The Philosophy Series: Epicurus edition

Epicurus was a 3rd century Greek Philosopher who is interesting purely because of the way that his ideas have pervaded philosophy throughout the ages. Only small fragments of his writings have made it through the channel of history, yet we know quite a lot about his life and his ideas because of his influence on others.

Epicurus is our philosopher for Christmas because he spent much of his life considering what it meant to be happy. He believed that we should not feel bad about our own happiness and indeed that we should chase the things that give us pleasure. Whilst that may conjure ideas of great feasts, flowing gin and tonic and piles of new books – he actually followed a very simple life, supping on water, bread, and a few olives.

Epicurus

He believed that on the whole, humans look for happiness in the wrong place, and all too often look for contentment through material things. In the run up to Christmas, I have really felt pressure to buy more gifts ‘in order to make the day special’. But are amazing gifts really what make Christmas enjoyable ?

Thinking back through the years, whilst I can of course think of some wonderful presents, those are not the things that have stayed with me. Rather, I think back to the multitude of people that we shared Christmas with over the years and conclude that, actually, it was time together that made things memorable.

Funnily enough, all this is really in line with Epicurus’ teaching. He believed that to truly be happy we need three thing in life: Friends, Freedom and Time to Reflect.

1. Friends

Epicurus based his life around his friends. He bought a large house in the middle of Athens and invited them all to stay with him. His school, based in the garden of his house had a small but devoted following, going on the premise that happiness is found in community. An inscription on the gate of the garden, later recored by Senneca, read ‘Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’

In all the hassle and bustle of the whole holiday period, I think the thing to take away is to realise that the food may end up not quite as planned, bad traffic could slow your journey, you might not find exactly what you wanted for someone as a gift… but take time to appreciate time with your friends and family.

I was worrying a little this week about getting everything done, largely because I had arranged a heap of playdates for Katie and get-togethers with friends – do I regret that? Of course not! Anyone else free next week?!

2. Freedom

Epicurus next tenant was to distance himself and his friends from the hassles of life – “We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday life and politics,” he said.

Whilst a life away from politics surely makes sense, it would be an incredible ask in today’s world to be purely self-sufficient. I wonder if it’s even possible!

Even if you owned land, grew your own food etc. our world really does revolve around money. All I can hear when reading about this section of his philosophy is ‘tax tax tax.’ But what if you could get to a place where money mattered less?

Whilst paying the bills and covering all our expenses may not be easy now (particularly with childcare costs in the UK!), building a secure financial base and avoiding debt are possible – which certainly contributes to the idea that one day, we will be able to be less concerned with these things. It seems a bit contradictory, but Epicurus obviously had the means to set up a commune with his followers – so couldn’t have been without something to begin with!

As for being free from politics – Switching off for Christmas doesn’t sound like the worst idea. Whilst I like to be informed about what’s going on in the country and actually, the world…. it’s rarely cheerful news of late. Whilst I would never advocate not being aware of what actually is happening around you… avoiding all Donald Trump related news would surely improve my holidays!

3. An Analyzed Life

Finally, Epicurus thought it was important to slow down and think about our lives. He believed that we should make time and space to really think about who we are and what we want out of our lives. Epicurus advised with followers to be wary of things that pulled them away from the path to happiness – so in effect, anything that told them they needed to be ‘more’ than they were in some way.

I think this point really does hit home in a society where we are constantly told that we aren’t enough. That we do need something to be better. Whether it’s the latest diet fad, the newest fashion or the ‘correct’ way to parent. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we need to be doing ‘more’ in some way.

I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but it’s rare to actually hear a parent saying – I think I’m doing a wonderful job. More often, you hear concerns about sleep, diet, food, behaviour, TV time… when all is said and done, I think all of my friends are doing an amazing job and I think their children are evidence of this. We spend so much time second guessing ourselves or worrying that we’re doing something wrong, it can be hard to really just enjoy life for what it is, where it is, at this moment.

Christmas provides the time away from work, to seek out the things that are important. I will enjoy going to church with my family, spending time with them and most of all, watching my beautiful children soak up every minute of the holidays. I am so grateful for the time I have with them whilst on maternity leave. Whilst I could be sad for the years to come when I will be working and someone else will be watching, I’d rather take the time now to look at what my life is at this moment. As actually, it’s pretty good.

However, I do think Epicurus’ advice is apt for any time of year – so do feel free to pin this for later:

3 steps to happiness - Edinburgh Life

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