The following essay was written for Society of Epicurus. I am sharing it here as well because SNS offers a space to consider questions of identity, ritual, community, and meaning without supernatural claims. Eikas is a tradition that goes back 2,300 years, and Epicurean philosophy has affinity with many of our modern ideas about the nature of things.
Over the last few years, members of the Society of Friends of Epicurus have been reviving an ancient feast of friendship and reason known as Eikas (“the Twentieth”), which was celebrated monthly in antiquity in honor of Epicurus and his best friend and fellow philosopher Metrodorus. Last October in Chicago, two members held our first in-person Eikas, which was incorporated into the virtual Eikas celebration.
In this essay, I will present arguments for why I think that sincere students of Epicurean philosophy should find others of like mind to practice with at least once a month, and why we should continue to observe the tradition of Eikas.
The Hegemon’s Instructions
At the conclusion of his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus instructs his disciple to “meleta” (practice, study, or deliberate about philosophy) “both by yourself and with others of like mind”. At SoFE, we call this the two fields of practice: the first field (meleta by ourselves) involves self-care methods and ethical self-education, and the second field (meleta with others of like mind) involves friendly conversations with other Epicureans, and in general the practice of philia (friendship). Eikas was created to facilitate the practice of this second field, without which we are missing half of our practice. There are checks and balances, skill sets, and human values that are encoded into Kyriai Doxai but are absent from the first field of practice, and that can only be practiced and benefit us when we engage in meleta with others of like mind.
Epicurus instructed in his Final Will and Testament:
And from the revenues made over by me to Amynomachus and Timocrates let them to the best of their power in consultation with Hermarchus make separate provision … for the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force. Let them also join in celebrating the day in Poseideon which commemorates my brothers, and likewise the day in Metageitnion which commemorates Polyaenus, as I have done previously.
Here, we see that this is a tradition that Epicurus began in memory of his best friend Metrodorus, who died about seven years prior to Epicurus, and who (according to Philodemus of Gadara) appears to have been among the first psychotherapists in history (he kept “Histories” of the health of the souls, diseases he diagnosed, treatments he offered, etc. of those whom he helped), and was also a great administrator, a great friend, and a Sage on his own right.
Generations after the death of the founders, the Epicureans had been so loyal to the Eikas tradition that they were known as Twentiers. But not all Epicureans are Twentiers: if the word is to have meaning, Twentiers are known for showing up on the Twentieth of every month, and so they have become a steady and stabilizing presence for their particular circle of Epicurean friends. This label is tied specifically to the communal feast. By participating in Eikas, Twentiers find others of like mind to practice with, as Epicurus instructed in the closing of his Letter to Menoeceus and in his final will.
The Choice of Continuity and Transmission
As we saw in the Final Will, the Twentieth feast is just one of the things we do in memory of our friends who have passed. Why celebrate what is, essentially, a memorial service, if we do not believe in the afterlife? When we participate in Eikas, we are choosing to live in a world where Epicurean philosophy continues to be practiced and studied, and we gather to continue the conversations and memory of our predecessors in the Epicurean lineage. In a recent essay on the role of ancestor reverence in the Eikas tradition, I said:
In my view, Eikas is the most essential Epicurean ceremony and the key to stabilizing and securing the continuity of our tradition, since we have observed that good Epicurean friends become a steady and helpful presence in each other’s lives through loyalty to the Eikas tradition.
Eikas as an Anchor
In the past I’ve argued that both Kyriai Doxai and Eikas serve as anchors to stabilize our practice of philosophy, and later I realized that this word “anchor” is used in one of the Vatican Sayings. There, the Kathegemones (Epicurean Guides) teach about the stability and the pleasures of being anchored in old age.
We should not view the young man as happy, but rather the old man whose life has been fortunate. The young man at the height of his powers is often befuddled by chance and driven from his course; but the old man has dropped anchor in old age as in a harbor, since he secures in sure and thankful memory goods for which he was once scarcely confident of. – Epicurean (aka “Vatican”) Saying 17
Although VS 17 is about praising the stability of the elder, there is one way to practice VS 17 and to procure this good in advance, regardless of our age. We may choose our anchors, by choosing over and over again to connect with the things that we want to procure in order to render our lives stable for years to come. Choosing our anchors is one way to start thinking about the way of life we wish to enjoy in later years. If we choose Eikas as one of our anchors, we are also choosing the particular friends that we celebrate Eikas with as anchors that stabilize our practice of philosophy.
Food and Community
In the essay Eikas and Ancestor Reverence, I discuss the utility of Eikas in helping us to build community, and as a medicine for contemporary rootlessness and nihilism in the Post-Christian Era. Many people wish to create meaning and value without supernaturalism, and the modern epidemic of isolation has been identified by researchers as a health risk on par with obesity and smoking. But we must also consider the role of food as a means to unite people. In our hierarchy of values, it’s clear that the intersubjective pleasures of healthy friendships are superior to other pleasures, and that the other pleasures are made to serve these higher pleasures.
You should worry more about who you eat with than what you eat. – Epicurus
Food has always been used to strengthen friendships. Ancient Egyptians had a festival in honor of the Goddess Sekhmet where people drank red beer and atoned for their sins by reconciling with enemies. In Polynesian islands, similar ceremonies of friendship are used to seal weddings, contracts, to renew friendships, and for enemies to reconcile over a coconut shell filled with the traditional entheogenic drink known as kava. South Americans have for centuries enjoyed yerba maté as the ceremonial drink of friendship.
In Spain, there is a cultural practice known as sobremesa, where people stay on the table (sobre-mesa) after enjoying some tapas (small dishes), perhaps drinking wine or enjoying coffee, and enjoy friendship and conversation. There’s something nurturing about feeding our friends. It helps people to feel at ease and to be in a spirit of trust with each other.
An Immortal Good
At the closing of his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus says we become godlike when we surround ourselves with immortal goods, and in all the extant teachings, the only good that is unequivocally described as immortal is friendship.
The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one. – Epicurean (aka “Vatican”) Saying 78
Part of the point of friendship is to build happy memories, impressions that stay with us. In his deathbed, Epicurus was reminiscing about his friendship with Idomeneus, and even wrote an epistle to him. He was not remembering the wisdom gained over the years or any abstraction, but the memories, the laughter, the loyalties of someone who grew old with him in philosophy—in other words, just as when we are sick we often seek the comfort of the familiar things, our mother’s chicken soup, grandma’s cooking, a friend’s advice, similarly the pleasures that Epicurus took refuge in during his most vulnerable hour were relational, not intellectual.
How to Eikas
The SoFE virtual Eikas includes two main portions: after a short period of informal introduction and conversations, there is a Libation (in the virtual space, this takes the form of a toast in memory of Epicurus and Metrodorus, the two main founders of our tradition, and sometimes other friends who are departed). Then, there is a Program (an educational component, usually a lecture by a SoFE member, but not always). After this, there is informal discussion, and then we close. The SoFE virtual Eikas usually takes about two hours, and usually takes place via zoom or messenger the Sunday prior to the 20th of every month.
Our Eikas page contains a short introduction with instructions on how to celebrate Eikas, plus many essays and videos that have been made during Eikas in the past few years.
Happy Eikas! – written for The Humanist by Luis Granados, who argues that Eikas is an intimate, private alternative to the Sunday Assembly churches
Eikas and Ancestor Reverence – a non-supernatural theory for a memorial feast
How to Eikas – SoFE Pamphlet