Saturday, August 02, 2014

Who was Epicurus? And more.

This blog page is probably the best thing I've read about Epicurus and Epicurians, it's answered most of my questions:


Who was Epicurus?

[...] How can we pursue pleasure as rationally as possible?

Like the other philosophies of the Socratic tradition, Epicureans believed that what causes humans suffering is our false beliefs. In particular, we have many false beliefs about what is necessary for our happiness. We put a great value on some external goods such as status and luxury, because we think they will make us happy. In fact, Epicurus says, many of these external goods are not good for us at all, and the pursuit of them only makes us more miserable.

Epicurus said that, for each belief or action, we should consider the pleasure it will lead to, and the pain, and then ‘measure the one against the other’. Some activities lead to a short-term spike in pleasure, such as heavy drinking, but ultimately lead to pain, in the form of hangovers, sick bodies and damaged relationships. We should restrict our desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, Epicurus says. So actually, contrary to the popular image of Epicureans as libertines, Epicurus and his followers lived quite austere lives, following a simple diet and not having many possessions.

Where’s the fun in that?

The simpler and less complicated your needs, the freer and less anxious your life. If you come to depend on luxuries, you’ll then have to work hard to support your lifestyle – and slaving away in a boring or stressful job is no fun. By restricting one’s desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, you free up more time for the good things in life: friendship and philosophy. It’s a sort of intelligent slacker philosophy that has quite a lot in common with the Idler philosophy of Tom Hodgkinson, who we meet at the beginning of the chapter. There are even some ‘life-coaches’ today, such as Stefan Streitferdt, who teach Epicurean philosophy as a way to prioritise your life and avoid unnecessary stress.


Don’t the Stoics use a similar cognitive technique?

Yes, the technique was also taken up by Stoic writers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They agreed with the Epicureans that it’s only in the present moment that we have any control. We don’t control the past – it’s already happened. And we don’t control the future. So the more we focus on the past and the future, the more we are disempowering ourselves. If we bring our attention back to the present, we are re-empowering ourselves, and being more efficient in our use of attention and energy.

We see a similar idea in Buddhism, of course, which developed a whole arsenal of techniques for bringing the attention back to the present moment. And this idea of focusing on the present moment, and our beliefs in the present, has been taken up in the last few years by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) . Both CBT and ACT insist that the way to get over emotional disorders is not by diving into the past and ruminating over all your conflicts with your parents, as psychoanalysis might get you to do. It’s wiser and more effective to bring your attention back to the present, to your beliefs in the here-and-now. As Seneca puts it: ‘What’s the use of dragging up sufferings that are past, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?’

There’s also something mystical in the technique of focusing on the present moment. It’s telling us that everything we need in life is right here, right now, in our consciousness of the eternal moment. The more we bring our attention back to the present moment, the more we can savour it, appreciate it, and enjoy the strange wonder of being alive and conscious in the universe. We see some of this sense of the mystery and wonder of the present moment in the work of Eckhart Tolle. Here’s a video of Tolle talking about Marcus Aurelius’ use of the technique.

OK, but what if the present moment is actually pretty challenging. What if we’re suffering from a serious or painful illness, for example?

Read the whole thing, it's good, and there's embedded links too. But as interesting as Epicurian philosophy is, I don't think I would embrace it completely. Like much of ancient philosophy, I find much of it useful, but don't find the whole of it completely embraceable.

But the interesting thing is, the author of this blogpost has also written a book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems, which sound quite interesting:

When philosophy rescued him from an emotional crisis, Jules Evans became fascinated by how ideas invented over two thousand years ago can help us today. He interviewed soldiers, psychologists, gangsters, astronauts, and anarchists and discovered the ways that people are using philosophy now to build better lives. Ancient philosophy has inspired modern communities — Socratic caf├ęs, Stoic armies, Epicurean communes — and even whole nations in the quest for the good life.

This book is an invitation to a dream school with a rowdy faculty that includes twelve of the greatest philosophers from the ancient world, sharing their lessons on happiness, resilience, and much more. Lively and inspiring, this is philosophy for the street, for the workplace, for the battlefield, for love, for life.
I enjoyed the reviews by readers, many of whom say that the author talks about many of the teachings of the philosophies of the ancients, along with modern cognitive therapy concepts, giving the old teachings new relevance for our modern lives.

I find that exciting, because I've always been interested in cognitive therapy, and more recently, the philosophies of the Stoics, Epicurians and Buddhists. I've found myself wanting to learn from all of them, to get the best of each without having to embrace their weaker aspects; to in effect, benefit from their collective good, to use as a base in creating a happy, solid psychological foundation for dealing with life. Jules Evan's book sounds like it may be trying to do exactly that, so I'm adding it to my wish list!

Here is an excerpt from the book.

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