Most Philosophical Texts
As an upcoming undergraduate senior, I frantically searched my college’s registrar website for a course that would satisfy a philosophy requirement for my biology major; this would be my first philosophy course throughout my college career. My eyes bounced around my laptop screen until landing on a course titled Happiness and Meaning of Life. My head tilted in curiosity. As a young adult with a bright future and entire world ahead of me, I place importance on understanding what truly brings meaning to my life. From this class, I have read several works that provide insight to this. I personally resonate with The Epicurus Reader the most, and have chosen to expound on the core philosophical values expressed within the text. This paper will present the main ideas of the text while relating them to happiness and purpose, and will also provide a reflection to how these subjects relate to my life.
The central ideas of most philosophical texts can be justified by first understanding their respective metaphysics. Metaphysics provides insight into that which extends beyond the natural world, and serves as the foundation to the philosophies of life. Within the hedonism described in The Epicurean Reader, it is understood that the universe is just a void of empty space filled with atoms. Most atoms of the universe follow predictable paths in a uniformed fashion, with the exception of a few atoms that deviate from this uniformity. These atoms are believed to swerve, exhibiting a declination of the normal. This sliver of contradiction provides the basis for many concepts within Epicureanism, which is the specific branch of hedonism that Epicurus encourages.
Similar to the few deviating atoms, it is believed that humans have the ability to be freed from limitations, driven by their own personal agendas. The concept of free will is derived from this speculation. Understanding this is the basis of hedonism, or the freeness to live life in a way that maximizes pleasure. In The Epicurean Reader Epicurus proceeds to provide explanations on how to live a pleasurable life through Epicureanism. To introduce this, Epicurus gives the primary two-fold goal to living a blessed life maintaining a healthy body and a soul that is free from disturbance.
According to Epicurus, pleasure is our first innate good and can be compared to a feeling an essential feeling. To keep a healthy body and a disturbance free soul, one must satisfy this primeval need for pleasure. This is done so by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Pleasure becomes the driving force as one goes about life, remaining tucked in his or her mind through all decision-making processes. This provides the first inclination of what Epicurus places value in to live a happy and purposeful life pleasure.
Though pleasure is important, it is pivotal that one keeps a standard of pleasure. Some pleasures don’t necessarily present themselves as events of contentment. In The Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus states that, We believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains. (Section 129) From this it is understood that some gratifications are masked by unpleasant things that we must undergo, which will eventually provide a pleasurable outcome. This can be exemplified in enduring the pains of exercising.
Taking that tiresome 2 mile jog around City Park may be arduous during the act, but it presents multiple benefits: a healthier body and nice toned legs. The long-term gains should be considered when deciding to take that jog, not the shortly endured pain. Expounding on the standards of pleasure more, Epictetus states:
For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s soul. (Section 132)
Here, Epictetus is contrasting Epicureanism from the misconception that we should simply Eat, drink and be merry. Just as some pains are actually pleasures, not all perceived blisses are truly blissful in the long run. This constant awareness of the outcome of every decision, with pleasure always being the end goal, exhibits prudence and sober calculation. In this sense, Epicurus’s view on happiness becomes even clearer. Happiness is solely defined by pleasure, but this pleasure must be mediated through a careful cautiousness.
Determining Epicurus’ views on the purpose of life can be inferred from his assessment of necessity, chance, and our own agency. In section 133 of Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus attempts to explain the extent of control one has over the events that occur in his or her life. Epicurus recognizes that there are three possible explanations to life’s happenings. When Epicurus mentions necessity, he is referring to fate or the idea that a plan or decision was pre-determined and out of the control of the individual. This idea contradicts epicurean hedonism; though it is recognized, he does not agree that one should live in the shadow of his or her fate. In doing so, he or she possibly limits pleasure. Epicurus also notes that some of life’s incidents are due to chance, which is attributed to neither self nor a predetermined being. Chance, as Epicurus utilizes the term, is similar to luck.
Chance is completely unpredictable and Epicurus does not support it being the cause to propagated happiness. Epicurus lastly mentions our own agency, which gives decision-making capacity to the individual. This term emphasizes that one has jurisdiction of some of the events that happen in his or her life. I believe that epicurean hedonism is rooted in the idea of one being in authority of his or her purpose, by our own agency. From this analysis, Epicurus is primarily placing purpose in the hands of the individual, emphasizing free will. For example, imagine that a college student’s predetermined purpose is to be physician. If this student shadows a physician and determines that it would not bring him pleasure, Epicurus would support the person choosing not to follow his fate. The student’s purpose would be in his own hands to become a painter, teacher, or any other profession of his choice, which will bring propagated bliss.
Furthermore, understanding the godly beliefs of Epicurus also further insight to his views on life’s meaning. He believes that gods are indestructible, immortal beings that hold the capacity to interfere with the livelihood of humans. In section 134, Epicurus notes that we should live an honorable life in the eyes of Gods, so as to live a pleasurable life. Epicurus places priority on these points because it again gives the individual power to control his circumstance, rather than the gods having absolute control. Even still, he encourages us not to focus on this too heavily because it becomes a burden. This can be contrasted to stoic determinism, in which one’s fate is predetermined, giving the person no leeway or control over his or her purpose.
From the teachings of Epicurus in The Epicurean Reader, I am able to reflect on how these ideals can be mirrored in my own life. On the first day of class, we took a survey to predict the philosophy of life that resonates with us most; I scored the highest in hedonism. After reading the provided description of hedonism, I was intrigued that it stated that the best way to live life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. I pondered hard on how shallow this sounded. Do I really only care about what essentially makes me happy? Do I simply want to just eat, drink, and be merry? I shamefully hushed the fact that I’d scored so high in this section. After analyzing Epicurus’s specific epicurean hedonism however, I am more convinced that it exhibits my personality.
I find myself utilizing sober calculation in my day-to-day decisions, and can even see how neglecting sober calculation can become detrimental. For example, we recently had a Thanksgiving break. This is a great time to bond with family, eat tummy-warming food, and get much needed rest. They all seem pleasurable at face value, right? What I was not cautious of was the pile of assignments and studying that awaited me following the break.
Now, I am reaping the repercussions of this poor decision. Had I utilized sober calculation and done a portion of it over break, I’d be at a much more blissful state right now. Reading the text has also forced me to truly contemplate on what brings meaning to my life and who determines my fate. At the beginning of the course, this was solely defined by Christian influences. In addition to this, I now believe that I play a modest role in my purpose as well, by use of my own agencythough it may not be to the same magnitude that Epicurus describes. I believe that God has a set life planned for me, similar to stoic beliefs, but I also believe that I can make alterations to this plan.
The Epicurean Reader provides all things essential to living a pleasurable life of the epicurean standard. Epicurean hedonism encourages that one maximizes pleasure and steer clear of agony in order to have a blessed life, healthy body, and soul that is free from disturbance. He also stresses that we not indulge in every pleasure, but instead practice prudence in our daily decisions. Following these guidelines will lead to propagated happiness. Epicurus places purpose in the hands of the individual, admitting that each individual has his own agency, emphasizing free will. In analyzing both happiness and the meaning of life as explained by Epicurus, it seems that pleasure is unavoidable and the driving force for all of his views. Seems like a nice philosophy to live in accordance with, right?
Epikuros, et al. The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia. Hackett, 1994.