The word epicure refers to someone who is a connoisseur of food and wine, seeks out only the finest, and has selective tastes. The meaning of the word was not originally so highfalutin, though. It could also mean something more like glutton.
The Greek Philosopher Epicurus
Epicure comes to us from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and its meaning, especially in the original sense, from his followers. Also associated with them is the word hedonism, which comes from a fairly innocent Greek word meaning sweetness or pleasure.
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who is most remembered for two beliefs. For one, he preached that the Gods did not really care at all what humans got up to. He did not deny the existence of the Gods, in other words, but only their providence.
He also believed that pleasure was the highest pursuit of a human being. But, pleasure should be sought only so long as it created virtue.
Epicurus did not believe in what we would now call hedonism or gluttony. He thought that pleasure was the absence of pain and difficulty. The idea was not to party your life away, but to indulge your “ordinary appetites” in a temperate way and to remember past enjoyment with pleasure as well as look forward to future enjoyments. He sought to decrease discomfort though avoiding things that created discomfort. You could, in fact, sum up his philosophy by saying that, instead of seeking pleasure, he believed in avoiding pain and discomfort. If you think about it, over-indulging in life’s little pleasures tends to turn around and bite you in the butt. So, Epicurus would avoid such over-indulgence.
And, indeed, he believed in avoiding foods which, though they give pleasure when eaten, leave you feeling deprived afterward. The very feeling of deprivation itself, which leads to so many of life’s problems, including addiction, jealousy, and even hatred, should be avoided.
In any case, the original Epicureans valued mental pleasure more than physical pleasure, focusing on a quiet life in the company of friends. This philosophy went so far as to avoid the fear of death and even fear of the Gods.
However, some of his later followers, or those who wrote about and interpreted his beliefs, went a bit wild with his philosophy. Since all such teachings are open to interpretation, not everyone focused on the temperance part of the message. Some emphasized the pleasure and the active seeking of pleasure. Over time, the pleasures of the table became the focus, and this led to the epicure being associated with gluttony.
Such gluttons and pleasure seekers also came to be called hedonists. This is because the Greek word for pleasure was hēdonē.
The question, then, is how did a word associated with gluttony and hedonism come to mean a ‘connoisseur of the best food and wine?’ Well, while some writers and followers emphasized the pleasure-seeking part of Epicurus’ message, others focused on restraint and temperance when seeking pleasure. So, an epicure, for these people, meant someone who was very selective and, as Mark Morton says in the book Cupboard Love, dainty. The word epicure swung between these two meanings but by the late 1700’s the more mellow meaning and less negative meaning had won out.
Epicure, himself a stoic, was said, along with his disciples, to live on a diet of barley bread, water, and a half-pint of wine a day, hardly an Epicurean delight!
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