An Epicurean break

With all the students returning to classes this week, it is only natural that the topic of spring break comes up, especially in those first few minutes before the class actually begins. Some students stayed local, some went to Florida or Mexico and some crossed continents; unfortunately, there were even those who had to work most of the break. For some reason, we seem to live in a country made up mostly of extreme types of people. When it comes to vacations and leisure, there are those on one side who party and drink to excess, and then there are those on the opposite extreme who hardly ever take a break. I spent part of my break reading up on Epicureanism, a misunderstood philosophy that partially discusses the importance of leisure and peace.

Epicurus was an Ancient Greek who lived in Athens from 341 to 270 B.C. and established one of the three major schools of thought in the ancient world. He was a prolific writer, but unfortunately almost all of his writings are lost to us. Other than that, very little is known about his life because he was a very private person. Still, even though he never ran for political office or made public speeches, there are numerous accounts about how gregarious and generous he was with all sorts of people. Epicurus welcomed all classes and races into his school, including women and slaves. Epicureans believed that women are just as intelligent as men and that marriage should be a partnership between two best friends. In fact, for Epicureans the greatest activity people could engage in was sitting around with a small group of friends, eating and drinking some wine and discussing life and philosophy.

One of the more dangerous aspects of Epicureanism — dangerous to aristocratic elites, that is — was the argument that people should not waste their time on Earth fighting in wars. Epicureanism focuses on the reality that life is short, everyone dies and so there is no point wasting time accruing vast sums of wealth and material goods because you cannot take it with you when you die. This philosophy especially frightened aristocrats because they profited the most from the sweat and blood of poor veterans. So these aristocrats spent much of their time trying to malign and vilify epicureans. One of the more successful propagandas still persists today: Many people think that Epicureanism is synonymous with hedonism. Most people, however, do not take the time to investigate how different the two philosophies truly are. The main difference is that hedonists look at death, then say, “carpe diem,” and proceed to have as much fun as possible indulging in the basest of desires (Charlie Sheen is the ultimate hedonist); epicureans argue that we should all enjoy life but should do so within limit and live modestly. Epicurus understood that if one drinks too much alcohol or eats too much, then only pain is the result; thus, the best way to live a happy life without too much pain is to maintain balance. Hedonists, on the other hand, have no concern for balance.

It is even more disturbing that the Catholic Church continued to persecute epicureans during the Middle Ages, especially when one could argue that the Jesus written about in the gospels displays a number of Epicurean characteristics. Jesus has often been depicted sitting around a table, eating and drinking wine, and philosophizing with close friends. Jesus had thousands of female followers, as Epicurus had before him; one of the big debates has centered on Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple, along with the way Peter and other male disciples took over the power structure of the early Catholic Church. Even the emphasis on communal sharing of property in the Acts of the Apostles was practiced by Epicureans before them.

So, if you enjoy spending a quiet evening with a close group of friends, if you prefer to live a modest life in the privacy of your own home, if you have little concern for being famous or if you believe that it would be great to marry a close friend with whom you can share and build a life together, then you are a little bit Epicurean yourself. I would strongly recommend an Epicurean lifestyle, as opposed to a simply hedonistic one. It is a hectic, anxious−ridden world out there, and it is important to develop a positive and healthy way of life.

Derek Haddad is a first-year graduate student majoring in classics.