Literature Monday: The Essential Epicurus – Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments

Today’s Literature Monday is going to stray a bit from the usual. Dani’s been swamped, so I’m commandeering this boat for today’s (late) post. I haven’t been an avid reader since I was a child, and largely don’t read anymore, but the last time I gave reading a shot, I jumped headlong into some foundational philosophy pieces. Amongst them, I crossed paths with Epicurus, who was a philosopher of the Hellenic-boom period following Alexander’s conquest and the spread of Hellenism under the Diadochi empires and kingdoms.

I was drawn to Epicurus after learning of him in a history course I had in college. My professor was explaining to the class a common misconception and misuse of the term “epicurean”: today, the term is ignorantly applied in the same manner as “hedonistic”, a term of indulgence and self-satisfaction, decadence and depravity. After the lecture I knew it was wrong, after this sampling of Epicurus’ work, I knew it to be beyond wrong and entirely insulting. It is degrading to associate Epicurus’ philosophy with base instinct and masturbation.

Epicurus was a proponent of the simple life, of trusting one’s sense and only what can be proven. Propaganda and misunderstanding took how he lived and has in 2000 years converted his living on a friend’s farm amongst pupils into living a lavish life of self-satisfaction and the search for pleasure. There is a dire misunderstanding as to what pleasure is according to Epicurus. To quote directly:

… sober reasoning, which examines the motives for every choice and avoidance, and which drives away those opinions resulting in the greatest disturbance to the soul.” – Epicurus on the definition of happiness

Pleasure is not a positive sensation or emotion, it is the lack of negative occupation. Pleasure is not indulgence, it is ensuring that your mind is at ease and not preoccupied with skyfathers and paradises beyond life. Fear is evil. Knowledge and understanding ward against fear, so knowledge and understanding are pleasure.

If you’re interested in an easy collection of philosophy books, the “Great Books in Philosophy” series from Prometheus Books has you covered. The Essential Epicurus can also be picked up here.

(Excerpt: The Essential Epicurus, Translated by Eugene O’Connor, from Letter to Menoeceus)

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