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On Being an Epicurean




A Reply to "On Being Rich" by Rica Bolipata Santos


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The notion that an Epicurean is a man who enjoys the finer tastes of life--as one who delights in foie gras and French wines or wagyu steaks and caviar--is not faithful to the man whom that description was supposed to come from. It was after all Epicurus (b. 306 B.C.) who said "Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may have a feast whenever I like."

But it is understandable that history, as it always does, robs one aspect of a philosopher's thought and therewith distorts it and even inverts it. Because Epicurus taught his disciples what was counter-intuitive to level-headed Greek philosophy; he said that the goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

"Pleasure," he says, "is the beginning and the goal of a happy life." And to be sure, he did not leave out the basic pleasure of dining as well: "The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach." Now we understand why being an Epicurean means much less than being a follower of the ascetic philosopher's school than enjoying fancy French restaurants and going to glitzy salons.

What Epicurus had in mind when he said that the pleasure was the aim of the happy life was, however, far from what we understand it today. He clarifies this misinterpretation by saying that
When we say pleasure is the objective, we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do so by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misinterpretation. By 'pleasure' we mean the absence of pain in the body and of turmoil in the mind. The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; not the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table.

Epicurus was gravely misinterpreted not even in our times but in his as well that when he and his followers bought a simple garden--perhaps his last acquisition--at age 35 and where they settled for the rest of their life, news of such a "secret society" founded on pleasure attracted the rich and the wealthy even from distant lands. But upon their majestic arrival, the socialites of that time were dismayed to find out that the diet of such festive men was comprised mainly of vegetables (cabbages, onions and artichokes) that the Epicureans themselves grew. Whereas the rich thought they were going to feast all day and participate in orgies, they came to see an Epicurus lecturing on metaphysics and why one should not fear death.

Needless to say, the glamorous visitors soon left in the way the the heartless flee from an enchanted island that turns out to be a leper colony.


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When I first read about Epicurus in senior year through my life-changing ethics teacher, I quickly relished in the philosopher's thoughts as fast as picking up a first-edition classic that was lost in a bargain bookstore. His question enthralled me more than Plato's problem--what is the form of the Good?--or Aristotle's dilemma--what is virtue? The Epicurean question was more simple yet no less difficult to answer: he asked what makes a happy life? And without being disappointed that the answer was not to be found in wealth or in bodily pleasures, I soon quickly adapted him like a fool that my family soon became worried with my Epicurean "enlightenment."

Whereas in the past when my parents would take us on vacation in shopping meccas such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and San Francisco--where I would burn all my allowance on clothes, shoes, and bags (I said then that I had the taste and obsessions of a woman)--I just stopped shopping after meeting Epicurus. Well, truth be told, I did not stop completely as I still do buy such things every now and then; but it was no longer the fill-up-the-balikbayan-box type of thing.

Something just happened during that senior year--somewhere in between being the head of a group that went to see street children every week and hearing my theology teacher say that he only had two pairs of shoes; or sometime after that day I saw in a vision that I had to teach philosophy and having my (and some one's) heart broken. Whatever it may have been, I suddenly had a dislike with things material and things fleeting; and counter-intuitive it may be until today when my family takes those trips more frequently and where I am gifted with shopping money, I have stuck to that decision to stop living a life of wealth (or at least I try very hard: I have to be honest here, you see) and start living a life of the mind (or at least I try very, very hard: I have to be more honest about this, you see).

No longer do I enter fancy boutiques or buy Italian shoes. The new clothes I have were given to me; and I now sometimes wear the shirts of my father--who is really my model on simplicity what with him not knowing how to buy anything for himself and only knowing how to give us all that he has. I no longer find myself in these specialty shops during my manic shopping sprees: I do such a sinful (yet pleasurable) evil today in bookstores.

There the demons of money come out; but I spend what I have (all--whether little or much) on books. These books are long-term investments, as I tell my parents--and as I tell myself. To explain to friends who ask me if I actually get to read my books--that most insensitive question of all!--I tell them that I buy them while I still can afford to, because when I am alone without my family I know that I wouldn't have money.
I buy all the books that I may need while I still can--to which my good friend who is more understanding but also more frank said "You can never buy all the books that you need." Just proves why I have no money to my name today.

But I still try to save up for that inevitable future of solitude. Because something in me says that I may end up like Montaigne who in midlife inherited from his grandfather a castle of yellow stone east of Bordeaux and knew at once that he will never have to work another day. He retired from high society at age 35 (the age Epicurus settled in his garden) and decided that he would spend most of his life in his third-floor library which housed more than a thousand books.

But while I doubt that I would own a castle or write anything near to his Essays, I have a head start on the philosopher and inventor of the essay as a genre whose honesty and vast knowledge I try to emulate: I've reached more than a thousand books and I am sort of retired at age 27.

I always say that aside from my golden treasure that is my family, I have lots of silver in my library and much more bronze in my long naps and drunken sleep. I never go to the school library anymore nor do I have eye bags.

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Epicurus, just like Aristotle, also taught that it was philosophy that can give man the most possible pleasure in life. It was in that love of wisdom that he saw the key of avoiding pain and heightening pleasure, that is, the pleasure of the mind in pure contemplation:
Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.

Through love of true philosophy every disturbing and troublesome desire is ended.
And the maxim that I believe best captures the spirit of being an Epicurean can be found in a simple fragment he left us: Live unknown.

But to live unknown does not mean to live in hiding; the Epicurean garden where the master lived was open to anyone who wanted to live that life of a different kind. Living unknown means living by yourself without being needful of the world and its excesses as "Self sufficiency is the greatest of all riches." Living unknown means being content with the little that you need as "Nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied with a little." It means dwelling in the pleasure of a life stripped off all that unnecessary wealth that one cannot take to the grave, freeing yourself from the vanity which other (richer) people require of you, and finding the secret of a good life that the affluent and the successful try so hard to work for all their lives but more often than not fail to attain because money can never buy happiness nor compensate for its absence.

To live unknown: this means enjoying the infinite richness of thought and the happiness of having friends who enjoy that same pleasure. Because you see, Epicurus never wanted to be alone in his love of wisdom; he had loving friends who celebrated the good life with him by feasting on some cabbage and cheese in between metaphysics and all that morbid talk about death.


Comments

  1. "The pleasurable life is not continuous drinking, dancing and sex; not the enjoyment of fish or other delicacies of an extravagant table." I certainly agree... for "man cannot live through bread alone."
    Reminds me of the saying my religion teacher inculcated in me back in college: "Live simply so that others may simply live."

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