Epicurus of Samos, who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens and that dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and the application of rational principles. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.

Epicurus wrote prolifically, but the early Christians thought of him as especially ungodly among the ancient philosophers, and almost none of his works survived their disapprobation. Epicurus held that the gods exist, but that they have absolutely no concern for, or even awareness of, humankind. Indeed, for them to get involved in the menial matters of men would be to perturb the supreme happiness and tranquillity that characterises and even defines them. Human beings should seek to emulate the gods in their supreme happiness and tranquillity, but they need not to fear them.

Neither need they to fear death, this for two principal reasons. (1) The mind of a person is a part of his body, and, just like other parts of his body (and everything else in the universe), it consists of atoms. The death of the person entails the death of both his body and his mind and the dispersion of their atoms. As there is no longer any person to be troubled, death cannot trouble the person after he is dead. And if death cannot trouble the person after he is dead, then nor should it trouble him while he is alive (this is the famous ‘no subject of harm argument’). (2) The eternity that comes before a person’s birth is not regarded as an evil. Therefore, nor should the eternity that comes after his death (this is the famous ‘symmetry argument’).

Epicurus himself died at the age of 72 from renal colic (kidney stones), which is associated with one of the sharpest and most intense of all bodily pains. On the last day of his life, he penned this remarkable letter to his friend and follower Idomeneus, which is nothing if not a testament to the overriding powers of philosophy.

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions. And I beg you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young man to me, and to philosophy.

Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that happiness is an end-in-itself and the highest good of human living. However, he identifies happiness with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain rather than with the pure exercise of reason. Pleasure is the highest good, and anything else that is good is so only by virtue of the immediate or deferred pleasure that it can procure. The behaviour of infants confirms that human beings instinctively pursue pleasure and that all of their actions, including those that may be construed as being either virtuous or altruistic, are ultimately aimed at obtaining pleasure for themselves. Just as human beings can immediately feel that something is hot or cold, colourful or dull, so they can immediately feel that something is pleasurable or painful. However, not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people seem unable to handle.

To help them a bit, Epicurus proceeds to distinguish between two different types of pleasure, ‘moving pleasures’ and ‘static pleasures’. Moving pleasures involve the satisfying of a desire, for example, eating a meal when hungry. Static pleasures on the other hand involve the state of having had a desire satisfied, for example, feeling sated after eating a meal. Static pleasures, says Epicurus, are better than moving pleasures because they free us from the pain of need or want. Epicurus also distinguishes between physical and mental pleasures and pains, and argues that anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death, are the greatest obstructions to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future.

Pleasure often arises from the satisfaction of desire and pain from its frustration. Thus, any desire should either be satisfied to yield pleasure or eliminated to avoid pain, and, overall, it is elimination that should be preferred. There are, Epicurus says, three types of desires, (1) natural and necessary desires such as those for food and shelter which are difficult to eliminate but naturally limited and both easy and highly pleasurable to satisfy, (2) natural but non-necessary desires such as those for luxury food and accommodation, and (3) vain desires such as those for fame, power, or wealth which are inculcated by society and which are not naturally limited and neither easy nor highly pleasurable to satisfy. Natural and necessary desires should be satisfied, natural but non-necessary desires can be satisfied but should not be depended upon, and vain desires should be entirely eliminated. By following this prescription for the selective elimination of desires, a person can minimise the pain and anxiety of harbouring unfulfilled desires, and thereby bring himself as close as possible to ataraxia. Given the prime importance that he attaches to the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and peace of mind, Epicurus is far more of a ‘tranquillist’ than a hedonist. ‘If thou wilt make a man happy’, he says, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

Plato and Aristotle both gave an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devoted the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lavished extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which included not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.

If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. A person may bear good will to another for one of three reasons, that he is good (that is, rational and virtuous), that he is pleasant, or that he is useful. While Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness.

For Aristotle, an act of friendship is undertaken both for the good of one’s friend and for the good of oneself, and there is no reason to think that the one precludes the other. In any case, to have a perfect friend is like to have ‘another self’, since perfect friends make the same choices as each other and each one’s happiness adds to that of the other. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together. Thus, even if one lived entirely surrounded by virtuous people, one would only ever have the time for at most a small handful of perfect friends.

The ideal of perfect friendship may strike the modern reader as being somewhat elitist, but Aristotle is surely right in holding that the best kinds of friendship are both rare and demanding. If the best kinds of friendship are those that are based on virtue, then this is above all because such friendships call upon the exercise of reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. However, it could be that the distinctive function of human beings is not the exercise of reason and virtue, but the capacity to form loving and meaningful relationships. If this is the case, then friendships that are based on virtue are even more important to the good life than Aristotle thinks.

Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not the life spent in friendship, but the life spent in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it leads to contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say. Plato also gives an important place to friendship in the good life…

There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!

In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.