Epicurus on Coping with Abundance

Sam argues that our historically unprecedented levels of wealth changes the equation for virtue and vice. Humanity has for nearly all of its existence lived on the knife-edge of starvation, and it only makes sense that norms and instincts developed under those circumstances would not necessarily set us up for success in a wealthier world.

Virtue and vice as Aristotle understood the terms were preserved to the present thanks to Christian scholars who continued to write within the tradition. The Christian version, however, like Christianity itself, was meant for everyone; Nietzsche famously referred to Christainity as a “slave religion”; Deirdre McCloskey, a Christian herself, spoke of Christian virtues being “peasant virtues”.

Originally, however, the Hellenistic schools that developed a eudaimonistic concept of virtue were comprised primarily of the well-to-do (McCloskey thus refers to their continued influence on us in the form of “aristocratic virtues”).  While their wealth was nowhere near ours, they did experience genuine affluence, and developed their ethical theories in that environment.

Consider Epicurus, who history remembers as a hedonist. Epicureanism, unlike the moderns who inappropriately use the label, was not so very far from Stoicism in a number of regards, a fact recognized by later Stoics such as Seneca. While Epicurus made pleasure synonymous with the good life, he also radically redefined the word “pleasure”—to the point where the Cyrenaics, who were actual hedonists, referred to Epicureanism as “the philosophy of a corpse.”

Why consider Epicurus in the context raised by Sam? Epicurus was fixated on what we might call long term thinking. Boredom was not his enemy as much as pleasures that we might indulge in today that could hurt us later. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in eating delicious food—unless we become dependent upon having such culinary quality in order to be happy. Since humans, in general, do tend to develop expectations in line with our typical day, an Epicurean approach to food is perfectly consistent with eating mostly bland things in order to avoid being disappointed in the long run.

It may seem ironic given the popular perception of Epicureanism, but the ataraxia of Epicurus may be one of the best guides for moderns seeking to cope with abundance.

4 thoughts on “Epicurus on Coping with Abundance

  1. I would think that the Stoic practice of occasional poverty would also be good for us. Especially since it would reset our expectations of what is actually necessary. Our relative “poverty” would still be quite rich by historical standards, and more than sufficient to meet most of our needs.

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