The Epicurean Question

29 May|Tom Hodgkinson

This newsletter was sent out while editor Tom Hodgkinson was on retreat in Italy in the company of his fellow idlers.

Greetings from the Campanian coast where we are running an Epicurean retreat. There is here an olive grove, a fridge full of wine and piles of delicious bread, and looking out over the sea you could really believe that you are sitting in Epicurus’s Garden.

The experience reminds me of the great battle between the Stoics and the Epicureans. Do you stay in the city and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with as much equanimity as you can muster, and go with the predetermined flow? Or do you create a retreat with a group of like-minded friends and live out your days savouring simple pleasures? One of the Epicurean injunctions was to avoid politics altogether, which was absolute heresy in ancient Athens, priding itself as it did on its democratic systems. “Live the obscure life,” he advised.

One of the appealing parts of Epicurus’s philosophy was its low effort nature. Though he was essentially a materialist, and was against organised religion, he did believe in gods of a sort. But they were lazy gods. As the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius put it:

As soon as the voice of reason rises from your [i.e. Epicurus’s] godlike mind to enunciate the nature of things, the terror in the soul dissolves, the walls of the world fall back, and I see what comes to pass throughout the void. The holy godheads are manifested, and their tranquil thrones; the winds do not buffet them or clouds bestrew them with storms, nor snow, clotted by piercing frost, profane them with falling hoar. An ever cloudless ether, arches them over smiling with its amplitude of light. Nature supplies all their wants, nor does anything vex their peace of mind at any season.

As Epicurean scholar George K. Strodach maintains, the Epicurean gods are gloriously idle: “Their perfection and self-involvement absolved them from doing anything – from motion and activity of any sort and from the duties and responsibilities that deities normally have, such as the creation and supervision of the world.”

I spent twelve years living on a farm, writing in the morning and chopping logs in the afternoon. But now I live in the hubbub of the city once again and I’m just as happy.

What about you? Is peace of mind more likely to be found following the Epicurean or the Stoic path?

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