banner

Paris Hilton reads Epicurus

The Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was one of the world's first and best analysts of the relationship between money and happiness.

He was born a long time ago, in 341 BC, on the island of Samos, a few miles off the coast of modern Turkey. He had a long beard and wrote over three hundred books.

Unusually for a philosopher, Epicurus declared that his chosen topic of study would be pleasure. "Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life," he asserted. Philosophy properly performed was to be nothing less than a guide to a pleasurable existence.

Few philosophers had ever made such a frank, down-to-earth admission before. It shocked many, especially when they heard that Epicurus had started a special school devoted to happiness. The idea of what was going on inside was both titillating and deeply shocking. Some disgruntled Epicureans made some damaging leaks. A man called Timocrates spread a rumour that Epicurus had to vomit twice a day because he ate so much rich food. And Diotimus the Stoic took the unkind step of publishing fifty lewd letters which he said had been written by Epicurus when he'd been drunk and sexually frenzied. We still think of the adjective 'epicurean' as denoting luxury and decadence.

But this was all nonsense. The truth about Epicurus is far less sensational and far more interesting. Yes, the Greek philosopher was fascinated by happiness and pleasure, but he was very far from having his eye on parties and luxury. Indeed, Epicurus's years of patient research into happiness led him to some striking conclusions. If you really want to be happy, you need only three things, he insisted, and crucially none of these cost very much at all.

The first thing you need is to have at least five genuine friends who are constantly in the vicinity. Epicurus realised that a lot of our striving for power and money is related to wanting to impress people we don't especially like and who certainly don't much like us, but who have ended up in our social circle and who we've allowed to hold our self-esteem in their hands. We call such people our 'friends', but this is really a travesty of the word. A true friend is someone who accepts us as we really are, with whom we have no impulse to boast and around whom we know we can show our most natural, unimpressive and vulnerable selves. Spend years (and it will take years) to seek such people out; devote to the hunt the same energy as others use to chase status and power, counselled Epicurus. These friends will be worth a lot more to you when you find them.

The second thing Epicurus thought we need to do is to arrange our work life so we no longer depend on the whims of powerful tyrannical bosses, even if this means a huge drop in income. So Epicurus left his job in Athens and began what could best have been described as a commune in the countryside. There he and his friends lived a simple life, growing their own food and making their own clothes. The inhabitants of the commune had less money, but simplicity did not affect Epicurus's self-esteem, because, by distancing himself from big city life and living only among friends, he no longer judged himself on a material basis.

The third thing we require to be happy, argued Epicurus, is to be able to have a lot of time to ourselves and encouragement to reflect on our lives. Anyone who doesn't have at least three hours a day to themselves is a slave, insisted Epicurus, whatever their notional income. He pointed out that by writing our problems down or thinking them over (perhaps on a long walk, which Epicurus was a fan of), we can hugely reduce their hold on us. By understanding them, we are able to remove, if not the problems themselves, then their secondary, aggravating characteristics, like confusion or paranoia. Most people develop psychological problems simply because they have a backlog of anxieties they haven't had the time to address.

Epicurus never attacked wealth directly. But the crux of his argument is that money on its own can't be enough. If we happen to have money and yet are without friends, independence and a thoughtful, analysed life (with three hours a day to ourselves), we will never be truly happy. And if we have these three ingredients, but have only a modest income, we never have to be unhappy.

The argument remains provocative. The German philosopher Karl Marx discovered Epicurus at the age of eighteen, and it changed his life. He did his PhD thesis on him and modelled what we now know as communism around some of his central insights. The issues that Epicurus and Marx circled haven't gone away. In the shopping malls of the Hollywood hills and elsewhere across the developed world, we're still trying to work out what is necessary and what might be merely a mirage - and how to arrange our societies accordingly.

DON'T MISS


The School of Life