An Epicurean and a Stoic enter a bar. The Epicurean asks for the wine list and orders the most expensive bottle of Champagne.
‘Why not?‘ She says. ‘Life is all about experiencing pleasure’.
The Stoic balks at the cost and orders a soft drink. He admonishes her.
‘People are starving in the world. You should think about others.‘
Which one has the secret to happiness I wonder? Would you rather live like an Epicurean or a Stoic? You might know that when it comes to a choice between Epicureanism vs Stoicism, it is a no-brainer. Experiencing life’s pleasures is surely the route to happiness. Going without doesn’t make us happy. Or does it?
It turns out, living a happy life is not that simple. To find out which one works, we need to examine the differences (and similarities) between Epicureanism and Stoicism.
Epicureanism vs Stoicism
You might be familiar with Epicureanism and Stoicism. Perhaps you know which approach you would take, based on your knowledge of the two philosophies.
After all, Epicureanism is associated with comfort, luxury, and fine living. On the other hand, Stoicism relates to hardship, going without, and long-suffering.
I would guess that if it was a choice between Epicureanism vs Stoicism, most people would pick the former. But you might be interested to learn that these two philosophies are not so different after all.
At first glance, it may seem their approaches to happiness are complete opposites. Epicureans pursue pleasure whereas Stoics have a sense of duty.
However, this is way too simplistic an explanation. Both philosophies regard a happy life as the end goal. They just go about it slightly differently.
Actually, Epicureans believe living a modest life will avoid mental and physical pain. And Stoics believe in living a virtuous life and that not everything is under our control.
Let’s look at Epicureanism first.
What Is Epicurean Philosophy?
‘Everything in moderation – Enjoy the simple pleasures of life.’
Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) founded Epicurean philosophy around 307 BC. Epicurus established his school in a closed-off area known as ‘The Garden’, which admitted women (unheard of in those times).
The fundamental principle of Epicureanism is that in order to achieve a happy life, one should seek out modest pleasures. The aim is to reach a state of aponia (an absence of physical pain) and ataraxia (an absence of mental pain).
Only when we live a life without pain of any kind can we reach a state of tranquillity. The only way to live in tranquillity was to live a simple life, with simple desires.
Epicurus identified three types of desires:
- Natural and necessary: warm, clothing, food, and water.
- Natural but not necessary: expensive food and drink, sex.
- Not natural and not necessary: wealth, fame, political power.
We should concentrate on fulfilling natural and necessary desires and limit ones that are not natural or necessary.
Instead of chasing these unnatural or unnecessary desires, Epicurus argued that pleasures were to be gained in the following:
How to Practice Modern Epicureanism?
Live life in moderation
Epicurean philosophy is to live in moderation. Don’t live a life of luxury or excesses. You don’t need an upgrade to the latest smartphone or HDTV to find happiness.
Likewise, if you always dine out at the finest restaurants, drinking the most expensive wine, you will never learn to appreciate luxury. We have to experience the ordinary so that the extraordinary stands out.
Be satisfied with the simple pleasures of life
Epicureans believe that wanting more is the path to pain and anxiety. The way to obtain tranquillity is to live in ‘cheerful poverty’ and to limit desires.
Epicureans firmly believe that if you are not grateful for what you have, you will always be looking for something better to come along. Stop striving for the things you don’t have and enjoy the things you do have.
“To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.” – Epicurus
Epicurus placed great importance on cultivating friendships. Having loyal friends makes us happy. Knowing we have a strong support network around us is comforting.
Human beings are social beings. We are not good in isolation. We crave another person’s touch or talk. But not just anyone. We thrive around people who love us and care about us.
What Is Stoic Philosophy?
“God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Rev. Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr
The Serenity Prayer is a perfect example of Stoic philosophy. Stoics believe there are things we can control and things that are out of our control. This is the same as the theory of Locus of Control. We achieve happiness when we are grateful for the things we can control and stop worrying about what we cannot.
Stoicism is a philosophy founded in the 3rd century. Rather than teaching in a hidden garden, Stoicism began in the bustling open marketplaces of Athens.
Stoics believe the way to eudaimonia (happiness) is to appreciate what we have, not what we want in the future. After all, what we have right now was wished for at some point in the past.
According to Stoics, happiness is not the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it the avoidance of pain. Owning or desiring wealth or material things are not obstacles to a happy life. It’s what we do with these things once we acquire them.
For Stoics, happiness is possible by cultivating the following:
As far as Stoics were concerned, leading a virtuous life will create a happy life.
How to Practice Modern Stoicism?
Be grateful for what you have by living in the moment
Stoics have a similar belief to Epicureans regarding desire. Stoics share a ‘be grateful for what you have’ attitude, but they don’t advocate living in poverty.
Stoics are not against a person desiring a better life, or more material things, or amassing wealth, so long as these things are put to good use for others.
Show by example
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.” – Marcus Aurelius
We all tend to talk a good fight at times. I’m guilty of it; you know what I mean when we say we are going to do something and because we’ve said it out loud there’s kind of no need to go through with it now.
Stoics argue that it is no good talking, you should be doing. Don’t just admire good people or support good people, be a good person yourself. Live a virtuous life.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stoics don’t believe in avoiding pain, they advocate quite the opposite. This is probably where the misconception of the word Stoicism comes from.
In the face of misfortune or adversity, Stoics advise that you use this as a learning experience. Mishaps are opportunities as they are challenges to be overcome. Misfortunes are character-building and only serve to make us stronger in the long run.
For some people, the secret to happiness lies within Epicureanism or Stoicism. But there’s no reason why you can’t pick out parts from either philosophy you are attracted to. I’m sure the ancient philosophers wouldn’t mind.
- Featured image L: Epicurus (public domain) R: Marcus Aurelius (CC BY 2.5)
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