Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived shortly after the time of Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope. His philosophy, Epicureanism, advocated for people to attain a happy life, which he described as peaceful, free of fear, and free of pain. He reasoned that if happiness comes from getting what you want, and pain comes from not getting what you what, then there are two things we can do for any given desire: strive to fulfill it, or try to eliminate it. Epicurus advocated for the second strategy, where we reduce our desires to a minimum core, which are then easily satisfied. (This was the key lesson from studying the stories of Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope).
Epicurus identified three types of desires:
1. Natural and necessary desires
2. Vain and empty desires
3. Natural but vain desires
Note: vain can mean conceited or useless. In this case, vain refers to useless.
Examples of natural and necessary desires include basic food, water, shelter, and clothing. Epicurus explained that these desires are easy to satisfy and bring great happiness; therefore, one should try to fulfill these desires.
Vain and empty desires include desires for power, wealth, and fame. He explained that these desires are difficult to satisfy because they have no limit, and the more one attains, the more one wants. He further argued that these desires are not natural to human beings, but ingrained into us by society and false beliefs about what we need. Therefore, he advocated for people to eliminate vain desires.
Natural but vain desires include the desire or luxurious food or clothing. Epicurus explained that while basic food and clothing are necessary, desiring unnecessary luxury ultimately leads to unhappiness. Why? Because the desire for luxury creates the fear that one’s desires will not be fulfilled in the future. By eliminating these vain desires, one can attain tranquility, and thus happiness.
How then, can we progress along the second path to bliss? Is there a more detailed guide that we can follow?
Venerable Wu Ling, a well-respected Buddhist nun, continues the lessons of Epicurus and Diogenes. In her talk, Overcoming Greed and Anger, she identified five major types of vain desires:
1. Physical possessions (beyond the necessities)
5. Pleasure and comfort
Note: Wu Ling refers to the fourth and fifth desires as “attachment to self.”
The next five blog posts will address each desire.