Happy 20th to all students of Epicureanism! This month marks the publication date for How to Live a Good Life, for which I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and also a book review of the rest of the book. As this book will likely attract new students to EP, I also authored the essay Advise to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy.
Our friend Nathan wrote a piece for SoFE titled On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom, where he presents his case against isms. We also closed the so-called “Chinese Year of the Pig” (which actually ends on February 5th) by unveiling the 20 Tenets of the Society of Friends of Epicurus so that they may serve as guidelines in the coming years.
In the initial years of forming groups of friends and intellectual peers with the goal of studying, applying, and teaching Epicurean philosophy, we have frequently considered that it might be a good idea to have a concise, summarized set of clear Tenets to facilitate the process of teaching, to connect theory with practice, and to more clearly explain what it is that we believe in.
Speaking of which, two new philosophers formalized their membership this month: we welcome Charles (who admins the r/Epicurean_Philosophy subreddit), and Jesús, a Venezuelan professor of political philosophy who has been instrumental in revitalizing the Spanish-language page for Society of Epicurus by volunteering to translate dozens of essays. As a result of this, the Spanish-language page has grown greatly over the last couple of months. These efforts will help us to continue to reach more people in more languages via more outlets in the coming years, and we are very happy that they are adding their passion to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.
Michael Shermer interviewed Catherine Wilson in How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well.
Today I’d like to revisit the blog Back to the Basics, which discussed the importance of carrying out our choices and avoidances as per the middle portion of the Letter to Menoeceus. Particularly, I’d like to reconsider this portion:
Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win.
And so plain savors bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips. To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune.
This portion calls for a healthy measure of simple living, which is balanced by Vatican Saying 63, which says: “Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.” This is because the goal of our choices and avoidances is a pleasant life, not a simple life.
But what if we were to focus on having “the sweetest enjoyment of luxury” from time to time, rather than on being “contented with little if we have not much”?
What I mean by this is that if we, from time to time, treat ourselves to a sumptuous feast or a luxurious pleasure, when we do have to–or find it of greater convenience to–enjoy simpler or plain versions of the same pleasure, we feel less like we are punishing or depriving ourselves, and we are better able to enjoy the simple pleasures and be content with them.
The Letter to Menoeceus does not discuss THIS other mechanism: it says that when we live simply and from time to time we enjoy luxurious pleasures, we are better able to enjoy them. But this is also true the other way around.
We see this mainly in the realm of diet. People frequently see diets as acts of restriction, and correspondingly feel as if they were punishing themselves for their previous sin of over-eating. But many critics of popular diets point out that having a day or two every week when we treat ourselves, within limits, helps us to be loyal to our dietary goals throughout the rest of the week. It helps us to be less discouraged when we have the occasional binge and keeps morale high.
There are probably many subconscious dynamics related to self-love and self-loathing, and related to how we treat and view our bodies and to our eating habits, that are involved in these mechanisms. I do not wish to delve into all that here, but I do wish to point that enjoying luxuries from time to time DOES work, that it does help people to stay true to their goals over the long term when they are striving to live a simpler life. After they have tasted the luxurious pleasure with no guilt, they go on to relish the simpler ones with a greater sense of satisfaction with themselves and their life choices.