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The Art of Happiness.

The Art of Happiness Epicurus (2012). London: Penguin.

In recent years, Irvin D. Yalom has introduced existential therapy to the ancient school of Epicurean philosophy. Thus, in his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death, Yalom makes frequent references to the relevance of Epicurus to the therapeutic aim of tackling the fear of death. In addition, Emmy van Deurzen (2006) has drawn attention to the relationship and between existential therapy and ancient philosophy as arts of living. However, many existential therapists are not very familiar with the Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy, including the philosophy of Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher as well as the founder of the philosophical movement known as Epicureanism. Epicurus' school of philosophy was a clinic of the soul (psuche), based in his own garden. Simply called 'the Garden', Epicurus admitted women and slaves into this school. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy as an art of living was to achieve Eudaimonia. The Greek word Eudaimonia is often translated as 'happiness' but it literally means 'to live with one's good spirit', and 'human flourishing' has been proposed as a more precise translation (cf. Nussbaum, 1994). Although Epicurus declares human flourishing to be a kind of pleasure, it is a mistake to conceive of him as a pure hedonist. The Epicurean notion of human flourishing rather has a distinctly Buddhist quality to it, characterized by the absence of physical pain (aponia) as well as by tranquility (ataraxia), requiring freedom from mental fear and disturbance. Thus, Epicurus asks how we can live with the most joy and wellbeing and the least suffering, but rather than advocating for a libertine life, he proposes an ascetic practice of self-control and abstention from all forms of indulgence.

The recent volume from Penguin Classics contains all Epicurus, extant writings. Unfortunately, the volume includes a traditional translation of Eudaimonia as 'happiness'. Despite this slightly inaccurate translation, the volume succeeds in showing how this Epicurean notion of happiness requires freedom from fear. Thus, the Epicurean art of living is based on a materialist philosophy of nature, serving the purpose of freeing human beings from god-fearing superstition and god-worshiping religiosity:

It is impossible to get rid of our anxieties about essentials if we do not understand the nature of the universe and are apprehensive about some of the theological accounts. Hence it is impossible to enjoy our pleasures unadulterated without natural science

(Epicurus, 2012: p 175)

In his recent book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World from 2016, Tim Whitmarsh describes how Epicurus and his followers thought that gods could not intervene in human affairs. Even though the Epicurean art of living fulfills all the criteria of a highly spiritual practice, the ancients referred to the Epicureans as ungodly (atheoi), and their ideas inspired later attacks on popular superstition and religious institutions. Karl Marx's (1902) doctoral thesis was on the Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature, and the teachings of Epicurus had a profound impact on Marx's idea that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion.

In particular, existential therapists will find interest in Epicurus' Letter to Menoeccus and Leading Doctrines. In these texts, Epicurus outlines an understanding of the art of living as an attempt to heal people's maladies of the soul and mind by assessing the beliefs, values and meanings by which they live. According to Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry's (1989) letter to his wife Marcella, Epicurus holds that that argument of the philosopher is empty if it does not therapeutically treat any human suffering. Thus, the primary purpose of philosophy is to serve as a kind of spiritual therapy that aims at healing the spiritual problems of human beings by freeing them from pain and fear. Ultimately, this involves freeing human beings from the fear of death, because we do not experience anything when we have died. Thus, Epicurus is referring to being dead, not to dying:

Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensation and that which has no sensation is no concern of ours

(Epicurus, 2012: p 173)

At the end of his career, French philosopher Michel Foucault (2005) became preoccupied with Epicurean, Stoic, Cynic and Sceptic arts of living. He conceived these arts of living as therapeutic technologies of the self, aiming at creating a beautiful self in a Nietzschean way. However, French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot (1995) found that Foucault misinterpreted the Hellenistic and Roman philosophers, wishing to reunite the self with the world. Following Epicurus, the cause of spiritual problems are unnatural and unnecessary desires, being part of conventional culture. Spiritual healing consists in training human beings to detach themselves from these desires by relying on the healing powers of reason. According to Epicurus, human beings must free themselves of their ignorance about the natural world and lead a virtuous life as a means to gain tranquility and human flourishing.

It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly, and justly

(Epicurus, 2012: p 172)

At this stage, human beings will only tend to their natural desires and they are in a position to centre in themselves and fence off the demands of conventional culture. However, being in the world and having relationships are important aspects of living a good life, meaning that human beings must also be in a position to re-unite their spirit with other people and the world:

The person who is the most successful in controlling the disturbing elements that come from the outside world has assimilated to himself what he could, and what he could not assimilate he has at least not alienated [...]. All who have the capacity to gain security, especially from those who live around them, live a most agreeable life together, since they have the firm assurance of friendship

(Epicurus, 2012: p 179)

Epicurus and existential therapy are both dealing with lived philosophy rather than mere speculation, and they both emphasize the therapeutic value of living in the moment. Epicurus' Letter toMenoeccus and Leading Doctrines are fascinating reading to any existential therapist, who is interested in a secular perspective on the spiritual dimension of existence. Furthermore, Epicurean therapy involves an in-depth transformation of the client's self and life that might inspire the development of existential therapy as a philosophical art of living.
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Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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