❝Not what we have, but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.❞ -Epicurus
I'm on my deck reading a book about various philosophies of life. I'm learning a lot about eastern philosophies, Greek philosophies, modern western philosophies, and religious philosophies. In the section on Greek philosophy, I come across a philosophy of life called Epicureanism.
I can't remember the first time I heard the phrase, "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." I do remember being ambivalent about the phrase. On one hand, I'm drawn to it because I have had an obsession with the shortness and temporary nature of life for as long as I can remember. In that sense, I interpret the phrase as meaning “have some fun while I'm here.” On the other hand, I sometimes hear the phrase and find it a bit reckless, the same way I do when I hear those country songs telling me to live like I'm dying. If I live in a way that only supports my present self, I'm less likely to have future selves.
As I'm reading about Epicureanism, I'm starting to realize that the phrase "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" almost certainly is attributed to Epicureans. Thankfully, the author of this chapter addresses my query. I indeed learn that Epicureans focus on enjoying life because it's finite. Still, their definition of enjoying life is far more profound than many give them credit for.
When someone speaks of an epicurean, they usually talk about somebody who pursues physical pleasure above all else. They're traditionally speaking about somebody who eats and drinks too much. It tends to be a criticism when it's used in this way.
It is, in fact, a misperception. An Epicurean, with a capital E, is somebody who follows the philosophy of life called Epicureanism, named after its founder Epicurus.
What people usually mean when they call someone an epicurean is to call them a hedonist.
Like hedonists, Epicureans believe that the point of life is to be enjoyed. Unlike hedonists, Epicureans take a much bigger picture view. Epicureans, for example, focus on much more than just in-the-moment physical pleasure. They focus on emotional and mental pleasure as well. They also focus on the avoidance of pain, including fear.
They also use something we might think of as hedonic calculus. This simply means that they consider all the consequences of their actions when determining how pleasurable something will be. For example, drinking too much might make sense if you were simply looking at in-the-moment pleasure. However, once you consider the pain of a hangover, you'll quickly find out that an Epicurean will not drink too much because that event would be a net negative.
Present You and Future You
Similarly, Epicureans also take into account more than just the present moment. They understand that even though the present moment is the one in which we live, it's highly likely that future present moments will need to be enjoyed and accounted for. Therefore, the Epicurean will balance the pleasure of both their present self and many different future selves.
Meaning and Purpose
Epicureans believe that we are very fortunate to be here. If any single thing happened differently in the past leading up to your birth, then you wouldn't exist. Now that you do exist, Epicureans believe you have the opportunity to find a purpose and meaning in your life, much like the existentialist.
This focus on intentionality, or living on purpose, is meant to give a sense of tranquillity. Tranquility is what epicureans are after, not moment-to-moment physical pleasure.
Death is Nothing to Fear
Part of the hedonic calculus that Epicureans use involves the alleviation of fear. For many humans, the fear of death is a common source of fear and suffering. Death anxiety is the primary driver of human behavior. Therefore, to reduce pain, we ought to alleviate our fear of death.
Epicureans believe that it's difficult to enjoy life with a looming fear of death. They believe that death is nothing to fear because as long as you're alive, you aren't dead, and once you die, you aren't alive anymore to experience anything. In other words, there won't be anyone around to experience this thing called death. It's common for people to feel afraid of what it will be like to be dead, and the Epicurean's reply is that it feels the same to be dead as it felt before you were born.
Now, this may be a bit morbid, but we don't need to dive all the way into the deep end of the death aspect of Epicureanism to reap its benefits. The key is simply to recognize that life is finite, and that gives us permission to enjoy the life that we have because we know it's not going to last forever.
Epicureanism has a lot to say about our financial lives. It says that we only have this one life. Therefore we ought to design a life around it that we will happily look back on from our deathbed. In doing so, we get clear about what's important to us and what our values are so that we have the confidence to pursue our life and not get caught up in the rat race. We get to use our money as a tool to live the best life possible with the money that we have. We should enjoy this life, which means cultivating close relationships with loved ones and engaging in activities that will give us great experiences. And we should do so in a way that sets our future selves up to enjoy life.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Dimitriadis, Haris: Death is Nothing to Fear
Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death
Pigliucci, Massimo, Skye Cleary, & Daniel Kaufman: How to Live a Good Life
Solomon, Sheldon, J. Greenberg, & T Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core
Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Wilson, Catherine: How to Be an Epicurean
Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.