Epicurus and the pleasure-seeking principle

Today, when we hear the term “Epicurean” we thinking of a person devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially someone whose self-indulgent pleasure derives from fine food and drink.

It’s a term derived from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Over time, as often happens when languages evolve and develop, it started to mean something different to what it originally meant.

Epicurus did not promote crass hedonism, but rather claimed that pleasure is the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. And what greater pleasure is there than the pursuit of philosophical wisdom in the company of friends!

Pleasure often arises from satisfying desire. Pain, on the other hand, often arises from frustrating desire. We seek pleasure because we want to avoid pain. However, this often leads us to seeking ever-higher pleasure and we end up locked in a never-ending cycle of pain-pleasure-pain. How do we go beyond this?

There are three types of desire:

  1. natural and necessary desires, e.g. those for food and shelter;
  2. natural but non-necessary desires, e.g. the wanting of luxury food and accommodation;
  3. vain desires, desires ingrained in us by society, e.g. the wanting of fame, power, and wealth.

Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied. Natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon. Lastly, we should entirely eliminate vain desires.

Unfulfilled desires frustrate us, leading to anxiety, bitterness, worry, apprehension, and disquietude. On the contrary, we should aim for ataraxia, a sense of supreme calmness. And what better way to aim for ataraxia other than applying Epicurus’s recipe above to recognise different types of desires for what they are, and finally finding peace of mind!