Monday, 24 November 2014

Epicurian Pleasure

In modern parlance Epicurian pleasure is understood to mean the exaggerated excess in all things.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson depicts what for many centuries Epicurean pleasure was understood to mean, I'll have all my beds blown up not stuffed, goose down is too hard. Jonson's pleasure seeker is called Sir Epicure Mammon.

However hundreds of scrolls unearthed in the Library for the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum which belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso gives the true ancient meaning to Epicureanism and it is vastly different than what we thought it actually meant. This is due to the fact that after his death the enemies of Epicurus ridiculed his writings and twisted the meaning of what his philosophy meant. Then after the Fourth Century we lost his writings which were only rediscovered in a Monastery in Fulda in 1407.

School of Athens (Philosophy) (1510) by Raphael in the Stanza della Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Epicurus appears in the left corner dressed in blue and crowned with vines leafs.

Philodemus who lived around (110-60 BC) was a true follower of Epicurus (341-270 BC), wrote ''Men suffer the worst of evils for the sake of the most alien desires.  They neglect the most necessary of appetites as if they were the most alien to Nature''. What are these necessary appetites that lead to pleasure? ''It is impossible to live pleasurably without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends and without being philanthropic''.

This if the true definition of Epicureanism.

The problem comes in the 4th Century when ''Pagan'' philosophies are rejected by the Jews and Christians who now wish to establish firmly their beliefs on good and evil in the Roman World. Pleasure as the highest good? Even if described in restrained terms it was a source of scandal for both Judeo-Christians belief sets. Even 2000 years later the fear that to maximize pleasure and to avoid pain are in fact appealing goals and might serve as the rational organizing principles of human life. If these goals succeeded then a whole set of time honoured principles, like sacrifice, ambition, social status, discipline and piety would be challenged with the institutions attached to them. This is why Epicureanism is presented in a grotesque and extravagant manner to this day.

We will have to wait the Renaissance (1297-1580) to see a rediscovery of Antiquity and its philosophies, in 1430 invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg which will put books at the disposal of far more people and then 1492 when Admiral Christopher Columbus lands in America. Two events which will transform world view.

Thinking of today, reading this definition of true Epicureanism, I wonder how could it apply to our post-modern world and age of technology. Is it even possible in a world like ours where Education is ridiculed and where politicians make constant cuts to the entire educational system. Where Culture is seen as worthless or is constantly assimilated to some multi-million dollar sporting event. Where the masses are easily amused by shopping mall openings as we have seen in Ottawa in the last month, or by news of professional athletes or where a dead Coach is elevated to the rank of demi-god and athletes make ridiculous tributes claiming that their lives would have been worthless otherwise.

However Philosophy was never meant for everyone's study but for those who were interested to follow one school or another. Or the art of discussion on various topics was an exchange of ideas and wit was a quality.

I suppose that if you wish to follow that path today you would have to separate or segregate yourself from the commercial world with its values based on money and power.


  1. This was fascinating reading. I agree epicurean is often equivocated with excess - until recently. Nowadays it more associated with luxury and/or snobbism. Rather than eating a lot of cheese, the epicurean eats organic cheese squeezed out of the backsides of heirloom cows by 3rd generation Amish farmers; $20/lb.
    I very much appreciate 'good food and drink' - why do you suppose my slogan is 'no rubbish'? - as I grew up with 'food as fuel" culture. It is why I like to eat out so much - it's a delight to have 'proper' food. Would it were more often.

    1. thanks for that. Why do you appear as anonymous?

  2. Been a bit down for a while, and not true to few blogs I follow, but I ‘binged’ – chronologically, mind you – on your posts this weekend. Thanks as always for the experience of your blog!