Letters on Happiness

by Peter Saint-Andre

Letter Twenty-Two: Reverence for Life

Previous: Letter Twenty-One: Human Emancipation

Dear Schuyler,

I too like how Epicurus ties happiness, friendship, and the love of wisdom. As we've seen, he also makes connections to happiness from reason, clarity, beauty, joyfulness, simplicity, serenity, justice, self-reliance, prudence, gratitude, confidence, and courage. And he tries to make it easy to put these insights into practice in everyday life. It's quite an appealing package, even if some of the details are still hazy (and might always remain so, given how little survives of his original writings). You can see why so many people converted to the philosophy of Epicurus in ancient days, and so infrequently converted from Epicureanism to some other creed.

One thing that still puzzles me is this matter of "the baseline", however. Why can't your enjoyment of life be increased instead of merely embellished once you have certain necessities taken care of (food, shelter, companionship, and the like)? I've been pondering that the whole time we've been exchanging these notes, and I think I might have a path toward the answer.

In essence, although perhaps he didn't express it very well, I think that Epicurus had a reverence for life — he felt a simple joy in being alive and in being conscious of himself and the beauty of existence. To him this pleasure was strong and sweet and utterly basic and irreducibly individual. Everything above that was mere embellishment: as long as he was alive and healthy and not threatened by cold or hunger or worried about where his next meal was coming from, he felt perfectly happy because the very fact of being alive was precious and beautiful.

Now, I grant that this is speculation and maybe it's something more poetic than he was comfortable saying directly, but it's the only way I can make sense of his idea of the baseline and his non-hedonistic view about the pleasure of living.

I'm curious to hear what you think about this hypothesis.


Next: Letter Twenty-Three: Greener Thoughts

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Epicurus