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Epicurus, active during the 4th Century BCE, was a prominent ancient Greek philosopher whom founded his own school of thought and spearheaded his own philosophy, now labeled under the heading of Epicureanism. For him, the whole point of philosophy was to attain pleasure and avoid fear, primarily that of the gods, death, and an unpleasant afterlife. Famous for his espoused materialism, Epicurean put forward the idea that the only real purpose to life is to embrace all its pleasures and reject all its tedium and pain. However, it was not simply a free-pass to engage in rampant lawlessness and orgies but was instead a system of behavior that emphasized self-gratification wherever one could find it, and ‘authentic’ happiness as the ultimate, attainable end-goal for everyone. Epicurus put forward the notion that perhaps the Greek gods were figments of the human imagination; ideals not to be feared or worshipped, but to be admired and emulated due to the fact that have achieved their own authentic happiness through ataraxia, liberation from lusts of the flesh, and aponia, emancipation from the shackles of mental slavery that weigh us down when we attempt to overcome our own thoughts and ideas that impede our progress towards this authentic happiness, which isn’t as far-off as some might assume.
To Epicurus, happiness was indulgence, not just in basic human pleasures, such as food, sex, and other luxuries, but higher-order pleasures such as learning, the fine arts, and relationships among many others. Holding the view that pleasure is the only intrinsic good available and accessible to all, it is not pleasure in the same sense as modern-day hedonism upholds, but the ‘pleasurable life’ revolves around self-restraint and distinguishes between pleasures of the Epicurus nevertheless claimed that too much of a good thing may lead to more harm than good; as well as a healthy dose of abstinence to some extent may be beneficial in focusing on what makes life worth living, not just the senseless overindulgence in anything one might find appealing. Epicurean hedonism often gets a bad rap for endorsing overindulgence and material possession over spiritual gains, but the truth of the matter is that this pre-modern hedonism didn’t negate any aspect of self-control or personal responsibility for one’s actions that is often associated with postmodern extravagant living; all of it adding up to life as a never-ending party.
Unique to his philosophy is the concept of ‘authentic’ happiness, which encompasses living life in the pursuit of changeless contentment. ‘Authentic’, in this context, more so pertains to a realness about living in regard to pursuing’s the objects of one’s desires but also introspection, whereas the opposite would be to live life assuming that there’s not much to live for aside. An individual’s quality of life shouldn’t be determined be excesses, but in the value they place on social constructs such as time and relationships, along with whatever else contributes to their long-term contentment. Authentic happiness refers to happiness that is not rooted in artificial ideas of wealth, fame, power, etc., but instead stems from a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and it’s that mindfulness of living life to the fullest, regardless of personal belongings, that will lead to greater self-fulfillment than anything that is found in the material world.
Epicurus had defined the physical state or condition of being satiated and all former pleasures no longer to as aponia, defined as the absence of pain and needlessness for any further physical comfort; instead, one who has reached this state of aponia has everything they will ever need and nothing less. By our nature, humans have a unique avarice not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom; we have a bottomless pit in our hearts that cannot be filled by everything the world has to offer. So, we must push it all aside and focus our efforts on exercising self-control, renounce all the luxury and learn to be content with the simple things that life has to offer. Epicurean thought argues that through self-deprivation people learn to make do with what they have, and consequently this bottomless pit shrinks down until it no longer there. But in order for that to happen, an individual must be consistent and conscious to not let moderation slip back into hedonism.
On the other hand, ataraxia is mental a state of being or condition that rather than an emotional response or gut feeling due to brief instances of gratification. Epicurus argues that authentic happiness is tranquility and peace of mind, that people experience a certain level of ease and comfort when they’ve reached ataraxia, when their self-fulfillment are no longer concerned with worldly affairs. He uses this terminology when referring to the gods of ancient Greece, whom he believed were living in this absolute freedom from any mental discomfort, and subsequently become disconnected from those shackled to the physical world and all its temptations. This is what people must aspire to, not spending their days fearful of what’s to come, but living in the present and enjoying the fruit of the earth as it was made for them. Pleasure is a positive sensation, while pain is a negative one; therefore, people ought to chase after the former rather than the latter.
It is my understanding that Epicurus does indeed argue the case well for authentic happiness leaning towards tranquility and peace of mind that is followed up by a self-awareness and self-knowledge: seeing the world with both eyes wide open. He would wholeheartedly disagree with the premise of equating authentic happiness with passionate engagement and enthusiasm, as those values would inevitably lead astray those seeking to overcome their ceaseless pursuits of worldly gains and pleasures, winding up back in the vicious cycle of hedonism. To Epicurus, pleasure is not about material gain or satisfying bodily urges, but the abstinence from said urges that lead to contentment with the simple things that life has to offer, and through that does one find authentic happiness, no longer in fear of what happens next; in essence, they’ve elevated themselves, turning over a new leaf, and conquering themselves and their passions.
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