Internet Alain de Botton shares a centuries-old secret to happiness

The second in the series of lectures on better life based on gleanings from philosophers, compiled and presented by Alain de Botton, is titled “A Guide to Happiness”. It takes you to the Greek island of Samos, introducing the philosopher Epicurus, born 341 years before the birth of Christ. Says de Botton, much of the philosopher’s writings are lost to humankind and his philosophy of happiness has been restructured on the fragments that have survived.

“Epicurus believed that we could all find a way to be happy. The problem was, quite simply, that we were looking in the wrong place. Unlike many philosophers, Epicurus’s idea of happiness sounds rather fun. He did not think we should feel guilty about enjoying a pleasurable life and promised that he could show us how to. Of course you might wonder why you need a philosopher to teach you to have a good time,” says de Botton.

It is easy to imagine money can solve everything, but de Botton says Epicurus felt more could be learnt from philosophy than the credit card could get you. He found many critics in his time and his philosophy became synonymous with a lotus eating lifestyle. Even today, epicurean is a word used to describe the luxury loving.

“That is a complete misunderstanding,” says de Botton. “Epicurus lived far from a luxurious life; his house was simple, his clothes were ordinary, he would rather drink water than wine, and his meal was made of bread and a few vegetables and olives….” The speaker finds it rather intriguing that a man who described pleasures as the end of life should live so simply.

“At the heart of Epicurus’s philosophy is a very simple thought that we are not very good at knowing what will make us happy...that we may feel powerfully drawn towards material things and be convinced that they are what we require to be happy. We are often wrong. What we want is not always what we need, and nothing shows it to us more than our impulse to go shopping,” says de Botton.

He says Epicurus placed great importance on friendship and friends. No wonder then, that the philosopher did not pay as much attention to what he ate as as he did to whom he ate with.

The next point to which Epicurus paid attention was freedom. To be free meant to be financially independent…and so began the idea of a commune.

The third ingredient required for a happy life…an analysed life. Our anxieties quickly diminish if we take time to think them through. To do that we need to take a step back from the noisy distractions of the commercial world.

De Botton says that Epicurus says these three are the essentials to happiness: friends, freedom and an analysed life. The speaker takes this argument forward by showing that Epicurus blamed our unhappiness on advertising. He shows advertisements, all of which in one way or other associate with the three things mentioned by Epicurus. It is the association that makes us crave for more and more and so we are left feeling insecure and wanting.

All of the 300 books written by Epicurus are lost, but there are Epicurean communities that still survive. De Botton takes you to visit the ruins of one in Oenoanda where Diogenes, a rich man of his times, built a wall and inscribed it with Epicurus’s philosophy of happiness. The city of Oenoanda had everything from an Agora to a theatre and so on. The wall was broken, historians say, perhaps due to earthquake. The fragments of wall available say that Diogenes built the wall saying, if there were one or two people whom he could talk to he would have, but this message was for the whole city. In the centre of the city, the wall stood against advertisement. De Botton goes on to read many snippets which are very relevant even today.

“Happiness may be difficult to attain,” understood Epicurus, “but the obstacles are not financial.”

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Keywords: Epicurusphilosophy