What does the word “happiness” mean in the classical tradition?

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In Greco-Roman culture, happiness was defined more simply than it would be by those of us within modern society. Happiness entailed good food, wine, and friendship. These pleasures are on display in Plato's Symposium. Philosopher friends gather to expound on the meaning of love—another source of happiness, at least for as long as it lasts.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus, from whom we get the term "epicurean," took a much simpler view of happiness than that which is implied by the word inspired by his name. In modern parlance, epicureanism often entails having the best of everything, much of which is tied to consumerism. There is, for example, a cutting-board company called Epicurean. This take on epicureanism bore little relation to the philosopher's views on sensual pleasure.

Epicurus believed that all anyone needs to be happy is modest shelter, good food, and friendship. Casual sex is fine, but passionate relationships, which can overwhelm one with possibly insatiable desire, are to be avoided. Political participation is also discouraged in Epicurean philosophy because it encourages an overwhelming lust for power. Anything that can overwhelm one with desire is to be avoided. Thus, Epicurus also would have been averse to modern advertising, which is designed to create desire in consumers. Desire can very often lead to suffering, which is not at all conducive to happiness.

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