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The Stoics and the Epicureans

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Stoics for the motivation and achievement, but the Epicureans for the style…

Seneca the Younger

I recently got onto Hellenist moral philosophy after reading The Obstacle Is The Way, one of the books recommended by Tim Ferriss. The book is a motivating entree into Stoic thought, and Ferriss himself is a devotee of Seneca, a famous Stoic philosopher.

Several hundred years before Christ, two post-Socratic schools of thought emerged as to the nature of the universe and how we should behave within it to live the optimum life. Many of the teachings these schools reverberate today.

The Epicureans are my sentimental favorite, and they were astonishingly ahead of their time in deducing how the universe actually works. They were adopters of Democritus‘ idea that objects are made of atoms, and that those atoms move through space. They did not know about how light works, but deduced that something traveled from the object to the eye. They came very close to articulating the conservation of mass theory, millennia before Einstein proved that matter and energy were interchangeable.

Epicureans did believe in the gods, but did not believe that they intervened in the actions of the earth. Therefore, they believed that they had nothing to fear from the gods, and therefore nothing to fear from death. Life was simply to be lived, and therefore they concluded that the optimum life was lived as pleasurably as possible. Happiness was the thing to be pursued, as Jefferson (himself an epicurean) pronounces in the Declaration of Independence.

This leads many people to equate epicureanism with hedonism. And, to be fair, if you know anyone today that you’d call “Epicurean”, they usually know where the best food and drink can be found. But epicureans meant “pleasure” mostly to mean freedom from anxiety. Under their moral code, for example, you would not want to steal from your neighbor – not because it’s intrinsically wrong but because it would result in anxiety from the theft and secrecy, and the potential consequences put your happiness at risk. Better to live simply, treat others well, and cultivate friendships. Don’t worry…be happy.

I love the Epicureans for an outlook on life so far from my own. If I were capable of doing away with my needless anxiety and absorbing myself in food, drink, thought and friendship, I’d be right there. I know people like this, and they’re the right people to chill with. As a matter of fact, Epicurean notions are still present today in modern psychotherapy, where a psychiatrist will try to allow a patient to let go of his or her idea of what the world “should” be, and accept it as it is.

The one place where epicurean thought is largely mute is having to do with concepts like achievement, motivation, and personal development. The ancient Greek epicureans did not seek to achieve greatly, instead they secluded themselves in a commune. Politics and industry brought about anxieties that were detrimental to the pleasures of a simply-lived life. For achievement and growth, you have to talk to the Stoics.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Visual Approximation)

Rather than a concept of the universe that was atomic and mostly random, the Stoics believed that the universe was created by the gods with a distinct universal order, and everything had a distinct purpose. The purpose (and the only purpose) of a horse, for example, was husbandry.

Remember Silence of the Lambs? When Lecter told Clarice to “read Marcus Aurelius” (another Stoic philosopher)? What did he say? He said that the emperor counsels simplicity. Of each thing, ask, what is it’s nature? It’s purpose?

To the Stoics, everything literally had one defined nature and purpose. The nature and purpose of the human, being the only animal that reasons, is to live its life using his natural capacity for reason. This meant living in accordance with nature, natural order, and therefore the reason allows us to understand what the natural order of the world actually is. With me so far?

The optimum way for a Stoic to live is therefore as virtuously as possible. One must try and become a paragon of virtue, because our sense of logic and reason tells us that it best serves the natural order of the universe for us to do so.

You can see that this concept of morality is 180 degrees apart from the epicurean philosophy. One is sensory, visceral, pleasure-seeking, deemphasizes ambition, reclusive, and seeks a mental framework that avoids anxiety by doing away with the concept of “should”. The other is top-down, orderly, reasoning, taming, and harbors ambition to achieve a highly virtuous and logical life. One looks at obstacles and says, “Don’t worry about it.” The other looks at obstacles and says, “Overcoming this obstacle will lead to further development.”

For us simple folk, we probably unwittingly live somewhere in between these two extremes. But you notice that neither one of these great philosophies looks at obstacles and says, “I must whine for sympathy and feel like I’m doomed.” Nor does either school think that the optimum life is lived by creating maximum anxiety in order to compete for wealth, status, and the purchasing of insignificant stuff. Each philosophy is a study in self discipline and mental conditioning, just in opposing directions.

It was useful for me, and it might be useful for you, to look at the anxieties in your own life and ask, “Am I doing this for a purpose that makes sense, or am I just reaching higher?” And if we find that we are constantly making unreasoned, half-asleep choices about achievement and attitude, how might these models serve as something to strive for?