The Garden of Egoists: a short introduction to Epicurus and Stirner
Although Epicurus founded his famous school, ‘The Garden’, at the end of the 3rd century BC, it was only centuries later, at the apogee of the Roman Empire, that his message reached its maximum level of diffusion.
By the time Classical Antiquity started fading into Late Antiquity, the Epicurean school challenged the Stoics and few other philosophical and religious schools – among which the obscure middle-eastern cult of Christianity – for hegemony over mainstream philosophy throughout the Empire.
This might sound surprising, if we think that one of the main principles of Epicureanism was lathe biose (live in hiding). Yet, Epicureanism owed its success to the perfect timeliness of its message.
After the violent years of the Civil War, after the brief dictatorship of Ceasar and the subsequent rise to power of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor, the already narrow paths of political participation in the former Roman Republic became virtually non existing. Institutions such as the Senate continued to linger on, retaining their sumptuous building and complex rituals, but their influence on the government of the largest civilisation Europe has ever seen completely vanished. At the same time, the expansion of the latifundia of the ‘1%’ progressively pushed the class of the small land-owners into a spiral of debt, bankruptcy, and proletarianization. Cities swelled up with thousands of dispossessed peasants, crowding the insulae (the council blocks of the time) and becoming easy preys to the hand-outs and blackmails of the rich elites. At the same time, the permanent war which secured the global pax Romana (Roman peace) pushed military expenses to a level which was superior to that of the modern United States. Despite its immense wealth, the Roman Empire of the first and second century AD was mercilessly unequal, politically static and in the hands of a small elite supported by a powerful and expensive war machine.
A time which seems to be very similar to another, much more recent epoch.
Like many philosophical schools of Late Antiquity, Epicureanism proposed a system which had ethics at its centre. When we mention the word ethics today, we are inclined to think about issues regarding morality, appropriateness in interpersonal relations and so on. However, at that time, the word and the theory of ethics had a very different colouring. Ethics had to do with the quest for the ‘good life’, to be achieved during our lifetime on this earth.
Epicureanism understood the entirety of its message exactly in these terms: epicurean philosophy was a tool – in Epicurus’ own words it was a pharmakon (medicine) – which helped people to live a good life, safe from fear and torments. Epicureans didn’t believe in the afterlife – according to Epicurus, drawing on Democritus, the whole universe is composed exclusively by atoms and void, and even the soul is made of atoms and perishes with us – and they thought that this life is the only chance we have to achieve happiness.
Everything else, every discipline or behaviour, had to be finalised to the achievement of happiness and of the ‘good life’. Even scientific investigation had to be submitted to ethics. Epicurus himself, in his letter to Herodotus, in which he sums up the main points of his doctrine of natural science, stresses the fact that the true aim of the study of science is dispelling fear from the heart of those who ignore the origin of natural phenomena.
A philosophy that concentrated on the wellbeing of the mortal individual, disregarding the great narratives of Country, Religion and Honour – with their promises of eternity after death, and their requests of continuous sacrifices throughout life – couldn’t sound more appropriate to an age like that of the first and second century AD. It is no surprise that, during the long theocratic rule of the middle ages, Epicureanism was regarded as an extremely dangerous philosophy, and that it was strenuously fought by Christian thinkers. There is another, much more recent philosophy, which focuses on many of the same concerns of Epicureanism. Similarly to its ancient predecessor, it has encountered, and still encounters today, a fierce opposition by the priests of the various churches of the State, Religion and the Military: its name is anarchism, and we will come back to it later.
The aim of Epicureanism was to help people achieve happiness and live a good life. But how did Epicurus understand the ‘good life’?
Epicurus’ idea of happiness is quite different from most recent interpretations of the word. According to him, happiness was to be found only in a state of ataraxia (tranquillity, freedom from disturbance). Happiness was thus defined negatively, as a condition that lacks torments. Primarily, happiness was to be understood as a state of freedom from fear and from the pressure of needs (or from the perception of false needs).
Epicurus summed up his personal cure to the tarassein (disturbing, confusion) that makes life unhappy, in a neat formula in four points: the tetrapharmakon (four-folded medicine):
1 Don’t fear god (because gods are not bothered with human affairs)
2 Don’t fear death (because when death arrives, you are no longer there)
3 What is good is easy to get (because our natural needs are few and easy to satisfy)
4 What is terrible is easy to endure (because intense pains don’t last long, and not intense pains are easily bearable)
I would like to provide at this point a complementary, and perhaps slightly alternative, reading of ‘the good’, starting from a similarly materialist position as that of Epicurus.
We live in a condition of mortality, and we are endowed with limited means. We cannot pursue all possible ends and follow all possible paths. We must make choices. At every moment, our limited condition forces us to choose, that is, to act in one way or another. However, our relationship with choices is not always of the same intensity. Sometimes, we are crushed under the weight of the urgency to choose – we could almost say that we are ‘chosen to choose’, rather than freely choosing – and we are pushed into a loop of hyperactivity. Sometimes, our relationship with choice and activity is looser – we are able to choose whether to choose or not, whether to act or not – and we can concentrate on the autonomous unfolding of our life.
One trivial example could be that of an itch: in a ‘happy’ state, I can choose whether or not to scratch a portion of my skin; if I’m bitten by an insect, however, I am forced to scratch myself, whether that is what I want to do or not. In a less trivial example, in an unequal society the poor are forced into a frantic loop of hyperactivity, busy ‘choosing’ horrible jobs that they hate and deprived of the time and energy to pursue the autonomous enjoyment of their lives; while in an equal society, in which income is redistributed according to the needs of each, each person is free to decide whether to choose to act or not, and in what kind of activity s/he wishes to engage him/herself.
In my formulation, happiness is thus not simply a space of purely negative freedom, but becomes relevant and productive the moment it allows for the maximization (and actualization) of the potential of our autonomy is maximized. This development of Epicureanism is not a novelty, although it hasn’t often been connected to its predecessor: once again, we are talking about anarchism.
Anarchist ethics / Stirner
How can we connect anarchism and Epicureanism? And what do they both have to offer to us today?
Anarchism, differently from Epicureanism, is a very variegated and often internally contradictory doctrine. If we were to sum up the common tension that runs through all the different anarchist experiences (from the Christian anarchism of Tolstoy to the insurrectionism of Alfredo Bonanno, via the mutualism of Kropotkin, the revolutionary communism of Bakunin and Malatesta, the syndicalism of Durruti, etc), we could say that anarchism aims at enhancing human autonomy and freedom, outside and against any hierarchical and exploitative framework, and especially outside and against the State. Differently from Marxism – with which it shares many common points – anarchism constructs its political position around an ethical core, while Marxism favours an economic perspective. The happiness and the ‘good life’ of the living individuals, is the goal and the justification for any anarchist movement and practice.
The German anarchist philosopher Max Stirner provides a theoretical outlook – called Egoism – which often runs parallel and complementary to Epicureanism. Max Stirner lived over two millennia after Epicurus, and centuries after the golden age of Roman Epicureanism, yet the world which surrounded him seemed to urge him towards similar questions and similar challenges to those of his ancient predecessors. Stirner’s life (1806-1856) unfolded entirely during the so-called era of the Restoration. The hopes of the French revolution had sunk first under the dictatorship of Napoleon, and later, more heavily, under the stifling conservatism of the Holy Alliance between Austria, Germany and Russia. Towards the end of his life, Stirner had the time to witness the brief flame of the insurrections of 1848, and the bloody repression which followed. During those years, Europe was subjected, simultaneously, to booming capitalism – with the consequent growth of social inequality, mass-proletarianization, forced urbanism, etc, – the restriction of possibilities of legal political participation, the explosion of nationalist rhetoric in almost every country, and the return of a moralistic and religious cloud over the continent.
In the face of these circumstances, Stirner proposed possibly the most radical form of anarchism to date. In his book The Ego and Its Own, Stirner attacked any abstract identitarian position (from those of Religion, Nationality and Ethnicity, to the very idea of ‘Man’), and reclaimed for the individual a state of unbridled autonomy, built around the ‘creative nothing’ of our inner self, and limited only by our natural limits (and by our ability to challenge them). If Epicurus said that the universe in composed only by atoms and void, the Stirnerian individual uses the void of his/her own ‘creative nothing’ to navigate the world in which s/he exists.
Similarly to Epicurus, and to my brief remarks on the notion of the good, Stirner does not propose happiness as a permanent object which can be acquire once and for all. Happiness is not a product that we can buy, or an eternal salvation that we gain through self-sacrifice or revolution. Happiness, the good life, is a state from which we can act. It is a starting point. For Epicurus it was the state of ataraxia, for Stirner the ownness that each individual has of him/herself – against the attempts to enslave him/her by the hands of one or the other religion – for me, it is the state in which our relationship with choices and action is looser.
In all three cases, however, it is this idea of happiness which informs every other dimension of thought, activity and, particularly, of social formation.
The Garden of Egoists
Epicurus’ first school was famously called The Garden, because it took place in the garden of his house, just outside the gates of Athens. While the nearby Academy of Plato showed on the door the engraving ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter’, Epicurus’ Garden displayed the sign ‘Stranger, here you do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’ Indeed, not only this writing showed the welcoming character of Epicurus’ school, since, differently both form Plato’s academy and form Aristotle’s Lyceum, Epicurus’s Garden was open to men as well as women, free citizens as well as slaves. In a world of atoms and void, social differences counted little. It has to be recognised how also the Stoic school progressively emphasised an ideal equality between free men and slaves, to the point that one of the most important voices of later Stoicism, Epictetus, was born a slave and remained such for most of his life, before being freed and starting his own school in Nicopolis.
In the Garden, Epicurus and his friends (we could say with a pun, Epicurus and the Epikouroi, since the very name Epicurus literally means ‘ally, comrade’) worked together and helped each other achieve that state of happiness which was at the basis of their philosophy. Epicurus’ house and Garden provided the basic infrastructure, which were complemented by the work of all those involved in the school. Education run first from the master, Epicurus himself, to the students, and then continued horizontally among the students. To be sure, Epicurus’ Garden can hardly count as an example of modern, radical pedagogy, considering how Epicurus enjoyed a semi-divine status, which obviously compromised the horizontality among the friends of the Garden. However, if observed within the social context of its time, the experiment of the Garden still has very much to teach us about the conditions that make happiness possible, and about the possible techniques of ethical education.
I wonder what Epicurus would have thought of Max Stirner’s theory of the union of egoists, since in several points it seems to coincide with the life practice of the Hellenistic philosopher and of his friends. According to Stirner, the person who reclaims the property of his/her own self from the spooks of dominant abstractions, and thus frees him/herself, is to be called an egoist. An egoist, however, is not necessarily a misanthropic hermit. Egoists still look for each other, and form unions with each other, aimed at the pursuit of one interest or another. Differently from our usual idea of community, however, Stirner’s union of egoists was a group that only existed in the interest of its members, and that was designed specifically to help its members to achieve what they desired. In this sense, Epicurus’ Garden closely resembled a union of egoists, inasmuch as those who inhabited it only did so in the pursuit of their happiness, and they specifically designed the spaces and interactions in the interest of their own, individual, ethical aims. Epicurus’ Garden, like a union of egoists, wasn’t a community based on the command of God or of a State, that is, it wasn’t a community into which one might be born: it was a group that one might freely decide to join, to change from the inside or, if one so desired, to leave at any time.
Wouldn’t it seem reasonable to apply the same description of Epicurus’ Garden and Max Stirner’s union of egoists, to any educative institution? Shouldn’t any school be a place which people join, not to learn how to conform to social narratives, but in the pursuit of their own autonomous development and their own happiness? Sadly, the contemporary transformation of education into training for jobs, goes far towards the opposite direction. Institutional education has adapted itself to the general narrative which sees economic production and a quite obedience to social conformism as the true aims of our existence on earth. Max Stirner’s ‘ownness’, Epicurus’ ataraxia, and the anarchist claim that each person is entitled to pursue their happiness through the mortal time which is allowed to us, have been relegated to the pet talk of the school psychologist or to the cheap saccharine of airport self-help books.
Yet, we shouldn’t be too hasty in throwing away the so-called ‘self-help’ literature, which is challenged only by cookery books and soft-porn novels at the top of the selling charts. After all, judged with modern eyes, most of the Hellenistic philosophical production – especially in its Roman reprise during the first two centuries AD – could be partly categorised as ‘self-help’ literature. Doesn’t Epicurus’s tetrapharmakon sounds eerily similar to the power-point schemes of those books that teach us how to become Buddha or quit smoking in five days? Couldn’t we place Epictetus’ lessons, as transcribed by Arrian, on the same shelf as those books full of advice over how to win anxiety and regain confidence in ourselves? Perhaps, in a time in which ethical education has almost disappeared from the institutional horizon, and in which the challenges of social life push people towards an abyss of anxiety, desperation and panic, self-help literature remains one of the most powerful media to convey much needed philosophical teachings. It is a shame how, at the moment, only the most mediocre thinkers and writers seem to be experimenting with it…
Over two thousand years before Alain de Botton and the very invention of the word ‘pop-philosophy’, Epicurus seemed to have quite clear why and how to communicate his complex philosophical system to as wide an audience as possible. In his letter to Phytocles, for example, he recognized the importance of providing a simplified yet complete account of his theory of celestial phenomena, and undertook this task with skills and enthusiasm. He even went to the length of summing up his entire philosophical system in a few simple points, which people could memorize and discuss, before delving into the more complex texts. Consistently with his aim of helping each individual to achieve happiness, Epicurus did not disdain to speak to everybody, at different levels of complexity. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about most contemporary philosophers. As education started sinking down the drain hole of corporate interests, philosophy has withdrawn to the secret chambers of academia.
However, and to conclude, communication alone is not sufficient for a good ethical education. Even Epicurus – who, despite his fame as a glutton, was in truth a semi-ascetic – recognised that the obtainment of happiness wasn’t possible without the satisfaction of at least the most basic bodily needs, such as food and shelter. If we consider education as essentially and exclusively aimed at making the ‘good life’ possible, then every action that goes towards the same goal has to be understood as complementary to education, or possibly even as part of it. When we fight for the possibility of having a public and free National Health Service, for example, we are not just fighting for healthcare, but also for education. When we claim that the welfare state was created exactly to support the people in need, we are not only defending those who claim benefits, but we are stating that providing benefits to the poor is part of ethical education. When we say that citizenship/basic income is possible, or when we demand the working hours to be reduced, we are not simply making politics, we are making education possible.
During the religious middle ages, Epicureanism as well as the very claim that life on earth was meant for us to enjoy, were banished as dangerously atheist positions. Humans, they said, were not meant to enjoy the experience of their mortal life, but to endure sacrifice and work hard to deserve the promise of an afterlife. In this valley of tears, we, the worthless sinners, are all in this together. The European civilization sunk into a pit of degradation and ignorance that lasted for almost a millennium, until the Italian Renaissance revived the splendour of Hellenistic philosophy and, especially, of Epicureanism. A long time has passed, but history seems to have spun around in a circle. We might find out soon what the new middle ages have in store for us.