February 28, 2016


Historians believe that Epicurus, namesake of the word epicure, was born some time in February of 341 BC.

n. one who gives himself up to sensual pleasure, esp. to eating; a glutton, sybarite
n. one who cultivates a refined taste for the pleasures of the table; one who is choice and dainty in eating and drinking
Oxford English Dictionary

The Greek philosopher Epicurus would likely be horrified by the dinner-party dilettantes who invoke his name as a coat of arms for their hedonistic pursuits, and he certainly would not be swapping recipes with them at Epicurious.com. The unfortunate legacy of this peaceful thinker is a misunderstanding that has overshadowed his original beliefs for more than two thousand years.

Epicurus was born in 341 BC at the tail end of the golden age of philosophy. Plato died seven years before he was born and Aristotle died nineteen years after. Contrary to the modern gastronome perception, Epicurus was a model of moderation and self-control. The very inscription above the gate to his garden warned visitors that they might expect only bread and water. The philosopher took little pleasure in eating or drinking or any other physical pursuit (including sex) and taught that comfort can best be achieved through simple existence free of family and political life.

Epicurus founded the “Garden School” in Athens, where students ate his bread, drank his water, and shared his noble thoughts for more than two hundred years. He posted another sign at the entrance to his garden (next to his culinary warning about prison victuals) welcoming, “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” This concept of hedonism has always been a bit of a sticky wicket, and part of the confusion of the epic of Epicurus lies in his notion of pleasure. He certainly argued that pleasure provided the happiness of life—but he had no use for sensuality. Unfortunately, over time, some of his students did. Many began buttering their daily bread and some later toasted it into croutons on beds of arugula. Epicurus’s serene and secular individualism became bastardized into wantonness and debauchery. It is only in recent memory that epicures are even considered discerning connoisseurs—for years they were merely self-gratifying slobs.

For centuries after his death, some of Epicurus’s followers were equated with another gluttonous gathering of ancient Greeks—the Sybarites. Representing their own notorious namesake in the modern form of sybarite (notoriously luxurious), their legacy is a key descriptor in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of epicure. Predating Epicurus by a few hundred years, the inhabitants of the Greek colony of Sybaris in southern Italy were extraordinarily wealthy and self-indulgent. In a Grecian version of the princess and the pea, legend has it that a Sybarite was once unable to sleep because of a single rose petal under his body.
As for Epicurus, he suffered from kidney stones into his seventies. Given this diagnosis, today’s holistic foodies would have approved of his love of water but probably would have warned him away from salty snacks. Calm and cheerful to the end, gentle Epicurus died in 270 BC.