eloquently and at length, and by what often seemed like faint embarrassment, as if there was something a little improper about feeling so attached to experiences that weren’t somehow useful or productive. Disapproval of the deliberate pursuit of pleasure is nothing new. The Athenian philosopher Epicurus built an entire treatise around the pursuit of pleasure in the third century BCE. He was roundly criticized for it then, and Epicureanism, though it has attracted followers for more than two thousand years, is still widely dismissed as a celebration of unrestrained hedonism. Not only could nothing be further from the truth, but Epicureanism may be the philosophy best equipped for the navigation of our present age of high anxiety. More on that later.
After editing each contribution to a paragraph or two, I pitched the compilation to a San Francisco publisher, which agreed that the zeitgeist was right for such a book and asked only that I adopt a female pseudonym so the book would appeal to women who might question the credibility of a male author. And so it was that for marketing purposes I became for the time being Susannah Seton, Seton being my real middle name and Susannah suitably alliterative. Simple Pleasures sold tolerably well and was subsequently reissued by another publisher in New York. I considered writing a sequel, but life took me in other directions.
Those years felt like a calm backwater in the troubled flow of history. The Soviet Union had melted away into a collection of what looked to become promising democracies. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History seemed to neatly sum up a bright new dawn of peaceful coexistence. The 1990s saw a rush of additional countries signing on to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, easing global anxiety about the threat of mutual annihilation. The UN Earth Summit in Rio had produced an impressive global commitment to conserving biological diversity, and countries were boarding the sustainability bandwagon with grand promises to leave a clean and resource-rich planet for future generations.
Politics in America had become so uninteresting that the nation obsessed instead over a president’s interactions with a blue dress. One of the most successful TV shows of the day, “Seinfeld”, described itself as a comedy about nothing. Outside of prime time, programs like “Jerry Springer” paraded an array of forgettable people purporting to resolve apparently staged differences by exchanging angry insults and belittling comments rather than through collaborative problem-solving and compromise, but it was hard to imagine such behavior generating appeal beyond the realm of trash talk TV, given that society seemed to be moving towards greater political and social harmony. With a new millennium on the horizon, it seemed only appropriate that humanity appeared at last to be realizing its true potential and relegating tribalism to the dustbin of history.
The most pervasive social anxiety that I recall from those times was widespread worry about the ever-increasing pace of life and of technological change. In the office where I worked, we were cautioned to be alert for communications arriving by “electronic mail” instead of by fax or phone. We were reminded to check for e-mails at least every day or two, lest something important slip by undetected, but e-mails were initially so few and far between that most people didn’t bother. We figured that if something was important, people would simply call the land line, which wasn’t then called the land line, being the only line available.
Occasionally out on the street you’d see some guy in an expensive suit holding to his ear what looked like a large brick. Even if you found someplace it worked, where were you supposed to store your brick? It was far too big for a pocket and too wide for the average briefcase. Meanwhile rumours abounded that something called the world wide web was about to transform daily life as we knew it, but for the time being it seemed more important to discourage the desktop computer from its occasional tendency to replace our documents with the dreaded blue screen of death.
Anxiety about the accelerating pace of life stimulated the demand for self-help books like Slowing Down in a Speeded Up World. My simple pleasures book rode that growing wave at a time when the average person was looking for justification to take a break from what an earlier decade called the rat race, to stock up on endorphins with a little guiltfree pleasure and a break from anxiety.
Then along came the 2000s. Instead of a bright new day we got 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and climate change anxiety and intermittent pandemics, along with the storming of the Capitol and daily mass shootings throughout the City on the Hill and a too rapid explosion of artificial intelligence. In the 2020s, the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved closer to midnight than ever before, and life felt a whole lot more complicated than in the mid 1990s.
Living in this new age of anxiety got me thinking about the quieter times when I had gathered my collection of simple pleasures from ordinary people. At first, that project seemed in retrospect a trivial exercise in a decade so trouble-free by comparison to the 2020s, but thinking about it from a different perspective, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that cultivation of simple pleasures was important back then but far more so now during these darker times.
I decided that not only is attention to life’s simple pleasures more important today than then, but also that there’s a lot to be said for making them a conscious part of one’s approach to life—in short for crafting a way of living that incorporates and plans for the pursuit of pleasure, whether as an antidote for pain and worry or simply for its own sake. Re-enter Epicurus.
We appear to have entered an age where tribalism—unquestioning loyalty to one’s social group—appears to be challenging rational thought as a conventional means of developing one’s views on ethical and moral issues, on political priorities, on tolerance of dissenting views or even of anyone from a different social or ethnic background. It doesn’t help that technological advances tend to encourage that trend—for example, algorithms that direct us toward people or opinions that reinforce our past choices. A related disturbing trend is the erosion of the humanities in university education—the elimination of history and English and philosophy from post-secondary curricula—on the basis of lack of relevance to the modern business world. Not so many decades ago, it was commonly accepted that the purpose of attending university was to learn how to think—critical thinking being essential to the development of sound character and a meaningful life, not to mention the ability to arrive at informed opinions about the most important issues of the day, both domestic and global. Sadly, the decline of critical thinking today appears to mirror the ascendancy of unthinking tribalism. Now the most common place to find a how-to of critical thinking is the business world.
This at a time when the study of history and philosophy are arguably more important than they have ever been. There’s a good reason why certain sayings persist and make it into books of quotations. “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” make even more sense today than when originally spoken by Churchill and Socrates. If ever there was a time when it was crucial to step back and take stock of the meaning of human existence and how to manage human relationships for the well-being of society as a whole and for the survival of the species, surely it’s right now.
Instead, our species’ behavior seems merely to confirm the shortcomings of our evolution through a couple of hundred thousand years, such a very brief time compared to that of more “primitive” species like birds and amphibians and reptiles. Ours has been a lopsided advance in which our ability to invent novel ways of engineering chaos has outpaced our ability to live at peace with one another, to conserve the planet’s natural capital, and to respond effectively to the many threats to human existence that we ourselves have caused.
Unlike birds and amphibians and reptiles, we alone are aware that our time on this planet is finite and that somewhere, sometime, death awaits us. Whether this is a blessing or a curse depends on how we deal with that knowledge. Some people find comfort in a belief in a life after death, however that may manifest itself. On the other hand, if we accept that death is final (to the best of our muddled understanding), that acceptance can be a powerful incentive to make the most of our time here on Earth, whether that entails doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, or identifying and refining the skills that come most naturally to us, or deepening our understanding of the universe or whatever microscopic part of it attracts our interest, or meditating the whole day long under a bodhi tree, or simply enjoying the company of lifelong friends.
Epicurus’s recipe for a life well lived started with a conviction that death is the final scene in the final Act V, with no encore. Did that make him an atheist? Not at all. He offered no judgement one way or the other about the existence of gods. He did, however, dismiss the notion that the gods had the time or inclination to meddle in people’s lives or to judge their actions. That being the case, he suggested, time fretting about the gods or about one’s inevitable demise was valuable time wasted. Far better, he said, to concentrate on living as full a life as possible, and that meant recognizing the pursuit of pleasure as the driving force of human nature.
Epicurus wrote that “pleasure is the starting point and end of living blessedly”. He did not mean that the point of life is unrestrained pleasure; far from it. By his statement, Epicurus was merely acknowledging the reality that humans, like other animals, fundamentally wish to feel secure from external threats and to experience pleasure. Further, Epicurus suggested that rather than leaving the achievement of those joint objectives to chance, as many people do, it would be far wiser to develop a life plan to enhance the likelihood of such a desired outcome.
Epicurean philosophy was rooted in a belief that feeling secure was a prerequisite to experiencing pleasure and, consequently, that one should structure one’s life to enhance that feeling of security. Epicurus called that feeling ataraxia, understood to mean tranquility, a stable state characterized by the absence of anxiety and the presence of pleasure. The achievement of tranquility, in Epicurus’s view, is facilitated by ensuring that we have what we need for peace of mind, including material necessities (such as food and shelter), a network of supportive and trusted friends, and reliance on science to help us understand and navigate the natural world and to protect us from superstition and deception. Unlike the Stoics, Epicurus held that virtue in the absence of the satisfaction of basic needs was not sufficient for the enjoyment of happiness.
The achievement of tranquility opens up opportunities to experience pleasures unhindered by anxiety, though not all pleasures are to be treated equally. Epicurus counsels the exercise of prudence in the choice of pleasures, including a willingness to choose pain that is likely to produce greater pleasure in the longer term (exercising to enhance health) and avoiding pleasures likely to result in pain (such as hangovers and debt). To help facilitate the choice of pleasures, Epicurus organizes them into three categories: the “natural and necessary”, the “natural and unnecessary”, and the “unnatural and unnecessary”. The latter group includes pleasures that are addictive in nature, leaving one unsatisfied and constantly craving more, and Epicurus recommended avoiding these.
In short, Epicurus’s recipe for a life well lived started with building a path to tranquility by securing essential needs, including solid friendships and reliance on science, and then regularly enjoying the companionship of those trusted friends and as well as pleasures prudently chosen.
There’s a certain irony in recommending the examination of Epicureanism as a guide to a rewarding life in the twenty-first century. Epicurus was so far ahead of his time that he proposed that the universe was created by atomic reactions rather than by the gods and that all matter was a function of the interaction of atoms. His philosophical treatises so challenged conventional wisdom at the time that they became the subject of mockery, yet survived long enough to be favorably re-examined twenty-three centuries later (now), at a time when concerted efforts to diminish science and elevate superstition are routine and true friends may be hard to find when we’re constantly distracted by social media and tribal ties promote suspicion and discourage the free exchange of ideas among friends. It’s easy to postulate that in some ways modern society is by fits and starts regressing to a state far more primitive than the relatively rational Athens of Epicurus’s era (though keeping its modern weapons of mass destruction) at the same time as the far more rational Epicurus achieves his greatest relevance more than two millennia after his departure.
In my introduction to Simple Pleasures, I told the story of a monk climbing a steep mountain only to meet a snarling tiger blocking his path. Retreat was impossible, as the cliff below him fell away to a gaping chasm. While deciding what to do next, the monk turned his gaze to the mountainside in front of his face. There his eye fell upon a little plant that had managed to root itself in a crevice. From the plant’s single stem hung a perfect little wild strawberry, ripe and red and glistening with dew. The monk reached out his hand, plucked the tiny fruit, pressed it against his tongue, and closed his eyes in ecstasy.
Quite possibly that little tale originated as a dharma talk delivered by a zen master, yet it also struck me as consistent with the philosophy of Epicurus, suggesting one of those unexpected moments of exquisite yet ephemeral pleasure to be welcomed and appreciated notwithstanding looming perils. Epicurus might have agreed that some of the greatest pleasures are those that arrive with least expectation and are easily let go. What is striking about the story of the monk is his tranquility and receptiveness to a momentary pleasure notwithstanding the awareness of lurking death.
Of course, the level of tranquility experienced by the monk in the story is almost impossible to imagine. The point is not that it’s easily achieved but that we take whatever actions we can to achieve whatever level of tranquility we can in an age that daily increases our anxiety. Equally important, and easier, is to cultivate the ability to watch for and delight in simple pleasures however they might occur, whether that means the call of a red-winged blackbird or the smile on your grandchild’s face or a stranger’s unprovoked act of kindness. i don’t recall Epicurus mentioning simply paying attention and avoiding unnecessary distractions, but that’s important as well.
In short, it strikes me that the awareness of and appreciation of simple pleasures is far more important today than it was when I wrote a book by that title in the 1990s. In which case, perhaps it’s time for a sequel. Simple Pleasures for Complicated Times has an appropriate ring to it.
Emily A. Austin. Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023.
Dane R. Gordon and David A. Suits, eds. Epicurus: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance.Rochester, New York: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, 2003.
Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012.
Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson, eds. The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1994.