We can find the basic tenets of what we call harm reduction today in an Ancient Greek philosopher’s on how to maximise pleasures and minimise risks.
According to Plutarch, the Ancient Greek historian, the philosopher Cineas was invited to a dinner by Pyrrhus, the great conqueror king, who was planning to invade the known world. When Pyrrhus was boosting about the prospect of beating the Romans and gaining control over Italy, Cineas asked him, “what would you do after that?” Pyrrhus said he would conquer Libya and Carthage so no enemies would further threaten his rule. “But what would you do after that?” asked Cineas persistently. “We shall be much at ease, and we’ll drink bumpers, my good man,” answered Pyrrhus peevishly, “every day, and we’ll gladden one another’s hearts with confidential talks.” Cineas spread his arms, looked the king in the eye and said: “Surely this privilege is ours already, and we have at hand, without taking any trouble, those things which we hope to attain by bloodshed and great toils and perils, after doing much harm to others and suffering much ourselves.”
Cineas’ question echoes through the centuries and still challenges us to question the meaning of our lives today, dominated as they are by deadlines and never-ending efforts to gain more wealth, fame, and recognition. We firmly believe that the road to happiness leads through gaining more and more. A childish belief, according to Cineas, who belonged to the Epicurean school of philosophy. His master thought that if you want to be rich, do not increase your means but diminish your desires. You do not need to possess too much to be happy. Happiness is a little blue bird, if you try to grasp it too aggressively, it will die in your grasp. The bird of happiness always flies around you, within arm’s reach. You should not be too obsessed with controlling it: let it fly.
There has been no other philosopher in human history so deliberately and systematically misunderstood and misinterpreted than Epicurus. His name is a synonymous with hedonism – the pursuit of sensory pleasures without excess – a view that was far from his own. The reason why he was condemned by mainstream ideologues through the centuries is his criticism of state and religion based on dogma and superstition, his belief in empirical inquiry, and his positive attitude to joy and pleasure as the main constituents of a happy life. Unlike the Stoics, who considered passions and pleasures distractions in the way of self-perfection, Epicurus embraced them as stepping stones to happiness. But by no means did he teach that we should give ourselves over to uncontrolled passions and indulge in endless orgies. What he believed in was a smart management of pleasures and a deliberate reduction of harms in order to maximise joy and minimise suffering in our lives. This is what he called ataraxia.
Sound familiar? Yes, indeed, there are many similarities between the philosophy of Epicurus and the philosophy of harm reduction. Both challenge moralising and judgemental approaches to risky but pleasurable activities. From the Epicurean point of view, no pleasure is bad in and of itself – but it can be risky to enjoy pleasures without care for the future. Some pleasures may be enjoyable now but can cause us suffering tomorrow. We should look at pleasures in the fullness of time, try to find a balance through moderation, and reach the tranquillity of the mind. We should do everything we can to reduce the risks of future suffering, and this sometimes requires us to diminish our desires in the now. To use a postmodern expression, our joy-seeking should be sustainable.
Epicurus was a materialist in the sense that he believed that everything consists of atoms and void (chaos), a reality that can be explored by empirical observations. He rejected superstition and teleological explanations of the world. He would surely be fascinated by the discoveries of neuroscience about how the reward system of our brain works, with the interconnected communication among different brain regions, and the economy of neurotransmitters. And he would be terrified to see how this system is abused and exploited by corporations for profit by making people dependent on short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops. From an Epicurean point of view, our consumer society is just the opposite of how people should deal with pleasures, and necessarily leads to mass suffering.
Epicurus knew that human beings are not inherently evil, it is not the pursuit of joy but the fear of suffering that makes people do bad things. His teaching corresponds with what we know about the link between addiction and trauma. Those who become dependent on drug use do so to ease the pain of their existence, originating from adverse childhood experiences and the lack of meaningful bonds and loving human relationships. Epicurus would endorse the wisdom that the opposite of addiction is not abstinence but human connection. He taught that the most noble joy in this life is to enjoy the companionship of true friends. The pleasure this gives is far more superior and sustainable than any sensory pleasures. For Epicurus, the greatest pleasure is to sit with your friends in a quiet place, speaking about philosophy while eating cheese and drinking wine in moderation.
Even though he withdrew from public affairs, he was not an elitist and he was not blind to social justice. He realised that human beings have basic and natural needs that should be satisfied to avoid suffering. Like in Maslow’s pyramid of needs: if your basic physiological and psychological needs are not fulfilled you are not able to enjoy the superior pleasures of a tranquil life with philosophising with your friends. That is, when you see people pushed to the margins of society, indulging in risky, pleasure-seeking activities to ease the suffering of being deprived of the basic means to enjoy life, you should not start by preaching about abstinence and condemning their behaviour. You should try to enable them to fulfil their basic needs, empower them with the knowledge of how to avoid risks, and create a safer environment in which they can enjoy community life.
Epicurus created a garden outside of Athens, where he and his followers could live up to their ideals, outside of the oppressive political system. According to Seneca the Younger, there was an inscription on the gate of the garden: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” They practiced what we would today call radical compassion. Unlike other philosophical schools of the age, they accepted women, slaves, and sex workers as part of their community. The only rule was to maximise the joy of life – that is, to enjoy pleasures in moderation and to minimise the risks. The malignant rumours about the endless orgies in The Garden were untrue: Epicurus and his followers led a quiet life. They did not reject earthly pleasures, such as wine and sex, but they valued the intellectual orgies of philosophical discussions and feasting from love above all. They knew that a lonely and isolated individual is unable to enjoy pleasure without being enslaved by it. But people who are well connected to their community, whose lives are full of meaning and love, have the ability to navigate through pleasures while avoiding suffering.
Harm reduction, based on the attitude of compassionate pragmatism to strangers, is a revival of Epicureanism, which was not only a philosophy but a movement, just like harm reduction today. Its main message – neither to harm nor to be harmed – is inherited from Epicurus, through generations of philosophers including John Stuart Mill, whose treatise on freedom still constitutes a basic tenet of social justice movements advocating the rights of marginalised communities, including people who use drugs and sex workers. The big scandal about Epicureanism is the same as that which scandalises people about harm reduction: the rejection of a judgmental approach to pleasures. It is no surprise then that ideologues of oppressive political systems and dogmatists of religious fundamentalism do everything in their power to discredit this approach.