The Garden of Epicurus: What We Know and What We Can Imagine
Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.
*From the motto inscribed outside Epicurus’ Garden, as recorded by Seneca
What was the Epicurean Garden?
The flow of time severs us from so many things, letting fall all but the present like cut blades of grass dropping onto a lawn. The Garden of Epicurus is one such blade. It was the first of many Epicurean communities that sprung-up around the Mediterranean during antiquity. There’s debate regarding its exact location but we know it was in Athens or on its outskirts.
Some suggest it was replaced by a church, the Haghios Georgios, as was the fate for most epicurean communities. This locates the Garden near the Eridanus river, contemporaneously utilised for irrigation, so we can imagine any Epicurean flora to be lush and verdant.
What did Epicurus believe?
The “Epicurean” is often equated to “Hedonism” and consequently orgiastic images of flagrant indulgence and opulent luxury: people eating the finest food, fornicating freely, or greedily inebriating themselves. However, this image is an unfounded misrepresentation more inaccurate than caricature.
Pleasure was the value that Epicureans lived their lives by, in contrast to other philosophies that focused on ‘virtue’, but it was not a pursuit of pleasure done recklessly or to excess. Epicurus sought to eliminate suffering and reach a state of tranquillity and inner peace called Ataraxia. To him, the good things in life were easily attained and life’s pains easily endured.
Crucially, Epicurus emphasised friendship and connection. His Garden and the nearby living quarters formed a commune where friends lived, learned, and enjoyed the simple pleasures Athens had to offer. The green space itself was an extension of the domestic in confluence with the academic.
Unlike anywhere else in Athens, slaves were treated like anyone else, and women partook in the study of philosophy. The community was founded on trust, honesty, and respect. When we imagine our Garden, it must be a place where all are welcome.
Konstantinos Maleas, ”Olive trees in Mytilene”
But what was it like?
If we picture the Epicurean Garden, how would it look? For our imaginative garden design, we first need a wall so we can have privacy during our philosophical study. It is thick, highly stacked marble with simple fluting. This is typical of architecture from ancient Greece, carrying with it a powerful starkness indicative of Epicurus’ teachings on modesty. Epicurean modesty didn’t entail a sterile aesthetic, nor was it prudish or puritan. Rather, Epicurus wanted us to fully enjoy the things we have instead of constantly chasing the latest thing. He says: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”. The Garden would not be a cluttered or garish one.
We imagine a simple border of endemic Cypress trees lining the Garden at a generous spacing from our wall. A wide stone pathway leads us to the main communal area, the true centrepiece of the arrangement. Our Garden is a largely open space with plenty of room to socialise and study, with ample seating to accommodate everyone. There are a couple of tall poplar trees at the back of the Garden for additional smatterings of shade on those hot Mediterranean days. Or there may be pair of olive trees as old as Athens for the times when we’re in need of a freshly fetched snack.
The Garden is not a tiered area. We imagine only a slightly elevated area for a speaker during lectures (we all know one friend that would stand there). We must remember, though, this is no dramatic amphitheatre or sanctimonious study hall; if we aren’t finding pleasure in our learning, we aren’t doing it correctly. Most importantly, to imagine our Garden of Epicurus, we must know how to use the space and who to use it with. This Garden is a place for us to live in the present, embrace life, and find joy with our friends. Our Garden should facilitate our inner tranquillity.
What if you visited for an evening?
By some happy accident of time, you arrive at the simple stone archway of the Garden’s entrance. You are flanked by laurel bushes and above your head is an embedded plaque with the Garden’s motto that preaches pleasure. A friend of the Garden invites you in with a jovial face and welcoming words. The host proffers a bowl of home-grown olives whose trees you can see in the distance, its truly an Arcadian convenience. The Garden does not whet your appetite, it quenches it.
The garden design is straightforward yet teeming with the viridescent hues of the grass and trees. There’s enough order to its design for organisation but nothing is so dead-straight or absolutely neat that you fear to disturb its harmony. You hear laughter and conversation as you’re offered a cup. The wine is weak but profoundly delicious. You’re advised not to drink too much, although a hangover would be a hands-on learning experience for what Epicurus means by the need for modesty.
You stroll down the natural, stone path and feel convivial connection oozing from the atmosphere of the Garden’s air. An old man enters the open space of the Garden’s heart. He’s using a three-wheeled chair to move around and bears a beaming smile. You know it’s Epicurus.
Epicurus is rolling by you when you quickly thank him for letting you enjoy the pleasure Garden. He smiles and embraces you as an old friend. You comment that you’d expected luxuries beyond compare. You’d heard they were rich. Epicurus responds, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” And, with that, he bids you a good evening and rolls on towards other friends.
You look around and know that if you lived in the nearby dormitory, you’d be happy to wake up to this Garden every day. The evening is full of chatting and relaxed exchange with your fresh friends from Athens. You hear a few jokes about Plato and strange man called Diogenes. They’re all in good fun. A lightly played lyre adds to the pleasant hubbub of background noise.
You realise that in two-thousand years no one will even know where this Garden was, let alone all the wonderful people you’ve met, although you also realise this would not matter to any of them. These people, just like you, have all been enjoying the here and now for what it is; they don’t allow the future to ruin their current pleasure, it will arrive whether they want it to or not. The lush and gorgeous Garden will turn to ruins and be replaced, but the people will always have been happy.