Happy Twentieth! Did Epicurus Practice Intermittent Fasting?

Happy 20th to the students of philosophy everywhere. Some literary updates: an evaluation of the Epicurean doctrines on wealth has been published at Society of Epicurus. Some of the key insights are:

  • There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between “natural” (physikos) and empty (kenos) wealth. The key distinguishing factor between them is that wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
  • In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
  • Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
  • When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
  • Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.

Additional insights about the economics may be drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management.

The following blog series is a series of book reviews of the works of Julien de la Mettrie, a French Enlightenment intellectual who was very influenced by Lucretius.

An Epicurean System

The Epicurean Canon in La Mettrie

Against Creationism


La Mettrie comes off as an eloquent and well-informed philosopher who is deeply influenced by Lucretius, and who employs his wit and eloquence in defending Epicurean ideas from the Stoic attacks found in Seneca’s letters. He also takes sides with the Epicureans in the culture wars against the theologians and the clergy, and builds his own Epicurean system of philosophy focused on his defense of the idea that the soul is material. He’s interested in the natural history of the soul. He discusses the anatomy of the soul from the perspective of natural selection and evolution–even if he did not have yet access to Darwinian insights into the details of how these processes operate.

This month, the Caute blog published Facts Not fear. Clean Hands. Open Hearts. An Epicurean meditation on how to respond to the ongoing epidemic, and Thomas Nail–author of Ontology of Motion–wrote a piece for TheConversation.com titled Why a Roman philosopher’s views on the fear of death matter as coronavirus spreads, referring here to Lucretius. I also wrote a piece on Living Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus.

Speaking of Caute, Unitarian Minister Andrew J Brown has more than once hosted An Epicurean Gathering in his church. He graciously shared the Epicurean liturgy that he has used. Perhaps this may serve as a model for other Epicurean-leaning ministers of the Sunday Assembly, Unitarian and other churches.

Blogger Ryan Boissonneault wrote a somewhat critical review of How to Live a Good Life, for which I wrote the Epicureanism essay. In it, he criticized the book for treating religions as philosophies. I think Epicureanism has many features of a religious identity, but can religions be considered philosophies? I don’t yet have the answer to that, my first instinct is to say “Probably not“, but it’s an interesting question.

In recent months I had the pleasure of being commissioned to compile and write introductions for an audiobook which will include all the classical writings of Epicureanism. The publisher is Ukemi Audiobooks, which has already published audiobooks about a wide catalogue of philosophers. It was during this project that I came across this quote by Seneca, which I had not seen before:

The great hedonist teacher Epicurus used to observe certain periods during which he would be niggardly in satisfying his hunger, with the object of seeing to what extent, if at all, one thereby fell short of attaining full and complete pleasure, and whether it was worth going to much trouble to make the deficit good.  At least so he says in the letter he wrote to Polyaenus in the archonship of Charinus. He boasts in it indeed that he is managing to feed himself for less than a half-penny, whereas Metrodorus, not yet having made such good progress, needs a whole half-penny!

This is from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, and it caught my attention because intermittent fasting is a popular trend today, and some people in my social media whom I respect have reported great benefits from it. These are not people who would typically follow the crowd, but people who think empirically, professors at universities, and so I looked into intermittent fasting and–although more research is needed–it seems like Epicurus and others who have incorporated fasting in some way into their lifestyle may have been on to something.

Clearly, Epicurus was no ascetic. His goal (as Seneca reports) in engaging in these experiments was to study the limits of pleasure in his own body. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have writings by Epicurus himself on what he learned from these experiments, but we can refer this practice to a portion of his Letter to Menoeceus.

And again independence of desire we think a great good–not that we may at all times enjoy but a few things, but that, if we do not possess many, we may enjoy the few in the genuine persuasion that those have the sweetest pleasure in luxury who least need it, and that all that is natural is easy to be obtained, but that which is superfluous is hard.

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–plus Metrodorus’ insistence to Timocrates that the stomach sets the standard to help us understand how little nature requires–makes it likely that Epicurus did engage in these experiments with fasting. Also, Epicurus says in Against Empty Words that we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action, so he would not have written this in his Letter to Menoeceus without first engaging in experiments in simple living, which is what Seneca reports.

We must also keep in mind that one of the Vatican Sayings teaches that “there is also a limit to simple living“, so that whatever disadvantages we endure must not impede a life of pleasure. That Epicurus authored this portion of the Letter to Menoeceus shows that he mostly succeeded in keeping a pleasant disposition during his periods of fast, and therefore was confident of his doctrine that what nature requires is not much and easy to procure.

Epicurean doctrine is based on empirical reasoning. Epicurus wasn’t just saying that our nature requires very little: he had the intellectual decency to carrying out experiments in his own body and immediate experience to test for himself the extent to which–as Seneca says–“if at all, one thereby fell short of attaining full and complete pleasure“. This is how we use the canon: by exposing our theories directly to our faculties.

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Further Reading:

Science-Based Medicine on Intermittent Fasting

Science Daily: Intermittent fasting may help those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, study suggests

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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1 Response to Happy Twentieth! Did Epicurus Practice Intermittent Fasting?

  1. Pingback: My Experience Doing the Master Cleanse and Intermittent Fasting | The Autarkist

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