Is Epicureanism grim because it teaches us that the soul dies with the body, and that gods do not take a personal interest in relieving us from our troubles? The opposite is true, for we cannot achieve all the happiness that is possible unless we live in the reality of now, fully appreciative of the joys that we have achieved already. This we cannot do unless we live free of fear of the gods, and free of the false hopes and fears of what might come after death. Thus Epicurus taught us to focus on the study of Nature as the proper means of imprinting these realities in our minds.
But regardless of the amount we study, is it really possible to put aside those fears completely? Is it really possible to experience happiness now — despite the pain, suffering, and death that we see all around us? Does not the immensity of the sickness and dying we see every day overwhelm our efforts to be courageous, especially when it occurs among those most dear to us? Does not the inevitability of our own death and therefore our inability to remedy the wrongs of the world condemn us to lives of misery? Is not all of life a constant torture, interrupted only by the moments when we can evade the ever-present pain, much as a dying man craves pain-killing drugs?
Of course not! Epicurus shows us the main problem: happiness is not possible if we define it in impossible terms, ignoring the limits that Nature has set for us.
Focus for a moment on the process of aging, as we watch our youth drain away, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed as the years carry us forward to our own inevitable deaths. Does the knowledge that “all good things must come to an end” stain the pleasure of living so much that we would choose never to have lived in the first place? Does the loss of our loved ones who die before us cause so much pain that we would rather never have known them at all? Of course not.
Take a more immediate example: Think of the knowledge that our first taste of a new pleasure is often the greatest, and that the intensity of that first pleasure cannot be relived no matter how many times it may be repeated in the future. Does this knowledge lead us to such sadness that we would choose never to indulge the pleasure in the first place, since it cannot be repeated? Again, of course not.
In such a way Epicurus understood and taught us to focus on the importance of our present happiness, even in the face of eternal death. Not for a moment did Epicurus stand in the face of Nature and shout “No!” Instead, he acknowledged with gratitude that in the limitless immensity of space and time, what a precious privilege it is to be alive, and to experience consciousness — even for a moment!
These thoughts come to mind as I remember a line from a 1940’s movie which has long struck me as profound, but which I could not place into an Epicurean context until recently.
Think of two people – a man and a woman – first falling in love, who for the first time experience the joy of their first kiss. And consider that the woman – whether consciously attributing it to Epicurus or not – knows of the insight we are discussing. What would such an Epicurean woman say to a lover benighted by Stoicism (or Platonism, or Aristotelianism) — a lover who dwells in fear and rebellion against the laws of Nature, always yearning for what Nature does not provide, and never appreciating what Nature does provide. What might such a woman say about their different attitudes toward their first kiss?
Think on that question, and then consider the final line of the following short clip: