An Epicurean Feast for the Mind

canoe-equanimity“A philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.”

How like the Buddha’s Dharma is the teaching of the Greek philosopher Epicurus! Both are concerned with relieving suffering, of leading the practitioner to more effective, happier and enjoyable living. The term “Epicurean” denotes followers of Epicurean philosophy, based on the teachings and practices of Epicurus of Samos.

Unfortunately, the term in recent times has been degraded through use to refer merely to the pleasures of the table. In fact, Epicurean philosophy is ultimately concerned with reaching ataraxia, a Greek word meaning “imperturbability” or “equanimity.” This is precisely what Buddhism seeks as the ultimate goal for the practitioner: a perfect inner equilibrium that protects one from being buffeted by the storms of life. As Hiram Crespo writes in Tending the Epicurean Garden:

Like Buddha’s doctrine on Nirvana, the stability of ataraxia requires the extinction of desires, to reach a state of satisfaction, of not-wanting and not-hungering…Epicurus, however, did not shun all desire. He was a pragmatist who distinguished between necessary desires and unnecessary desires.

This sounds a great deal like the Buddha’s Middle Way. Also, as the Buddha said that suffering was a condition of human life that could be diagnosed and ameliorated through enlightened practice, so Epicurus taught that the garden of ataraxia could be carefully cultivated. Both teachers held out a specific method for reaching that oasis of tranquility.

I highly recommend Tending the Epicurean Garden by Hiram Crespo. Reading it has been a most enlightening experience, and has strongly validated my own worldview as a philosophical materialist/humanist. Many contemporary secular thinkers claim Epicurus as their own: the philosopher felt that giving in to the superstitious instinct — or to supernatural explanations of natural phenomena — were sure ways to take the luster off one’s philosophy. I and countless other humanists would strongly agree.

Photo courtesy of Nick Kenrick

Leave a Comment