I shared dinner with a friend last night who informed me that a mutual colleague couldn’t fathom my leaving a steady public sector job. She told me that he simply couldn’t get his mind round the possibility that I viewed his job (the same type of job as mine would shortly have been) as too restrictive and bureaucratic to be fulfilling, and too time-consuming and filled with irrelevant tasks to be enjoyable. In this mutual colleague’s mind there simply wasn’t another option to continuing to remain in post for the rest of working life. He couldn’t grasp why a different choice might actually be the right choice for me.
It’s this kind of psychological narrow-mindedness that I find terribly sad. This soon-to-be-erstwhile colleague should read some Epicurus. Epicurus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who argued for the attainment of ataraxia (the absence of pain) as a means of achieving pleasure, spiritual fulfilment, and happiness. Unfortunately, much Epicurean writing has been lost, but I doubt there was a better summary of his belief system than the following excerpt from his Letter to Menoeceus:
“A firm understanding of [desire] enables us to refer every choice and avoidance to the health of the body or the calm of the soul, since this is the goal of a happy life. Everything we do is for the sake of this, namely to avoid pain and fear. Once this is achieved, all the soul’s trouble is dispelled as the living being does not have to go in search of something missing or to seeks something else…
… we have need of pleasure at that time when we feel pain because of the absence of pleasure. When we do not feel pain, it is because we no longer have need of pleasure. Therefore we declare that pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life.
When we say that pleasure is the goal, we are not talking about the pleasure of profligates or that which lies in sensuality… rather it is freedom from bodily pain and mental anguish.
For it is not continuous drinking and revels, nor the enjoyment of women and young boys, nor of fish and other viands that a luxurious table holds, which makes for a pleasant life. [A pleasant life is] sober reasoning which examines the motives for every choice and avoidance and which drives away those opinions resulting in the greatest disturbance to the soul.”
Epicurus argues strongly for self-sufficiency as necessary step en route to ataraxia. He also points out in the following extracts from the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings that:
- Whatever you can provide yourself with to secure protection from men is a natural good
- Natural wealth is limited and easily obtained; the riches of idle fancies go on forever
- Praise from others must follow of its own accord; our object should be our own healing
There is a lot of overlap between these concepts and the importance of individuation as discussed in my earlier entry on Jung. Together, they make a strong argument for carefully trying to understand oneself as the first step to achieving happiness. Both point out that wealth sufficient to one’s needs flows naturally from wisdom, and the nature and amount of the wealth required to be happy is better understood the wiser one becomes.
They also both note that living a wise life is to live a happy life. This happy life will naturally lead to the praise and respect of those with the insight to understand this. It may not attract the praise and respect of more blinkered souls (although it is likely to still draw their envy), but it is not possible nor desirable to be responsible for everyone in the world.
If you would like to read more Epicurus, The Essential Epicurus contains nearly all of his extant work. I would humbly suggest that his Letter to Herodotus and Letter to Pythocles (which contain much of his scientific understanding of the physical world) are of less relevance today than the Letter to Menoeceus. The Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings are a goldmine of pithy quotes, full of wisdom that rewards careful consideration rather than skim-reading.