A number of philosophers over the last few millennia have advised us to make many of life's choices from the perspective of a very simple guideline: seek pleasure and avoid pain. One of the first proponents of this concept was Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, living in the 4th century BCE, who established a school in Athens. Epicurus maintained that we have an innate drive within us to want to experience pleasure and to do what we can to escape pain. It's natural; we don't have to cogitate on it. All animals instinctively do it and we humans—just another animal—do it too.
Some two thousand years later a few Enlightenment philosophers were giving pretty much the same advice. Both Jeremy Bentham (18th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century) founded the Utilitarian concept that it is nature's influence which drives humans to seek happiness and eschew pain. This simple directive very much appeals to me, yet I shy away from using the terms “pleasure” and “pain.” Why? For one, I'm aware that history has not been kind to Epicurus. Look in any dictionary and find that an “epicure” is one who “takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.” An epicurean is one who is “devoted to sensual enjoyment.” Epicureanism “advocates hedonism.” So says the dictionary.
In the 2500 years since Epicurus walked the streets of ancient Athens, his pleasure/pain message has gotten distorted; which has discredited his wider teachings in many people's minds. In fact, his reputation was being dragged through Greek gutters even as he lived, as pernicious rumors were spread by opponents of his teachings. The slandering process transformed his message from a simple, beneficial one into one of debauchery and licentiousness. His ethical teaching unjustly became unfairly reviled in the eyes of many people, over the years.
Epicurus became portrayed as a sensual degenerate, but the fact is that he and his followers lived lives of simplicity and moderation. Their aim was to put attention to what is required of us to live morally, while avoiding all forms of over-indulgence. It's unfortunate that their message of temperateness became submerged.
There is no question that Epicurus' philosophy was largely discredited because people have chiseled his message into stone, by insisting on using those terms “pleasure” and “pain.” It's unfortunate that these English words have become the accepted translations for the Greek words that he used. In fact, the words pleasure and pain are well off Epicurus' original intent; they are even misleading. So, before I proceed, let me look for two English words which I think better capture the essence of what he meant.
The Greek word that Epicurus used to describe the absence of pain was ataraxia. Its meaning is an untroubledness of mind; a tranquility; or freedom from disturbance. It implies an ideal state of mind. A few alternative English words (from the thesaurus) that also capture the meaning of ataraxia are: contentment, fulfillment, happiness, and serenity. All of these words describe a state of mind that results from the examined life—very much in contrast to a shallow life of pleasure and entertainment. So when I ponder Epicurus' message, I think more along the lines of seeking tranquility and serenity, not pleasure.
More on Epicurus' message next time...