Epicurean – The Evolution and Adaption of a Term

If you put the term ‘EPICUREAN’ into Dictionary.com, the meaning at the top of the list is:


“fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or

habits, especially in eating and drinking.”


The second is, ‘fit for an epicure’. ‘Relating to or characteristic of Epicurus or Epicureanism’ comes last An EPICURE is defined firstly as ‘a person who cultivates a refined taste, especially in food and wine; connoisseur.’ Secondly, we find the definition ‘a person dedicated to sensual enjoyment.’


The first is the modern definition of Epicure, the second is a sweeping stereotype of ancient Epicureans. What the above shows is that the modern term ‘EPICURE’ or ‘EPICUREAN’ seem to bear little relation to the ancient philosophical school, and in fact, the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ cliché has been wrongly attributed to Epicurus and his original followers. In this short article, I will outline the stance of the ancient Epicureans, but will also explain the link between the ancient philosophical school and the modern connoisseur.


The Epicurean school’s beliefs are often described as being dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. However, this does not mean a hedonistic, excessive free for all. Pleasure did lie in human sensations, but for the Epicureans this lay primarily in a freedom of pain, both physical and mental, called ataraxia. Politics, for that reason, should be avoided, friendship was important, the fear of death and afterlife punishment was removed by his theory of atomism.


So, no recommendation to live an indulgent and promiscuous lifestyle. In fact, he accepted a desire for good food and drink as natural, but not necessary. Wealth and immortality represent an insatiable and an impossible desire and, therefore, desires that are not conducive to ataraxia, but instead to quite the opposite.


Epicurus advocated the ‘good life’, but in quite a different way to how we might conceive it today. For him, it meant the ability to enjoy physical pleasure modestly, and the pleasure of a lack of anxiety and disappointment.


So what connects this philosophical system with the modern definitions that I outlined above. As I said, good food and drink were perfectly acceptable pleasures in Epicurus’ system but were not essentials like friendship and freedom from distress and pain.


I think partly poets who advocated an indulgence in wine, sex, and a retreat, albeit temporarily, from the cares and worries of politics, helped to steer the evolution of the term in this direction. Philodemus of Gadara, a renowned Epicurean, talks in his epigrams about arranging parties for friends with good food and wine. But nevertheless, as Cairns notes, the quantities are moderate, and the wine is not an expensive brand.[1] Such moderation was quite in keeping with Epicurus’ teachings. We know from some of his pieces, courtesans would be present, but we should read this less as reflecting an aspect of Epicureanism as a familiar feature of the Greek symposium. Nevertheless, we can perhaps see the beginning of the Epicurean ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ association.


Cicero, a fierce critic of Epicureanism, associated indulgence of the appetites, including sexually, with the philosophy, not fairly either. But Cicero may well have witnessed fellow elite Romans who self-styled themselves as Epicureans and engaged in just such indulgences.


There are also Epicurean elements in the poetry of Horace. Some poems carry a sense of ‘indulge’ while ye may, life is short. There is also the sense of advocating an achievement of calm through food and wine with friends, conspicuously comparable to ataraxia. At the beginning of one of his finest odes (3.29), Horace tells his friend, the great Maecenas, once Augustus’ right-hand man, to forget his political worries for a while and to bring out the wine.


Friends, wine, relaxation. We still associate these things. To be with true friends and find comfort in their company is to appreciate one of the finer things in life, and one Epicurus placed great value on, and we can enjoy wine and food as a pleasant, but not necessary, part of that experience. And we find relief from the anxieties of a long day at work, for example.


Thus, we get to the Epicure of the fine tastes. The Epicure takes a particular interest in fine food and wine as a pleasure, something to be valued and enjoyed. Therein lies the connection with ancient Epicureanism. Not so much the wine and fine-dining, I think we can see a Roman influence in forming that association. But the pursuit of something that gives pleasure, not necessarily of the culinary variety, but something that brings a little sparkle to life away from troubles that we can forget them for a moment.

[1] Cairns (2016) 92-3.

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