Epicurus was a Greek Philosopher who lived about 300 years before Jesus. The core of his philosophy—at least what we remember most—is this idea: the chief purpose of humans existence was to be happy. And you were most happy when you avoided the things that caused pain or stress. Obviously, if you strip away all the stuff that causes stress or pain in your life, you’re going to be left with only the good stuff, which opened Epicurus to the charge of hedonism, and an unbridled embrace of pleasure. And while some “Epicureans” certainly went that route, Epicurus was more about avoiding the bad stuff than chasing the good stuff.
Epicurus’ counterpart was Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of a couple centuries later. Epictetus, who was also concerned with the idea of a whole and fulfilling life (happiness), believed that we would find that wholeness through virtuous living. Doing good was the right path to happiness, even if that path led us through some personal pain. Rather than doing everything you could to avoid pain or stress, Epictetus taught that you could find happiness by embracing pain and stress—not for their own sake, but as a way to live out the moral and virtuous life.
In an article in the Atlantic Monthly, Arthur C. Brooks discusses both Epicurus and Epictetus, recognizing that most of us find happiness somewhere in between the two philosophies. He advocates for a balance in which we recognize which perspective we naturally lean toward, and then try to build up the one we are less drawn to. He calls it “a happiness portfolio that uses both approaches.” To the extent that it helps us live a more whole and happy life, this is probably good advice—particularly in these days when we’re stressed and frustrated. Not entering into situations that cause us pain is a good idea, especially if we can reasonably avoid them. But since we cannot avoid all of these circumstances, then allowing our moral compass to guide us through the difficulty can also offer us a sense of well-being. We can be happy in our perseverance.
But I’d like to offer a third possibility, a third way to live a purposeful and complete life. Epicurus was able to justify his position because he believed in a radical materialism—a perspective that rejected the idea of anything beyond the material realm. There was no abstract, Platonic Ideal, and there was no afterlife. So a morality based on fear of punishment in the afterlife was just silly. If this material life was all there was to existence, then the best way to live was to avoid immediate pain or stress, and embrace the good in life—live for the moment. Epictetus recognized more than just this radical materialism, he believed in a benevolent deity who equips us to rationally consider our choices, but ultimately, the individual was responsible to make their own way—they had to choose virtue over vice in order to be happy.
Obviously for the Christian, Epicurus presents a problem. We recognize that our choices inevitably have a moral component that resonates into eternity. So we can’t base our living strictly on the principle of avoiding the bad stuff and embracing what gives us pleasure. The philosophy of Epictetus is also challenging. While the Christian life is all about virtue, living a virtuous life alone is not enough—it fails to recognize some deeper, more fundamental realities that Jesus reveals—realities of grace and forgiveness.
I’m not an expert, but Greek philosophy—I believe—ultimately stumbles in its individualism. Both Epicurus and Epictetus present to us a path to individual happiness, to be followed by the individual. You—individually—do these things, and you will be happy. What they don’t recognize (or maybe dimly see) is that true fulfillment, happiness, wholeness, or well-being cannot be realized as an individual. It can only be realized in relationship with God. What peace and joy is ours when we finally trust God and stop leaning on our own understanding! This is not a matter of giving up our individualism, as if our freedom or will was something to be cut out of our being, but a matter of bringing our will in line with and submissive to the perfect will of God. It is the prayer of Christ in the Garden—“Not my will, Father, but thine.” We cannot find true happiness when we are trying to find it on our own. We need a relationship with the ultimate source of wholeness in order to be whole ourselves.
Epicurus had some good points. We can be our own worst enemy, pathologically chasing pain as we wade into circumstances that only promise grief. Consciously removing stress from our lives is beneficial. But Epictetus also offers us some wisdom. There is great satisfaction in doing good, a deeper happiness that rises above the difficulty. But if we want to have joy that isn’t dependent on either avoiding pain or chasing virtue, we can find it in relationship with our Heavenly Father. Simply being a child of God is a source of great comfort and peace, and is not contingent on anything we do. It is grace that God freely gives. So in this time of stress and crisis, do what you reasonably can to be happy, but know that true happiness, true well-being, can only be found in the loving arms of God.