The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus may seem an unlikely figure to teach us how to achieve a calm mind because of his reputation as an indulgent pleasure-seeker. Unfortunately, the teachings of Epicurus are gravely misunderstood by many. While it’s true that, according to Epicurus, pleasure leads to happiness, his philosophy leans much more to asceticism than to indulgence.
Within Epicurus’ teachings, we find a curious recipe for reaching a state of ‘ataraxia’, which can be translated as ‘equanimity’ or ‘tranquility’. Unlike the Stoics, Epicurus wasn’t interested in traditional virtues. Instead, he believed that engaging in the right amount of pleasure, given this is done with wisdom and moderation, is the key to a happy life.
What are the ingredients for a peaceful and calm existence? According to Epicurus, there are two things that we need to do. First, we need to manage our pleasures. Secondly, we need to let go of groundless fears that withhold us from achieving peace of mind. But how do we do this? Let’s start with the first one:
1) Manage your pleasures
The ethical side of Epicurus’ philosophy revolves around pleasure. A simple and modest definition of Epicurus’ pleasure is the absence of pain. An absence of pain is not achieved by mindless indulgence in whatever we deem pleasurable; it requires a careful choreography of pleasure and, thus, sufficient knowledge about pleasure.
Epicurus noticed that pleasures that we should pursue lead to contentment, and do not involve pain. He distinguished two types of pleasure: moving pleasure and static pleasure. Moving pleasures are pleasures that involve an active stimulation of the senses, which happens, for example, when we eat a bar of chocolate. Static pleasure is the feeling of contentment that follows when our hunger is satisfied, thus, the feeling after a meal; the feeling of not needing anything more, and the absence of the pain of hunger. Static pleasure is the best form of pleasure according to Epicurus. And we can reach this pleasure by fulfilling our natural desires of the things that are necessary for survival.
Epicurus distinguished natural desires and vain desires. Natural desires can be divided into necessary and unnecessary natural desires. Food, shelter, and rest are necessary and natural. Kaviar and expensive wine, served on a silver platter, fulfills our natural desire for food, but it is unnecessary to eat so luxuriously. Also, luxury is much harder to obtain than simple, basic stuff.
Among the vain desires are fame, wealth, immortality, and power. These desires are insatiable because they have no natural limit. Generally, they are also difficult to obtain and hard to maintain. Pursuing these pleasures leads to more cravings, and because of this, we always feel restless and never content. According to Epicurus, vain desires are not natural but based on certain man-made ideas. Consumerism, which encourages the ever-increasing accumulation of goods, is an example of this.
Epicurus believed that in order to reach inner peace, we must aim for the fulfillment of necessary natural desires, because they are abundant and have a natural limit, meaning that our bodies will tell us when we are full. Of course, there is something like overeating, or drinking too many fluids, so we need to moderate whatever we do.
As most people have experienced in their own lives, indulging in pleasure always comes with a price. And this price is painful. Drinking too much is great for a few hours when we are at the peak of the alcoholic buzz. But drinking poison comes with mental and physical consequences, like dehydration, depression, headache, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting. Things like overspending, overeating, using drugs, and promiscuity all come with their own prices to pay.
When we eliminate vain and unnecessary desires, we stop experiencing the pain of not having what´s difficult to come by and enjoy the satisfaction of our basic necessities that are so easy to fulfill. The absence of the anxiety of not fulfilling one’s desires in the future leads to equanimity.
2) Let go of groundless fears
Epicurus observed that humans burden themselves with two collective fears: the fear of God and the fear of death. According to his philosophy, we should not let ourselves be affected by such irrational fears. Epicurus rejects the idea of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god. Even though Gods are part of his theology, he believed that they are not concerned with us. According to him, the Gods are perfect beings, and their involvement with us, inferior humans, would go against their perfect nature.
Thus, divine intervention is out of the question according to Epicurus, which kind of makes sense if we consider the immeasurable size of the universe, and then think that its almighty creator would actually care if you watched a dirty video last night. Epicurus argues that our belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God only makes us superstitious; the prospect of getting punished for our wrongdoings leads to unnecessary fear.
Many religious people lead their lives based on this fear of divine punishment and ending up in Hell. Sure, this system keeps people in line, but it also causes suffering. Therefore, we should reject this belief according to Epicurus, which he underpins by the following formulation, summarized by philosopher David Hume:
If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful. If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?Epicurus Trilemma, summarized by David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion
Another fear that we should let go of is the fear of death. Epicurus described our bodies as wicker-works of atoms that will fall apart once we die. When our bodies decay, their atoms will be released into the atomic dance of the universe, and become part of other things.
When we die, our experience of the world stops, as we cannot perceive anything when we have stopped existing. Epicurus rejected the theistic idea of an afterlife because the Gods are not concerned with us. Thus, death simply means the end, and cannot be experienced because there’s nothing to experience it. So, why worry about it?
Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.Epicurus
So, this is how Epicurus keeps calm.
Thank you for watching.