The Epicurean Power of Friendship
Epicureanism is an ancient Greek school of thought that goes under-discussed as its teachings hide in the shadows of Socrates, Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle, and others.
Epicureanism was founded and established as an organized school of thought by Epicurus hence the name Epicureanism. This is not to be confused with Epictetus, one of the early Stoic thinkers who Ryan Holliday always talks about.
Epicurus believed the ultimate level of pleasure in life is found right on the borders of pain and pleasure — that is, the highest pleasure is the moment when pain ceases and we have nothing but our bare necessities.
Epicurus believed the good life meant nothing more than pursuing the desires that are both natural and necessary. Food, shelter, clothing, mental well-being, and security from life’s dangers. Chasing after anything else will lead to a net negative outcome in Epicurus’ eyes. While smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol makes you feel great at the moment, they can lead you down a life of lung or liver cancer, diabetes, or even something as simple as a dreadful hangover the next day. Thus, chasing after these thrills is a fruitless activity in Epicurus’ eyes. Pursuing a career that allows you to afford the biggest house in the neighborhood will fill you with immediate satisfaction, but who will wash the windows, clean the floors, and fix the shingles when you and your house become old and worn out? Once again, Epicurus looks at the long-term return on investment and argues, “this thing should not be pursued.”
Now, as a quick footnote here. Epicureans receive a bad wrap for this notion of “natural desires.” When it comes to smoking cigarettes, buying the mansion, or eating that cake, it is quite obvious that these are not natural dispositions that just happen to us. To make these things happen requires agency and effort, but what about the cake that is gifted to you? What if a million dollars were to fall out of the sky, or, more realistically, what if an Epicurean was selected to be bumped up to first-class flight seating?
The Epicurean would say “yes” to these luxuries because they came to them naturally, but never would the Epicurean desire the luxury so much that they would waste their energy chasing after it unnaturally. The Epicurean only pursues those desires that are natural and necessary for maintaining a basic life, and for this reason, the platonic friend is placed in the highest regard in this school of thought.
Epicurus held the friend in the highest standing of life because he believed a true friend represented the insurance of life-long compassion and safety from pain in our times of need.
Epicurus states, “Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”
We talk about 401k’s, ROTH IRA’s, and other retirement plans our career affords. We dream of having a partner, children, and grandchildren to look after us in our old age. But are any of these things more certain to come true than a loyal friend staying by your side? and More importantly, are they worth the cost-benefit analysis?
You could get fired from your job before receiving your pension, your house could burn down, your partner could divorce you. But a friend cannot divorce you.
This cost-benefit analysis of where we should put our energies in the future, and the ROI’s they will serve for our long-term pleasure explains why the Epicureans were a group of bachelors for life keeping the homies first. Epicurus states, “Nor again will the wise man marry and rear a family.” Instead, they place their bets on one of the most assuring human conventions in existence — friendship.
While personally, I don’t subscribe to living the single life as the means to the good life as I do have a long-term romantic partner, the Epicureans’ teaching offers some fruitful insight. Ask yourself, who do I surround myself with? In five, ten, twenty years, will these friends still be a part of my life? Do my friends have goals that align with my own or aspirations as high as mine?
One of the reasons Demetri and I have only grown closer since moving out of our shared living space is because we are high-aiming, dream-big individuals, and, more importantly, we are conscientious and organized enough to know we can count on each other. If I were ever in a tough spot with my education, career, or social life, I know Demetri is a friend I can call upon to consult me and provide mental reassurance.
So ask yourself, who are the long-term pleasure insurance policies you keep close in your life? It seems like a weird, analytical way to think about friendship, but it is a great system for deciding where your most genuine, driven friends exist in your life.
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