I want to briefly clarify the reasoning behind my title and what this “Epicurean,” word really means. And it’s going to be a talk on religion, so tread lightly.
Let’s begin with myself. I don’t want to get into a rolling discussion about religion, but personally I believe religion as a whole has simply created much more bad than good. Just look back at history and think to yourself about which wars were started over religious beliefs and how many people were killed over their own personal religious beliefs under their own kings and dictators and Popes. And then think, if there were no religions, would any of that have occurred?
I was raised with a good dose of Catholicism. One of the key motivators in Catholicism is guilt. If you are guilty for the bad things you’ve done, you repent, pay money, say some hail mary’s and get a key to heaven. And you live constantly in a state of guilt, because you are human and naturally full of all kinds of sinful thoughts and activities. So, you must be worried you won’t be getting into heaven and therefore repent and pay money and say your prayers – all for an afterlife. People are not living in the here and now if they are living for a future that “faithfully,” exists.
Don’t get me wrong. The general basis for any religion is to help make the people “good.” There are a set of rules , a set of scare tactics, financing and boom! You’ve got yourself an obedient group of people who all want to be good, do what you say and give you money. That is an excellent business plan that has been working for thousands of years.
The part that I don’t like, of almost any religion that I am even remotely familiar with, is that we are all living our lives for the life after this one. Now, from a religious standpoint, you have “faith,” that there is something in the hereafter and that if you’re good, you will go to ecstasy in the end and that when you die, it isn’t just darkness. Because that is too scary to make animal logic of.
I’m going to point the story closer to myself now. And, I will tell you in a straightforward manner, that I am atheist. Atheism is not a religion; it is the lack of religion(notice, you don’t even capitalise it in the middle of a sentence). I don’t believe in Zeus or God or that there are any pearly gates to be seen after my eyes have closed for the last time. I am living my life for the now. Which means, I live my life like there is no tomorrow and nothing after. I don’t waste my time with sitting in a church pew and squeezing my hands together tight against a rosary, looking for some sign that I will have a place to go when I die that isn’t fiery oblivion. I don’t believe there is hell or heaven or limbo or purgatory. And it is a very freeing thing to be without that burden and worry and fear.
The bottom line to this religion story is that I live my life in a very Epicurean way. So, perhaps I can jokingly say that ‘Epicureanism’ is my religion. Sure. It’s not a religion but that is how I live my life, so let’s put that in as a placeholder, because I know many people can’t grasp the thought of being religionless.
What is Epicureanism you ask? Isn’t that a magazine? (No, that’s ‘Epicurious‘) Doesn’t that have something to do with food? (no, not at all)
Well, I’m glad you asked:
Epicurus believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires. This led one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form.
The school of Epicurus, called “The Garden,” was based in Epicurus’ home and garden. It had a small but devoted following in his lifetime. Its members included Hermarchus, Idomeneus, Colotes, Polyaenus, and Metrodorus. Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and the school seems to have been a moderately ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including women and slaves.
Epicureanism emphasizes the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. It states that gods, matter, and souls are all made up of atoms. Souls are made from atoms, and gods possess souls, but their souls adhere to their bodies without escaping. Humans have the same kind of souls, but the forces binding human atoms together do not hold the soul forever. The Epicureans also used the atomist theories of Democritus and Leucippus to assert that man has free will. They held that all thoughts are merely atoms swerving randomly. This explanation served to satisfy people who wondered anxiously about their role in the universe.
God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?
The philosophy originated by Epicurus flourished for seven centuries. It propounded an ethic of individual pleasure as the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. The emphasis was placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on physical pleasures. Therefore, according to Epicurus, with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten. Unnecessary and, especially, artificially produced desires were to be suppressed. Since learning, culture, and civilization as well as social and political involvements could give rise to desires that are difficult to satisfy and thus result in disturbing one’s peace of mind, they were discouraged. Knowledge was sought only to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, the two primary fears to be eliminated being fear of the gods and of death. Viewing marriage and what attends it as a threat to one’s peace of mind, Epicurus lived a celibate life but did not impose this restriction on his followers.
The philosophy was characterized by an absence of divine principle. Lawbreaking was counseled against because of both the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out or punished would take away from pleasure, and this made even secret wrongdoing inadvisable. To the Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value and was beneficial only when it served as a means to gain happiness. Reciprocity was recommended, not because it was divinely ordered or innately noble, but because it was personally beneficial. Friendships rested on the same mutual basis, that is, the pleasure resulting to the possessors. Epicurus laid great emphasis on developing friendships as the basis of a satisfying life.
And, lastly, Ethics and the Golden Rule:
Epicurus was an early thinker to develop the notion of justice as a social contract. He defined justice as an agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed”. The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness. Because of this, laws that do not contribute to promoting human happiness are not just. He gave his own unique version of the Ethic of Reciprocity, which differs from other formulations by emphasizing minimizing harm and maximizing happiness for oneself and others:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed” and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
The Epicureans believed you should, ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ This is a simple, life rule, stronger than any commandment, that faces common sense and leaves everyone in a good and harmonious way; easy.
In reading and understanding any of Epicurus’ beliefs and philosophies in this synopsis, does any of that seem damaging?
Does any of that give you cause to hate anyone for their religions or their beliefs or to harm them in any way?
But, doesn’t it make you want a full, great and excellent life and to live the way you want without fear?
All I want from my life is to raise incredible children, to live my life to the fullest and to experience as much as I can. Because, let’s face it, our time here is short and what comes after is surely uncertain. I certainly teach my children the Ethic of Reciprocity (or the Golden Rule), and as hard as it is living in a world where there are few who respect that rule, I have confidence my children will turn out to be great people in the end, in spite of it.
By the end of this blog, you either love me or hate me. For those who are on the love-end of things, I am glad you found my blog and I hope you enjoyed a little something new about Epicurus. For those who hate me.. well, that’s not very nice and I just don’t know what to say to you.
Let me quote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures and finish with something that I think encompases a lot of the points I am trying to make and something my Dad likes to quote often as well. And, well, because it’s oddly wise:
“Be excellent to each other.”
(Oh, and everyone. Don’t’ take me too seriously, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do with their lives; I’m just sharing my very personal beliefs and how I live mine.)
(featured image source: http://suffee.com/