The Epicureans would do Christmas very differently than most people assume. Sure, they were hedonists, they were all for pleasure. But for them that didn’t involve lavish meals and copious amounts of drink. They weren’t averse to fine dining if it happened to come their way, but they were aware that making one’s happiness depend on luxuries is a recipe for misery. Instead, they emphasized the psychological pleasure of tranquility and the pleasures of friendship. They would be at home with Christmas gatherings and the practice of giving thoughtful gifts to loved ones. They could even stretch to celebrating Jesus Christ as a God, if that meant looking at him as a role model to aspire to, not as a source of salvation and guarantee of an afterlife, writes Tim O’Keefe.
Epicureans are hedonists, believing that pleasure is the goal of life, and because of this, they were often reviled in the ancient world as undermining morality. In modern times, “Epicurean” has come to mean somebody dedicated to dainty and refined bodily pleasures.
The Epicureans also believed that the gods take no interest in human affairs and that there is no afterlife - the Hebrew word for heretic, apikoros, is derived from “Epicurean.” So it might seem that an Epicurean would want nothing at all to do with the religious holiday of Christmas, which celebrates God’s birth as a human, in order to save us from our sins. Of course, many people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and perhaps, it might seem, an Epicurean would at least be into getting some really nice presents and eating a fancy meal. But the Epicureans have been misunderstood in both ancient and modern times, and their attitude towards Christmas would be much more complicated than this.
The pleasures of tranquility
Let’s start with Christmas as a secular holiday—a time to exchange presents and gather together for a celebratory meal. If you’re a hedonist, wouldn’t you give a full-throated endorsement to the pleasures of receiving cool gadgets and eating fancy food? But a true Epicurean would protest that this kind of attitude is based on a confusion of what truly makes a life pleasant.
Especially central to the Epicureans for achieving happiness is mental static pleasure—the state of being without fear, anxiety, regret, and all other forms of mental turmoil.
According to the Epicureans, there are both bodily and mental pleasures and pains. (Think of slurping down a delicious bowl of Tom Yum soup or getting quick kick to the shins, versus joyfully recalling good times with your friends or anticipating a wisdom tooth extraction.) People often overemphasize bodily pleasures and pains, whereas mental pleasures and pains have a larger impact on whether we’re happy. Furthermore, people often think of pleasure as always involving some active titillation of the senses, like the delightful taste of the Tom Yum soup. But, say the Epicureans, we can also take pleasure in the absence of pain. When I’m hungry, that’s painful, and the process of satiating my hunger as I slurp down the soup is pleasant. But when I’m full, and no longer in want or need, that is also pleasant. The Epicureans call such pleasures “static” pleasures, and even claim that being free from all pain is the limit of pleasure.
Especially central to the Epicureans for achieving happiness is mental static pleasure—the state of being without fear, anxiety, regret, and all other forms of mental turmoil. The ancient Greek term for this state is ataraxia, which means tranquility or peace of mind. So while it’s right to call the Epicureans hedonists, insofar as they believe that our goal is to live a life of pleasure, given their idiosyncratic conception of what pleasure is, it might be less misleading to call them “tranquilists.”
What determines whether you achieve tranquility isn’t how much stuff you accumulate, but the sort of person you are. In particular, you need to have the right sorts of desires. We need basic food, hydration, and shelter in order to stay alive and to avoid bodily pain, and the Epicureans call such desires “natural and necessary” desires. You should fulfill these desires and try to arrange your life so that you have confidence that you’ll be able to fulfill them. But many people want things that they don’t really need, and these unnecessary desires lead to dissatisfaction and anxiety. Think of a desire for some luxury like top-end audio equipment or a fancy car. These sorts of desires are difficult to fulfill, and they have no natural limit. (I can always get a fancier stereo or car.) So even if I fulfill them, I will not stay satisfied, and having such desires leads to anxiety. Modern western consumer culture causes unhappiness, and the wise person will opt out of it, reducing their desires so that they can be content with the little they need.
The Epicureans would be similarly cautious about a hankering for fine food. If some luxurious food happens to come by, it’s fine to enjoy it, but I have to be careful not to become dependent on such things. It would be foolish, for example, to let my happiness depend on whether the local Thai restaurant I love stays open.
Friendship and the good life
But the Epicureans wouldn’t be grinches—they would be happy to participate in Christmas celebrations, as long as it’s done in the right sort of way. Wanting to accumulate luxury goods might be harmful. Friendship and gratitude, however, are central parts of the happy life. Humans are vulnerable and limited beings, and we cannot get everything we need on our own. We need the help of other people to overcome misfortune, and we need confidence in that help in order to achieve peace of mind. Our friends are the ones who look out for us, but to have friends we can trust, we ourselves need to be good friends, helping our friends out even when it’s difficult or painful to do so. Friendship is worth such pains. Gratitude is the appropriate response to your friends, and gratitude is also pleasurable. The Epicureans would heartily approve of giving thoughtful gifts to your friends and family as an expression of your gratitude. (“Thoughtful,” of course, is quite different from “expensive.”) And when your friends and family give you gifts in return, you can appreciate them, as tokens of their affection for you.
The Epicureans would heartily approve of giving thoughtful gifts to your friends and family as an expression of your gratitude.
The Epicureans would also approve of gathering together in community to celebrate the goods of life. And if such a celebration also involved certain rituals or the cooking of special foods in order to set it apart from everyday life, that would OK—again, as long as it’s done in the right sort of way. Epicurus said that the person who least needs luxury is the one who enjoys it most when it happens to come by. The test would be, let’s imagine that your Christmas meal accidentally burnt up in the oven, and you had to break out some rice and beans from the pantry. Would you be upset, or would you laugh about it and enjoy the rice and beans?
The Epicurean gods
Let’s turn to Christmas as a religious holiday. Christmas celebrates the birth of the son of God, who has come to bring salvation to humanity, with those who have faith in him being freed from sin and gaining eternal life. An Epicurean certainly will not celebrate that. The Epicureans didn’t believe that the world was created by a benevolent and powerful god. What happens in the world is due just to atoms moving through empty space, in accordance with no divine plan. The Epicureans also didn’t believe in an afterlife—we’re bodily creatures, like all other animals, and death is annihilation. To believe that there is an afterlife simply causes anxiety, as you worry about maybe not being among those who will be saved. We don’t need salvation from sin. Instead, we need wisdom, to learn what we really need so that we can gain happiness here and now, in the one life we have.
Epicurus said that the person who least needs luxury is the one who enjoys it most when it happens to come by.
While the Epicureans were often accused of impiety in the ancient world because they denied divine providence and an afterlife, they denied the charge. Epicurus claimed that the gods do exist, but not as the masses of people think of them. The gods, he says, would have to be blessed, but to feel jealousy or anger, or to give trouble to others, are signs of weakness inconsistent with blessedness. (Think of Hera persecuting the poor offspring of Zeus’ infidelities, or Yawheh ordering Joshua and his army to kill all of the men, women, children and animals in Jericho and getting angry when they keep some of the plunder for themselves against his orders.) Human in form, the gods give no troubles to others and are themselves at peace. They have no concern for us, so there is no reason to fear their anger or seek their favor. But it is still appropriate to worship them, because by doing so, we benefit ourselves. The gods act as role models for us to aspire to, and in fact, Epicurus said that the wise person can live like a god among mere human beings.
Now, there is some dispute about how exactly to understand the Epicureans’ claims about the gods. Perhaps they think there literally exist beings, human in form but perfectly blessed, in realms far removed from our own. (Some ancient texts point this way.) Or perhaps the Epicureans think that the gods exist, not as literal flesh and blood beings as we do, but simply as idealizations of what a perfectly happy human life would be like—that is, as a kind of “thought construct.” (Other ancient texts point this way.) But either way, the practical upshot of Epicurean theology is the same—the wise Epicurean will believe in the gods and worship them, but just as ethical ideals to aspire to.
The ancient Epicureans were happy to engage in public celebrations of the gods—which might be surprising, given their disagreements with much of popular Greek religion. But they acknowledged the benefits of ritual and community, which can include the benefits of ritual worship—as long as the divine is properly understood. And so, while an Epicurean would not accept the Christmas story, they might be willing to appropriate some of its rituals for the sake of worshiping the gods, thought of as perfected humanity.