Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?

My Mum passed on a book she thought I’d be interested in the last time we caught up, which is a pretty simple act in the context of a modern and technologically sophisticated world, but remains a powerful method for sharing ideas and challenging the status quo.

Image courtesy of Penguin Australia
Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

In this case the book was an essay by Luke Slattery – ‘Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?’, published by Penguin Specials in 2012. To place him historically, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who predated Christ by three centuries, and it was fascinating to read that centuries later the movement remained robust, active and relevant. So much so that it was in direct competition with the evolving Christian religion for the spiritual hearts and minds of the local populace, perhaps even had the better of, before it was overtaken and largely forgotten. One of those sliding door moments that could, perhaps, have led to a radically different world to the one we inhabit today.

The essence of Slattery’s writing is that Epicurus’ teachings suggested happiness can only be achieved through a simplification of our lives, to want less, to need less, to find joy and fulfilment through friendship, simple pleasures and living in the present. He also, radically, rejected the Gods, the concept of fate or an after life, extolling to his followers the capacity they had for personal agency within their own lives and communities, and that nothing mattered but the here and now – no paradise came after.

Slattery takes these ideas and transposes them onto the biggest challenge we face today, unsustainable development. Relentless, exponentially increasing consumption is at the heart of our global economic system, constant growth as a necessary force for attaining prosperity, for social justice and equity. The question is, can we decouple human development, fulfilment and happiness from this desire for more stuff? Because if we can’t, our future appears to be very bleak, both for the civilisation we have created and our species as a whole.

What fascinates me about this book is the timeless quality of human frailty. Almost 2,500 years ago the people of ancient Greece were worried about the impact on our wellbeing of a propensity for greed, of striving for power, of desire for wealth and material goods. These concerns are not unique to our time, to our own manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism, globalisation, industrialisation and free markets. We aren’t special in that regard, as Epicurus’ concern is both deeply spiritual and enduring – how do we achieve human happiness? What is unique about our modern world is that greed and desire on a global industrial scale has the capacity to significantly alter or destroy the eco-system services we rely upon to supply our life giving needs – air, food and water.

The key question for me is how do we create the required transformation of our socio-economic system? How do we shift billions of people away from a life based upon material aspirations? My sense is that this is not about a search for answers. Epicurus, amongst other philosophical traditions, has provided a sound basis for living our lives sustainably. Similarly, climate change as an issue could be largely resolved with the technology and knowledge we already have available, it is only the political will that is fundamentally lacking. We have to want to change, we have to be motivated to change, we have to be given a positive vision of what change will mean and look like. Perhaps most of all, we need to know that we are not on this journey alone, that we are part of a broad community movement. I’m not a practitioner of any organised religion, but I recognise the urgent need to emotionally engage and unite society with the biggest challenge it has ever faced, and the potential of religion to teach us how to bring people together for a common moral/ethical cause. It’s a funky collaboration, science and religion, but if the process isn’t collaborative and inclusive what chance do we stand?