THE BLOG

The Epicurean Leader

02/12/2015 06:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

They sat in the garden of the their teacher's house, men and women, discussing the latest trends in thought but especially the radical ideas of their leader Epicurus. It was the fourth century B.C.E. I have always imagined them in the midst of a grand Greek salad: olive trees around them, lettuce and cucumbers growing in the garden, and goats dancing on the hillsides visible in the distance, making feta cheese. Hush, you fussy scholars. Allow me my fantasies. I wish I had attended a school like this.

This was the Garden School of Epicurus, who taught that the ultimate motive throughout human life is pleasure. No, not hedonism and eating too much and doing anything you please. If the many restaurants with Epicurean in their name were to be true to history, they would all be vegetarian. That's what the tradition says. Epicurus was too intelligent to advocate a life of abandon to appetites. He distinguished between pleasures that passed quickly and those that were stable, and he singled out friendship as an especially important example of the latter.

I have looked closely at literature on the soul throughout history and have noticed how often the spokepersons for soul were Epicureans and their subject was friendship. Second on their list was pleasure, voluptas, the basis of our word voluptuous. Imagine a serious philosophy of life based on solid, deep-seated, highly ethical pleasure.

Our business, political, religious and family leaders could all be Epicureans. Their goal is pleasure, but it may not be as ethical, profound, humane and sensitive as that of Epicurus himself. They may be craving love, praise, money, sex, power or control. Their vision and their motives may not be big enough or deep enough to give their leadership a soul.

The pleasures they derive from their work could include such things as creating a good work environment, really caring for the happiness of people they serve, making the world a better place, and evolving toward an enlightened future. The pleasures that come from such values are real pleasures and could give deep satisfaction to leaders of all kinds. The other pleasures like money and power can have a place when they are fine-tuned, but they still remain far below the deep ones in priority.

The result would be leadership that is profoundly satisfying, helping leaders keep their sanity and not have to act out so much in a desperate quest for satisfaction. In many cases the soul shrivels when the leader has to observe values far beneath him and then look for pleasures that are superficial.

Matters like money, power and prestige have their place, but often they are mere lures and temptations toward what Epicurus might label as the unstable pleasures. They don't last and don't reach deep enough into the human need for compensation. Leaders usually work hard, take risks and suffer their own deprivations just to do their job. It's natural to want some reward for all this effort.

It takes an intelligence of soul and spirit to rise above temptations toward the lesser rewards. It requires an ongoing education in values and maybe some guidance toward a life purpose. Schools don't typically teach these things, though our poets and writers and some spiritual leaders offer good reflection on them. We would have to teach literature and history with the intention of helping students sort out important values.

The Epicurean leader knows how to distinguish valuable rewards from the cheap ones. He or she knows how to let the role of leader create an ever deeper vision, have a serious role in the unfolding of human culture, and enjoy the genuine gratitude of followers.

Every leader has a choice manifested in every decision: whether to go for unworthy ego satisfactions or to find truly deep and satisfying rewards in service. The latter last longer, reach deeper and satisfy the leader's soul. They counter burn-out, addictions, depression and sexual acting-out--signs that leaders have neglected their souls.

The Epicurean leader can admit that he wants and needs pleasure in his work, rather than pretend to himself and others that his motives are all self-sacrificing and altruistic. But knowing, at least intuitively, the Epicurean secret about worthy pleasures, he can go for the big ones and ultimately find his life work more meaningful and satisfying.