Why You Should Read: Epicurus

Lessons from History’s Most Misunderstood Philosopher

12 min readMay 23, 2024

Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.


Executive Highlights (tl;dr of the article)

Last month, I wrote an article on why you should read Thinking Fast and Slow as a tribute to Kahneman. Surprisingly, it was one of my best-received articles to date, and multiple readers have asked me to do more book reviews. So the plan is to do one of these a month as a special reading recommendation. This way, I can experiment with more kinds of recs and I won’t get bored of writing about one style of article.

Of everyone I’ve read, I find Epicurus to be one of the most useful philosophers for thriving in the modern era. While his name and philosophy are often associated with unchecked hedonism and decadence (hence the adjective epicurean), his actual philosophy can teach us a whole lot about living peacefully in a world of excess. Through this article, I hope to convince you to give Epicurus a spin and integrate some ‘Epicureanism’ in your life. More specifically, we will be elaborating on the following ideas-

  • Epicurus the Hedonist- People often misunderstand Epicurean hedonism. Epicurean philosophy is based on a simple supposition: we are happy when we remove the things that make us unhappy. Thus, much of his philosophy revolves around getting rid of sources of discontent and unhappiness. This involves ruthlessly cutting out all indulgences that are either- not natural (we want them to impress others, not for their own pleasure); harmful in the long run; or generally disruptive to our mental peace (status games). This aspect of his philosophy is particularly applicable to a world seeped in social media- where we are constantly bombarded by messages of how we’re lacking in some key area of our life, and how buying the next product, service, or experience will fix this lack. Epicurean philosophy is a good reminder to keep be vigilant about how we’re being influenced by the constant subliminal messaging and to only pursue the pleasures that we want for ourselves.
I’m sooo hypped for this new arc of Demon Slayer. I can already tell it’s going to be epic
  • Epicurus the Introspector (is this a word?)- Epicurus attributes a large part of our suffering to our superstitions. Our superstitions cause us to behave irrationally, losing our balance and leaving us susceptible to manipulation. Much of his emphasis on withdrawing from larger society into a smaller community of friends and peers is to create an environment where we have the mental space to critically think about our suppositions and axioms. Particularly relevant are Epicurus’s writings on dealing with fear and uncertainty- given how much communication online is constructed with the express purpose of making us angry, polarized, and scared.
  • Epicurus the Friend- Epicurus has a particularly strong emphasis on the importance of friendship as a must for a happy life. Reading his (and other classical philosophers) work creates quite a whiplash- given how little we seem to value that in our world. It’s not rare for people to leave their entire communities for university, jobs, or romantic relationships. While I’m not denying the importance of any of those or condemning people for doing it (I’m nomadic, so I replace my entire social circle every 1–2 months)- it’s interesting how friendship has almost become an afterthought when discussing priorities. It’s surprising how often people give advice like it’s okay to abandon your ‘low-value’ social circle so that you can become a millionaire. All of that despite the numerous intangible benefits that having social connections can have. Reading thinkers like Epicurus can help us hold a mirror to our own lives, and to think deeply about the tradeoffs we make subconsciously.
Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health

Epicurus covered a lot more, that we will not be covering because I either don’t know about it, didn’t find it compelling, or to keep things concise. I would strongly suggest reading his work yourself and forming your own conclusions (especially considering my lack of qualifications on these topics). It’s also worth considering that all thinkers have their limitations. The Epicuean solution of retreating into a garden only works for those with access to a nice garden. The Epicurean mind would also struggle to understand the joy of spending many sleepless nights maximizing shareholder value. It’s always worthwhile to critically evaluate every thinker, especially those who died without becoming “thought leaders” on LinkedIn. With that out of the way, let’s get into it.

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The Misunderstood Degenerate:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly. And it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

Epicurus has often been painted with the broad brushstrokes of hedonism, his name being associated with lavish feasts and unchecked indulgence. A kind of Ancient Greek R.K Rockstar. However, this is a major misunderstanding.

Epicureanism isn’t about indulging every whim or chasing fleeting pleasures. It’s about achieving a state of deep, abiding tranquility — what Epicurus called “ataraxia” — by understanding the true nature of happiness and its origins. The best way to understand Epicurean pleasure-seeking is the following quote-

And we believe that self-sufficiency is a great good, not in order that we might do with few things under all circumstances, but so that if we do not have a lot we can make do with few, being genuinely convinced that those who least need extravagance enjoy it the most; and that everything natural is easy to obtain and whatever is groundless is hard to obtain; and that simple flavours provide a pleasure equal to that of an extravagant life-style when all pain from want is removed, 131. and barley cakes and water provide the highest pleasure when someone in want takes them. Therefore, becoming accustomed to simple, not extravagant, ways of life makes one completely healthy, make man unhesitant in the face of life’s necessary duties, puts us in a better condition for the times of extravagance which occasionally come along, and makes us fearless in the face of chance. So when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption, as some believe, either from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation, but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul.


As we can see, at the heart of Epicureanism lies a simple idea: true happiness doesn’t come from endlessly chasing pleasure, but from systematically eliminating the sources of our unhappiness. It’s about recognizing that much of our suffering is self-inflicted, stemming from desires that are not truly our own. We condemn ourselves to discontentment by bowing to the alter of societal pressures, advertising, and the ever-present tendency of comparison that pervades our digital lives.

Take social media. I know people who plan trips around ‘Instagrammable spots’ and spend hours editing their photos. Others follow random accounts and unfollow them later to improve their follower ratios. And then we have people that like to tell people how many countries they’ve visited as if that means anything. All this to curate feeds and establish the superiority of their lives. Multiply this by 100 and we have a culture of inadequacy, where everyone insists on standing on their own soapbox to assert their specialness.

In an environment like this, there’s only one way to stand out- consumption. Pursue (and flaunt) more possessions, experiences, and achievements, not for the joy they might bring, but for what they tell others about ourselves. For some, materialism is no longer cool, and so they flaunt the aesthetic of activism. They post their stories, play at advocacy, and hold meetings about how they will uplift blue-collar folk or end the evils of imperialism with so much fervor that they forget to actually take action.

No matter what flavor, conspicuous consumption is meant to demonstrate a commitment to keeping up with a treadmill of expectations. Epicurus would encourage us to step off that treadmill, to question the desires that drive our choices. To ruthlessly prune away the desires that are not truly our own. In doing so, we are left with a set of desires that satisfy us, for which we are willing to live and die. By pursuing them, and ignoring all the unnatural pleasures, we end up living a life of long-term pleasure and tranquility.

The manga Blue Lock explains this very well. Seriously, y’all have to read Blue Lock. Every week gives me chills. I would love to one day speak to the creators.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Epicurus was amoral. To him, pleasures were only good and bad based on how they impacted your well-being. However, this causes a problem to anyone who wants to integrate Epicureanism into their own lives. How can you pick b/w two pleasures that lead to opposing outcomes? Should I drink that chocolate milk and thus spike my blood sugar? Or do I skip sugar and live long (this is purely hypothetical, as we all know that a world w/o chocolate milk isn’t a world worth living in). If I woke with a strong urge to walk around punching grandmas should I act on it? Or do I stifle that urge to keep my place in society? To answer such questions, we need to understand how we rank various pleasures and pains, and what we would be willing to give up. This is where the next part comes in.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.

Introspection for Pleasure

Are you miserable? There are two possibilities-

  1. Your circumstances are really that bad and nothing improves till you fix them.
  2. Your worst sin is that you’ve destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing” (what is your favorite Doestovesky work? Mine is either Brother’s Karamazov or The Idiot).

Epicurus tends to lean towards the latter. To him, a significant portion of human suffering stems not from external circumstances, but from within our own minds. Our irrational fears, anxieties, and superstitions cloud our judgment, leading us to make decisions that ultimately sabotage our own happiness. Much of this, he believed, was a result of living in a state of constant distraction, bombarded by external noise that prevented us from connecting with ourselves. As such, we look outside for cues- and end up playing the game of conspicuous consumption.

To make things worse, we are constantly bombarded with information, much of it designed to evoke a strong emotional response — fear, outrage, indignation. This is something we have talked about extensively when it comes to AI Hype- both hype bros and doomers ultimately rely on similar tactics to inculcate FOMO and induce hysteria. It’s why companies fake demos and Doomers find new ways to pass off their science fiction as existential risk-

AI Ethics has a clickbait problem

These tactics rely on echo chambers to mentally beat us into submission. Introspection allows us to increase b/w stimulus and response, letting our critical thinking kick in. However, no one can be a prophet in a flash mob. To engage in meaningful introspection, we need a space conducive to such activities. That’s where the next part comes in.

What is the impact of workplace ambiance on creative performance?

Epicurus encouraged his followers to form close-knit communities. These communities would allow their members to step back and help each other critically analyze the events around them to ensure that no one took the wrong path. The communities served as a mirror, helping people see things that they would struggle to see on their own. Thus, a good community directly benefits self-relfection.

However, this is only possible if you have a GOOD community. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that Epicurus placed a strong emphasis on friendship. Let’s end on a discussion of that.

Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends

Friendship and Pleasure

I could sit here and wax lyrical about the beauty of friendship, but I doubt any of you would contest me on that. Instead, I will throw out some random statistics

“The science of why friendships keep us healthy” has some good points such as this-

People who have friends and close confidants are more satisfied with their lives and less likely to suffer from depression (Choi, K. W., et al., The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 177, №10, 2020). They’re also less likely to die from all causes, including heart problems and a range of chronic diseases (Holt-Lunstad, J., et al., PLOS Medicine, Vol. 7, №7, 2010; Steptoe, A., et al., PNAS, Vol. 110, №15, 2013).

or this

People with no friends or poor-quality friendships are twice as likely to die prematurely, according to Holt-Lunstad’s meta-analysis of more than 308,000 people — a risk factor even greater than the effects of smoking 20 cigarettes per day (PLOS Medicine, Vol. 7, №7, 2010).

or this-

On the other side of the coin, research has shown that loneliness — among people who lack quality friendships, romantic partnerships, or other relationships — increases our risk for heart attack, stroke, and premature death, according to a longitudinal study of nearly 480,000 U.K. residents (Hakulinen, C., et al., Heart, Vol. 104, №18, 2018). A meta-analysis by Holt-Lunstad estimates that loneliness increases the risk of early death as much as 26% (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, №2, 2015).

Or take the study, The relative importance of friendship to happiness increases with age

Frequent interactions with the closest friend could have a greater impact on happiness in old age than those with the closest family and neighbor.

This is what makes the following chart so concerning-

Given what I know about India, this extends beyond just America

You could find a lot of other stats to back up how important friendship can be. So here’s a question to you- have you given your friendships an appropriate level of importance? Do you give your friendships the same importance as work, romance, or family? Or has platonic friendship slipped into your blind spot, the way it often does for so many of us?

Even when he isn’t my fav, I hold a soft spot for Epicurus because he threads a very fine line-

  1. I’ve always been drawn to the material asceticism often encouraged in Hinduism (it’s why I sleep on the ground without a mattress or a pillow).
  2. But I’ve never been into the whole “this world is nothing, reincarnation is the goal, so you must renounce all pleasures for salvation” that often comes with it. I’m very much an embrace your passions/pleasures kinda guy.

Epicurus provides a good approximation for beliefs that navigate both these aspects. I also think that when it comes to the modern world, he is the philosopher that might be the most helpful to read. And that is why he’ll always be high-up on my recommendations list.

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