The Epicurean way of life is to see pleasure as the greatest good, but divides from hedonism by promoting a simple life. The way to get pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the world and the limits to one’s desires. This leads to a state of tranquility, freedom from fear, as well as absence from pain, a combination which makes up happiness in its highest form.

C.S. Lewis writes of his “settled, calm, Epicurean life”:

For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one (such as I found, during the holidays, in Arthur) who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it at Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasure that combine admirably… At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

I confess when I read this, I thought this was my ticket to happiness. If I could live like this, I would always be happy. But, perhaps because of my Scandinavian ancestry and rigorous protestant upbringing, I sometimes wonder.. are we supposed to be happy? I mean, whoever promised us happiness? I feel my ancestors frown at me and dismiss me as giddy and pleasure-seeking. Get to work!

I distrust it. Life can’t be that easy. We’re not supposed to settle into a life full of calm tranquility and happiness. It would be rude. It would be unfeeling. It would be wrong. I mean, they taught me if you weren’t being persecuted, you probably weren’t doing much — exactly what I was supposed to be doing I’m still unsure of.

The religious side of me says, “With people dying and going to hell, how can you isolate yourself in the study and read books?”

The social justice side of me says, “With people starving and wars ravaging the land, how can you gallivant about the fields and woods and enjoy yourself in deep thoughts?”

The counterculture side of me says, “Of course you want to please yourself — you’ve been brought up that way. You’re from the “ME” generation, Generation X. You’re just living the way you’ve been taught, you selfish…”

But the child of God side of me says, “Would you want anything different for your own child? Sure, you want her to feel, to have pity, to have compassion, but would you want her to have those feelings without happiness? Should it be a burden?” The Jesus side of me says, “The poor will always be with you.” The Thoreau side of me says, “Follow your individual path and trust it. It will bring about the proper change.”

Epicurus wasn’t the only one to explore these ideas. Ecclesiastes also covered the human condition and what we are meant for and why we are here. The Teacher or Gatherer explores every possibility of human purposes — wisdom, pleasure, folly, toil, ambition, and riches. This was my favorite book as a child. I agree with Thomas Wolfe when he wrote that Ecclesiastes is

“the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth.”

I think what I loved about Ecclesiastes is its honesty. It expressed the frustration in my heart. The feeling that everything I turned my hand to was pointless. It gave vent to my bewilderment about why we are here.

I have a habit of looking at my hand when I lie in bed. I lift it straight in the air and stare at it in contrast to the ceiling. “I am,” I think. “I am here. I exist. I am.

With this pressing of existence upon me, I feel the exhilaration of living and the ache of death. The temporal heart beats blood through my temporal veins and I am housed in it and yet my thoughts and feelings burst from it like a tsunami breaks through city walls. And I wonder who am I and I do not feel like being a missionary or healing the sick or even educating the children. I want to eat and drink and make love and hold hands and gaze at the stars and listen to the oriole or owl outside my window. I want to experience this life, this earth, my life, my world. That is when I am thankful for Ecclesiastes because I know my problem is an ancient one and I know I am not alone and I know my questions are not unrealistic. 

We are more closely related to the questions than the answer. The questions are what we are made of.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

And the direction of my life perhaps is not so important as I try to make it. I am very insignificant after all, just a breath, a vapor. Rather than saving the world, I just need to be faithful to my world. As if I could add much to the Creation. And if He sees fit, He may multiply my offering. But it’s really not up to me, or about me, or a burden I was meant to carry.

I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

God lays a path for me which allows me to be me.

If I have no particular calling to sainthood, or martyrdom, or malevolent evil which begs overcoming, I can be just little ol’ me, a quiet wildflower off the forest path or a thorny bush on the edge of the river. I hope this is not giving into some insidious laziness or allowing my selfish desires manipulate my mind into complacency. If so, I’m not the only one. Wiser people than I have taken the same path.

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time?It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.