Are some desires better than others?
Epicurus on what is natural and what is vain
10 minutes read - 2031 words
Epicurus believed that the most reliable way to be happy is to reduce one’s desires until it’s easy to satisfy them. He distinguishes three types of desires: natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary and vain. Of these, only the natural desires deserve any consideration, according to Epicurus – and because they are natural, they will be easy to fulfil.
Welcome back to another exciting post in our quest to try out six philosophies of life within the space of one year. This week, we’ll talk about two main points of Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness: how to distinguish which desires are better than others — and what pleasures really are. Epicurus believes that if we only understood our own desires and the nature of pleasure correctly, it would be easy for us to lead happy and meaningful lives without wasting enormous effort on pursuing the wrong goals.
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If there was a prize for being misunderstood as a philosopher, Epicurus and his view of desires would make a great candidate.
Dictionary.com defines: “Epicurean: Fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking."
Merriam-Webster: “Epicurean: Involving an appreciation of fine food and drink."
The Cambridge English Dictionary: “Epicurean: Getting pleasure from food and drink of high quality."
Poor Epicurus. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Epicurus advocated that we should reduce our desires to what is natural and necessary so that they are easier to fulfil. For him, happiness consists in fulfilling one’s desires, and since natural desires are easier to satisfy, concentrating on those will make sure that we live happy lives.
Of course, we all desire things. We want an iPhone. Or a better house. A faster car. A family, perhaps. A good meal. On a more basic level, we want to be fed. To avoid being hungry. To avoid thirst, and cold, and too much heat. To not stand in the rain. To not be threatened by wild animals.
For Epicurus, pleasure is nothing but the absence of pain. Pain can further be subdivided into pain of the body and trouble in the soul. This negative description of happiness is surprising at first sight, but is a necessary component of the Epicurean philosophy of happiness.
Epicurus and the three types of desires
Epicurus looks at all these desires, and he sees three distinct types.
First, there are desires that we have due to our nature. Hunger, thirst, the need for sleep. These are also necessary to satisfy. If not satisfied, they will cause pain.
Then there are desires that are natural, but which won’t cause physical pain if not fulfilled. For instance, having friends. Or, perhaps, having sex. (He’s not entirely clear on which desires would fall under this group).
And finally, there are all the other desires we have. Phones, cars, expensive meals, fashionable handbags. These are neither natural nor do they cause any pain if not satisfied. These Epicurus calls vain desires.
We only have to pay and to struggle for stuff we don’t actually need.
The thing about vain desires is that they are not in themselves bad. Epicurus does not judge desires from a moral point of view. But some desires are simply not worth it in terms of happiness. If I want a fancy handbag, I’ll have to earn the money. In order to do that, I’ll have to get a demanding job that will probably require me to work overtime. This will make it harder for me to find a partner and to start a family. In the end, I do get that handbag, but I’ve paid a lot for it — and not only in terms of money. I paid for it by being lonely and stressed and overworked. It is not morally bad to want that fancy handbag. But is it worth the sacrifice?
Let’s look a little closer, Epicurus says. What makes us unhappy? When we do have a desire, but no way to satisfy it. It is the distance between my present situation and the desired situation that causes unhappiness. If my present situation is identical to the desired situation, then I’m perfectly happy. Happiness is a perfect match between desire and fact, between what I want and what I have.
Now comes the Epicurean trick. If unhappiness is just a distance between two points, then I can reduce the distance in two ways, not only one. I can try to satisfy my desires. This is the first way. I can try to get that handbag. But what happens after I get it? I will be happy for a while, but then I’ll have a new desire for something else. Another handbag perhaps, a more fancy one. Or another thing entirely. Desires never end. As soon as you fulfil one, another one comes along. This is the problem with trying to be happy by satisfying one’s desires.
Epicurus (341-270 BC) is often seen as an advocate of a luxurious life, rich in good food and other pleasures. This is incorrect. Epicurus was, if anything, an ascetic: someone who thought that pleasures and good food have a negative effect on our happiness and that we should train ourselves to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.
Reducing one’s desires
But now, look. If desire is just a distance between two points, what about moving the desire down to meet the facts, rather than trying to move the factual situation up to meet the desire? This is the second way of eliminating the distance between my present situation and the state I desire. Reducing my desires produces, according to Epicurus, just as much happiness as fulfilling them. After all, a distance is a distance. The distance between me and the table can be reduced by moving myself towards the table, or the table towards me. Both are equally valid ways of going about it. But moving the desire down has several advantages: for instance, it doesn’t invite further desires as soon as the first one is satisfied. And it doesn’t require me to spend money, or effort, in order to purchase anything. The desire is within me, so I can manipulate it at will, and at no cost at all.
This is the beauty of the Epicurean solution. Instead of trying to satisfy my desires, I can reduce them. In both cases, I will get the same happiness, but one will be hard, while the other will be easy.
Now, how do I reduce my desires? This involves realizing first, that most of the desires that we find hard to satisfy are, actually, vain desires for things we don’t need.
Who needs a fancy handbag? Will its absence cause pain? Will my life be worth less without it? Probably not. The things that are needed for life are actually, so Epicurus thinks, easy to get: Some food. Water. A place to sleep. Fresh air. So are all things that we desire naturally: The calming stroll along a forest path. The view of a sunset. A fresh breeze. Friendships. Love. These things all come for free. We only have to pay and to struggle for stuff we don’t actually need.
And this is why Epicurus is so horribly misunderstood. He wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t enjoy good food if the opportunity presents itself. No harm done if you don’t cultivate a vain desire for it. But wanting expensive food and luxuries is only going to make you miserable. It replaces what your body and soul naturally want, and what is easy to obtain, with a vain fancy: something that will enslave you. Something that will force you to live your life driven by never-ending desires. Something that will require constant sacrifices to occasionally give only a fleeting moment of satisfaction.
Hedonism is the thesis that happiness and pleasure are the same. But is that true? Does the enjoyment of pleasures like good food, chocolate, sex and a myriad other things that we consume everyday — do these things really make us happier?
Realising how little we actually need in order to be happy is, for Epicurus, the first step towards freedom and happiness. And realizing also that what we most need is provided by nature for very little money: basic food, a place to sleep, friendships, love, the beauty of nature. These things are price-less in a double sense. Freedom and happiness are just one eye-opening realization away.
Let us this week examine our own desires in the light of Epicurus’ distinction. Why do I really want a more expensive car or a faster computer? Will the more expensive car bring me to my destination any sooner or safer? Will I type my blog posts faster on the faster computer? Most of the time, we want these things not because of the real utility that they will bring to our lives, but because what we really are after is the approval of others — and this is precisely what Epicurus calls a vain desire: one that is sure to make us unhappy without providing any utility to our lives.
One way to see the truth of this is to realise that we want new and shiny things more if these things are more publicly visible. Most people would wish for a bigger, more luxurious house in a better neighbourhood. Most would wish for a new car that would look stunning in their company’s parking lot. Being very visible, these are the kinds of things that invite us to want them for the sake of others (and their opinion of us), rather than for our own. Many of us, when stuck at home (as we experienced life during the past year) will not wear expensive perfumes, flashy clothes or jewellery. Most of us will not order an expensive menu of rare delicacies, but happily eat whatever is lurking at the back of the fridge. When left alone, many of us will binge on some old TV series rather than watch the latest masterpiece of that upcoming artsy film director whom everyone talks about. These behaviours, the way we are when we are alone, show us what we really need to be happy — and this is often very little. A comfortable, worn-out sweater. A ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. A bunch of wildflowers on the table. A warm crust of bread, fresh from the oven.
Let’s make a list of the more expensive things that we’ve bought in the past month and another of the moments in which we’ve been most happy in the same period. What was it that caused this happiness? Was it the expensive things, or, as Epicurus would think, the things that nature and our fellow humans provide to us for free?
Tell me in the comments!
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The Art of Happiness is a collection of Epicurus’ writings related to his philosophy of happiness. Epicurus is easy and entertaining to read and has a lot to teach us in our modern (and often misguided) societies about how to live a happy life.
Travels With Epicurus is a charming travel diary to Greece, exploring the question how happiness relates to age and how older people can try to find the spirit of Epicurean happiness in today’s world. It is a wonderful, eye-opening book on the dignity and value of ageing well.
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