I'm Sam. I have a serious interest in practical philosophy and related topics- mostly Epicureanism, stoicism, skepticism, and rationalism.
A Misunderstood Philosophy of Life
Epicureanism is an ancient school of philosophy founded by the Greek thinker Epicurus (341-270 BC). The philosophy has been controversial since Epicurus’s own lifetime, particularly for its emphasis on living for pleasure. People who don’t understand Epicurean ideas have accused the philosophy of being a kind of excessive hedonism. They envision Epicureans living lives of luxury, full of rich food and comforts. On the contrary, Epicurus’s philosophy is all about simple pleasure and creating balance. In fact, Epicureanism closely resembles some modern ideas about minimalism. Today, the two philosophies can work hand in hand.
Be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there nothing is lacking, the whole world is yours.
What Is Minimalism?
Minimalism is a familiar concept in the present day, but it can mean a lot of different things. We hear about minimalism in design, lifestyle, and philosophy. All of these branches of minimalism have a common theme: less is more. Minimalist design uses simple, clean aesthetics.
For a minimalist lifestyle, “less is more” usually means owning fewer material possessions. The movement is consciously opposed to consumerism. Modern minimalists try to reject the messages of rampant marketing and the consumption of goods, working to focus on the things that you actually value the most and removing excess. This is where minimalism becomes a philosophy.
True minimalism is about separating yourself from distractions and mindless consumption. Instead, it focuses on meeting simple needs so that you can dedicate your time and energy to things that truly make you happy. This requires a good deal of reflection and self-awareness; you have to examine why you make choices and what actually brings you joy.
Once you develop this awareness, you can gradually extract yourself from consumerist drives that are shaped by society instead of your inner voice. You can dwell on the quality of your time rather than the quantity of your goods and activities. Minimalism is not just about what you buy, but about finding a sense of inner tranquility.
Epicureanism and Material Simplicity
Epicurus, like modern minimalists, opted for a simple life. He did not encourage his followers to deprive themselves or embrace poverty, the way that later Christian monks did, but he did advocate avoiding excess. During his lifetime, Epicurus purchased a property outside of Athens, where he and a group of his students lived communally. They frequently studied outside, and the house gained the name “the Garden.” Within this Garden, Epicurus and his followers developed a simple lifestyle. The home was comfortable, and the residents and guests always had plenty of food and water.
Epicurus was known to prefer simple food, such as bread and cheese, and water in the place of wine. Seneca, who lived about 100 years after Epicurus, described the famous Epicurean Garden: “This garden does not whet your appetite, but quenches it.”
The goal of the Epicurean lifestyle was to meet all physical needs but not to overindulge, as excess would only bring pain. A true Epicurean should focus on desires that will bring pleasure, and desires that are possible to fulfill. A comfortable, simple lifestyle in the company of good friends is the Epicurean ideal.
Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
Epicurus on Finding Happiness
In order to be Epicurean, minimalism must also be part of the mind. A large part of Epicurean philosophy was eliminating unnecessary fears, such as fear of the gods and fear of death. To Epicurus, these fears only brought needless anxiety. He believed that the soul would dissolve into atoms at death, so there would be no pain or suffering in the afterlife. For him, this meant there was no need to fear death. Instead, people should focus on enjoying the present.
Eliminating fear is a key step to attaining ataraxia, or an untroubled state of mind. The other half is to eliminate desires. Epicureans can get rid of active desires first by meeting their body’s simple desires for food, shelter, and comfort, and secondly by eliminating excessive desires. Together, this process of elimination can enable people to enjoy the pleasures of life and relax within a tranquil mindset.
The Importance of Intentionality
Minimalism and Epicureanism may have a lot in common, but practicing one does not necessarily mean practicing the other. You could, for example, follow a de-cluttering guide and get rid of many possessions you can live without. If your goal is simply to live with less, you would be practicing a basic form of minimalism. But you would not be practicing Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the goal of life is to ethically maximize pleasure and minimize pain. If you were to practice the same de-cluttering with the intention of maximizing pleasure, then you would have an Epicurean approach.
In this sense, Marie Kondo’s approach to surrounding yourself with joy is more similar to Epicureanism than some other minimalists. This process might look different for each person, and for some objects might be counter-intuitive. Some distractions such as electronics, for example, might feel comforting, but ultimately interfere with finding a peaceful mindset. Reflecting on what improves your quality of life is key to bringing minimalism and Epicureanism together.
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
Living an Epicurean Minimalist Lifestyle Today
Many people today find the idea of an Epicurean lifestyle appealing. But that may not mean you can easily live as Epicurus and his followers did: in a communal school, enjoying simple meals in a garden and dedicating yourself to a life of the mind. But there are still ways to live out Epicurean, minimalist values while meeting modern responsibilities, and without secluding yourself from the world.
If Epicurus were alive today, he would probably find plenty to criticize about consumerist Western culture. He criticized those in public positions for pursuing power. He would likely also criticize those of us whose careers are dedicated to amassing fortunes and media attention. Of course, everyone needs enough money to support themselves in order to avoid unnecessary anxiety and hardship.
But an Epicurean, minimalist approach to life would prioritize simplicity and quality time over the accumulation of goods and investments. In many ways, embodying an Epicurean philosophy is a mindset switch. In a sense simplicity is a result rather than some set of habits I would apply. It means examining your desires, and asking yourself whether you can ever truly fulfill them. Desires for fame and fortune, for example, are rarely ever satiated.
Epicureanism asks us to redirect our energy to simple desires that truly bring us happiness and to eliminate excess in order to find tranquility.
- Amaral, Luiz G.L. “An Epicurean Approach to Minimalism.” https://www.academia.edu/36076103/An_Epicurean_approach_to_Minimalism
- Becker, Joshua. “What Is Minimalism?” Becoming Minimalist. November 13, 2019. https://www.becomingminimalist.com/what-is-minimalism/
- Kondo, Marie. “KonMari Is Not Minimalism.” KonMari. https://konmari.com/konmari-is-not-minimalism/
- Rist, J.M. Epicurus: An Introduction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972
- Suits, David. “An Epicurean Ideal.” Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. 2008. https://philosophynow.org/issues/70/An_Epicurean_Ideal
- Yilmaz, Aylin. “Philosophy of Minimalism.” The Circular. February 25, 2019. http://thecircular.org/philosophy-of-minimalism/
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Sam Shepards
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on December 08, 2020:
Thank you for your comment. Glad you enjoyed my article on the philosophy of Epicureanism vs Minimalism.
Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on October 27, 2020:
An interesting investigation into Epicurean minimalism.