A good idea from ... Epicurus

Alain de Botton@alaindebotton
Saturday 21 August 1999 23:02

I'M ON HOLIDAY and I've decided to bankrupt myself by checking into a hotel that promises to make me happy - or, as the brochure puts it, to cater to my every need. There are two pools, air-conditioned bungalows, nightly barbecues and mimosa-lined paths trimmed by discreet gardeners.

And yet, as I write on my terrace to the sound of cicadas, I'm forced to conclude that I'm not as happy as I'm supposed to be, and it's made me think about Epicurus (341-270BC). Since ancient times, this Greek philosopher has been badly misunderstood. Look up "Epicurean" in the dictionary and it says sensual, addicted to luxury, profligate. One might describe this hotel as Epicurean, with its deep white towels and complimentary bath oils.

But Epicurus was no lotus-eater. He acquired the image because he was the first philosopher to state categorically that the purpose of life was pleasure - though what he meant by this was hardly luxurious pleasure. (I can make out a waiter carrying a tray of Champagne glasses to a neighbouring bungalow.) If you reflect seriously on what you actually need to be happy, you will - alleged Epicurus - arrive at a quite unmaterial list of priorities.

The first of these is friends. No life can be happy without friends, and no life will be miserable with them. The philosopher was so attached to congenial company that he bought a large house in Athens which he shared with his best friends. He recommended that one try never even to eat alone. "Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you are to eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf." (No friends available through room service.)

The second ingredient of a happy life is financial self-sufficiency. We can't be happy if we're at the mercy of odious and unpredictable superiors. It is better to have little money and be free, than be rich and vulnerable to the whims of others. So Epicurus and his friends dropped out of regular employment and started a commune, growing their own fruit and vegetables.

And the last ingredient of happiness is to lead a thoughtful life, analysing anxieties on a regular basis - writing them down and talking them through with friends.

If you have these three goods in your life, asserted Epicurus, however poor you may be, however bad the hotel, you will always be happy; without them, you will almost certainly be sad.

In this season of material pleasures, Epicurus points us to the fragility of any vision of happiness based simply on comfort and luxury. In the most palatial environment, a single anxiety or feeling of loneliness can wipe out the benefits of the best bath oils and towels. And conversely, with friends, with a sense of freedom, without anxieties, no cheap pension can sadden us.

Many holiday resorts have cracked the secret of luxury. Very few have cracked the secret of happiness.

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