When I first started blogging about Epicurus a year ago, there were several websites devoted to Epicurean thought (Epicurus.info and Epicurus.net) but only one devoted to applying Epicurean principles to day-to-day life. Stefan Streitferdt’s Stress-freedom.net and his book “From Pain To Pleasure – The Proven Pathway to Happiness” remain today the primary internet resources devoted to the practical application of Epicurean principles to the everyday challenges of life.
It is a central Epicurean insight that one does not study philosophy to store up book-learning for its own sake, but to achieve — in the present — the goal of living a happy life. One can study for a lifetime, but the principles learned are wasted if not implemented. “From Pain to Pleasure” is a basic guide for implementing Epicurus’ core ideas. It is written in a conversational, understandable, and engaging style, and explains how Epicurus’ core tenets are essential to happiness. The book conveys these tenets through illustrations with which modern readers will be immediately comfortable, but beneath the surface the basic organization remains faithful to the ancient Epicurean core.
Various chapters address the fears that plague us and how to deal with them, the means of evaluating our needs so that we can work rationally to achieve them, and the problem of how we go about identifying and satisfying our desires. The book provides an excellent introduction to concepts and methods that are rarely discussed outside the Epicurean context, and it provides practical solutions for implementing those ideas.
Very often those who have not studied Epicurus swing wildly between two equally erroneous views about his positions. Some believe that Epicurus promoted pleasure in the form of “wine, women, and song” as the goal of life. Others understand that Epicurus counseled that the desires be restrained, but they fail to see that this restraint was not an end in itself. Paradoxically to those new to the subject, the goal of Epicurean restraint was in no way related to the abominable mortification of the flesh promoted by most religions. Instead, for Epicurus restraint of the desires (or “temperance”) meant the application of the reasoning mind toward the goal of experiencing more of the mental and physical pleasures of life. Epicurus therefore classified the desires according to whether they are (1) natural and necessary for life, (2) natural but not necessary for life, or (3) neither natural nor necessary. His crucial insight was that one must constantly use one’s reasoning mind to choose to pursue only those pleasures that are either necessary or natural, as these can generally be obtained and enjoyed without undue penalty. In contrast, a decision to pursue desires which are neither necessary nor natural is — as a rule — a prescription for disaster. Let it be clearly understood: Epicurus did not teach that we should limit our desires only to that which is necessary for a life of subsistence. Any desire which is natural, even though it may not be strictly necessary, is also fair game so long as the cost of acquiring it does not outweigh the enjoyment brought by its attainment. Much of “From Pain to Pleasure” is devoted to showing how these Epicurean insights are applied.
Thus “From Pain to Pleasure” shows that the Epicurean path to happiness does not involve either hedonism (in the popular sense of that word) or asceticism. “From Pain to Pleasure” points the way to the Epicurean insight that Nature provides the both the basic goals of life and the tools by which those goals are to be obtained. Because these goals and tools are provided by Nature, we need not be slave to irrational fears of punishing “gods” or to the belief that we are the helpless playthings of “Fate” or “Fortune.” Life does present us with innumerable difficult circumstances, many of which are not of our own making, but how we react to those circumstances is of our own making, and we deserve the blame or credit for those decisions. We must accept that the scope of action open to each individual varies dramatically according to that person’s age, health, and mental and physical attributes, just as the experiences possible to a cat differ from those possible for a dog or for a human being. But regardless of the limitations of action under which we may sometimes find ourselves, Nature has established that the goal of all living things is happiness, and that happiness is possible to us so long as we live. And it is essential to recognize that happiness is possible because the experience of being alive is by Nature happy, and we have no real need for the exotic stimulations that often appear so desirable. The truth is that so long as we can continue in life without unbearable pain, each of us has within us the ability to experience the happiness and contentment that make life worth living.
In many ways it is fair to say that the entire body of Epicurean work remaining to us was devoted to the art of living happily, so “From Pain to Pleasure” has the space to cover only a few of the most important Epicurean tenets. It is therefore to be hoped that the current work will be expanded in many future editions.
In the wilderness of what passes for intellectual life today, the established institutions of our society have set before us many dead ends in the roads to happiness. In contrast, the true road to happiness was established by Nature, and it is the “renowned road — clear, simple, and direct” — pointed out to us by Epicurus, the “master-builder of human happiness.” “From Pain to Pleasure” is an excellent resource for finding and following that path.