Epicurus on the Three Obstacles to Happiness and Tranquility

According to Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.), an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Epicureanism, the path to living the good life is self-evident. At bottom, there is something that we all seek for its own sake, and that is pleasure, just as we all seek to avoid the opposite of pleasure, pain. Since we all know with relative certainty the kinds of things that bring us both pleasure and pain, we can use this knowledge as the foundation for living the best possible life. 

Not all pleasure, however, is created equal; Epicurus made key distinctions between the types and degrees of pleasures, and prioritized the attainment of long-term pleasure, or tranquility (ataraxia), over short-term pleasure. This is why a fairer characterization of his philosophy is to describe it as “tranquilist” rather than hedonistic.

We may engage in the hedonistic pursuit of short-term pleasure, for instance, by overindulging in the consumption of alcohol. In the longer term, however, this will decrease our overall amount of pleasure as we must face the consequences and pain of overindulgence: hangovers, alcoholism, the risk of physical disease and premature death, etc. For Epicurus, the tranquility associated with moderate satiation is to be valued more highly than the intense pursuit of short-term overindulgence. This ensures a maximization of the total amount of consistent pleasure attained over a lifetime. As Epicurus said:

“No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.”

In seeking to maximize long-term pleasure and tranquility, Epicurus identified the three primary obstacles to achieving this ideal, in which his entire philosophy would revolve: 1) the tyranny of desire, 2) the fear of the gods, and 3) the fear of death.

Controlling desire

Epicurus realized that desire is, when unfulfilled, a form of pain. Pleasure is nothing more than “desire-satisfaction,” whereas pain results from “desire-frustration.” Realizing this, Epicurus noted that there can be only two strategies for achieving pleasure: 1) the fulfillment of desire, or 2) the elimination of desire. 

Notice that there is an asymmetry here: while there are an almost limitless amount of things that can be desired, a very small number of things are necessary to living a happy life. Therefore, it is always easier to achieve happiness by learning to eliminate desires than it is to constantly strive for the satisfaction of more and more desires. As Epicurus put it, “If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give him more money; rather, reduce his desires.”

Some desires, of course, are “natural and necessary,” including food, water, shelter, and even friendship. These are necessary for life and are impossible to eliminate, but they are, for the most part, easily attainable and provide the long-term satiation Epicurus seeks.

In contrast, “vain and empty” desires, including desires for power, wealth, fame, and the accumulation of material possessions, are—in addition to being difficult to acquire and hard to maintain—potentially limitless. For example, regardless of how much wealth you attain, it is always possible to attain more. And so the pursuit of greater wealth or fame not only fails to provide long-term satisfaction, it also stimulates further greed. As Epicurus said, “He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.”

Modern research supports this, showing that most people have a baseline level of happiness that they return to regardless of what happens to them. This “hedonic treadmill” prevents most people from achieving long-term gains in happiness once they’ve hit their goals, and simply compels them to set even greater goals. You might think, for instance, that you’d be quite happy to earn your first million dollars; but after a while, your desire for two million dollars will be equally strong. The far better strategy would be to reduce desire in the first place. As Epicurus put it, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Epicurus, anticipating modern research by more than 2,000 years, recognized that any desire that is potentially limitless contributes very little to tranquility—and often inflicts far more pain, frustration, and anxiety—and that the path to tranquility begins with the elimination of these “vain and empty” desires. It is far better, in the long term, to replace the pursuit of limitless desires with the natural and necessary desires that are easily attainable. 

Overcoming the fear of the gods

Epicurus was a thoroughgoing materialist and atomist. Whether or not he was an atheist is debatable, but if he did believe in the existence of the gods, he did not believe that they concerned themselves or interfered with human affairs. As Epicurus pointed out, if the gods are perfectly wise, happy, and tranquil—as the ancient Greeks often claimed—then this would be inconsistent with their concern for the administration of human affairs in an imperfect and frustrating world. More than likely, Epicurus thought of the gods as the psychological projections of people’s ideal selves. To be a god was simply to be in control of one’s own happiness. 

The atomism of Epicurus claimed that all bodies are the result of the random motion and combinations of indivisible and foundational atoms. Epicurus argued, like Democritus, against the infinite divisibility of matter on the grounds that nothing would stop bodies from being infinitely divided. Since bodies exist, there must be a limit to divisibility and that these smallest units (atoms) must exist. Further, it is the combination of atoms—and this alone—that can explain all observable phenomena.

The implication is that natural events like earthquakes or tsunamis, for instance, are the result of natural, random processes and do not result from the wrath of the gods. This, to Epicurus, was liberating in the sense that it freed people from the constant worry associated with displeasing the gods, for a permanent state of tranquility could never be achieved under the constant fear of supernatural punishment. 

This realization that the gods either do not exist or else do not care about human affairs had a strong ethical element for Epicurus. This is interesting because, in contrast to the common view of religion as a form of consolation, Epicurus viewed religion as a constant source of anxiety and fear to be extinguished through a better understanding of the operations of the natural world. If we follow Epicurus’s lead, we can see that science has an inherent moral component that frees us from unnecessary fear. 

It is also worth mentioning that Epicurus was the originator of The Problem of Evil, if the following quote can correctly be attributed to him: 

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Epicurus is highlighting the inconsistency between the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving god and the existence of evil in the world. This continues to represent a significant challenge to theists today, but it could not have particularly troubled Epicurus. He knew that when the fear of the gods is extinguished, and one realizes that the gods, if they do exist, do not concern themselves with human affairs, that evil is easily explainable as a natural occurrence that can only be addressed through a better understanding of how the world works (science). 

Overcoming the fear of death 

Death, perhaps more than anything else, evokes intense fear and anxiety. The philosophy of Epicurus—which prioritized the attainment of lasting tranquility—could not be complete until it confronted the king of all fears. 

In response, Epicurus gave us not one, but two arguments as to why we should not fear death. The first is as follows:

According to Epicurus, death is not something we experience, therefore death cannot be painful. According to the metaphysics of Epicurus, the mind—being a particular and temporary configuration of atoms—is annihilated at death and incapable of experiencing either pleasure or pain. So death is nothing to the living, since they are not yet dead, and nothing for the dead, since they don’t exist. As Epicurus said:

“Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

The second argument is known as the “symmetry argument.” It points out that the state of death is similar to the state we all experienced before being born. We have no reason to think of the infinite time before our birth to be in any way unpleasant for us, and therefore have no reason to think of the time after our death to be any more unpleasant. 

These arguments, of course—while fully consistent with the metaphysics of Epicurus—only work if you believe that the mind is annihilated at death. The existence of any form of afterlife introduces the possibility of experiencing pleasure or pain. This is why, perhaps, the metaphysics of Epicurus took the form it did. Atomism and materialism, along with the belief in the annihilation of the mind upon death, eliminates both the fear of the gods and the fear of death simultaneously. Whether or not this is a greater consolation than that which is provided by religion is, perhaps, debatable. 

The four-part cure of Epicureanism

Without the fear of divine retribution or death, and liberated from the desires most likely to cause us frustration and pain, the Epicurean achieves long-term happiness and tranquility that is easy to preserve. It is obvious from all of this 1) why it is an appealing philosophy to many even in contemporary times, and 2) how it lost its popularity during the Age of Faith due to its materialist and atheistic positions. 

In today’s climate, though, if faith in the monotheistic religions continues to fade, we may be due for a resurgence of interest in the “four-part cure” of Epicureanism, described by Epicurus as follows:

“Don’t fear god,

Don’t worry about death;

What is good is easy to get, and

What is terrible is easy to endure.”

Concluding thoughts

Epicureanism is a compelling philosophy, but it is not immune from criticism. A critic could point out that Epicureanism doesn’t instruct us on how to resolve the conflicting pursuits of pleasure between two people or how to balance the pleasure of oneself versus the pleasure of others (and how do we deal with sadists?). It also doesn’t provide us instruction on how to handle adversity when the avoidance of pain is not an option (Stoicism tackles that subject in far more depth). 

But while there is merit to these criticisms, as a general guide, Epicureanism can point us in the right direction in terms of avoiding common sources of suffering, anxiety, and pain. And by recognizing that all humans are equal in terms of their desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain, Epicureanism can lead to a more sympathetic concern for the pain of others, and to a moral imperative to reduce aggregate levels of unnecessary harm.  

Further reading

6 thoughts on “Epicurus on the Three Obstacles to Happiness and Tranquility

  1. Thanks for an interesting text!

    One problem with the simplicity of the rule of liberating ourselves from desires that causes us pain, is that if that was easy we’d already have done it. For me, it kind of implies that we are in control of our desires and that we can be rational about them. It’s not my experience that that is true. The desires that causes us pain are often some sort of survival strategy that has an addictive element in it. Few people, if any, can methodically go through their desires and choose which to keep and which to let go of.

    It’s still a important rule, today more than ever, since it points us in the right direction, that we should strive for simpler desires and that limitless desires are a root of pain.

    1. Elis,

      Your point is well taken, and there is some truth to this. On the other hand, I think it’s undeniable that we could find several examples of individuals who rationally gave up destructive habits that were otherwise pleasant but detrimental to long-term health or happiness.

      Those who give up smoking, for example, have done precisely that. They have rationally given up an extremely pleasurable habit in service to long-term health. There is nothing stopping the philosopher from taking the same approach to wealth, fame, etc. in service to longer-term happiness. In fact, this is what Epicurus, and many other individuals practicing various religions and philosophies, do on a daily basis.

  2. Just found your blog and enjoyed it. You said that “Epicureanism doesn’t instruct us on how to resolve the conflicting pursuits of pleasure between two people or how to balance the pleasure of oneself versus the pleasure of others (and how do we deal with sadists?)”.

    If you read the last ten of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines, you will find the contractarianism theory of justice in Epicurean ethics, which basically says that human relations are just if there is mutual advantage.

    As to sadists, PD 39 says that we should try to have many friends but, when friendship and mutual advantage are impossible, we should avoid social delinquents.

    So Epicureanism is a bit more sophisticated than mere hedonic calculus. Mutual benefit (and the agreement to not harm or be harmed) is the guiding principle in Epicurean social ethics, and avoids exploitation or harm of one person by another.

    1. Hiram,

      Great points, thanks for pointing this out. It does seem, however, that the harm principle can at times conflict with the pleasure principle (i.e., sacrificing one’s pleasure to prevent the harm of others). A good example of this is political activism in the fight against injustice and the harm of others. Political battles are often not pleasurable for the individual fighting them, and results in great personal sacrifice and harm for the benefit of others. It seems, however, that Epicureanism discourages this type of political engagement.

      We can ask, if the prevention of harm in others always takes priority, then was Epicurus right to place such a significant emphasis on pleasure?

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