There’s a shop down the road from me called The Epicurean. Care to guess what it sells?
If you’re familiar with the teachings of Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, you might think it sells old philosophy books, or workshops on horticulture and meditation, or you might even think it’s a letting agency dedicated to finding the perfect eco-commune for first-time buyers.
Needless to say, it does none of that. Even the hipsters of South Manchester aren’t quite ready for communal living. No. The Epicurean sells beer - a wide variety of expensive ‘craft beers’ with arty labels.
This makes sense if we go by the modern definition of epicurean: someone devoted to sensual pleasure derived from endless luxury, especially that of fancy food and full-bodied wines.
A five-pound bottle of Belgian beer, like those lining the shelves of The Epicurean, certainly counts as indulgent. It’s the sort of beer that symbolises fine taste and spending power. But it also represents a misunderstanding of Epicurus.
Back in the days of Plato and Aristotle, when the people of Athens were obsessed with metaphysics and mathematics, Epicurus left the big smoke to start a commune with his friends. It was called The Garden. There, his merry gang of followers lived simply, free from politics and the stress of city life.
They grew vegetables, made art, meditated in their own private rooms, and came together to eat and talk. The main topic of discussion went something like this: What do we need to be happy?
After years of debate and reflection, Epicurus came to the conclusion that pleasure, or, at least, the absence of pain, is the ultimate good in life. He said that to live well and be happy, we must seek pleasure.
Rivals immediately condemned Epicurus for being a hedonist, saying he ate gluttonous meals and hosted giant orgies. But Epicurus wasn’t interested in such things. Rather than chasing pleasure by hoarding luxury items and eating fine food and having lots of sex, Epicurus said we should cultivate the capacity to take pleasure in simple things.
If we become the masters of our desire, he said, then we can end our insatiable greed for more. We can finally feel some degree of peace.
Friendship, freedom, wholesome food, an appreciation of our environment, time spent contemplating life - these are the things that Epicurus prescribed, and it’s what went down in The Garden too. Epicureans of ancient Greece enjoyed quiet, considered lives in good company.
Two-thousand years later and the word has been hijacked by foodies and owners of luxury yachts - a far cry from its humble origins. This is why I struggle to walk past The Epicurean without grumbling, to myself or whoever is with me, that Epicurus probably wouldn’t drink expensive beer if he was around today.
No doubt he would approve of the ‘craft’ element, the notion of small production and simple ingredients. But still, I think he would choose to sip a glass of tap water as he grazed on bread, olives, vegetables, and maybe a slice of cheese if it was a special occasion.