“Let no one when young delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old grow weary of his study. For no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul.”
These are the opening lines of Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus, one of the only surviving documents written by Epicurus himself. The philosophy of the Epicureans is based on the idea that we, as human beings living in accordance with our nature, should spend our lives seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. As demonstrated in the following inspiring quotes by famous Epicureans, this philosophy can form a foundation for a happy, carefree, and fulfilled life.
In the opening to the letter, Epicurus follows in the footsteps of the famous Socrates, who asserted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He connects philosophy to the health of one’s soul, and makes it clear that anyone can access to it. Philosophy, to Socrates and Epicurus, was not the study of other philosophers and their works as it often is today. Philosophy in the ancient world (literally “love of wisdom” in Greek) was the observation of life and humanity. Philosophers mused on how to live one’s best life, and debated the best course of action to take. Epicurean philosophy emphasized pleasure, especially that of the mind. They asserted that understanding the world and one’s place in it was one of the greatest mental pleasures of all. Practicing philosophy in the ancient sense—through observation, critical thinking, and introspection—is the Epicurean way to discover your happiness.
“We must meditate on the things that make our happiness, seeing that when that is with us we have all, but when it is absent we do all to win it.”
Embrace your nature.
“Some [desires] are necessary for happiness, others for the repose of the body, and others for very life. The right understanding of these facts enables us to refer all choice and avoidance to the health of the body and the soul’s freedom from disturbance, since this is the aim of the life of blessedness.”
The principle of pleasure as the highest good states that we should make choices that will ultimately prove most pleasurable for us. We should enjoy material things in moderation so as to avoid the pain of excess and addiction, and we should prioritize what gives us long-lasting, mental happiness. Stifling our natural and necessary desires will only bring us pain. According to the Epicureans, in this fleeting life, we should do everything we can to live well and happily.
“If we do not possess many [things], we may enjoy the few in the genuine persuasion that those who have the sweetest pleasure in luxury least need it, and that all that is natural is easy to be obtained, and that which is superfluous is hard.”
When we are at peace, when we are self-sufficient, we don’t wander the world looking for something that’s missing. We are content, with opportunities all around us to experience pleasure. When one begins to need something, the absence of it brings pain. There is nothing that we need but peace of mind, and we can enjoy everything else.
Speak your mind.
Epicurus and those who supported him inspired ideas that were beyond controversial in the ancient world—such as his explanation of the universe as comprised of only “atoms and void,” and his fundamental notion that there is nothing after death. In Book II of his work “De Rerum Natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” the Roman poet (and Epicurean) Lucretius states:
“[Some men] claim that without power of the gods nature could not, in ways which match so well the needs of man, change seasons of the year, produce the crops, and other things as well, which sacred pleasure urges men to undertake… When they think gods produced each thing for human beings, they seem, in all respects, to have fallen a long, long way from proper reasoning.”
In an age thousands of years prior to modern science, these ideas were unheard of. Nowadays they are far less shocking, but there is a lesson to be learnt nonetheless: those who speak their minds in the face of disapproval, outright hatred, or even persecution are often the ones who accomplish the most amazing and revolutionary things. The Epicureans created pleasurable and content lives upon their provocative principles. The courage it takes to express your thoughts and passions, controversial as they may be, is what will bring you the ultimate freedom.
Free yourself from fear.
A crucial tenet of Epicurean philosophy is that the fear of death is the greatest pain of all. The principle which naturally follows from the “atoms and void” picture of the universe is that death is nothingness—no afterlife, simply a cessation of existence.
“So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
Epicurus states here that, assuming death is nothing and therefore not painful, it is useless to be afraid of it. It is certainly inevitable, as are many of the world’s evils. But as there is nothing we can do to prevent our eventual deaths, we should make every effort to enjoy the time that we have in this world.
“Many at one moment shun death as the greatest of evils, at another yearn for it as a respite from the evils in life. But the wise man neither seeks to escape life nor fears the cessation of life, for neither does life offend him nor does the absence of life seem to be any evil… He seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.” Those who follow this philosophy must practice acceptance. The Epicureans call on others to enjoy their lives while they exist, and to accept death when it comes. That is true peace.
The final quote from Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus sums up beautifully what his philosophy is, why it is important, and how it can help us to create a wonderful life.
“For it is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit.”