If you walk around the upper valley of the River Xanthus in what is now southern Turkey, you might come across a large hilltop which is littered with ancient ruins. The area seems deserted and there are few signs to point to the fact that millennia ago, this site was home to a large city.
Unlike many of the commercial centers of the Mediterranean, the ancient city of Oinoanda was not situated on the crossroads of any major trade routes. Its economy relied on growing wine and olives, and tight relationships with its surrounding areas. This did not make it a fabulously wealthy city, but did ensure a certain level of prosperity.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of the city, but archaeologists have uncovered one very interesting find.
They discovered the remains of a wall which was originally over 80 meters long and covered with old Epicurean writings. It had been erected by Diogenes of Oinoanda in order to:
“To help those who come after us.“
Epicurean teachings had helped him a lot in his own life and he wanted to give back to his wider community. Another part of the inscription describes the purpose:
“The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing. I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the medicines that bring salvation.“
Unfortunately only a part of the inscription remains and even that is broken up into pieces of various sizes, but those parts that have been uncovered so far give us a glimpse into life in those ancient days.
However, more importantly, the writings also preserve ancient wisdom, much of which is still pertinent even today. This wisdom dealt with the eternal question of almost every person: How should you live your life? It gave advice on how to lead a good life and how to achieve something that almost everyone strives for: happiness.
The rise and influence of Epicureanism
In the times of the late Roman Republic and the early Empire, Epicureanism (together with Stoicism) was one of the most important philosophical schools that many Romans adhered to.
Cicero, while arguing against the Epicureans, still corresponded with and counted among his friends many Epicureans, including Atticus, a wealthy Roman who retired to Athens. Many famous Roman poets such as Horace or Lucretius were Epicureans, and even the great Gaius Julius Caesar was a fan.
While Epicureanism was pretty popular in Ancient Rome, it had actually started in Ancient Greece and its founder was Epicurus.
Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 BC, but spent most of his life living in Athens, his father being a citizen of that city. There he founded his own school of philosophy, called the Garden, where he taught until his death in 270 BC.
Once he died, his school was taken over by one of his disciples, Hermarchus, and continued to grow. Its influence grew far and wide and by late Roman Republic times, it was one of the major philosophical schools in the Mediterranean region.
However, it began to decline in the 3rd century AD and died out completely when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. Many of the Christian writers penned extensive treatises against Epicureanism, in the process grossly misinterpreting its message. Epicureanism became a synonym of hedonism, when in fact it preached something totally different.
Epicurean ideals weren’t revived until the Renaissance, and later the Age of Enlightenment. Many famous figures of that era were influenced by them, and their thoughts in turn shaped the way society looks today.
If you are an American, you have “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in your founding documents as an inalienable right. Have you ever wondered why that is?
The reason is that Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of Epicurus and Epicureanism. In one of his letters he wrote:
“I too am an Epicurean.“
Since he was one of the principal drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, some of these ancient ideas found their way into it. That pursuit of happiness comes from this.
Thomas Jefferson was greatly influenced by the works of Epicurus and they formed a foundation for his worldview and the way he lived. In fact, Epicurus had such a huge impact on his life that he sometimes called him his Master.
While the traditional teachings of Epicurus taught to “live unknown”, that is to try to steer away from politics, public life and all the chaos associated with them, Thomas Jefferson (just like many other famous people influenced by this philosophy) put his own distinct spin on Epicureanism and combined it with a life in the public spotlight.
Many hardcore Epicureans preach dettachment from society and tending your own little garden somewhere in the corner as the epitomy of life. However, you can get the benefits of these teachings even without withdrawing from public life completely.
How to do this? Thomas Jefferson is a good example. He was an Epicurean at heart, yet he still managed to become one of the principal figures of the American Revolution and the 3rd US President.
So Epicureanism has many paths which you can take. You can either take the road of Epicurus himself and some of his followers and withdraw from the hustle and bustle of society to tend your own Garden, or take the example of people influenced by Epicureanism like Thomas Jefferson, and tend your own Garden, while still trying to influence the society you live in.
The main tenets of Epicureanism
Most people think of Epicureanism as the philosophy advocating hedonism and the uninhibited seeking of pleasure, but that is far from the truth. In fact, the essence of Epicureanism is self-control.
While for the Epicureans life’s greatest good and the way to happiness was pleasure, the way to get there was through moderation.
You might be wondering how moderation and self-control are in any way linked to pleasure. After all, by limiting yourself, you lose pleasure? No?
This might be better explained by their belief that the greatest pleasure is actually the absence of pain. Pleasure and pain are the two drivers of behavior for all living things.
Unlike many people in modern society, they understood the dangers of instant gratification. A small hit of hedonistic pleasure now, could mean great amounts of pain later.
If you practice self-control and moderation, you can avoid these crashes later.
An Epicurean strived to reach a state of tranquility (the Greek word for this is ataraxia). This meant also achieving a freedom from fear, and an absence of bodily pain (aponia). When you have this, you are living in perfect harmony with nature, have attained the greatest pleasure, and hence are happy.
However how do you do this in practice?
The key here is to understand that humans are driven by desires. These desires can be split into two categories: natural and unnatural.
Natural desires like eating or drinking are both natural and necessary. Other desires are natural, but they are not necessary.
Usually the natural and necessary desires are pretty basic and easy to satisfy. Food in this day and age is pretty easy to come by for the vast majority of the population.
There are also some natural desires, which are not really necessary for living a happy life. These are just an added bonus, but you don’t need to chase after them.
The desires which are not natural should be avoided completely. Things like smoking or taking drugs are not natural, even if they are tempting for certain people. They cause more misery at the end than pleasure and should be avoided at all costs.
In order to lead a happy life that is free of pain, you should strive only to satisfy your natural and necessary desires, and avoid the unnatural ones. That’s it. That is the secret to happiness. Simple, isn’t it?
This can be proven by real life examples. Materialism, false values, too much excess, all of this does not lead to happiness, but instead even greater unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Just witness all the musicians or actors, who have basically everything, but end up being unhappy, dissatisfied with life, instead turning to a life of drug abuse and sometimes even committing suicide. These are the people who cannot make a distinction between what is truly necessary and what is not.
Examine your own life. What things can you not live without? What is truly necessary for you? Usually these true necessities revolve around a few basic items or activities like food, drink, sleep, sex, and family. Once all this is taken care of, you have everything you really need to live a happy life.
The message of Diogenes of Oinoanda
This is also the message that Diogenes of Oinoanda wanted to pass to his co-citizens and the whole world.
Not much is known about the guy, but most researchers date the time he put up the wall to around 160 AD. So he lived his life at the time when the Roman Empire reached its maximum extent and an era of prosperity and relative tranquility was ushered in under the Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
This is known as the golden era of the Empire and life was generally good. There are many parallels with today’s world there, as this era of prosperity also came hand in hand with materialism, excess and false values.
Diogenes wanted to help out his compatriots who were suffering from these what he called “diseases”.
Some modern researchers have not really been impressed with his philosophical credentials, but that was not really his point. He wanted to leave something that was practical and useful to the common man on the street. His message was not aimed at philosophers, but normal people like you or me.
What is remarkable is that he wanted to do this for everyone. In a time when most Greeks and Romans thought of foreigners as barbarians, Diogenes had a very cosmopolitan outlook.
Have a look at this passage:
“We contrived this in order that, even while sitting at home, we might be able to exhibit the goods of philosophy, not to all people here indeed, but to those of them who are civil-spoken; and not least we did this for those who are called «foreigners,» though they are not really so. For, while the various segments of the earth give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country, the entire earth, and a single home, the world.“
For Jürgen Hammerstaedt, one of the archaelogists who worked on excavating the site of Oinoanda, this was his favorite passage. For it shows the true character of Diogenes of Oinoanda. To quote Hammerstaedt:
“He was a remarkable man and a cosmopolitan man.“
Diogenes of Oinoanda was probably a very wealthy man, since he had the money to buy a plot of land smack middle in the center of the city and construct a very elaborate stoa with his inscriptions on it. Yet all this wealth did not go into his head and he was grateful for the life he had and wanted to help out others.
Wealth and Epicureanism were not mutually exclusive. In fact, several Roman businessmen were Epicureans. One of these was the already mentioned Atticus (full name: Titus Pomponius Atticus or Quintus Caecilius Pomponianus), a great friend of Cicero.
Atticus had inherited some money from his family, and invested much of this in real estate, which made him even more money. He also worked as a banker and a financier. However what defined him was his love of learning and he spent a lot of money in spreading knowledge and publishing books.
For him, money was not the end-goal, but instead a means to an end. This end-goal was knowledge and living a happy life.
On the other hand, many Epicureans were not very wealthy, but this did not prevent them from being satisfied with their lives.
The inscriptions of Diogenes of Oinoanda are meant to help people of all walks of life and serve as a universal guide to happiness.
Thanks to the translating work of Martin Ferguson Smith (you can find his translation here), you can benefit from them yourself and apply them to your own life.
I have picked a few choice passages and sections from the inscription in order to show you how. However you need to want to learn from them. They won’t help if you don’t try to apply them.
As with anything, there will be disagreements on how these works should be interpreted. It doesn’t really matter how you interpret it, what matters is whether your interpretation helps you in leading a better life.
1) You are the master of your own fate. You are the one who can help yourself.
“The sum of happiness consists in our disposition, of which we are master.“
It all starts with the realization that you are the one responsible for yourself. Not your mom, not your dad, not your uncle Bill, and certainly not some worldwide conspiracy designed to keep you down.
Only you can save yourself. This is the primary message of one of the maxims of Diogenes:
“All men are able to save themselves, with the help from us and to effect a complete dispersal of misfortunes affecting the soul and to do away with disturbing emotions and fears.“
Bad emotions and fears are something that you can get rid of. The writings of Diogenes and other Epicureans are meant to show you how to do that.
One way is to do things which you have control over and not things which are under the control of others. If you are the one making decisions over your actions, you will be much happier than if others make decisions for you.
“Why then do we pursue an occupation like this, which is under the control of others?“
In some jobs you are dependent on what others think of you, whether it is for promotions, money, or praise. It is better to do things which are dependent on your own internal satisfaction, instead of things where someone else decides whether you are worthy or good enough.
Sometimes people pursue things like bad jobs solely because it will give them money or some other advantages. However that is not the right attitude to take. If you realize what is really important, your motivation for such things will disappear.
Another passage explains the basic principles that you need to internalize.
“Of the desires, some are natural and necessary; others natural, but not necessary; and others neither natural nor necessary, but the products of idle fancy.“
Diogenes keeps on repeating the key Epicurean mantra: some desires are natural and necessary, others are natural and not necessary, and many are neither natural nor necessary.
This basic division of desires can help you judge which desires you should act upon and on which you shouldn’t.
The main problem is that most people suffer from false notions about things. This can lead them to wasting their lives.
“Observing that most people suffer from false notions about things and do not listen to the body when it brings important and just accusations against the soul, and alleging that it is unwarrantably mauled and maltreated by the soul and dragged to things which are not necessary.
In fact, the wants of the body are small and easy to obtain — and the soul too can live well by sharing in their enjoyment — while those of the soul are both great and difficult to obtain and, besides being of no benefit to our nature, and actually involve dangers.
So, to reiterate what I was saying, observing that these people are in this predicament, I bewailed their behavior and wept over the wasting of their lives, and I considered it the responsibility of a good man to give benevolent assistance, to the utmost of one’s ability, to those of them who are well-constituted. This is the first reason for the inscription.“
To help people not waste their lives was also one of the main reasons that Diogenes put up his inscription.
2) It is the little things that count.
This constant chasing after useless stuff is the source of much unhappiness for many people. Instead, it is the little things that are important:
“The flesh’s cry is freedom from hunger, freedom from thirst, freedom from cold. One who is free from these things and expects to remain so might rival even Zeus in happiness.“
If you have food and water, as well as a shelter, you have the basic things that you need for a happy life. You don’t really need much more than that.
It is only the lowest layer on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that is really necessary. All the other ones are just a cherry on the top. If you approach life like that, you can take pleasure from even the little things.
Many of the things people strive for are pretty vain:
“Vain desires, like those for fame and such things, are not only vain, but, as well as being vain, also difficult to fulfill. It is not unlike drinking much, yet always being thirsty. To be master of Pella, but to have troubles for company, is vain.“
In reality, you don’t really need vast amounts of wealth to be happy.
“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing. We can look at the other people’s possessions without envy and experience purer pleasure than they can; for we are free from cravings.“
I guess many of these cravings stem from the natural want to rise in status. In the state of nature, rising up in status ensured that you had a better access to resources, which would make it more likely for you to survive.
However some people take this overboard. You need to realize that when you have met some basic conditions that satisfy your needs for survival and reproduction, then you don’t really need much more.
Many of these extra things in fact cause you more pain than pleasure. Things like stress, fear, or bad health can be a result.
“Neither political fame nor royal office nor wealth is productive of pleasure. The philosopher therefore does not want the authority and dominion of Alexander or still more than even he possessed, since human beings are constituted having no need of what is vain.“
There is really no need for you to seek fame or political power. Much of this is vain.
“It is not nature, which is the same for all, that makes people noble or ignoble, but their actions and dispositions.“
3) Do things for the sake of your own mind, and not because you might get money or fame from them.
Intrinsic and not extrinsic motivation is the key to pleasure and living a happy life.
“There are many who pursue philosophy for the sake of wealth and fame, with the aim of procuring these either from private individuals or from kings, by whom philosophy is deemed to be some great and precious possession.
Well, it is not in order to gain any of the above-mentioned objectives that we have embarked upon the same undertaking, but so that we may enjoy happiness through attainment of the goal craved by nature.
The identity of this goal and how neither wealth can furnish it, nor political fame, nor royal office, nor a life of luxury and sumptuous banquets, nor pleasures of choice love-affairs, nor anything else, while philosophy alone can secure it, we shall now explain after setting the whole question before you. For we have had this writing inscribed in public not for ourselves, but for you, citizens, so that we might render it available to all of you in an easily accessible form without oral instruction.“
You don’t get happiness from material things. Instead real pleasure comes from philosophy, meaning from finding out and learning about things, from satisfying your own curiosity.
Don’t take a job or do things because they will bring you riches or fame, but instead because you like to do them.
Another important thing to remember is to live honestly, for virtues are important and linked to living a happy life:
“It is impossible to live pleasurably without living prudently and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live prudently and honorably and justly without living pleasurably. If a man lacks these qualities, it is impossible for him to live pleasurably.“
Pleasure and honor are linked.
In contrast to the Stoics who believed that the virtues were the end goal, the Epicureans took a different approach and thought of virtues as a means to an end, with the end goal being happiness and pleasure.
“I shall discuss folly shortly, the virtues and pleasure now.
If, gentlemen, the point at issue between these people and us involved inquiry into «what is the means of happiness?» and they wanted to say «the virtues» (which would actually be true), it would be unnecessary to take any other step than to agree with them about this, without more ado. But since, as I say, the issue is not «what is the means of happiness?» but «what is happiness and what is the ultimate goal of our nature?»
I say both now and always, shouting out loudly to all Greeks and non-Greeks, that pleasure is the end of the best mode of life, while the virtues, which are inopportunely messed about by these people (being transferred from the place of the means to that of the end), are in no way an end, but the means to the end.”
4) The means for achieving some pleasures involve disturbances that far outweigh the pleasures.
You need to remember that pleasure can come in different forms and at different times. Sometimes it can come immediately when you do something, and sometimes much later.
“Examples of coincident causes are solid and liquid nourishment and, in addition to these, sexual acts; we do not eat food and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we drink wine and experience pleasure afterwards, nor do we emit semen and experience pleasure afterwards; rather the action brings about these pleasures for us immediately, without awaiting the future.“
So some pleasures are instantenous, while others come later. This is very important to remember since many people fall for instant gratification.
“No pleasure is intrinsically bad; but the means for achieving some pleasures involve disturbances that far outweigh the pleasures.“
Some instant pleasures might have consequences which are very bad. You need to avoid these types of pleasures. Don’t fall for instant gratification!
“Let us not avoid every pain that is present, and let us not choose every pleasure, as the many always do. Each person must employ reasoning, since he will not always achieve immediate success: just as exertion often involves one gain at the beginning and certain others as time passes by, so it is also with experiencing pleasure; for the sowing of seeds does not bring the same benefit to the sower but we see some seeds very quickly germinating and bearing fruit and others taking longer.“
Just like not every pleasure is good, not every pain is bad. Pain that will lead to greater pleasure at the end is good. For example, if you are exercising you will feel pain. The act of doing it will be painful.
However, think of all the benefits that this will bring. At the end, the immediate pain of exercising will give rise to the greater pleasure of good health, a better looking body and the ability to do things (like run for a long time or being able to lift heavy things).
An example that is given in the inscription for an initial pain that will give rise to greater pleasure is surgery:
“An examples of a cause that precedes effect is life-saving surgery: in this case extreme pain must be borne, and it is after this that pleasure quickly follows.“
So Diogenes of Oinoanda warned against the dangers of instant gratification. He also stated that some pain is good, if it bring greater pleasure afterwards. Sometimes you have to suffer pain in order to get pleasure later.
You need to use your mind to distinguish between good pleasure and bad pleasure, and good pain and bad pain.
5) Don’t put off doing things.
“One must make the present perfect, and not live with an orientation to the future, saying: “Until such and such a thing still happens to me”. For what will be lacking that needs this yearning?“
Start doing things now. Don’t wait for the perfect moment. It might never come.
You never know what the future will bring.
6) Try to eliminate irrational fears.
Fear does have its purpose. Fear is an emotion that evolved to warn you of dangers. In that way it is very useful for survival. However, a lot of times people have irrational fears.
“As a matter of fact this fear is sometimes clear, sometimes not clear —clear when we avoid something manifestly harmful like fire through fear that we shall meet death by it, not clear when, while the mind is occupied with something else, it (fear) has insinuated itself into our nature and lurks.“
So some fear has a purpose, but not if it is irrational. Irrational fears should be removed.
“Let us first discuss states, keeping an eye on the point that, when the emotions which disturb the soul are removed, those which produce pleasure enter into it to take their place.
Well, what are the disturbing emotions? They are fears —of the gods, of death, and of pains— and, besides these, desires that outrun the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, unless we cut them off, a multitude of evils will grow upon us.“
These emotions such as fear that are irrational are bringing you down and you should do everything to get rid of them. Work on eliminating pains that are groundless, which includes negative emotions (remember for the Epicureans, the definition of a happy life was one without pain).
7) Your mind is more powerful than your body.
“Moreover, the soul is manifestly more powerful than the body; for it has control of the extreme and supremacy over the other feelings, as indeed we revealed it above.“
Mind over body: your mind is incredibly powerful. As I wrote in my article on how to do impossible things, when you feel like your body is giving up, you still have hidden reserves left. Your mind can overrule the feelings that your body is giving and push you on.
Diogenes shows some examples how even though the body is weak, your mind (or your soul) can will it through. So the strength of mind and your willpower are very powerful instruments.
“And this too is a sign, among many others, of the primacy of this cause: often, although the body has been beset by a long illness and has come to be so attenuated and emaciated that the withered skin is all but adhering to the bones and the constitution of the internal parts appears to be empty and bloodless, nevertheless, provided that the soul remains, it does not allow the creature to die. And this is not the only sign of its supremacy, but it is also the case that amputations of hands and often of whole arms or legs by fire and iron cannot unfasten life.
So powerful is the dominion which the soul-part of us exercises over it. On the other hand, there are occasions when, although the body is intact and has suffered no diminution of its bulk, the faculty of sensation abandons it; for it is of no avail if the soul no longer remains and its union with the body is dissolved. But, as long as we see the same part still remaining as guardian, the man lives. Thus, as I said, the ultimate cause of life is the soul being united with or separated from the body.“
8) Chance seldom impedes the wise man.
Luck can often play with your life, however the Epicureans believed that chance rarely impedes the wise and prepared man.
“Seldom does the fortuitous, which we term chance, interfere with life, and usually it is we who are in control.“
Chance does happen and it can do harm to people, however a wise man can overcome it:
“Chance can befall us and do harm, but rarely; for it does not have fuel, like fire, which it may lay hold of. So Epicurus, having regard to these matters, refused to remove chance from things entirely (for it would have been rash and incompatible with philosophical respectability to give a false account of a matter so clear and patently obvious to all), but not a few occurrences he called only small.
As then the disposition of the wise man can represent the accidental happening in this way, so, it seems, it seldom operates dominantly, as the son of Neocles says: «It is seldom that chance impedes the wise man: it is reason which controls the greatest and most important matters.»“
One guy who wrote a lot about how random chance events impact our world is Nassim Taleb. An interesting thing is that he was also influenced by some Epicurean thinkers, namely Lucretius. In his book “Antifragile”, Taleb writes about what he calls the Lucretius problem:
“I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia.
The Lucretius problem is the type of thinking that some people do when they imagine the worst-possible case scenario. They usually base these on their own experiences. So if they have seen a mountain that is 1000 meters tall, they believe that all the mountains will be that tall or shorter. They cannot really imagine a mountain that is taller.
Taleb gives an example of this from today’s world, particularly from his own field, financial analysis:
“Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario and use it to estimate future risks – this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.“
This means that you should always be prepared for something unexpected to happen. So the wise man builds an anti-fragile system in order to help him out when chance strikes. How to do this? Taleb gives some anti-fragile system design principles. One of these is to build layered systems:
“Taleb points out that the antifragility of a system often comes from the fragility of its components, whether we are talking about the failure of firms that drives the overall success of entrepreneurial regions like Silicon Valley or the death of individual organisms that contributes to the antifragility of nature. By differentiating into layers, systems can once again contain adverse impacts and increase the potential for learning by watching what happens to constituent units in the lower layers.“
These layered systems should have built-in redundancies and overcompensations. Taleb gives the example of how nature built in redundancies into the human body such as two lungs or two kidney. A redundancy for a personal system is for instance a rainy-day fund when you lose a job, or a stockpile of food in case a natural disaster strikes.
9) Be curious and observe what happens around you.
The Epicureans believed that joy doesn’t come from material things, but instead from natural sciences. This meant that being curious and observing things around them was a big part of their life.
Satisfying your curiousity can be very rewarding.
“I declare that the fear of death and that of the gods grip many of us, and that true joy and pleasure are generated not by theaters, or approval of the crowd, or baths, or by perfumes and ointments, but by the study of natural science.“
Through this act of observation and finding out about things, you can discover that some of the things that you are afraid of, are really not that scary after all.
This type of attitude led to them having a very scientific mind. They were very rational in their thinking:
“Let us now discuss risings and settings and related matters after making this preliminary point: if one is investigating things that are not directly perceptible, and if one sees that several explanations are possible, it is reckless to make a dogmatic pronouncement concerning any single one; such a procedure is characteristic of a seer rather than a wise man. It is correct, however, to say that, while all explanations are possible, this one is more plausible than that.“
How do you explain the phenomenon happening around you? The approach described by Diogenes of Oinoanda is very similar to Bayesian thinking. You see that there could be several explanations possible and you just give probabilities on which one is the most likely.
Epicureans kept an open mind and were against any type of dogmatic thinking. They tried to throw away superstitions (as evidenced in the passages where Diogenes argues against interpretations of dreams and all kinds of oracles).
They also didn’t really buy into all the explanations of natural events being caused by deities or other supernatural events. They were big proponents of science.
“So no arts, any more than these, should be explained by the introduction of Athena or any other deity; for all were the offspring of needs and experiences in conjunction with time.“
One interesting observation by Diogenes is that inventions and innovations (arts) were based on needs and experiences. This is something that I explored in my article on how you change the world. Arts (including inventions) are the product of needs.
Epicureans were greatly interested in the sciences and their reasoning was surprisingly modern. The Epicurean method was founded on observation and on evidence. They promoted empiricism and this type of thinking was what was behind the scientific revolution almost two thousand years later.
They espoused some ideas which at that time were not widely held, but today form the pillars of modern science. For example, the Epicureans were advocates of atomism and Diogenes himself wrote about how atoms are the building blocks of everything around him.
What is even more remarkable that in a time when the majority of people believed that the Earth was flat, the Epicureans were claming that there are infinite worlds in space. Diogenes mentioned these theories in his inscription.
Another illuminating passage found on the wall is one where he describes how people rose up from a primitive state:
“The caves which they frequented with the advance of time, as they sought shelter from wintry storms, gave them the conception of houses, while the wraps which they made for their bodies, as they protected them either with foliage or with plants or even (for they were already killing animals) with skins, gave them the notion of clothes —not yet plaited, but perhaps made by felting or some such process. Then the advance of time inspired them or their descendants with the idea of the loom as well.“
Compare that to the usual explanations of those times of how people came to be, which usually involved gods and supernatural events. In Ancient Greek mythology (much of which was later taken over by the Romans as well), Prometheus created the first man out of mud and the goddess Athena breathed life into him.
Prometheus was also the guy who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people and for example goddess Demeter taught people how to do agriculture. So many things were gifts of the gods and not products of natural evolution.
Epicureans did not really take much stock in such explanations. They were not necessarily atheists, but instead they believed that even if gods did exist, they did not concern themselves with the matters of ordinary humans.
It is no surprise that the thoughts of the Epicureans are similar to the way things are done today. In fact, Stephen Greenblatt in his book “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” argues that the rediscovery of their works in the 15th century actually sparked the modern age.
In the book, Greenblatt argues that the reintroduction to the wider community of “On the Nature of Things”, a work by Lucretius, a Roman poet and proponent of Epicureanism, was what started off the Renaissance.
Just like the rediscovery of Epicurean works gave rise to the Renaissance and later influenced such great thinkers as Thomas Jefferson (and hence the US Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution), the thoughts of Diogenes of Oinoanda (and other Epicureans) can also spark your own journey to being happy:
“These medicines we have put fully to the test; for we have dispelled the fears that grip us without justification. As for pains, those that are groundless we have completely excised, while those that are natural we have reduced to an absolute minimum, making their magnitude minute.“
This single passage summarizes the journey of Diogenes of Oinoanda towards happiness. What is the lesson? Pains that are groundless should be eliminated, those that are natural should be reduced.
One personal thing I realized while writing this post: This blog is a way of tending my Garden. Just like Diogenes of Oinoanda left his wisdom on a wall for others to learn from, I am trying to do the same with this blog. Maybe you can start tending your own Garden?
PS: The passages from the wall of Diogenes of Oinoanda are based on painstaking archaelogical work. Some of them are not complete and had to be reconstructed only roughly. We are also missing significant chunks of the wall and so many ideas and advice are still missing. Hopefully they will be found in the future.