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Practical Philosophies To Live By (PART II) – Epicureanism

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In the previous article of this series, we discussed the practical side of Stoicism, one of the greatest schools of philosophy in ancient Greece. While Stoicism does indeed show us a brilliant and practical way of tackling problems, it falls short for many people when we consider its rigidity. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely elegant, and I personally like Stoicism a lot, but Stoicism is something of a challenge which people willingly take. Compared to it, Epicureanism, another great Hellenistic school of philosophy, is much easier to follow. This is the beauty of practical philosophies – they are like smartphone apps, to make an analogy. Just install (i.e add) them on your mind, see if they work for you, and uninstall (i.e forget) if you aren’t satisfied. And naturally, you can just grab one piece of thought from one doctrine, add it to another piece of thought from another, and so on – till you get your true way of life.

Epicureanism was the first philosophy in the Hellenistic age that actually attempted to act like an early form of psychotherapy. People were afraid of uncertainty, death, adversities and just a whole lot of things in those days. Epicureanism attempted to solve this problem by helping people counter their fears, especially the fear of death. When I was a boy of 7 or 8, I once asked my father “Well, why do people fear death? Is it because of the pain?”. “No,” he had replied, “it isn’t like that. People fear uncertainty, and we just don’t know whether there’s anything named soul or not. There’s no way we can be sure about our continued existence following death. This uncertainty is the thing that people are truly afraid of”. An extremely well-thought answer it was, and it satisfied my curiosity at that time. However, it was after reading the works of Epicurus that I could finally find a way to cope up with my own fear of death.

A few things about Epicurus and his philosophy

Ok, so before we discuss the practical aspects of Epicureanism, let us learn a bit about Epicurus. Epicurus was one of the greatest philosophers of the early Hellenistic age, who rose to prominence after the death of the Big 3 (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). It is said that he might have been greatly influenced by the ideas of Democritus, the thinker who had proposed an early version of the atomic hypothesis, with his teacher Leucippus. Democritus and Leucippus, from what we can learn about them, were atheists. They did not believe in any sort of continued existence after death. Their atomic hypothesis was rigid in this respect – all matter is made up of infinitesimally small chunks called atoms (that which can’t be cut or divided), and there are simply an infinite variety of atoms. The living body too, according to them, consisted of atoms, and all reactions, interactions, emotions, feelings, thoughts etc are actually due to the underlying interactions between the constituting atoms.

Now, this was really a hard thing to digest for many – man was reduced to being a collection of abiotic matter that was doomed to fall apart, and there simply wasn’t any question of existing after death! Democritus believed that, following death, the atoms constituting the body simply fell apart, and were recycled by nature to build new matter. So, your hands and feet would go to the ocean, perhaps, while atoms making up your nose will go to the moon! Not a very soothing, comforting thought, eh?

However, the genius of Epicurus was to make this rigid doctrine comforting. About him, however, there has been many speculations, most of which are unscientific and utterly rubbish anyway. People in the west often mistake Epicurus’s way of life with Hedonism, the sweet-tooth lifestyle that is similar to our Charvaka philosophy – enjoy as much as you can, for the pleasure of the physical body is the absolute truth! That would sound rather Asurik to the Indian ear, I’m certain, especially when we read about the similar philosophy of the Asuras led by Virochana. Whenever we mention Epicurus, people mistake him to be a large, obese man with absolutely no morality at all – always engaged in bodies pleasures, food, wine and women. A guy with 200 KG body-weight, absolutely zero regard for the societal norms, living in an endless orgy with his buddies. Nothing could be further from truth.

Epicurus’s doctrine is rather simple to understand, but hard to master. It revolves around the concept of the Two Great Masters, Pleasure and Pain. As per Epicurus, whatever we do, the result is an amalgamation of the two. Eat a plate of KFC Rice Bowl, you feel pleasure. Eat 10 plates, you can’t get up on the next day, thanks to an excruciating stomach ache. That’s pain. Naturally, the human being, according to Epicurus, should do things that generate pleasure, and reduce pain. To put it simply, pleasure is a signal of encouragement from the universe, as if the cosmos is giving you a thumbs-up for an act. Pain is the opposite, it’s like the universe yelling “Stop it!!!” at you. 

It’s easy to mistake the pleasure mentioned by Epicurus for bodily pleasure alone. It’s also the pleasure of the mind. Besides, Epicurus tells us to live a simple lifestyle, not setting our standards very high, and we certainly won’t expose ourselves to the possibility of pain. Epicurus and his followers lived in a house with a garden, and their school of thought came to be known as The Gardenunderstandably. At the Garden, Epicureans lived a very simple life – eating a simple meal, wearing frugal clothes, not expecting something great to happen to them. They rejoiced in the company of each other, living together in a free micro-society, a community which was outside the societal barriers, norms and rigidity. Even slaves and women, who lived little better than animals did at that time, were free to join the Epicurean way of life.

Ridding ourselves of the fear of death: following the Garden path

The Epicureans were the first thinkers to apply philosophy for practical purposes such as a tool for psychotherapy, curing depression, etc. rather than pondering about uselessly abstract, metaphysical questions such as “Do we gaze at the stars because we are human, or are we human because we gaze at the stars?”. They regarded philosophy as a sort of medicine for the soul. By soul, they definitely meant the personality that we have, because they were (more or less) atheists. Well, not technically, but they believed that gods simply didn’t care much about us. Therefore, you’re on your own and the existence of gods isn’t a relevant topic.

So, the Epicurean way of countering the fear of death is rather simple. Imagine you are standing at your own funeral. How would that be? Can you really imagine yourself that way? It’s impossible, if you don’t believe in any existence after death. Because the moment you start visualizing a picture of your own funeral, you’re actually painting a probable model of the event, where you are still existing! Let us focus, you’ve already died, so how can you actually perceive that it’s your funeral, after all? Or more precisely, you’ve already died, so who’s perceiving and looking at it?

This is a tantalizing paradox, if you don’t believe in the existence of the spirit after bodily death. The Epicureans definitely didn’t, and for good reasons. More than 2300 years have passed since they first voiced their opinion, and we still have not a single conclusive, verifiable, logical proof supporting the existence of the soul. As such, we may be free to believe that there’s virtually nothing after death. At least, I myself don’t believe in any afterlife. But no matter whether you believe in an afterlife or not, Epicurus’s reasoning will definitely appeal to you.

So, Epicurus means to say that death is not something that’ll happen to you. Say, someone breaks your hand. You feel tremendous pain, because you’re existent, to feel the pain in your broken hand. Because, you still remain following the event. However, in the case of death, who’ll remain to feel pain, fear or depression after death? Because death is end of you, after all. As such, there won’t be anyone left to perceive it. Of course, the process of death might be painful, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Every creature has to die – well, not a few immortal species that exist in reality, as science has verified –  but we certainly have to die, unless science finds a way to make us immortal. Till then, at least, we’re utterly helpless. But from watching dying men, we know that most probably, that duration of pain (if any) during the moment of death is very small, at least when compared to the enormity of our lives. We live for 75 years, say, and die in 7.5 seconds. Not a comparable set of scenarios, right?

Epicurus’s philosophy is brilliantly summarized within a single (yes!) line, written by Epicurus himself for his own epitaph:

“I was not, I have been, I am not. I do not mind”

How elegantly has Epicurus expressed his complete teaching, through a single crisp, beautiful, unforgettable line! He reasons, one can’t remember any moment before his/her birth, because he/she wasn’t there before his/her birth (or conception, at least). We don’t say “Hey! I’m so depressed and scared because I wasn’t there before my birth!”, so why should we say “OMG! Man!!! I’m trembling in trepidation and sorrow, because I won’t be there after my death!”. It is the most practical thing to say – Don’t waste your precious life thinking about death. To paraphrase the Shakespearian Caesar, the uninitiated die a thousand mental deaths before a single physical death.

The Epicurean theory of pleasures 

The Epicureans also classified the types of pleasures that we can have into two broad categories, static and kinetic pleasures. Static pleasures are more like feelings of silent contentment. For example, you’re hungry. You eat 2 packets of noodles, and you’re no longer hungry. Now, you’re not feeling any particular discomfort, hopefully. This is the experience of static pleasure. Static pleasure is, to simply put it, an absence of pain. This, according to the Epicureans, is the best form of pleasure – the simple joy of being at peace with yourself, in harmony with nature.

Now, you simply got too greedy, and ate 8 packets of noodles following the initial two packets! The result? You may relish the taste of those spicy Masalas they put on the noodles nowadays, but after a while, you simply feel overfed. The discomfort begins. This fleeting sensation of pleasure at having something that is not absolutely required to counter pain, is kinetic pleasure.

The Epicurean theory of life is simple – live a simple life. Don’t expect too much or too less, don’t be too greedy or too shy, maintain a balance between the two extremes. Pain and kinetic pleasure are two sides of the same coin. What appears to be a pleasurable experience, can easily turn into a source of pain. For example, you have bought your latest Android! How great it simply is! It was a Samsung Galaxy S5, with all the latest specs – but one day, your phone gets stolen. Immediately, the sensation of pleasure turns into a sensation of loss, pain and sorrow. Thus, what appears to be a source of pleasure may turn into the exact opposite.

On the other hand, you simply buy a Moto G, say, because it has reasonably good specs, a reasonable price-tag that isn’t too hard on your pocket, and a sufficient amount of power to run those apps you use – TOI for news, G+ for social networking, BBM for chatting and Pocket Legends for an occasional MMORPG experience. After a few days, it too gets stolen. You definitely feel pain, but that pain is probably much less. Since a Moto G costs much less than an S5 does, you can perhaps afford another phone, in the extreme case your phone isn’t brought back.

This is the essence of the Epicurean way – to turn more to static pleasure (i.e absence of pain) than to kinetic pleasure (i.e pleasure for pleasure’s sake).

Before I say Sayonara for today, let me summarize the practical essence of Epicurean philosophy, which you can apply for enjoying a more pleasurable life:

  1. Follow a simple life – have your needs met, but do not expect absolutely stunning things to happen. 
  2. There’s simply nothing to fear about non-existence after life, similarly as there’s nothing to fear for one’s non-existence before birth. 
  3. The best type of pleasure is the absence of pain, a state of meditative happiness and contemplation of the self. This is to be at peace with nature. 
  4. Trust your heart, and don’t let the society dictate your steps. The majority is wrong about many things – superstitions, most taboos, racism and castism – but they need not pollute your life. Your life is yours alone, and you’re free to live it as you like. 
  5. Focus on the present moment – all fears exist in the mind’s models of the future, while all sorrows exist only in connection to the past. The moment you begin to live the present moment fully, you see that both the past and future are actually constructs of the mind. There’s definitely an objective existence of time, as the fourth dimension of the universe, but the psychological conception of time is an illusion. The moment a moment is over, it becomes a memory. The moments to come are but possible scenarios constructed by the mind itself. 

So? If you’ve read my previous article on Stoicism, which one do you feel is more elegant? I’d love to hear your opinion, since I find myself struck between the two, at times.

 

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