A person who takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.
‘they see themselves as epicures—delighting in food that is properly prepared’
OriginOxford English Dictionary
Late Middle English (denoting a disciple of Epicurus): via medieval Latin from Greek Epikouros ‘Epicurus’.
The definition above was the only thing I knew about Epicurus before I picked up this book which is an extract (minus the notes) from ‘The Epicurean Philosophers’ edited by John Gaskin and published by Everyman in 1995. Epicurus lived in Athens between 341 and 270 BC and unfortunately like Sappho, whom I featured last month, the vast majority of his works have been lost to history with just three complete letters along with some fragments and two collections of quotes making it to the present day out of the estimated three hundred works he is believed to written. He formed his own philosophical school, largely in opposition to the prevalent Platonic teachings of the day and unlike the majority of his contemporaries he allowed women to join, in fact he positively encouraged them.
The book starts with his most famous work ‘the letter to Menoeceus’ which is an excellent place to begin as this epistle summarises his teachings and is very much a guide from a master to a pupil. Much to my surprise though Epicurus himself would not be impressed by the definition that has been derived from his name with it’s implication of, if not a hedonistic lifestyle, at least one of the pursuit of luxuries. In the letter to Menoeceus he includes the following instruction:
Once the pain due to want is removed, plain flavours give us as much pleasure as an extravagant diet, while bread and water bring the greatest possible pleasure to the life of one in need of them. To become accustomed, therefore, to simple and inexpensive food gives us all we need for health, alerts a man to the necessary tasks of life and when at intervals we approach luxuries we are in a better condition to enjoy them.
This exhortation to a simple diet, indeed simplicity in all needs, is reiterated several times in the collections of quotes also included in the book. Yes a follower of Epicurus should take delight when they encounter something special but this should be a happy rarity not an object for living. He emphasises again and again that you should be happy with what you have or can achieve because desiring what you don’t have, and cannot possibly get, simply leads to unhappiness for no good reason. He does however say that you should strive to be free of pain by which he means not just physical pain but also the pain of want for food, drink and shelter. He is not in favour of the hermit or of deprivation of the body to find truth for the soul as some philosophies would have their followers do, indeed attendees to his school would eat simple meals whilst discussing the matters in hand.
The flesh cries out to be saved from hunger, thirst and cold. For if a man possess this safety and hopes to possess it, he might rival even Zeus in happiness.
Another vital aspect of Epicurean philosophy is the importance of friendship and the support of friends when needed. A follower should live wisely, justly and well if they wish to have a pleasant life, they should also seek out friends, not for what they can do for you now but from the benefit of mutual support at times of need and companionship at all other times.
It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help
All in all I found this book to be a fascinating read and indeed very different to what I was expecting from the definition that started this review. Epicurean philosophy seems like a very sound basis for living your life, lacking the want for excess and high on respect for your fellow man. It’s a pity he is now just associated with the enjoyment of fine wines and food. One final quotation emphasises this switch of emphasis from happiness with what you have to want for luxury that has happened over the millennia.
If you wish to make Pythocles rich, be not adding to his money but subtracting from his desires.