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Epicureanism – Philosophy of Gluttony or Modesty?

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Epicureanism is one of the most renowned schools of philosophy originating in ancient Greece. Much like Hedonism, this approach relies on the philosophy of atomism – everything around us is just a byproduct of the ever-changing movements, collisions, and patterns of atoms.

Natural laws and random chance guide the universe. There’s no master plan or purpose, and it’s up to us to embrace the present and learn to enjoy it.

This “learn to enjoy it” part of Epicureanism lends itself to misinterpretation and speculation. Today, many equate Epicureanism with selfishness and gluttony, believing the core of this school of thought is that life is about seeking immediate pleasure and always more of it. That’s not the case, however.

Let’s take a closer look at Epicureanism and see whether it’s gluttony that sits at the center of this philosophy or something else entirely.

A brief history of Epicureanism

Epicureanism started as an opposition to Platonism, although it’s Stoicism that quickly became its main adversary. Founded around 307 BC, this school of thought builds on the teachings of Epicurus, who was inspired and influenced by some of philosophy’s most remarkable minds – Aristotle, Plato, and Democritus.

Epicurus believed that the goal of human life was to seek pleasure and avoid pain. While he believed in deities, he was a religious skeptic and didn’t believe in the prospect of reward and punishment in the afterlife. So, in essence, he was a proponent of the “you only live once” theory and was adamant that pleasure is the primary purpose in life. Even his school, “The Garden,” had an inscription saying:

Stranger, here you will do well to tarry: here our highest goal is pleasure.”

The modern take on Epicureanism 

The religious interpretations mainly shape the modern take on Epicureanism that pleasure isn’t morally good. Compassion, justice, charity, honor, wisdom – those are the virtues that you should strive for, and pleasure typically gets in the way of the pursuit for them.

Today, we equate Epicureanism with gluttony, selfishness, self-indulgence, primarily because of the wrong impression of what Epicureans define as “pleasure.” Today, we equate Epicureanism with Hedonism.

Epicureanism and Hedonism

Considering that Hedonism is a philosophy that defines pleasure as the only intrinsic value (and pain as its only counterpart), it’s not surprising that Epicureanism is frequently linked to it. As a matter of fact, Epicureanism is a form of Hedonism, but not in the way that many people today think.

The modern view of Hedonism relies on a single school of thought – Cyrenaic Hedonism. It’s a discipline that teaches about the importance of immediate, self-indulgent pleasure with no regard for the consequences.

However, Hedonism has many forms and branches, Epicureanism and Cyrenaic Hedonism being just two examples. What connects all these diverse schools of Hedonistic philosophy focuses on pleasure, but what separates them are their definitions of pleasure.

What Epicureanism is all about

Epicureanism isn’t about living lavishly and indulging yourself until you can take it no longer. This school of thought is much more moderate since it focuses on both the pleasure at the moment and the pleasure (or pain) that is yet to come.

Pain and pleasure

The central tenets of Epicureanism are ataraxia (freedom of fear, tranquility) and aponia (absence of pain). Epicureans believe that true pleasure can only be achieved if it ensures both ataraxia and aponia now and in the future.

If you indulge in too much pleasure, such as overeating, you will experience pain later on, such as having a stomach ache. So, such pleasure is no pleasure at all. Every extravagance leads to pain and fear, so instead of pursuing more pleasure and indulging in every single craving, you should seek sustainable satiation in moderation.

All things in moderation

The ultimate goal in Epicureanism is to live pleasurably. For one to achieve this, it’s critical to discern between pleasures and desires that are necessary, and those that are fleeting and that will lead to ultimate pain. That’s why Epicureans distinguish between three types of desires:

  • Natural desires: Eating, having clothes, and shelter. These are necessary desires that can be easily fulfilled.
  • Natural, non-essential desires: Gourmet foods, luxury homes, the utmost comfort. While they’re natural desires, they should be avoided as they’re difficult to obtain, and the inability to fulfill them will cause pain.
  • Vain desires: Power, fame, popularity. These desires should be completely disregarded as they only lead to pain, and you’ll never be able to satiate them fully.

To reach the ultimate Epicurean dream and attain the utmost pleasure with ataraxia and aponia, you should only fulfill your natural desires and follow the main principles of Epicureanism – do not fear deities, do not fear death, do not fear pain, live simply, pursue pleasure wisely, be a good friend, be honest, avoid fame and popularity.

Final Thoughts

Epicureanism is about modesty, moderation, and satiation, as true pleasure cannot be achieved if you’re focused on non-essential and vain desires. It isn’t about pursuing luxuries or the finer things in life. It’s about enjoying the simple things and living life to the fullest without harming yourself or others.

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