Stoics and Epicureans

Not just living, but living well, is a question worth exploring with the help of philosophy. From its history, we can gather thoughts about living well that invite rational scrutiny. Philosophers give reasons for their views, and do not rely, for the most part, on authority or revelation to carry the day. We may not agree with them, but from ancient times to the present, philosophers have explored many ideas about living well, the nature of a good life for human beings, the art of living, and the best routes to happiness.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in life. Doing well means acting morally and justly. Faring well has to do with prosperity, good health and general flourishing. The art of living is to become skilled in this. It is learning to do well oneself and create the best chances of faring well in life. Doing well and faring well differ, to my mind, in that the latter requires a bit of luck and the cooperation of a wider world. Doing well (acting justly in the world) is within one’s own power and requires no external conditions to make it possible. Ancient philosophy, in particular, has much to tell us about these topics. Consider the Stoics and Epicureans.

The Stoics hammered home the point that no one can force us to do evil and that there are worse things than death. What happens to us cannot determine how we think and feel. Our responses to what happens to us can come under our own control. In addition, they advocated detachment and a lessening of desires as a way to combat the sufferings of life. For the early Stoics, the art of living meant cultivating ‘Ataraxia’ or ‘Painlessness’, and this meant becoming indifferent to the things most people crave the most. According to Zeno, the first Stoic, we are to become indifferent to pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, health and illness, indeed, life and death themselves. Each of these goods and evils are of no value in themselves, and are never to be preferred or avoided at the expense of reason and virtue. The art of living, for the Stoics, means following the universal laws of nature and facing whatever comes your way with equanimity, neither exulting in victory nor despairing in defeat. Stoic wisdom is all about doing your duty as reason and nature direct your reflective actions. Wisdom is the goal, not pleasure. At best, pleasure is a distraction from duty. At worst, it is destructive of the lives and fortunes of persons. Wisdom and right action are the goals of life.

The Epicureans also claim to follow reason and nature, but here pleasure in one form or another recommends itself as the good we all seek for ourselves. Its founder, Epicurus, tells us that life is simple, the good is easily within our grasp, and happiness is living in harmony with your friends. Nothing more is needed. In fact, having more than one needs to satisfy legitimate animal desires leads to an uneasy mind filled with imaginary fears of losing what you do not need in the first place. The art of living, here, is to develop the skill to avoid the idols and temptations of the world, and simply to cultivate your garden in harmony with yourself and nature.

For Epicurus, the art of living gives us the ability to maintain peace of mind. Part of this freedom comes in releasing an excessive fear of death. Such a fear, more than any other, hinders us in living. Death is nothing, and so nothing to fear. “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.” And if you say that it is precisely this ‘nothing’ that you fear, the reply is that it can only be something to fear while you are alive, so why waste the time. Again, we can lessen our fears by negotiating life in such a way as to avoid the shoals of superstition and the stares of vengeful gods. If gods exist, and are happy, then they will not associate themselves with unhappy humans. If the gods do not exist, it is the same. Stick to natural desires, which are easy to satisfy. Avoid vain desires that are expensive to satisfy and cause mental disturbances.

Both the Stoics and Epicureans have worked out ways of living that recognize the pains and sufferings of human existence while negotiating a way through them. It is true that Stoics tend to keep the idea of God to give the universe a providential frame, but they revere the God of reason and the laws of nature. The stoic follows nature and tries to see everything that happens as only a tiny part of a greater universe. The Epicureans do without supernatural consolation, but since no one will ever taste death (only dying), we do not have to worry about it. Where the philosophy of Epicurus sits uneasily is in philosophies or religions that denigrate the body and, especially, the pleasures of the body. However, when we read what Epicurus said, it turns out that the life he recommends is miles away from the common idea of hedonists as irrational pleasure seekers and addicts. Plain living and high thinking are his prescriptions for the good life. Though the stoics and Epicureans disagree, there is nothing to stop us learning from their insights about how to do well and fare well in this (human) life.

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  1. s. wallerstein

    I agree that the art of living well is worth reflecting on, although I doubt that one can learn it from the books of the Stoics or the Epicureans or from any other books for that matter.

    It’s an art that one learns by living with one’s eyes open to the world and to one’s self.

    One has to learn it for one’s self and by one’s self.

  2. I once worked next to an evangelical Christian who was hellbent (pun intended) on saving me. He had posted Biblical quotes all over our shared workspace so I naturally (here irony is intended) assumed that I could post a quote of my own. What I posted was the four tenents of Epicurus: 1: Do not fear the gods. 2: Do not fear death. 3: That which is good is easy to acquire. 4: That which is terrible is easy to endure. My effort at adding a bit of wisdom to our shared walls was duly censured within five minutes. Surely one requirement of the good life would be an open mind.

  3. Interesting! I feel we all long to be unconditional happy and to be in harmony with ourselves and our environment. But how do we make this a reality? Yoga, breathing and meditation can make this a lived experience! I practice the Art of Living breathing, yoga and meditation everyday and it gives me the experience of inner peace, crystal-clear awareness and bliss. “Meditation helps to change your perspective. It improves the way you perceive things. It brings clarity in the mind. It improves your interaction with people around –what you say, how you react and act in different situations, you become more aware. In general, from a stress-free society to peace and health in individuals and from a violence-free society to a sorrow-free soul – all are side effects of meditation.” ~~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

  4. I find a large measure of brandy does the trick.

  5. A nice refresher on those ancients. In a related course I took, those two schools were only skimmed over. But I see connections to more au courant philosophical interests such as existentialism and Buddhism, e.g., on freedom, equanimity, unwelcome desires, etc., and of course, meditation is a major aspect of the latter.

    A professor of existentialism quoting Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” added: “The unlived life is not worth living.” Here’s the problem with those two ancient prescriptions. First, the lived life includes suffering, suffering besides being painful, is instructive. It’s part of being fully human: at the other extreme might be an insensitive autistic person or the like. Thus, although their general insights can be helpful, on closer scrutiny, they make assumptions ,such as what, if any, human nature is (remember Sartre arguing against defining such). And not only human, but nature itself, what is nature or part thereof to one is not so to the other; the concept itself changes over time.

    But their general insight, especially in a society of insatiable consumption, on leading the simple life, satisfying the necessities of life and its simple pleasures is right on the mark. Needless to say, further argumentation will be called for here.

  6. Errata: “The unlived life is not worth examining.”

  7. Part of living well includes being well regarded by the extended community. This involves a balance between fitting in and standing out. Oftentimes people try so hard to fit in that they become just one of the herd, and yet standing out for extremely outrageous ideas which might be ahead of ones time might not fetch one much in ones own time either. Whereas in the future, long after one has ceased to exist, one might be regarded as a seer. So would it make for a better life, to be true to oneself at the risk of being shunned, rather than paring down ones views in order to feel comfortable?

  8. I really enjoyed this post. I spent many years studying philosophy with an emphasis on metaphysics, but now that I am older these ethical teachings resound with me. I am a Buddhist, and much of what the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers say resounds with me and has parallels in the Buddhism that I adopt. But the most important teaching to me is still the Zen maxim: no dependence on words or letters.

  9. Lata,

    I found your post interesting. Being socially accepted certainly makes for a more comfortable life, at least in the short term. Numerous groups have been shunned because they didn’t ‘fit in’ – one thinks of homosexuals who had to stand out from the herd and fight very hard to gain social acceptance. And as far as ‘outrageous ideas’ go, it was once ‘outrageous’ to suggest people of colour or women had equal rights to white men, people had to refuse to pare down their views in order to bring it about that these values are now the socially accepted norm. It is easier to say than do, but it seems if you want to live ‘a good life’ – not merely a comfortable one – you have to be true to what you believe. Sometimes if you stand up from the herd to state what you believe you may find others follow who were too afraid to speak. Received wisdom can be changed within a lifetime, and you can then count yourself amongst those who stood up and were counted or amongst those who kept their heads down for the sake of a quiet life. Positive changes you argue for that do not occur during your lifetime can be seen as things that help make your life a life well lived. And even if your ideas are outrageous, and forever stay outrageous, it seems to remain an important truth: ‘above all: to thine own self be true.’

  10. Dear philosophers, here is a quote from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar just for you.
    “A plum once said, ‘just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.’

    Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

    There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king /queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

    What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose. You are here to be you… just you.

    There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a J.R.D.Tata was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

    In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.” ~~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

  11. Curious/Maya
    I am in agreement with both your posts, and would like to take this further. Most of us have set up our lives to afford us the greatest comfort, basing this on the popular idea of what constitutes a happy life. But, were we to go out on a limb for our deepest beliefs, these cozy lifestyles would most certainly be threatened.

    It is therefore probably necessary to re-examine what we consider to be a rewarding existence. To not only consider success to be in terms of material comforts but expand it to include a state of well -being that is directly proportional to how true we are to ourselves.

    There are of course, levels of commitment to ones cause, going all the way from being a modern day Gandhi, or a Nelson Mandela to simply speaking up when one finds oneself in company that seems hostile to ones ideas. Obviously, it means giving up varying levels of comfort, from dedicating ones whole life to the ‘cause’, to merely being momentarily ‘unpopular’.

    Modern day education actually militates against this idea by rewarding children who fall in line and accept received wisdom, without a murmur, and by punishing those who don’t fit in. Compliance is lauded, and those considered the ‘smartest’ are quite often merely regurgitating old, tired ideas, way past their use-by-date. But change can come about only if we are willing to be terribly uncomfortable in the short term. And it needs large numbers of us willing to be so simultaneously. The recent mass protests across parts of the Middle East and North Africa are cases in point.

  12. Maya/
    I agree with you maya but there is a problem if I remain what I am made for then why should I go to any guru or teacher to change me. If I am a plum I should remain a plum .

  13. Jasbir,

    The reason, why we seek out gurus or healers, is because we have lost a connection to our authentic selves. This happens due to the conditioning that all of us receive from birth in order to civilize and socialize us and make us fit in. Unhappily however it also has the sad effect of cutting us of from the most authentic parts of ourselves, which we then spend the rest of our lives searching for in any number of different ways.

    Our education system is geared to make us as compliant as possible, so that we are the least trouble to society. That in fact seems to be the main aim of education. So our real education begins when we become aware of all the conditioning and set about finding how much of what we think and believe comes from our true selves and the reality in the world and how much is conditioning. When we finally make a connection to what ‘feels right’ and not what we are told is right we begin our journey back to real happiness.

    But this takes a lot of courage and hard work and most of us couldn’t be bothered, because as in the movie ‘The Matrix’, living with an illusion can be too comfortable to give up. Most of us learn to live with the discomfort of just being automations, who parrot what we are taught and live out what we are told is a ‘successful’ life. But of course there is a price to pay. It is no wonder then, that psychiatrists are doing brisk business.

    Lata Tauro

  14. Hello All,
    You ask about why we might need a Guru or teacher to find our real self. Yes, as Lata says, most of us have lost the connection to our authentic self although the authentic self is always there. Re-establishing the connection is what meditation is all about.

    It is a personal choice to choose a Guru or teacher. In my experience, I was doing yoga with various teachers and by reading many books for some years and I was enjoying it. But it really clicked when I did the Art of Living course and very soon afterwards learnt meditation from Michael Fischman, a teacher with the Art of Living foundation.

    I think I got very lucky. The experience of meditation was very deep and I’ve have done it everyday since then. The whole concept of a Guru was outside my worldview entirely because I was brought up with a very rational mindset. I have a strong academic background in engineering and my parents are both scientists. I did not have any devotional component in my life at all.

    But I had the experience of the bliss of meditation. I read the philosophy and watched Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s talks on the Ashtavakra Gita (this is a must-watch for everyone!) They are simply brilliant!

    About needing a Guru or teacher, I think its a very personal choice. Meditation is a very subtle thing. We take guidance on all sorts of subjects so why not for meditation? In my experience, the presence of the Guru or teacher conveys a lot. A lit candle can light other candles. When a Guru is there in your life you become more yourself. He or she uncovers your true potential.

    Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has said this to me personally (I got lucky!). He said there are three types of teachers. The first type tries to push knowledge on the students. This is a bad teacher. The second type of teacher is someone who wants to help the students. This is a mediocre teacher but better than the first type. The third type of teacher knows that the students already know and he/she is just there to uncover it. This is a good teacher.

  15. Andyone,

    There seems to be something wrong with the link you have provided.

    Lata Tauro

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  17. To be true to oneself no matter what others think is only a half truth, if society deems what you are to be unacceptable then maybe they are right and you are wrong.
    Likewise just because public opinion changes does not mean that suddenly something is alright.
    If you are a paedophile for instance and live within a society or group that accepts you as normal does that make you truly acceptable, simply because other like minded individuals accept you as you are?
    Homosexuality was regarded until recent times as abhorrent and was illegal in Britain until 1967, but there has been a gradual takeover of the entertainment industry and the education system by those who have largely succeeded in a ‘realignment’ of public thinking.
    Many reading this will now consider that your humble author is on some form of religious crusade against the unholy pederast, yet I have no particular religious leaning or faith whatever, I simply believe, my philosophy if you like is that the essence of a man is in his masculinity, whether he is macho or effeminate in character makes no difference, but the moment he has sexual contact willingly with another man he cannot retain that masculinity and he is lost in essence. I’m sure that many who may happen to be reading this will think the viewpoint outrageous, particularly those from a younger generation than myself, but if it is important to be true to oneself should I align opinions with the currently acceptable public viewpoint? Or maybe you might say just keep them to myself? Something to ponder

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