The wrong kind of simplicity

If you describe someone as Epicurean, you’ll find that the most widely understood meaning is of a person devoted to refined sensuous enjoyment (especially good food and drink). Synonyms include – hedonistic, sensualist, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent, sybaritic, decadent, unrestrained, extravagant, intemperate, immoderate, gluttonous, gourmandizing.

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher (341-270BC) who based his teaching on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain: What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. However, because he posits that pleasure is the ultimate good, it is commonly misunderstood as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as constant partying, orgiastic sexual excess and expensive food. In fact this contradicts to his teaching. Why it is that ‘the pursuit of pleasure’ normally connotes short-termist decadence, rather than longer-term fulfilment?

Amongst the reasoning there are a couple points that stand out – the first, that humans are actually simple creatures who react to intensity, rather than simplicity. For example, we find it easier to conceive of the short-term pleasure of drunkenness (intense), rather than the pain of the hangover over more time (less intense). We are often unable to adequately weigh up the long-term health benefits of exercise, versus the short-term pain of hitting the gym (intense). We take drugs because of the high (intense), rather than the longer-term physiological or psychological damage. In each example, the cumulative pain of drugs, alcohol, or not exercising might in fact be more painful and intense if compacted into the same amount of time than the pleasure. Yet we continue to make simple choices that can cause more cumulative pain than pleasure. Anyone who has struggled with addiction, over-eating, dieting or simply getting out and doing some exercise will have given in to the short-term.

Secondly, what Epicurus taught is the power of simple pleasures. Decadent pleasures such as eating rich foods, drinking, lavish lifestyles etc. and the things associated with the modern definition of Epicureanism, are complex. When analyzed holistically, they can often bring more pain than pleasure, whether to the immediate actor, or to society and the environment more widely. Epicurus taught that a deeper analysis of pleasure-seeking determined that simplicity was, in fact, the route to greater pleasure.

2 thoughts on “The wrong kind of simplicity

  1. Hm, thanks for telling about this. I’ve just discovered Epicurus, but interpreted him as an ascetic. No luxury and money, few things and friendships over earthly goods.

    There is a general problem in “translating” culture over time and mentalities, so awareness about misconceptions are important!


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