EPICURUS and THE PLEASANT LIFE
Born in Greece, Haris Dimitriadis studied Mathematics at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki as well as Economics at the London School of Economics. His career spanned the business and banking industries, and he has now settled into retirement. Through climbing the corporate ladder, he found it brought little peace of mind, and he turned his attention to the philosophy of Epicurus. He has devoted the last fifteen years of his life to studying, reconstructing, and practicing the ancient Epicurean philosophy. Stunned by its effectiveness he endeavors to disseminate this healing philosophy to the world in accordance with Epicurus’ own aspiration. Haris’ vision is to revive people’s interest in and practice of the comprehensive and practical philosophy of Epicurus and re-establish the “Epicurean Garden” in a contemporary context. Haris lives a pleasant life in Athens with his family and friends, seeking peace of mind, freed from the anxieties and fears that the established philosophies of material welfare and religious faith provoke.
This book seeks to reintroduce pleasure as our innate guide to living a healthy and happy life—a simple yet powerful assertion based on empirical data, which stands up to the strictest scrutiny. Along this journey, we will explore evidence throughout the historical evolution of philosophy up to the time of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who laid the foundations for a philosophy of nature. More specifically, it’s the only philosophy that distinguishes pleasure as the inherent human guide to a healthy and happy life. Our multiscreen, one-click modern society is often accused of hedonism, yet this perception is contradicted by a widespread obsession with pain. Of course, pain relief and pain control are noteworthy themes, yet it remains remarkable that a minority seeks to understand pleasure and its role in life. Despite its significance, very few have endeavored to recognize and present guidelines based on scientific evidence that pleasure promotes health and happiness. Contemporary society is characterized by a denial and fear of pleasure. This behavior is usually unconscious and always difficult to overcome. In many ways, we are all influenced and sometimes even consciously trained to resist pleasure.
Pleasure as Cure The Epicurean cure for a troubled soul rests on hedonistic grounds. It concentrates on issues related to the absence of pleasure.72 In the words of Epicurus: “Only then have we need of pleasure when from the absence of pleasure we feel pain, and when we do not feel pain we no longer feel need of pleasure.” The trouble of the soul, in Epicurus, owes to the lack of one or more natural and necessary pleasures; that is, of health (physical and emotional), finances (food and shelter), safety (physical and emotional), altruism, friendship and knowledge (beliefs, habits, and the nature of things). The first step in the therapy is to spot the desires that create the deficit in pleasure. The next step is to uncover the false beliefs and habits that ground the spoiled desires. The third step is to replace the corrupt beliefs and habits with healthy ones. The fourth is to habituate the new beliefs through memorization and practice. Normally, the therapy requires the help of a like-minded friend; otherwise, a competent professional will do. In addition to the therapy, a fine-tuning of the decision-making process may be useful. Even though our desires are healthy, we still need to rank them and decide the priority in which to satisfy them. Epicurus’s advice is to rank the desires according to their utility, giving priority to the natural and necessary. Next, we should satisfy those natural and non-necessary desires we enjoy the most. Having control over our desires facilitates the building up of self-sufficiency and autonomy, which will take care of the accidents of fortune. The life of the wise man is subject to rational planning73 that minimizes the effects of chance: “In but few things chance hinders a wise man, but the greatest and most important matters reason has ordained and throughout the whole period of life does and will ordain.”74 For example, my natural and necessary desire to have a shelter may turn out to be nonnatural (painful) if I buy an expensive house on mortgage in the expectation of future financial successes. Obstacles to the Search for Pleasure Basically, every human desire has been utilized for the imposition of social authority by politicians, churches, corporations, and advertisers. The old standing puritan hostility to pleasure has been reinforced by the capitalist culture of seeking pleasure through hard work, the accumulation of wealth, and the acquisition of stuff. On occasion, exploitation, oppression, and financial hardship are also employed as social means of eliminating pleasure. Internal barriers, such as introversion75 and egoism,76 are also obstacles to claiming pleasure. An introvert who is worried about how others see him or is afraid of giving the wrong impression has no psychic energy left to devote to enjoying himself. Like the introspective, the egomaniac is concerned most of the time with himself, and how to promote his personal interests, instead of enjoying pleasure. His conscience is completely structured to meet his personal aspirations. Experiences have value only if they confirm and promote his ego instead of the pleasure they offer. Strategies in Search of Pleasure Feeling good is the purpose of our lives. Ideally, we would like our feelings to be entirely in our own control. Nonetheless, there are circumstances beyond our control which affect our feelings. On the one hand, heredity establishes the foundations of our emotional identity, and on the other hand, our environment builds upon nature through culture and social teaching. Combined, these factors exert such an overwhelming pressure on us that we are left with no option other than to get used to them. As a result, the only way to affect our feelings is to accept our own condition and claim control over our desires. Epicurus was the first philosopher to allege that our desires hinge on both the conscious and the unconscious functions of the mind. In other words, Epicurus claims that both the conscious function of reasoning and the unconscious innate drives, beliefs, and desires are necessary in decision making. In this, Epicurus reminds us that our beliefs and desires are shaped by society, and in order to claim our freedom from society, we should scrutinize them and question whether they are in harmony or in conflict with our innate drives. Claiming ownership of our decisions and actions presupposes ownership of our perceptions of life. Only then will we become self-sufficient and free. Epicurus shows us an effective and well-tested strategy in pursuing a pleasant life based on the premise of safeguarding our self-sufficiency. This is a rational procedure that involves the following: separation of the natural from the nonnatural desires; dismissal of the nonnatural desires; distinction of the natural desires into the necessary and the unnecessary; discovering the false beliefs that trigger the nonnatural desires and replacing them with the true Epicurean suggestions; repeating this process until our new beliefs become habits; employing “sober reasoning” to make a wise decision; and fulfilling in priority the necessary and the unnecessary according to our preferences and the circumstances. Let’s take a simple example. Let’s assume that I take great pleasure in purchasing expensive clothing. Once I become aware of this feeling, I employ my reason to evaluate the pros and cons of making such a decision. By and large, the decision to purchase an expensive dress is made on economic grounds. If the fulfillment of my desire poses no threat to my self-sufficiency, I may keep enjoying my habit without any further investigation. On the contrary, if I realize that the fulfillment of my desire will endanger the fulfillment of other necessary desires, eventually threaten my self-sufficiency, or eventually make me dependent on luxurious dressing, I decide to hold back on my desire and I do my best to track down the belief on which it rests upon. Once I locate the sick belief, I reshape it in line with my conditions of life, and as a result, I reform my desire. Lastly, I make the decision that fits best with my tastes and capacities. Had I left my desire unfulfilled without any questioning, this would have been a seed that would grow into continuous turmoil in my mind and subsequent emotional pain. Epicurus suggests a particular strategy for each category of desires. Beforehand, it is essential to establish pleasure as the guide to our lives and develop the habit of deriving enjoyment from everything we do. This competency can overcome routine and boredom and transform our time of work and leisure into a pleasant time; we can train ourselves to turn every piece of our everyday activity into a pleasant activity. We can refine, for example, the biological necessity of feeding and drinking into a pleasant experience by paying attention to what we eat and drink, tasting every single spoonful and every sip of the drink. To enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing course of our everyday activities, we should take control of the pleasure of our lives as much as possible and, be subject, as little as possible, to the rewards of the society or to the uncertainty of future successes or to the hope that tomorrow perhaps something good will happen. The Epicurean philosophy introduces a hierarchy of needs. As a Vatican saying quotes, “We must not violate nature, but obey her; and we shall obey her if we fulfill those desires that are necessary, and also those that are natural but bring no harm to us, but we must sternly reject those that are harmful.” Assuming that a minimum amount of financial means is available, we can satisfy our essential needs and live a happy life. A tasty and nutritious diet satisfies hunger and the need for health; decent accommodation offers a pleasant place to stay; friendship covers the need for companionship, support, and safety; and knowledge ensures faith in the success of our efforts. In so far as we can meet our needs and still have leisure time and disposable resources, we may go for further natural pleasure to supplement our basic pleasure. In this regard, we can exercise our talents and practice the activities we like. We can train ourselves to acquire the skills to use our body and mind as sources of enjoyment. Dance is probably the oldest and the most popular pleasant activity of the body, while reading is the most common among the many intellectual pursuits available. At the same time, we should dismiss the non-natural desires. They are known as vain desires because they drive us to live beyond our reach, pursuing luxuries, power, wealth, fame, and immortality. These desires are not only difficult to satisfy, but they are even harder to sustain. Besides, there is no natural limit to them. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants. As for the desire of immortality, this is quite impossible to satisfy. All these vain desires are infused by false beliefs and should be eliminated. CONTEMPORARY VIEWS: THE NEUROSCIENCE OF PLEASURE Humans, exceptionally among living beings, are privileged to consciously experience pleasure and even pursue the prospect of happiness. The human ability to consciously evaluate and predict the consequences of thoughts, desires, and feelings provides our species the advantage of anticipating and planning for the future. Although there is an inevitable end to our lives, it is still worthwhile to enjoy the ride by maximizing our pleasure while minimizing the impact of anxiety and depression. The scientific investigation of emotions originates with the evolutionary theory which suggests that emotions are the outcome of adaptive responses to environmental situations. In that strain, pleasure “liking” and pain “avoidance” are affective responses of mammals and humans involving neural mechanisms valuable for the survival of the species.77 Envisaging pleasure as an evolutionary trait is straightforward. For example, food is the most common path to pleasure, as well as a necessary condition for survival. Beyond food, sex is an additional evolutionary pleasure that involves pretty much the same brain circuits.78 Even abusing drugs exploits the same evolutionary affective brain circuits as food, sex, and other physical sensory pleasures.79 Moreover, the evolutionary pleasure of social interaction and friendship employs the same neural systems. Intellectual, artistic, altruistic, and other higher pleasure share the exact brain circuits with the essential pleasure.80 The evolutionary perspective of emotions succeeded a psychoanalytic approach stressing that people “strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and displeasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.”81 This view identifies pleasure with happiness. The more pleasure you have, while avoiding displeasure, the happier you are. A similar but somewhat variant view is that happiness is conditional upon abolishing negative “pain and displeasure” to enable an individual to go after engagement and meaning. Positive pleasure by this scope is rather redundant. It describes the current emphasis on relieving psychopathology and painful emotions. It supports the notion that “happiness is not a positive feeling, but a negative condition.”82 When the negative feelings are wiped out, the outcome is happiness.
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