Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die

The idea that most people have of the Epicurean teaching is, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”   The idea most people have of what an Epicurean is like, is the Petronius character in Quo Vadis

Petronius lives for pleasure.  He eats the finest delicacies, sips the finest wines, sniffs the most fragrant perfumes, surrounds himself with beautiful flowers and works of art, listens to beautiful music and has sex with beautiful slave women.

For fun, Petronius pretends to flatter the Emperor Nero while really ridiculing him.   When Nero catches on, he calmly commits suicide, with style.

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It’s true that the philosopher Epicurus taught that pleasure is the highest good.   But he said real pleasure comes from appreciating whatever it is you have.   His idea was, “Eat plain bread and vegetables, drink plain water and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

His idea was to make yourself bulletproof against unhappiness by not wanting things you can’t have and by not wanting things that really wouldn’t make you happy anyway.

There are three kinds of desires, he taught: (1) natural and necessary desires, such as food, shelter, etc.; (2) natural but unnecessary desires, such as for rich food, and (3) vain desires, such as for power, wealth or fame.

Courage, justice and moderation, the basic Greek virtues, are not valuable in themselves, according to Epicurus, but because they are necessary to happiness.   Justice consists of neither harming other people nor allowing them to harm you.   The best life is quiet and obscure.

Our present-day economy is based on precisely the kind of thinking that Epicurus wants to rescue us from.   American consumers’ desire for possessions, pleasure and status keeps the economy going, but doesn’t make us happy.   We can learn from Epicurus.

Epicurus practiced what he preached.  He lived modestly.  He ate mainly bread and vegetables from his own garden   He was noted for admitting women and slaves as his pupils.

He taught atoraxia, freedom from fear, and aporia, freedom from pain.  He said pain should not make you unhappy.   You can learn to bear chronic pain, he taught, and acute pain is a sign of something that will kill you, in which case your troubles soon will be over.   He died of kidney stones.  On the day of his death, he reportedly was in severe pain, but cheerfully discussed philosophy.

Two of the things that make you unhappy, he believed, were fear of the gods and fear of death.

Epicurus was a materialist.  He believed that everything that happened was the result of motions of atoms of different attributes.   Atoms had the power to swerve on their own, something like modern physicists” uncertainty principle, and this allowed for free will.

He has sometimes been called an atheist, but in one of his three surviving letters, he says the gods exist and are benevolent, but are different from the cruel and capricious beings of Greek mythology.

In his other writings, he said there is no reason to fear the gods, either in this life or in the next, because they do not interfere in human affairs.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visited the Underworld and conversed with his dead comrades from the Trojan War.   The late Achilles told him it was better to be the most miserable person among the living than ruler among the dead.

Some of the dead who’d incurred the wrath of the gods were being tortured.  Not Achilles, who was one of the favorites of the gods.  He was just in the situation of living for eternity in the equivalent of a rest home.

Epicurus taught that there is no afterlife.  One minute you exist, the next minute you don’t.   Death is not to be feared because you aren’t around to experience it.

Something Epicureans liked to put on their tombstones was:

I was not.  Then I was.  Now I am not.  I don’t care.

I think the Epicurean philosophy is good and true as far as it goes.   Epicurus was right about how people make themselves unhappy without a good reason.   But his idea of happiness is mediocre.

The Epicurean idea of happiness has no place for great joy—the joy of accomplishment, the joy of discovery, the joy of creativity, the joy of love.  No Epicurean would ever become a saint or a hero.

There is nothing in it equivalent to Abraham Maslow’s peak experiences nor Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s flow.  Epicurean happiness occupies the bottom three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Epicurean happiness is not purpose-driven.   It is not a search for the meaning of life.  Epicurus taught that the only meaning to life is to get through it as pleasantly and painlessly as you can, without complaint.

Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, said Epicureanism represented the exhaustion of Greek civilization.   In the Golden Age of Athens, citizens competed for glory—in writing and producing drama, in athletic contests, in philosophical discourse, in politics and in war.   They believed in striving, not resignation.

But Epicurus lived at a time when Alexander the Great had destroyed the power of Athens and the other independent cities, and the individual private person was powerless against the warlords and despots who came after him.

Asking for little, being happy with what you had—that seemed to be the best you could do.   The time may come, if things continue as they are, when that is the best that Americans and Europeans can do.


Wikipedia article on Epicurus.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epicurus

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epicurus.

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3 Responses to “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die”

  1. Craig Says:

    A few things in common with Buddhist philosophy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. philebersole Says:

    Yes. I think the Buddhists take the idea of renouncing vain desires a lot further than the Epicureans did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. EricR Says:

    Nice summary of some of Epicurus’ ideas. Thanks. I’ve generally equated Epicurean philosophy with the enjoyment of life. So the “joys” you mention are part of that. Also, I understood Epicurus to have taught that pleasure, or more accurately, pleasant living or happiness was a goal built into us by nature. In other words, all pursuits are ultimately motivated by the happiness in which they result. So if we honestly look at our desires, we will see their goal as some form of happiness. I personally found this worth examining in myself. And yes, Buddhism has similar notions.


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