To Live Unnoticed: The Epicurean Remedy Against Vanity

The Greek Philosopher Epicurus Developed a Challenging Method Against Social Anxiety, Vanity and Egotism

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Some of the most important and influential philosophical schools of the Græco-Roman world had strong admonishments against vanity. Both Epicureans and Stoics had their own remedies in fighting vanity. No one, though, went as far as Epicurus himself when advocating his radical solution: to live unnoticed (láthe biōsas in the original Greek).

Living unnoticed was an important step towards the main philosophical telos — vital goal — of Epicureans: happiness (eudaimonía). In this sense, Epicureans were not much different from Stoics, who were seeking the same goal but through a rather different path. Where Stoics highlighted the importance of enduring suffering and suppressing emotions (apátheia), Epicureans espoused freedom from anything harmful or unpleasant (ataraxía). These basic differences paved the way for radically opposed ways of life.

Within Greek and Roman political and public life context, the Epicurean way of life had a very difficult demand for its followers. Indeed, to live unnoticed meant renouncing to public life (paideía) and, most importantly, to a political office. Ultimately, this was the reason for which Romans, true political animals, preferred Stoicism over Epicureanism: it allowed them to keep their public lives while adhering to a philosophical, ethical system and lifestyle.

The láthe biōsas may sound countercultural for our current modern society obsessed with fame, notability and total lack of privacy through social media domination.

The Epicurean rejection of politics and public life was not motivated as a mere rejection of politics per se, but as a necessary step in order to be free from a potentially harmful lifestyle. Politics and public life would expose someone to hatred, envy, unnecessary problems and many more unpleasant situations that would trump the journey to happiness. Additionally, our own character and nature would be changed, and many vices would be acquired as a public figure. Thus, the Epicurean remedy was to retire from politics and public life for one’s sake and happiness.

The láthe biōsas may sound countercultural for our current modern society obsessed with fame, notability and total lack of privacy through social media domination. However, it was also countercultural for late Antiquity Græco-Roman societies in which citizens fulfilled their rights and duties with a successful cursus honorum in politics. Epicureans were establishing a philosophical school against the current, against the entire elite system of Græco-Roman citizenship.

Epicureans saw in a private, unnoticed life far from the public the first remedy for happiness.

To instill better notions of how to live unnoticed, Epicureans not only rejected the dominant social conventions, but also tried to educate their own children and create alternative intentional communities separated from the world. This was clear in Epicurus’ Garden.

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The Garden was a social experiment, an attempt to create a new community and replace the existing social structures with a better alternative. Epicurus did not want to carry out social reform, but to fully transform men while erecting a new alternative society. It was a revolt for tranquillity and happiness in the margins. Yet, Epicureans did disseminate intensive propaganda to gain new adepts to the cause and foster a bigger change through their intentional communities.

The Epicurean living unnoticed was the beginning of wisdom for an entire way of life where desires had been reduced to what was natural and necessary. Epicureans saw the fulfillment of natural and necessary desires as the basis for collaboration between human beings and for the construction of a better human community.

I came across the láthe biōsas last August while reading Epicurus. The additional reading of Geert Roskam’s Live Unnoticed: On the Vicissitudes of an Epicurean Doctrine was a great source for understanding this important Epicurean concept. I saw how Epicurus and his disciples realized the great harm that a public role may have in one’s life. The Roman writer Lucretius, an Epicurean himself, considered any public life a real misery and a vicious circle of suffering and unnecessary desires.

The Epicurean láthe biōsas became the most compelling goal for a new lifestyle I needed so badly.

I come from an academic career in which I have worked (I still am) in Ivy League universities. I have also been a prolific journalist to the point of leading a Catalan weekly magazine in Barcelona. Intellectual life is my habitat but also a cradle of never-ending vanity — and thus of terrible envies, absurd quarrels, and tons of unnecessary suffering.

The more I have written, the more I have acquired public relevance, the emptier I have felt. Public exposure brought pain and truly unnecessary situations. After much self-reflection, last August I decided to end up all this. I still needed to put my affairs in order, which meant getting some public attention for a while. Although, I knew that after that, I would be able to live unnoticed and enjoy the benefits of the Epicurean remedy.

To live unnoticed represents freedom from many modern slaveries, like social media, reputation, and exaggerated egotistical vanity. It has also meant that I have reduced my responsibilities and exposure to problems and potential harm. To live unnoticed has allowed me to choose the people I surround myself with, and to avoid unnecessary troubles related to my own journalistic writing and work. I do not appear anymore in the media and the press and I do not have to deal anymore with politicians. This has paved the way for much less suffering.

To live unnoticed represents freedom from many modern slaveries, like social media, reputation, and exaggerated egotistical vanity.

Perhaps, the change I appreciate the most is losing vanity. This is why I consider the Epicurean láthe biōsas as the perfect remedy against vanity. To live unnoticed means that I do not need to satisfy an artificial need for public relevance or attention. My job does not require this anymore. I have left journalism and I keep academia under tight control. I do not seek anymore a place under the sun: I already have a place under the sun. Hence, I do not need to go after relevance or against competitors. In the end, reducing stimuli and bringing social media to a reasonably minimal use has curbed the main trigger of vanity today.

The benefits of láthe biōsas are great and extremely relevant for our time: less social anxiety, becoming more grounded, and gaining tons of empathy. Lastly, because I adhere to the Epicurean dictum of satisfying pleasurably my natural and necessary desires, before acting I ask myself what is the purpose of my potential act. If this does not fit natural and necessary desires, I let it go. Sometimes, it is still difficult to let it go and be unnoticed; yet, I can already see the improvement.

In our society of abundance, like in the ancient Græco-Roman world, we have made ourselves terribly miserable when forgetting what is natural and necessary. We fuel vanity and anxiety because we are compelled to be fulfilled through things or states: we need to have, we need to be. We have and we are already. We just need to live — unnoticed.

Dr. Boaz Vilallonga, Ph.D. is a research scholar at the Department of Classics of Columbia University. He obtained his doctorate in history of religion from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France.

Dr. Boaz studies the relationship between ancient religion and modernity. Besides his scholarly work, Dr. Boaz runs a spiritual coaching practice in New York City, where he helps people awaken the spiritual self and achieve a full, meaningful life.

Proficient in ten languages, Dr. Boaz has had an intense spiritual journey, from Catholicism — a tradition in which he is ordained priest — to Judaism. Equipped with this rich Catholic and Jewish background, Dr. Boaz believes in the power of syncretism and interspirituality.