Coping with First World Problems: Epictetus or Epicurus

How do you solve a First World Problem?

Some see First World Problems as problems that are laughably trivial. But I prefer to see them as those problems in which the Enemy is internal rather than external. External Enemies are Hunger, Cold, Savage Beasts, Rival Groups intent on murdering or enslaving us.

And we conquered each of our External Enemies through technological, political and cultural means. And now we have met the enemy, and he is us.

So, how to find a solution when we ourselves are the problem? Well, for First World People, First World Problems are solved by visiting a psychologist.

But solving First World Problems has been the business of philosophers and religious types for many millennia before the recent arrival of the modern mental health professional. In the early AD era of the Roman Empire (or CE era, as goes newer nomenclature), two main schools of philosophy battled over the hearts and minds of privileged young Romans.

The Stoics and the Epicurean Hedonists offered solutions to the ultimate First World Problem: How to live a life worth living.

The Stoics believe that one should live in accordance with our nature. It is human nature, in the Stoics’ opinion, to be virtuous and rational. If we live virtuously, we will be directed toward a life of service to others or to society.

A meaningful life is more important to a Stoic than pleasure and pain. One of the most famous Stoic thinkers was Epictetus, a former Greek slave. Epictetus said: Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them. Change our perspective and suffering disappears.

A Stoic life is best exemplified by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the hero of the first few scenes of the movie Gladiator and proto-self-help author. Adopted by the previous emperor, Marcus Aurelius was a man of superlative power and wealth. He spent this privilege on a life of service to Rome. He was a highly effective general and statesman. He was labelled the last of the five good emperors.

The hedonists are represented by their philosophic founder, Epicurus. As a young Greek man of means, Epicurus was petrified of dying. He cured his paralysing fear of death by determining that there was no life after death, and that all that exists is our current existence. Epicurus thought we owed it to ourselves to make this single existence as free from pain, and as full of pleasure, as possible.

Epicurean hedonists were no decadent party animals, however. They prioritised friendship and food. They sought to stay out of the limelight and out of positions of power: these lifestyles bring undue stress and anxiety. Epicurus himself lived a life pretty similar to Frodo from Lord of the Rings (pre-adventure). Good food, comfort and freedom from unnecessary entanglements.

So, faced with your privilege and your crippling Frist World Problems how do you live?

Do you accept the austere mantle of responsibility and bravely pursue a life of meaning? Putting your comfort last. Do you be a Stoic?

Do you serve yourself by avoiding pain and maximising pleasure – live a good life unencumbered by fear, superstition and the pursuit of vanities and predicaments? Do you live as an Epicurean?

My thoughts? Both these approaches represent a life worth living. The pursuit of happiness may just what’s needed to cure depression. On the other hand, to embrace a meaningful path may make your First World Problems appear small and insignificant in comparison, providing welcome perspective.

There might be stages of life when one approach is more appropriate than the other. You could work hard like a Stoic for many years in service to family and community, only to retire to a hedonistic lifestyle. You could spend your youth in an Epicurean exploration of the simple life, only to embrace your inner Epictetus when you have kids and get your s**t together.

Either way, both Epictetus and Epicurus would agree: An Unexamined Life is not Worth Living.

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