My trip, with Steve, Rob and Epicurus
During a particularly difficult period in this new normal, I found great solace in the latest series of The Trip.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon head to Greece, ostensibly to retrace the steps of Odysseus while taking in the country’s culinary delights.
It is a brilliantly hilarious, surprisingly poignant meditation on friendship, masculinity and the masks we present to the world.
After a round of impressions over lunch that takes in Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury and a ‘German porn voice’, Coogan declares that his favourite Greek philosopher is Epicurus.
To me, a philosophical novice, the idea of nailing your colours to one philosopher’s view of the world both astounds and prods the inner sceptic.
How can we subscribe to the teachings of men who lived hundreds of years, if not millennia before us, given all the differences in our experience in this modern world, with all its complexities and nuances?
The answer can be found in the fundamentally unchanging tendency of humans to pursue happiness in various forms, to varying degrees of success.
The Epicurean belief system is understood by most in the same way as Yolanda, a Spanish photographer and Coogan’s occasional lover in The Trip.
As far as she can tell, Epicurus emphasises that the greatest value in life lies in pleasure (hēdonē), understood by her to mean the pleasure taken when indulging the senses.
I’m reminded of the words of another fictional Spanish hedonist, Juan Antonio, the passionate artist in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, who attempts to seduce the titular characters into accompanying him on a spontaneous trip:
‘We’ll eat well, we’ll drink good wine, we’ll make love.’
Faced with Cristina’s scepticism, he replies:
‘Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain. And this is a chance for something special.’
For Juan Antonio, the alternative to hedonism and the indulgence in what Epicurus would call natural yet unnecessary desires is a short, dull, painful life.
And I can certainly see where he is coming from. There is nothing more powerful than these sensory experiences, which Coogan explains are defined as ‘kinetic pleasures’ with a quintessentially Cooganesque flourish.
Coogan is no stranger to seeking intense, transient pleasures, and the contrast between the perpetually dissatisfied septuple BAFTA winner and the amiable, contented Brydon is plain to see.
But how has Brydon achieved something like the happiness that has always eluded his companion?
The other, greater, kind of pleasure is that which is static or katastematic, and it relates to states, particularly those which occur in the absence of pain, both in the body (aponia) and in the mind (ataraxia).
The version of Brydon portrayed in The Trip has a comfortable, stable life and family, a career as ‘a light entertainer’ (as Coogan describes him), and a healthy, loving relationship with his wife.
All these things point to someone far more interested in pursuing the pleasure felt while being in a state rather than the pleasure deriving from activity.
Brydon’s good-natured affability reveals a man who has unknowingly followed the principles of Epicurus to a much greater degree than Coogan, despite the latter professing his admiration towards the philosopher.
The Coogan we see throughout the four series of the Trip is a man constantly searching for something.
He is desperate to be taken seriously professionally, politically and intellectually, and feels the need to massage his own ego at the expense of a Brydon for whom the insults are water off a duck’s back.
He shamelessly flirts with almost every woman the pair encounter, successfully seducing some.
The director, Michael Winterbottom, devastatingly evokes the empty feeling of waking up in a dark room beside someone with whom you intended to spend an electric night of kinetic pleasure, but not a day of life.
So what can we learn from Steve, Rob and Epicurus?
Well, if we were to follow Epicurus teachings to the letter, we would retreat into the state of ataraxia provided by a monastic lifestyle.
We would withdraw from the world to live a reclusive, quiet lifestyle shielded from unnatural and unnecessary desires.
Does that sound at all familiar to the times in which we find ourselves?
Certainly, it would be worth our while to reflect on whether the things we place value on contribute to a lasting feeling of wellbeing, or whether they just give us a momentary hit of dopamine.
I couldn’t help but think of Blur’s shout-out to simple, wholesome pleasures:
I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too
It gives me a sense of enormous well-being
And then I'm happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it
Go feed some birds.
- Gabriel Speechly