Yet, the reality is the original Epicurus – who lived in Ancient Greece between 341-270 BC – promoted a modest lifestyle through a philosophy of ‘minimise harm; maximise happiness’ – a message at the heart of Twixtmas of doing 5 good things during the 5 days of Twixtmas between the Christmas and New Year holidays.(December 27th-31st)
According to Epicurus the highest good is pleasure, with pleasure not defined by excessive consumption but defined as simply as ‘ataraxia’ – a tranquility, freedom from fear ‘ and what he also called ’aponia’ – an absence of pain.
Twixtmas offers a five-day break to contrast with the materialistic excesses adopted during the Christmas festivity and the short-term hedonistic celebrations of New Year.
Epicurus wrote: “It’s impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honourably and justly without living pleasurably.”
The fundamentals of life for Epicurus went beyond food, water and shelter, and included freedom, thought and friendship.
Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness,
He felt that food and wine is pleasurable because they are sociable: “Eating or drinking without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf.”
The desired mental state is to be achieved by ‘sober reasoning’ – not through ‘an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry’, ‘sexual lust and even ‘the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies’.
He considered prudence an important virtue where excessive overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia.
Epicurus’ core idea is that freedom from pain depends on the absence of fear – fear of loss, fear of being different from others, and even death. What matters is a calm and contented life in the here and now.
Everything he felt should be geared towards reducing pain: “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering.”
In addition to a cheery benevolence, a genial humane temperament coupled with a genuine concern for others, Epicurus advocated equal rights for slaves and for women, and offered free schooling.
The way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires
For Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value was helpful only when it served as a means to gain happiness. Breaking a law for example, would bring both shame and possible punishment and be counter-productive to the quest for happiness..
He defined justice as an agreement “neither to harm nor be harmed.” The point of living in a society with laws and punishments is to be protected from harm so that one is free to pursue happiness. By practising reciprical altruism one can help oneself as well as others.
The tombstones of his many Roman followers had the inscription; non fui, fui, non sum, non curo: “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.”
The Epicurus mantra – known as the four cures places pleasure at the heart of living:
‘Don’t fear God,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.’
Epicurean teaching that one’s own pleasure, rather than service to God, was the greatest good were however, essentially irreconcilable with Christian teachings. By the end of the Roman Empire, having undergone Christian attack and repression, Epicureanism had all but died out.
His philosophy endured a long period of obscurity and decline where eventually his name and principles become bastardized: in modern popular culture, an ‘epicure’ is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures; ‘epicureanism’ signifies a love of good food and drink.
Epicurus has suffered the same fate as George Orwell and King Canute – where their names now signify the opposite of what they stood for, or tried to say (think how ‘Orwellian’ is diametriclaly opposed to George Orwell’s beliefs while Canute actually tried to demonstrate he could not hold back the sea!)
In our world of 2011 is it not time to recapture the orginal spirit of Epicureanism? In an age that evidently labels itself as ‘spiritual but not religious’ could the teachings of Epicure provide a more coherent moral code for our era?
In a modern world that defines itself as going through tough economic times, the Epicurian message of achieving happiness through modest materialism seems significanly relevant.
This is not to imply that the Twixtmas message is anti-Christian; Twixtmas can accommodate both people of faith and also Epicureans.
By highlighting an Epicurean spirit, the Twixtmas break for some can now become a deeper philosophical experience.
For all of us, regardless of beliefs, the five days give us an opportunity when we are not suffering from time poverty to bring greater happiness to ourselves – and to others.
Do your bit and do five good things during the five days of Twixtmas between December 27th and 31st. More details at www.twixtmas.com