We all want to be happy but what is happiness? Haim Shapira navigates the terrain of happiness, exploring and contemplating an eclectic range of theories and insights into the conflicts we face on our journey to creating our own happiness.
These are Epicurus’ four principles – his Tetrapharmakos – for healing the mind:
1. We need not fear God.
2. We need not fear death.
3. Evil can be tolerated.
4. Good can be acquired.
Below, I shall briefly discuss the first three and then elaborate on the fourth.
1. We Need Not Fear God
There is no reason to fear God because, even though God exists, Epicurus maintains that there is no divine intervention. Humans are not important enough for God to bother punishing or rewarding us. After all, is thinking that God is involved in our personal affairs not committing the sin of vanity at the highest level?
When we talk to God, we’re praying.
When God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic.
Jane Wagner (Lily Tomlin’s comedy writer and life partner)
God exists, but I am an atheist.
I should like mercy, not justice, to guide God.
Miguel de Cervantes
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.
Whether or not God is dead, it is impossible to keep silent about him who was there for so long.
2. We Need Not Fear Death
For most humans, our greatest fear is probably death. Epicurus cannot understand this.
While we are here, death is not; once death arrives, we are no longer here. We never meet death, so what’s to fear?
Inspired by Epicurus
3. Evil Can Be Tolerated
Speaking with great mercy and compassion, Epicurus urges miserable people who suffer from deformities, diseases, old age and agonizing fatal illnesses to summon their courage when dealing with pain and the circumstances they cannot escape. As I noted above, Epicurus was true to his own word. He was very ill most of his life, but he wouldn’t let his pain break his spirit.
The feeling of pain does not linger continuously in the flesh;
rather, the sharpest pain is present for the shortest time.
Epicurus even agreed with the following saying of the great philosopher of the night:
That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.
Epicurus didn’t say that life without sorrow is possible, but he aspired to deserve everything that happened to him in life.
My wounds existed before me, I was born to embody them.
One last thing I’d like to mention about this third principle is that Epicurus did not really fear bodily pain, arguing that mental pain is greater. Physical pain exists only in the present, he claimed, while mental pain is mostly associated with the present but also with the past, and even the future.
4. Good Can Be Acquired
This principle is where Epicurus presents his recipe for happiness. As my intelligent readers may have already gathered, I’m not a great believer in ‘happiness recipes’; but if we must have one, Epicurus’ is my favourite.
First, Epicurus recommends friendship. He maintained that one cannot be wise without understanding that friendship is the greatest of values (I will discuss this later in the book).
Next, Epicurus speaks of two types of pain that hinder our happiness: physical and mental. Physical pain is expressed through bodily damage, hunger, thirst and cold, while mental pain comprises anxieties and fears. Tranquillity will come to us when we no longer feel pain, and that (according to him, of course) will put us on the road to happiness. Epicurus urges tranquillity of body and mind. He doesn’t renounce pleasures, but suggests that we engage in them cautiously, because the pain that might follow them could be greater than the joy they bring.
Epicurus further warns us against the kinds of damage inflicted by greed, pursuit of honour and glory, lust, gluttony, envy, presumptuousness, and hubris or vanity.
As noted above, Epicurus was not naïve, which is why he also pointed out that people cannot acquire many possessions through honesty (what else is new?), and that acquisitiveness is not worth the effort because all possessions bring is mental unrest.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion.
Ethics of the Fathers
The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.
Tyler Durden’s insight from the movie Fight Club
As far as mental pain (that is, anxiety) is concerned, Epicurus believed that we mostly worry for no reason at all. I believe he would gladly endorse this:
No enemy can even come close to man’s worst enemy: his thoughts. Something my grandmother taught me.
I believe that both Epicurus and my grandma are correct. Just consider the strange things that trouble our minds. What is the universe made of? Is it finite or infinite? Is it expanding or shrinking? Are there parallel universes? Is there intelligent life on Mars? (Of course, many people have more earthly concerns, such as paying the bills, the state of the economy, their struggling children, sickness within the family, and the like.)
In fact, all that Epicurus wants is to live in tranquillity and try to be happy; and if that’s not possible, at the very least he wants to suffer as little as possible.
Wouldn’t you like to suffer as little as possible? According to this wise Greek sage, one of the most important things we can do in life is to assume that ‘that tree will not fall on us’. After all, we worry the most about things that never happen.
Let me explain with an example.
Imagine you’re on a plane, flying to a vacation on an island in Thailand. How enjoyable it is to spend your time in the air engaged in pleasant thoughts such as: what if the plane crashes? and if we don’t crash, what if a tsunami turns our hotel into a floating guest house? Oh, I just know I’ll eat something bad and get sick, or have a heart attack, or go numb from a massage. I’m sure my boss will seize the opportunity to fire me while I’m on leave. What if my daughter runs off with an Eskimo modelling agent? And what if the food they serve on the plane doesn’t agree with me and I have to run to the bathroom throughout my whole vacation?
I can only hope that none of you entertains thoughts that even slightly resemble these. Epicurus argues that there’s no logical or probabilistic reason to think this way, simply because almost none of those troubling things will actually happen.
Let’s think this through:
First, I’m sure we can agree that if, while airborne, the pilot were suddenly to announce that we were about to crash-land in the ocean, it would be stupid to worry about a tsunami. Let it come, for all we care.
See? We worried for nothing.
Second, if a tsunami should hit our resort, who cares if our boss decides to fire us? Let him have a ball. We couldn’t care less.
Third, there’s absolutely no way that the following scenario could possibly happen. Flying over the ocean, the pilot announces we’re crashing (that is, heading for a drowning), and that we’re about to fall right into a colossal tsunami. Terror makes our heart beat erratically, and now we’re having a massive coronary. As we reach our hand to our chest, we feel a lump and just know this is a malignant tumour. We tremble with horror – but wait! It’s our mobile vibrating. The boss is calling to let us know we’re fired. Then there’s a call waiting, and it’s our daughter letting us know she’ll be spending the rest of her life in an igloo. Now we feel nauseous – dreadful airline food is upsetting our stomach.
Not even Eeyore the gloomy donkey could believe in such a scenario.
There is zero probability those things could happen all together, and so … there’s no reason to worry about them.
Epicurus says that whatever is meant to happen will happen, one way or another. This too, he feels, is no reason to worry, because the trouble that will hit us will be mostly of the unexpected kind – namely, things we never even considered. For example, I don’t know where you are right now, but if you’re sitting under a huge chandelier, I would suggest you find a better spot. Who knows what might happen?
(I hope you didn’t panic and are now reading under a blanket holding a flashlight.)
The main problem with Epicurus’ theory is that it’s very hard to tell ourselves not to worry without a reason, and it’s even harder to put the idea into practice. We often give ourselves excellent advice, but we very rarely listen.
Man’s greatest tragedy is the fact that he has no brake that could stop, when necessary, a thought or even the entire thinking process.
Valéry is absolutely right. Our thinking minds really do run like cars without brakes. We cannot stop our thoughts at will, not even for a moment. We cannot stop thinking, but maybe we can have better thoughts? Keep on reading.
Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance
£9.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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