The Wisdom of Hypatia

Ancient Spiritual Practices
for a More Meaningful Life
Epicurean Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving holiday is an opportunity to make a few remarks on the ancient philosophia (love of wisdom) of Epicurus, who lived in Athens in the third century BCE. His name, of course, gives us the adjective "epicurean," which is appropriate to this holiday's central feature; also, Epicureans were known for their friendship, and pleasure is the principal good in Epicurean philosophia. However, Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival expressing gratitude for the bounty of Nature, and so we may consider Epicurus' saying:


Thanks be to blessed Nature that she has made

what is necessary easy to obtain,

and what is not easy unnecessary.


In modern terms, Epicurus is saying that humans are adapted to nature, for which we're grateful. But the credibility of this saying depends on what things we consider to be necessary or unnecessary. Therefore Epicurus gives us the following classification of desires:


Among desires, some are natural and necessary,

some are natural and unnecessary,

and some are unnatural and unnecessary,

arising instead from groundless opinion.


Natural desires are those that arise from our nature as human beings. Of these natural desires, some are necessary, such as food, water, air, and shelter. One of the characteristics of necessary desires is that they have a natural limit. If we are thirsty, then that limit is reached when our thirst is quenched; if we are hungry, then it's reached when our hunger is gone. That is, necessary desires arise from the lack of some natural necessity (water, food, warmth, etc.), and they are satisfied when that lack is eliminated. Since necessary desires represent a lack, the maximum satisfaction — the maximum pleasure — comes when the lack is eliminated.


This is what justifies Epicurus' claim that what is necessary is easy to obtain. He is saying that it doesn't take much effort to procure the bare necessities of life. This was perhaps truer in the ancient world than in ours, when a person might hunt or gather in virgin forests without concern for laws restricting these activities. Nowadays, homeless people may come closest to living at the level of bare necessity.


Be that as it may, this is not an attractive way of life for most of us, and Epicurus is not recommending that we live this way. Rather, he is trying to jerk us back from our customary desires to a recognition of what we really need in order to live with equanimity. We so often say, "I need this" or "I need that," so a first step in wisdom is to understand our needs and desires, and their causes and consequences. The necessary desires arise from our nature as human beings, and the consequences of satisfying them are the pleasure of eliminating the discomfort of their lack. Epicurus argues that this level of happiness is relatively easy to achieve.


It is interesting, however, that this basic level of happiness is harder to achieve in our society than in ancient times. If one aspires to live above the level of a homeless person, then you are immediately faced with the complications of earning money, paying taxes, etc. Even homeless people are under constant pressure to conform to social norms and join the rat race.


However, it would seem to be an odd sort of Epicureanism that would advocate living as ascetics or beggars, and Epicurus does not do so. Rather, he argues that we should understand and govern our desires, which is still a useful lesson for us today. Therefore let's return to his classification of desires.


As we've seen, Epicurus divides natural desires — those arising from our human nature — into those that are necessary and those that are unnecessary. Examples of unnecessary natural desires include food and drink beyond what is necessary to eliminate hunger and thirst, and shelter and clothing beyond what is necessary for safety and health. Other examples include gourmet food and drink, which are unnecessary variations on natural desires. There is nothing inherently wrong with these pleasures, for according to Epicureanism all pleasures are inherently good, but they have downsides, of which the wise person should be aware. Thus Epicurus says,


I spit upon luxurious pleasures not for their own sake,

but because of the inconveniences that follow them.


Some of these inconveniences are obvious, such as the indigestion or hangover that can follow on overindulgent eating and drinking. Others are less direct, such as debt from spending too much money on clothing or a fancy house, and the consequent necessity to work harder to pay it off. In spite of the foregoing statement, Epicurus does not recommend that we eschew all unnecessary natural desires, but that we should perform the "Epicurean calculation" and assess the pleasures against their unpleasant costs. As our philosopher says,


There is also a limit in simple living.

He who fails to heed this limit falls into an error as great

as that of the man who gives way to extravagance.


Given the foregoing, you can probably guess what Epicurus has to say about unnatural desires, by which he means desires that do not arise from our nature as human beings. Examples include desire for fame, political or economic power, fine art, vacation houses, yachts, personal planes, and exotic vacations. Epicurus says these are due to "groundless opinion" because they are irrational if we understand Epicurean philosophia correctly. Satisfaction of such desires may be very pleasurable, but they are not worth the effort, discomfort, costs, and consequences of satisfying them, according to Epicurus.


The crown of tranquility is incomparably superior

to the crown of the greatest political power.


We should not take any of these examples uncritically, and there is room for disagreement among reasonable people. For example, sex is certainly a natural desire, but we may differ about whether it is necessary or not. Epicurus' judgments were also based on a prescientific understanding of nature, and so some of them need to be reevaluated. For example, a desire for a certain degree of status or self-respect seems to be a characteristic of many primate species, and probably of Homo sapiens, and so we might reclassify it as a natural (if not necessary) desire. Further, we now know that emotional attachment to others is a natural desire, grounded in our evolutionary history, and it is a necessity prerequisite for normal emotional development. I expect Epicurus would agree, since he considered friendship to be fundamental to human happiness:


Of all things that wisdom acquires for living one’s entire life in happiness,

the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.


Let's turn now to the question of how (or even if) we should apply Epicurus' insights to our contemporary desire to live wisely. Certainly, I think it is worthwhile to classify our desires (necessary-natural, unnecessary-natural, unnatural) so that we are clear about their sources. In this we may be guided by discoveries in evolutionary psychology, but in most cases a little common sense and insight will be all we need. Then we should apply the Epicurean calculation. For the unnecessary natural and the unnatural desires we have to weigh the potential pleasure against the costs, both before satisfaction and after. This is very important nowadays because many of us live stressful lives with limited economic means in a society that values consumption -- especially conspicuous consumption -- for its own sake. (Indeed the day after Thanksgiving we celebrate Consumerism in the orgiastic rites known as Black Friday.)


Obviously I could not be writing this blog without a computer, Internet access, and many other benefits of our contemporary, technological society. These are powerful means toward pleasure and productivity, which allow me to achieve my aims better. Nevertheless, I try to keep their costs in mind. Beyond the obvious monetary expense, there are the costs of time and frustration battling recalcitrant software, dealing with technical issues, wandering into pointless web browsing, etc. For another example, social networking services such as Facebook can be used to satisfy the necessary natural desire for human contact, but they easily seduce us into the pursuit of unnecessary and non-natural desires (such as accumulating "friends"). As in so many things, wisdom consists in being conscious of the choices we make.


Epicurus' philosophia is very practical and, some would complain, materialistic. No difficult or complex spiritual practices are required to achieve its highest aspiration, which is simply pleasure. We could all do much worse than to live by its precepts. However, the desire for wisdom (philo-sophia) does strive higher, and so I call Epicurean philosophia "the first degree of wisdom." It is a practical background for everyday life, but we can go beyond it, as I'll discuss another time.


By the way, this blog entry illustrates another feature of ancient philosophia, which was especially important to Epicurus: the use of aphorisms or slogans. These pithy statements or maxims are a practical tool for remembering the essence of a philosophia and for calling it to mind in everyday life. (The familiar Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is his journal, mostly recording aphorisms he had learned from others or formulated himself.) Thus Epicurus' last words were:


Farewell, and bear my doctrines in your minds.

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