Cultivating the Mind of an Epicurus

The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.

He who understands the limits of life knows that it is easy to obtain that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete and perfect. Thus he has no longer any need of things which involve struggle.

Principal Doctrines 20-21

Epicurean teachings demystify all things, including the mind and consciousness. We understand that the mind is completely natural, that it’s mortal and–like the body–has natural limitations that must be accepted. We understand that it’s made of atoms and empty space, as are all things. However, although there is nothing magical about the mind, it’s still of great importance for a philosopher who is committed to the cultivation of ataraxia because it’s the mind that has the power to “procure a complete and perfect life”.

Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus

We know from Philodemus’ scrolls that philosophy heals the mind through the use of words, through reasonings and arguments. Therefore, the practice of true philosophy for an Epicurean is therapeutic and involves the cultivation–through cognitive therapy–of a certain healthy quality in the mind, which we can train ourselves to mindfully experience as well-being and as existential pleasure.

According to PD20, the body is not able to discern the limits of pain, of pleasure, of time, and so on: only the mind has this rational capacity, and without having deep insight into these things, it is impossible to experience pure pleasure and ataraxia. The mind also has the power to dismiss fears about the future and to abide in confident expectation that the natural and necessary things are easy to acquire.

Because only the mind has the power to carry out these rational and computational tasks, it is therefore responsible for procuring “a complete and perfect life”. Epicurus always treats it as a self-evident truth that it is in our nature to want this kind of life. He refuses to rationalize why this is so, and simply observes that we shun pain, and that when we lack happiness, we do whatever is in our power to regain it.

Notice that, although these teachings may require some commitment with our own ataraxia and some compassion for oneself, they are really born of insight and do not require strict discipline. They naturally emanate from an understanding of our own nature. They qualify, therefore, as grassroots virtue as defined in a previous blog.

Before we move forward with these reasonings, let’s consider parallel doctrines from the Dhammapada, the Gospel of the Buddha, as he is one of the other great thinkers who proposed the study of the science of mind and the cultivation of a healthy mind as necessary to the practice of therapeutic philosophy.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

Dhammapada 1:1-2

We know, from our acquaintance with Buddhists, that there are countless techniques that have been put in practice and slowly perfected for centuries, which result from these Buddhist doctrines. Might it not have been the same for Principal Doctrines 20-21, if the Epicureans had been allowed to flourish up to this day?

These teachings were quintessential enough to be included in the Principal Doctrines, which indicates that they must have been meant as important starting points that needed to be elaborated in depth through study and practice so that our equanimity and pleasure would be so imperturbable, that even when death is immiment “the mind does not shun pleasure; the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life”.

This is exemplified in Epicurus’ own painful manner of death, which was yet pleasant and tranquil because he had cultivated a certain quality of pleasant abiding in his mind. The technique that he specifically used, according to sources, consisted in frequently reminiscing about past pleasures enjoyed with his friends: conversations, meals, affection, etc. We may call this technique the recollection of pleasant pasttimes. There are many other methods that can be used to experience nearly-constant pleasure.

In Epicurean discourse, we usually do not see the mind presented in juxtaposition to the body, as we see in PD20, almost as an enemy in a battlefield, or at the very least as a disciplinary superior. In its fiat to “procure a complete a perfect life”, the mind must grasp the natural limits of pain, of pleasure, of desires, and the limits of time, and it can then abide in contentness and gratitude. Because the things that are natural and necessary are few and limited, the mind can then confidently expect to meet its needs without “any need of things which involve struggle”.

This mind does not need immortality. It understands that pain and pleasure in the body have their limits in time and intensity, and avoids the trap of endlessly fearing the pains or endlessly catering to vain desires, which lead to addiction and anxiety. It understands that needful things are few and easy to acquire and that therefore we only need a limited amount of effort and struggle to attain them–in this way, the mind “banishes the terrors of the future”.

The mind procures a complete and perfect life,
and we have no longer any need of unlimited time.

The mind does not shun pleasure.

The mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life, 
even when circumstances make death imminent.

Notice that the key here is not necessarily to sit and quietly meditate, although there is nothing wrong with that, if it adds to ataraxia: in fact, some level of contemplation and introspection are absolute necessities of therapeutic philosophy, and neuroplasticity research demonstrates that meditation changes the brain and has the power to sculpt it into the healthiest, happiest version of itself. In Epicurus, the key is cognitive therapy in order to recognize our natural limits and to have deep insight about them and about our nature. This is what empowers the mind to procure “a complete and perfect life”.


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
This entry was posted in Ataraxia, Epicurus, Humanism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s