by Dr. Norris Frederick
One of the joys of travel to another country is the discovery of new landscapes, new customs and cultures, and new people. We find some ways in which the culture and people differ from our own, as well as ways in which they are similar. If we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities. This is especially true if we are not just tourists (spectators) but are being-with the people of that country. Upon return we think about some ways we might think and live differently, and are reaffirmed about other of our current habits of thinking and being.
The same is true of traveling to other philosophies and their worldviews (which is a darn lot cheaper than travelling to other countries, not that it must be an either/or). Everyone has a worldview, and a key value of philosophy lies in helping us bring our worldviews to consciousness and thus enabling us to compare them to other worldviews. Maybe I will name this type of travel “Philosophy Time-Travel Unlimited: Experiencing Worldviews since 600 BC.”
If we reverse the metaphor of our travel abroad, visitors to the USA from developing nations are often overwhelmed by the vast array of goods in our stores. If you are like me, you’re having a related experience as you enter stores from early October on: astoundingly, even though I know it happens every year, Christmas decorations and items are already appearing in stores. Nerves tense, stomachs tighten, with the obligation to buy gifts that will bring the requisite pleasure to friends and family. All this is just part of a bigger picture of the race for pleasure in which many of us engage. “Buying and selling” has become so dominant that it threatens to enslave us. It’s not that there is anything wrong with pleasure; in fact, a life without any would be very grim. It’s just that we go about seeking pleasure in such an unintelligent manner. We can learn much from philosophy traveling to Greece, about 300 BC, to experience being-with Epicurus, whose worldview is all about pleasure, but an intelligent version of it.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, “the alpha and omega of a blessed life.” Although he was a hedonist (from Greek, hedone, meaning “pleasure”), his hedonism is quite different from ours. To experience his worldview, we need to listen to a few of his central ideas about his metaphysics (what’s really real) of the physical universe and the self, and his view of what’s valuable, which Epicurus says is pleasure
Epicurus was a materialist, writing over 2,000 years ago that everything in the universe consists of “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “not divisible”). Unlike modern scientists who used sophisticated equipment to discover the atom, Epicurus used only reason. Take any object, such as a tree. Divide that tree by cutting off its limbs and sectioning its trunk. Start cutting a limb into as small parts as possible. Ultimately, continuing this thought experiment, one gets to the point where the matter that is left can’t be cut any smaller: the atoms of the tree. Not only the tree, but all beings in the world—including humans — are made of atoms. Our minds consist of “fine atoms,” which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.
As the several types of atoms move through empty space they “hook up,” creating objects: trees, cows, humans, you name it. The huge oak trees in front of my university succumbed to disease, and now they no longer exist. Through one process or another, all beings—including humans — perish. Only the atoms are eternal. I will not live forever.
While not living forever sounds incredibly depressing, the realization of that truth can actually be liberating. Epicurus teaches that if we reflect on our material nature, we see that we have nothing to fear from death. When the atoms that form “me” are no longer connected, I no longer exist. “Death, therefore, thought the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Epicurus certainly did not think that someone hearing or reading these words for the first time would be rid of their fear of death. But the friends who lived with him in the community named “the Garden” outside of Athens learned to tame their fears by frequent repetition of the phrase:
“Where I am, death is not;
Where death is, I am not.”
But you, being a critical thinker, ask Epicurus, “Shouldn’t hedonists, even if they don’t fear death, bemoan the loss of future pleasure?” Not so, he replies, if we understand the nature of pleasure. Seeking pleasure intelligently does not mean that we “choose every pleasure whatsoever, but we will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.” Many of us are caught on the hedonic treadmill. If I just had the next thing, I would be happy. But then I get the next thing, and soon that’s not enough and I’m back to being unhappy, so I say to myself if I just had one more next thing I would be happy. The process is repeated. And I continue anxiously looking for the next thing that will make me happy. Worrying that death will cost us future pleasures is yet another way of missing the enjoyment of the pleasures are right here in the present.
Instead, says Epicurus to his community, we should choose pleasures that are simple and that are not followed by painful consequences. “Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.” Simple food and wine, friendship, reading and thinking are the type of pleasures that make for a good life. The expensive meals, cars, and houses not only don’t bring happiness because they are part of our being on the hedonic treadmill, but because they also bring about the anxiety of being able to pay for them. We are enslaved by our desires and our objects. Pleasure, properly understood, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”
To our 21st century minds, Epicurus’ definition is not at all what we mean by pleasure: it’s not Disney World, or the new cell phone, or the ability to spend $5,000 on a dinner as celebrities are reported to do. Epicurus’ pleasure is in a sense negative: the absence of pain physically and psychically. What’s the good of that?
The good of an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is that it opens us to something broader and deeper and infinitely more satisfying, the awareness of being, the astonishing fact of being alive when I might not exist at all. Like everything else in the universe, I might never have existed, and I might not tomorrow, but I do now! It’s astonishing to be here, in this place, right now.
I suggest you try going beyond just thinking about his ideas and try them out. To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need. Then step out into a quiet place on one of these cool fall mornings or nights, and contemplate these words of Lucretius, a Roman follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E.:
First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by the mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been. Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky!
(If you’d like to comment or ask questions, please go to https://philosophyforlivingtoday.org and click on the
“Leave a Comment” tab at the top of this post.)
 Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick, http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html
 “Letter to Menoeceus”
 “Letter to Menoeceus”
 “Letter to Menoeceus”
 Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, translated by Michael Chase, 126 (Belknap Press, 2002).
 Luretius, On The Nature of Things, as quoted in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. by Arnold Davidson and translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell, Publishing 1995), 258.
Photo Credit: Norris Frederick
I never thought of Epicurus as someone so enlightening. He must have foreseen what we would become today. I hope our world is moving from the pleasures of material things to experiencing the philosophy of Epicurus. Maybe we will learn what he was trying to teach us in 300 BC.
Norris, I found this an interesting read, especially after having just returned from our first trip to Europe. I wondered if your use of the term “being-with” indicated that perhaps you had read the book by Sam Wells and Marcia Owens, “Living Without Enemies”, which uses that term as well as others that describe how we interact with others; notably, the more marginalized population among us.
Gary, I actually was thinking of the philosopher Heidegger in using “being-with,” but the idea I wanted to express is very much along the lines of what you wrote. The book you mention sounds intriguing. Thanks for pointing it out to us.
Thanks for the deep insight, Dr. Frederick. I’m going to take these wise words with me today to remind myself, as you eloquently write, “To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need.” These wise words cant be repeated enough as it seems as quickly as we “learn them” we forget them as well.
A very timely post, Norris. I think I’ll share the opening excerpt with my JBIP class tonight. We are traveling to Paris right after the Christmas holiday so we they will be experiencing all these different kind of pleasures and have the chance to compare them. Thanks for taking the time to share!
Thought provoking column! What I’ve always wondered about Epicurus (and all materialists) is just how it is that “our minds consist of ‘fine atoms,’ which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.” Does “fine” mean even smaller than the other “unsplittables?” Or does it mean something not material? If the former, why would size have anything to do with the ability to perceive? If the latter, then he’s not a materialist. The mind-body problem is always with us.
Though more than 20 years have passed since I last sat in your classroom at Queens (could it really have been that long?), I still sometimes catch myself wondering in response to global events and life’s dilemmas, “What would Dr. Frederick say about this?” Such is the impact of a good teacher on students. I’m so glad to discover your new blog, and I’m enjoying reading it.
Might I suggest a possible topic for a future post? Perhaps some philosophical perspective on governance for those of us despairing of what the next four years may be like after the outcome of the presidential election.
Thanks so very much for your warm and encouraging message and for your suggestion for a topic. I will definitely think about that.
It’s impossible, isn’t it, that it’s been 20 years since you were in my classroom at Queens? My very best to you, always.
[…] us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now. The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” […]
Great post! There are so many good points in here, I feel this could make for an endless discussion. I’ll have a go at a couple things that stood out to me.
When it comes to exploring different lands and cultures, you say that “if we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities.” This reminds me of a concept we have in communication studies: that of traveling as a “stranger” or a “guest.” Strangers want to impose their own norms onto the foreigners they’re visiting, whereas guests visit a foreign place with a mind open to learning from the new. Cultures that place a high value on individualism tend toward the stranger mindset. That’s America for you. I think it says a lot about our political state of affairs, too . . .
Switching topics: I agree that we have nothing to fear of death . . . but it took a long time to arrive at this perspective, and I certainly understand how and why others go to such great lengths to avoid it. I think this any time I visit a cemetery. It seems such an egoistic thing. There’s only so much space on this green earth and a potentially endless number of people, and you’re staking claim to a (supposedly) permanent plot of land for the storage of your dead carcass? What’s the point, if not to hold on to some illusion of “living” (or existing) forever? Here’s a modern consideration: https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/8/24/16194262/change-how-we-bury-dead
I could go on. This is really interesting stuff, Norris.
Thanks so much for your insightful comments, which I am for some reason just now seeing, 3 years after you posted it. Your comments are as relevant as when you wrote. The distinction you share between “stranger” and “guest” is very helpful for me. And your insights and the link about how we bury the dead are certainly thought-provoking.
[…] for living has the proper relationship between the healthy-minded and the sick soul. An Epicurean life of simple pleasures and serenity is not enough, for an adequate philosophy will value the […]