Minimalists in History: Epicurus


“Epicurus developed his ethics directly from his physics. . . . Epicurus reasons that since there can be neither reward nor punishment after death, man’s highest good must be sought in this life.”
– Russel M. Geer


I happened across Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings at the library. I know the title makes it sound a bit dry, but it turns out to be a fascinating collection of work. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BCE (aka BC).

Some of the letters deal with science.

The eclipses of the sun and of the moon may be due to their extinction, as we see lights on earth put out. They may also result from the interposition of other bodies, either the earth or some other body that is similar to it but invisible.

Lightning may be caused when the proper atoms are forced from clouds, when fire from the stars falls from clouds where it has gathered, when fiery atoms set clouds on fire, when winds or clouds under strain burst into flame, or in other ways.

“The necessary desires are for health of body and peace of mind; if these are satisfied, that is enough for the happy life.”
– Epicurus

If you’re wondering what this has to do with simple living – well, nothing. It’s just interesting, and I kept reading sections aloud to my poor husband.

But the letter to Menoeceus, which addresses Epicurus’s “moral theory,” is relevant.

Because, Epicurus believes, death is the end, we should strive to have happy lives. This doesn’t mean we follow all of our desires, as some desires are “vain.”

He explains:

For the very reason that pleasure is the chief and the natural good, we do not choose every pleasure, but there are times when we pass by pleasures if they are outweighed by the hardships that follow; and many pains we think better than pleasures when a greater pleasure will come to us once we have undergone the long-continued pains.

Health of body and peace of mind are, to Epicurus, the ingredients of a blessed life.

“To be accustomed to simple and plain living is conducive to health and makes a man ready for the necessary tasks of life.”
– Epicurus


As you can see, Epicurus didn’t think we should overindulge. Rather, he says, “When we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasure of the profligate or that which depends on physical enjoyment.”

He goes on to explain that by pleasure he means the body is free from pain and the mind is free from anxiety. It is not possible, he says, “to live pleasantly without at the same time living prudently, nobly and justly.”

The letter to Menoeceus ends by saying if you meditate on these precepts, “you will live like a god among men.”

“Natural wealth is limited and easily obtained; the wealth defined by vain fancies is always beyond reach.”
– Epicurus

In his “Vatican Sayings,” Epicurus gives more advice on simple living and happiness.

Poverty, if in proper proportion to the natural purposes of life, is great wealth; but the wealth that is unlimited is great poverty.

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.

To love money unjustly gained is evil, and to love money justly gained is shameful.

The wise man who has become accustomed to limited means knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.

What cannot be satisfied is not a man’s belly, as men think, but rather his false idea about the unending filling of his belly.

Since the attainment of riches can scarcely be accomplished without servitude to crowds or kings, a free life cannot obtain much wealth, but such a life has all possessions in unfailing supply.

Nothing satisfies him to whom what is enough is little.

What do you think about Epicurus’s opinions about happiness? 



5 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Epicurus

  1. Christy, I can’t think of a time when overindulgence led to anything but discomfort. Whether it was food, drink, or in the case of material things too many possessions makes me a very unhappy person. I had an interesting conversation earlier today, that I found unsettling. A car pulled into our parking lot, it wasn’t anything fancy but it was relatively new and clean, shiny. Upon seeing it the woman I was visiting with remarked that anyone who drove a car like that and decided to live in a tiny apartment was crazy. It bugged me all day, why should someone who found a good used car (I happened to know the person who owned the car and know it was bought used) be required to live in a bigger or nicer home to match some expected perception of status? Or on the other hand, anyone who lives here is supposed to drive an old beat up vehicle to show poverty because they don’t want a large home?

    • Wow, that is disturbing. I can’t imagine why people get so judgmental about things that don’t affect them. I’m sure people judge my car – it is definitely older than people would expect for where I live and what I do for a living. As long as the thing is reliable, that’s all I care about, but if someone likes having a nicer car, that doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t expect everyone to knit, and hopefully they don’t expect me to like bowling – why are our other choices seen so differently?

      • That was my thought exactly. Why do we still judge by appearances. I hope the stigma many have about living in a smaller home passes soon so people can explore that option without the stigma attached. It’s similar to the stigma attached to living in a mobile home. It’s only okay if you are a senior who escaped winters down south it seems.

  2. Hi Christy, A fascinating post! I (for the most part) agree with Epicurus’ s opinions about happiness.
    I like this one:
    “The wise man who has become accustomed to limited means knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.”
    I’d add: “The wise man who has become accustomed to limited means knows better how to share with others than how to take from them,” … because he can empathize better with others.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.