Several conversations lately have led me to want to produce a new article on what I would contend are some of the most important take-aways from the teachings of Epicurus. These are the points with which I would start if I were talking about Epicurus today with someone new. I prepared this for distribution at Twitter and similar places, and the link best formatted sharing is at EpicurusMagazine.com.
Epicurus Answers Four of the Great Questions of Human Life
Many people know a little about Epicurus, but not many know very much. In a time of great turmoil in Western civilization, there are four main ideas that everyone needs to know about the philosophy which Thomas Jefferson described as containing “everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”
Here in this brief list are Epicurus’ answers to four of the greatest questions of human life, plus Epicurus’ suggestion about the most important thing anyone can do to implement these truths and live the best life possible. In answer to each question it is possible to give a clear one word response which is explainable in readily-understandable terms. No attempt can be made here to provide the elaborate evidence and reasoning behind these conclusions, but all of this material is readily available through study of the ancient Epicurean texts.
Should you study Epicurus? Why not decide for yourself by first finding out four of the most important things Epicurus taught his first students over two thousand years ago:
(1) Gods: Should I Be Concerned About “the Gods”?
No. Supernatural gods as taught by the world’s religions do not exist. Epicurus taught that the study of Nature reveals to us through observation strong evidence that the universe as a whole is eternal in time, infinite in space, and that it was never created, nor is it controlled, by supernatural beings. Persuasive reasoning based on observations such as these – even if one considers them to be updated through modern discoveries – leads to confidence that while the universe may be teeming with life forms both lower and higher than our own, it would be clearly contrary to Nature to think that the universe as a whole was created by forces superior to or outside of Nature itself.
(2) Death: What Happens To Me When I Die?
Nothing. At death both your body and your consciousness begin the process of dissolution and ceasing to exist. Those attributes of human consciousness which we call the soul also come to an end at death, and for the soul there is, after death, no Heaven, no Hell, no Purgatory, no Reincarnation, no Transmigration. The soul ceases to exist after death, which means that all experiences which will ever happen to “you” occur between your conception and your death.
(3) Virtue: Do the ideals of Virtue, Good, or Evil Tell Me How To Live My Life?
No. There are no absolute standards of virtue, good, or evil which apply to all people at all times and at all places. Epicurus taught that nothing has eternal existence except the fundamental elements of the universe, and as a result there is no Heaven from which gods issue edicts, no realm of “ideals” to which all humans should conform, and no center of the universe from which anyone can stand and maintain that “my perspective alone is correct.” Terms such as “virtue,” “good,” and “evil,” are useful, however, once we understand that “all good and evil comes to us through sensation,” which means that each of us judge what is for us virtuous, good, or evil, according to our own deepest and most heart-felt standards. Once we identify the true guide of life – as Epicurus will show us in answer to the next question – that which is virtuous, that which is good, and that which is evil becomes clear, because those are the actions which according to context truly assist us in following the guide set by Nature for all living things.
(4) Pleasure: What Is the True Guide of Life?
Pleasure. The question of what is the true guide of life can ultimately be answered in only a few ways. Some suggest that the guide is Religion, or Piety, or “God.” Some suggest that the guide is “Virtue,” or “the Good” (under whatever name it be given), and that regardless of any other considerations virtue is its own reward, and needs no other justification than itself. Others suggest that Reason, or Rationality, or some form of systematic logical thinking is the guide of life. Epicurus rejected all of these, and instead taught that the only reliable way to answer this question is to look to Nature herself to see what guide Nature has provided for all living things. Epicurus especially advised us to look to the young of all species, which have not yet been perverted by false teachings, as the most reliable indicator. Epicurus observed that in the final analysis Nature gives all living things no ultimate guide but Feeling: Pleasure to know what to pursue, and Pain to know what to what to avoid. The feelings of Pleasure and Pain, both bodily and mental, and of all types from the most profound spiritual and intellectual to the most immediate bodily sensations of food, music, and love – all of these are feelings which are revealed by Nature to all of us, individually, without need or place for teacher, preacher, guru, or other intermediary.
If you agree with Epicurus on these conclusions, what is the most important thing you can do about it?
Find Friends Who See Life As You Do. Epicurus taught that “Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.” If you are like most people who find that they agree with Epicurus on the great questions of life, you probably find yourself largely alone in your views, and think that you will always remain that way. As a result, while you are alone, you are much more limited in the pleasures you can experience than you would if you had friends who see the world much as you do. Epicurus is famously known to have recommended to his students that they should “Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself; and with a companion like to yourself, and never shall you be disturbed waking or asleep, but you shall live like a god among men.”
You only live once, and if you agree with Epicurus’ outlook on life you should strive to live as pleasantly as you can for whatever time you have to live. But if you really internalize the wisdom taught by Epicurus, you will want to follow his advice and search out true Epicurean friends.
Start the process by looking us up at EpicureanFriends.com, or at one of the many other locations on the internet where Epicurean philosophy is being studied. If you do, you’ll be on your way to fulfilling advice that has come down to us over more than two thousand years, which is still true today: “We must laugh and philosophize at the same time, and do our household duties, and employ our other faculties, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy.”