In the hard core of Epicurean philosophy is the search to achieve the best possible state of personal happiness in the only life that we do have. On the other hand, I claim that the Abrahamic religions or Judaism, Christianity and Islam are in the end geared more towards maximizing the happiness of one's own community. The true rewards for obedience to an individual are promised only after one’s life is at its end.
Of course, also Christianity contains many ideas that aim to increase the personal state of happiness of the believer. However, a very basic thing is that in Christianity the main goals in life are to be achieved by rejecting personal pleasures. Most of all personal happiness can be achieved only by doing things exactly in a way that the religion orders.
The eternal conflict between the need of individual happiness and the needs of the society is a concurrent theme throughout the human history. There is this never-ending fight to strike the right balance between the needs of the society and the rights and freedoms of the individual.
The reason why Roman Empire did choose Christianity as its running mate is of course very clear. Christianity was already during the third and fourth century perfected as a tool for the oppressive feudal state. This happened even if in its core message there was still something of the fiery individualism of the first Christians.
However, from the time onward that Christianity gained real power in society the original individualism was just more and more visible only in words. It did less and less affect the practical policies of the church.
Christianity was by then a powerful mixture. It could be sold in the personal level as a personal solution for reaching everlasting happiness. However, it did really work as social glue and inhibitor of social unrest in very unjust societies. Late Roman Empire and the later violent and oppressive European feudal regimes accepted this with great pleasure.
The modern Christianity is of course not one big lump anymore. However, there are dozens of very different interpretations of every single principle and dogma in Christianity. The more old-fashioned forms of Christianity are still geared into giving comfort to people who have no or very little feeling of personal choice or feeling of empowerment over their own lives.
The most old-fashioned forms of Christianity still have their most loyal supporters in countries and groups where chances for social mobility are small or nonexistence. In countries like that life just is still often uncertain and hazardous.
The promises of eternal life and rewards beyond grave can give great comfort to people who’s lives are miserable, and most of all who see themselves as unable to change their current status. A lot of this comes from the older Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism, where accepting one’s current circumstances and making the best of them was a very important and concurrent theme.
One central thing that is common to both Epicureanism and Christianity is the idea that one cannot achieve real and lasting happiness by just fulfilling one’s needs and wants. This is true, even if Christian writers of the past of course tried to portray rivaling Epicureans as filthy and greedy hedonists.
In Epicureanism, this end is achieved by examining and analyzing what is the minimum of what a person does really need for living. This goal is then striven for with trying to discard all those needs and wants that are superfluous.
Epicurus realized that just trying to maximize the amount and duration of pleasure does not, in fact, give real pleasure after a certain point. Very soon just increasing the amount of things that can give pleasure will make it harder and harder to achieve any kind of true pleasure.
This is the reason why Epicurus personally preferred simple cheese and bread for meals. He knew that having, for example, even the best possible beef every day would just soon produce smaller amount of pleasure every day. On the other hand, even the simplest of cheese can give true satisfaction when it is eaten only when one is truly hungry.
Epicurus knew that by keeping his needs simple, he would also minimize his reliance to others and maximize his personal freedom. The simpler needs are the easier and cheaper they are to fulfill. The more complex and expensive things one strives for, the more dependent of others one does become also the less free a person ultimately becomes.
In mainstream Christianity the same goal of limiting pleasure is sought with very strong formal limits and restraints on the socially allowed behavior. In the end, the whole idea of striving for personal pleasure is made a suspect in Christianity. It becomes even in the end a thing to be feared at all forms.
Of course, in practice tens of millions of Christian have enjoyed wine, sex and good meals as well as all other people. However, the fact is that the core message of their faith is strongly geared against deeply enjoying personal pleasures.
So, even Christianity has not in practice stopped most people from enjoying themselves and their lives, it has succeeded in making them feel guilty about it. Largely because of this legacy of the Christian puritanism we have so much trouble understanding the Epicurean principles. In them the central thing is achieving a working personal control of ones urges, needs and wants.
In Epicurean thinking you need to decide yourself when the level of search for pleasures is not good for you anymore. You simply need to decide by yourself when it is best just to stick to the old bread and cheese.
In contrast, Christianity relies on formal set of rules that clearly defines what pleasures are allowed and what are denied totally in that faith. Of course, the biggest difference is that in Christianity these rules are marketed as ‘god-given’.
In Epicureanism even the central 40 Principal Doctrines are just very wise and recommendable human ideas. I see that the issue of retaining personal freedom and personal autonomy is the important part in Epicurean thinking for a modern man.
In Christianity the community decides what is best for you, but in Epicureanism you are expected to be able to make these decisions by yourself by learning to know your own limits. At this point it is good to remind that in the hard core of Epicureanism are the absolute demands for justice and unconditional respect for the dignity and honor of all other people.
So, an Epicurean is bound by the same ground rules that do ultimately make all human societies livable. There are naturally always limits to freedom in all human societies. The natural basic need is that one can't hurt any other person with ones own behavior.
This eternal issue of personal freedom against the needs of the society is just now emerging again very strongly especially in the field of personal health and all the things that now are tied with it. A growing and worrying tendency is to think that the society has the right to infringe in the lives of all of its citizens even in minor details. Society can now do it in many countries every time when it wants to protect their health form the health-hazards that they can impose to themselves.
Here comes to play the very central old Christian idea of individuals living for the benefit of the community only. This idea is pitted against the basic Epicurean ideas of taking personal responsibility.
The Epicurean thinking has at its core an idea of retaining as much of the personal freedom as possible. This is done in a human society where the interdependence of all of its members is seen as a given fact of life.
This idea of personal liberty will inevitably clash with the Christian or Jewish or Islamic way of seeing individuals to exist just to serve their communities and of course their faith. The clash is most immediate in the field of mandatory health that is now in the rise everywhere in the western world.
(This piece was refurbished on 2nd of November, 2012)