Taoism and Epicureanism


[rough rough draft! –BREAK INTO SECTIONS]

In this document I have mentioned Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Buddhism. I feel it’s also necessary to give a shout out to Taoism, the philosophy of simplicity, patience, and compassion described in a book called the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BC by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

I was introduced to Taoism by a wonderful book called The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, and learned more from another wonderful book called The Tao Is Silent by Raymond M. Smullyan. These Westernized interpretations of Taoism strip away most of the superstitious aspects, which makes it more appealing.

Taoism includes a belief in a supernatural force called the Tao, which in my opinion is not only one of the most beautiful deity concepts in any religion on Earth, but is hands down the most plausible. If there is a creator, then I think It is probably like the Tao.

Here is my quick summary of the central philosophy of Taoism:

Take it easy and go with the flow of the universe, and everything will be okay.

Or in the words of Lao Tzu: give yourself up to whatever the moment brings.

Isn’t that a lovely personal philosophy?

Taoism is light on dogma. It gives practical guidelines for dealing with life on a moment by moment basis, and for living pleasantly. I think the reason Taoism is so nice is that it is based on accepting or yielding, rather than on striving. You accept yourself, accept other people, and accept the universe. Modern day psychologists are discovering what the Taoists have known for centuries: that happiness results from acceptance.

Here is how Lao Tzu describes the ideal person:

Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

And from #48:

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

On accepting yourself (#44, and there are many others that are just as good):

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

On accepting the world as it is (#29):

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

Taoism isn’t about being lazy. A Taoist can be a pro-active person, but simply isn’t stressed out about it (from #63):

Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.

My problem with Taoism is that the paradoxical poetry of the Tao Te Ching, while intriguing and beautiful, puts too much emphasis on intuition over reason, and ultimately does not add up to a comprehensive philosophy. In my own experiments with Taoism I found it to be air-headed and unsatisfying. I wanted to grow as a person, and I didn’t see how Taoism could take me where I wanted to go.

The other problem, of course, is that the Tao is a human construct like Yahweh or Allah (albeit more appealing than the anthropomorphic deities) and I can’t bring myself to believe it truly exists.

However, Taoism has left its mark on me, for I believe with the Taoists in simplicity, patience, and compassion, and Taoism has taught me to say yes to opportunities that arise; sometimes it is a pleasure to roll along with the current and to accept whatever the universe has in store for me.


My favorite philosopher is Epicurus.

He was a born 341 years before Christ on an island in the Aegean Sea. In his mid 30s he moved to Athens, where he started a school of philosophy called, simply and aptly, The Garden.

I find many things to like about Epicurus. He believed in equality. His school admitted women and slaves, which was quite unusual in his time (or, for that matter, in the two millennia that followed). Evidence suggests that he did not exploit his followers. His philosophy was not heavy handed in extolling virtue, but by all indications he was himself virtuous; on his death bed one of his chief concerns was the welfare of a friend’s children for whom he felt responsible. He was one of a few philosophers who developed his own version of the Golden Rule long before Jesus. He was a theist of sorts but he put no stock in divine providence or in an afterlife; in fact his philosophy depended heavily on the absence of the gods in human affairs and the finality of death. Science in that day was almost entirely guesswork, which is not good science by today’s standards, but Epicurus’ mechanist cosmology was remarkably prescient – in some respects more accurate than Aristotle’s. He believed matter is comprised of atoms. He seems to have conceived of photons a couple thousand years before Einstein. He assumed there were countless other solar systems and thought it was possible that plants and animals could arise on other planets. He is sometimes credited with being an evolutionist since he believed the gods never intervened in the world and he once mentioned “the seeds out of which animals and plants arise.” Even when his guesses were wrong he approached science in a surprisingly modern way. He was anti-superstitious. He grasped the importance of empirical evidence and advocated the study of nature.

The reason I most like Epicurus, though, is for his concept of the pleasant life.

He esteemed pleasure, which he called “the alpha and omega of a blessed life,” and “the starting-point of every choice.” In this he might be labeled a hedonist, but that label would be misleading. He avoided excess and the kinds of pleasures that most typify hedonism. He thought long and hard about pleasure and grew to understand all aspects of it. He realized that not all pleasures are desirable, and that some pains are worth enduring to gain greater pleasures.

Epicurus said, “No pleasure is in itself evil, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail annoyances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.” He therefore thought we should seek, in the words of Lucretius, an Epicurean poet, “pleasures which are free of penalties.”

What are these penalty-free pleasures? Simple things! For Epicurus, the pleasant life was sitting in his garden with his friends, thus the name for his school, The Garden. Pleasures that are uplifting rather than self-destructive are Epicurean, such as: friendship, learning, nature, music, and art.

From his letter to Menoeceus:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

I love this!

Note that Epicurus urges “banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.” If I’m interpreting this correctly, Epicurus understood one of the core components of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: self-defeating beliefs unnecessarily produce depression from adversity, but these beliefs can be expelled, and adversity is more rationally faced with good cheer.

To summarize the happy little philosophy of Epicurus:

  • Live in the moment without fear.
  • Enjoy simple, sustainable (not self-destructive) pleasures, like sitting with friends in a garden.
  • Practice moderation. Avoid unnecessary pain. Avoid drama.
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 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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