Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance… Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Epicurus’s notion of happiness has a decidedly Buddhist quality. Happiness is tranquility, and tranquility comes principally from putting aside worldly “hankerings” — ambitions for power, status, involvement in government, the pursuit of voluptuous sensory experiences, and the accumulation of material goods. Two of Epicurus’s most quoted maxims distill this idea: “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance” and, in its more admonitory form, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”
Remarkably, Epicurus’s ideas about ataraxia — the freedom from mental anguish and disturbance that is required for true happiness—were more directly influenced by Buddhist thought than a twenty-first-century reader might imagine for a Greek philosopher of that epoch. Two of Epicurus’s early influences, Democritus and Pyrrho, had actually journeyed all the way to what is now India, where they had encountered Buddhism in the schools of the gymnosophists (naked teachers).
A parallel requirement for Epicurean happiness is freedom from fear of nature and from punitive gods. In his magnificent opus inspired by the philosophy of Epicurus, The Nature of Things, the Roman poet Lucretius reserved some of his highest praise for Epicurus’s brave resistance to religious tradition and its superstitious interpretations of natural phenomena. Epicurus was among the first of his time to make such a clean and decisive break with what he considered religious hocus-pocus. Interestingly, in Epicurus’s youth on the island of Samos, he often accompanied his mother, Chaerestrata, on her visits to peasants in her role as fortune-teller and faith healer. Apparently, Epicurus eventually saw more harm than benefit in his mother’s occupation.
Epicurus defined happiness as the absence of pain, both physical and mental, and this raises some fascinating questions for the philosophically minded of every era. One could argue that the absence of pain brings a person up to only zero on the happiness scale; to push the meter into the positive zone, more is required, say a plate of roast lamb with all the trimmings. But Epicurus would shoot back that the pleasure of eating lamb has all kinds of future pains attached to it, like a bloated stomach or, worse in the long run, a hankering for more lamb or lamblike delicacies, putting a person back in the position of the perpetually frustrated individual for whom enough is always too little. These calculations—which pleasures lead to future pain and which pains lead to future pleasure—comprised a good deal of the discussions around that table in Epicurus’s Garden.
The deliberations could get particularly tricky when they touched on questions of the relativity of measurement. What if a man in physical pain is administered tincture of poppy—opium—and subsequently reports that not only is his pain gone but he is also experiencing more pleasure than he ever did before? From this the man might conclude that in his ordinary, non-opium life he has all manner of pains that he was not fully aware of until they were removed; only now does he truly “feel no pain.” Of course, Epicurus would warn him that the life of an opium user is one of always hankering for the next “fix,” hence not pleasant in the long term at all. Nonetheless the question raised by the opium user who says that he finally feels no pain makes the idea of happiness as the absence of pain more slippery than it at first appears.
On the other hand, looking at Epicurus’s philosophy of happiness from a less analytic point of view, there may be a spiritual/psychological dimension to the idea that the absence of all pain should be the goal of life. Perhaps without both physical pain and mental disturbances in the form of fears, frustrations, and anxieties, a person may be able to participate fully in simply “being.” That is not zero; it is the best it gets. Such a man can revel in his sheer existence. He can achieve that summit of human experience sometimes known as “.” Reading Epicurus, one may find himself returning again and again to that blissful idea.
David Klein, from foreword to The Art of Happiness