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How to Be an Epicurean
The Ancient Art of Living Well
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Philosophy wears garments of many colours and textures. It can stitch together intricate analysis or pretentious bafflegab, deep insight or pseudo-profundity, impartial advice or personal prejudice. It shows up, in flashy or drab form, not only in the lecture rooms of universities but in the New Age section of your local bookshop, shelved next to books about ESP and meditation. Regardless of its patchwork character, philosophy asks you to try to think for yourself, logically and coherently, to create order from chaos. You use ideas and frameworks developed by others, especially the great philosophers of the past, as scaffolding. But ultimately, you make – and use – your own system of the world in deciding what to believe, what to do and what to hope for.
My aim in this book is to build you a piece of scaffolding by introducing you to what, to me, is the most interesting and relevant of the ancient philosophical systems: Epicureanism, a ‘theory of everything’ originating in the observations and ideas of the 3rd-century-BCE Athenian philosopher Epicurus and set into Latin verse by his 1st-century-BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius. Although the world has changed since Epicurus wrote and lectured, the issues of money, love, family and politics that he dealt with remain with us in new forms. The Epicurean perspective remains, to my mind, relevant and valuable.
Epicureanism was one of the five major schools of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, existing alongside – and competing for adherents with – Platonism, Stoicism, Scepticism and Aristotelianism. Unlike the city-based Platonists and Stoics, Epicurus had decided to ‘live apart’ with his followers. His philosophical school was set in a garden (actually a grove), usually considered to have been located outside the city walls, where philosophy was discussed, meals were taken together, and books and letters were written.
Most of Epicurus’s original writings were lost. The largest known collection of his and his followers’ writings, located in the town of Herculaneum near Naples, was buried in the ash and lava of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. But Lucretius had seen and made use of them more than a century earlier, and several of Epicurus’s philosophical letters and collections of sayings, as well as the reports of ancient commentators, survived.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Lucretius’s Roman contemporary, took an interest in Epicureanism, though he criticised it heavily. His dialogues on religion and moral philosophy show how Epicureanism stacked up against its rival Stoicism, at least from Cicero’s point of view. Largely but not wholly lost to medieval and Renaissance readers, Epicurean philosophy was revived in the 17th century, when it exercised a significant influence on moral and political philosophy, as well as on cosmology, chemistry and physics. The great utilitarian social reformers of 19th-century Britain, as well as the framers of the United States Constitution, paid homage to the Epicurean ideal of human welfare. And Lucretius’s Epicurean poem, On the Nature of Things, at first admired mainly for its elegant Latin, came to be considered a model for the vivid and memorable communication of abstract scientific ideas. At the same time, as you will see in what follows, Epicureanism had certain features that shocked, or at least unsettled, many who encountered it.
Before I start, more about me: as a lecturer, I have taught philosophy in the US, Britain, Canada and Germany. As a researcher I have worked in archives and libraries, published books and articles, and engaged in controversies with other academics. Many of my writings focus on the physical and life sciences of the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially on the concept of the microworld of subvisible organisms and material particles. But all along, thanks to early exposure as a teenager through volunteer activities and work camps, I have been interested in the problems of warfare, poverty and social justice. Both sets of interests are reflected in this book, which is addressed to some of the problems of modernity, both theoretical and practical, as they face us in contemporary life.
Like most readers, I am concerned about the array of political and economic problems affecting us and our children and causing us anxiety even when we live in conditions of affluence. There is increasing economic inequality, fostering resentment and violence; the corruption of democratic processes on a mass scale; the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; the depletion of environmental resources, including soil and water; the loss of plant and animal species, and the toxification of our air and our oceans.
The modern economy uses vast quantities of energy from oil and gas (and from the atom) to transform oil and other raw materials into consumer products, only a few of which make our lives better. The rest stuffs and fattens our closets and drawers and piles up as waste in landfills. And it does not make us happy. Mood disturbances, especially depression, afflict large segments of the population, and many people drink too much alcohol or are addicted to stimulants or tranquillisers. Over one-third of Americans are ‘completely inactive’, and sleep disturbances from artificial light as well as immune dysregulation arise from lack of exposure to natural sunlight. ‘In effect,’ as one observer comments, ‘humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable and socially isolating environment with dire consequences.’ We live longer than most of our ancestors but in a sicklier fashion. And from every pain or deprivation, somebody benefits. Pharmaceutical manufacturers benefit from our sugar-induced diabetes and our mental-health problems; oil companies from the destruction of wilderness and poisoning of the atmosphere; the chemicals industry and their stockholders from the use of plastics; the automobile industry from the absence of public transportation; and the prison industry from the desperation and violence that characterise the poorest neighbourhoods.
At the same time, we face problems in our private lives that reflect the age-old human condition, intensified by the social changes of the last fifty to one hundred years. The stresses of urban life, the monotony of suburban life, bad jobs and bad bosses, sexual predation and confusion affect almost all of us.
Tinkering around the edges of our problems with scented candles, new exercise routines and productivity apps isn’t going to help much in the long-run, and no philosopher who is honest about it can give you a formula for being happy – certainly not for being happy all the time. Nevertheless, philosophy can point the way to the sources of satisfaction that are available to almost every human being and to strategies for facing off against the major threats to human happiness. These threats lie in wait for us in the form of outsized ambitions, fear of failure and feelings of futility. The history of philosophy can also help us to see the difference between what philosophers call the necessary and the contingent, or accidental in our historical and social conditions, and to see how the moral commitments of individuals have made a positive difference.
In this book, I’ll explain how the ancient Epicureans saw the world and how a present-day Epicurean sees it. At the same time, I’ll try to be honest and objective. Epicureanism was always a controversial philosophy, and it needs rethinking in some respects. Philosophers have their own irrational enthusiasms, and their views should never be accepted on faith without critical scrutiny. As far as that’s concerned, I expect readers to roll their eyes at some of my opinions. In the end, you may find the Epicurean system as I present it here compelling and useful in working out your own ideas about how to live. Or you may find it offputting and see in its very problems helpful directions for living in a different way. In any case, real Epicureanism is probably considerably different from what you might have thought.
As reported by Lucretius:
[Epicurus] saw that almost everything that necessity demands for subsistence had already been provided for mortals… he saw, too, that they possessed power, with wealth, honour and glory, and took pride in the good reputation of their children; and yet he found that, notwithstanding this prosperity, all of them privately had hearts ranked with anxiety…
The Epicureans believed that most people have the wrong conception of the nature of the universe and their place in it. They wanted to replace indoctrination and wishful thinking with respect for reality. They sought to uncover the real sources of joy and misery in our finite lives and to balance the ethical treatment of others with our own self-interest. This required attention to opportunities for ‘choice and avoidance’ in everyday life. Three of Epicurus’s most famous (also his most infamous) teachings were: first, everything that exists, including the human mind, is composed of material atoms; second, if a God or gods exist, it or they did not create our world, and it or they do not care about humanity; and third, there is no life after death and no other world to go to.
From these three basic and interrelated claims – the material nature of everything, including the human individual, the absence of divine oversight of the world and the finality of death – the Epicureans worked out a system covering both the natural world and the human world. They tried, ambitiously, though not always convincingly, to explain the origins of the cosmos, the causes of volcanoes and earthquakes, the evolution of life and the origins of war, poverty, dominion and servitude, appealing only to physical processes and human inventions and decisions. They explained what morality and justice are all about and warned of the dangers of belligerent and kleptocratic rulers. They made suggestions as to how to live with less fear and regret and what attitude to take in the face of adversity. Unlike their main philosophical rivals, the Stoics, they did not believe the mind is all-powerful in the face of adversity or that we should strive to repress our emotions, griefs and passions. Their moral philosophy is relational rather than individualistic. And unlike the other, more influential schools of ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic and the Aristotelian, the Epicureans welcomed women into the sect.
Central to their understanding and to their views on social equality was their distinction between nature and what they termed ‘convention’. By nature they meant the realm of living things – what we would call the plant and animal kingdoms – along with light and fire, the varied landscapes and waterscapes of our planet, and its celestial objects, the sun, moon and stars. Nature, they recognised, presents an ever-changing spectacle, but it is in many ways predictable. The seasons come around on a regular basis, and animals produce offspring that resemble them from generation to generation. Fire can be counted upon to burn dry straw.
By convention the Epicureans meant perceptions, attitudes and beliefs dependent on our specifically human constitution and reflected in our categories and the words we use. Epicurus’s Greek forerunner, the philosopher Democritus, stated: ‘By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: but in reality, atoms and the void.’ The sweetness of honey and the bitterness of rocket depend on our taste receptors, and colours, too, are perceived differently by different animal species and even by different individual humans. Poverty and marriage are not found in nature; they are understood differently by different groups of humans and have different implications, depending on where you are and what group you identify with.
The distinction between nature and convention helps to break down egocentrism and speciesism. My perceptions don’t have any special claim to objectivity, and my preferences – indeed, human desires in general – don’t deserve automatic priority over the preferences of other people and animals. The nature – convention distinction is also important for taking a critical perspective on politics, economics and social relations. In adolescence, most of us come to a point where we question the rules and structures that we have to obey and live within. Some people retain this inquisitive, even rebellious spirit for their entire lives; others decide in time that there are good reasons why things are organised and administered the way they are, or that acceptance and conformity are necessary for getting ahead in life. The Epicurean is acutely aware that our institutions and practices – our schools, law courts, police systems and government bodies – along with our ways of making things and selling them, and our expectations from marriage and family life, are conventional. We have decided that they are to take on the forms they have. At the same time, to refer to ‘our’ decisions is to gloss over the fact that the decisions that actually shape our lives are rarely made by the same people whose lives are shaped by them.
Many customs and policies that are purely conventional are assumed to be based in nature and treated as just, beneficial and unchangeable. Some examples, which I will discuss later in the book, include our supposedly natural selfishness and our supposedly unlimited desire for material goods. The assumption that acquisitiveness is a primary human drive provides the rationale for the way we organise and reward work. The supposed natural differences between men and women, in respect of their abilities, temperaments and interests, provides the rationale for giving women less of many of the things that men enjoy in greater abundance, especially social freedom and the opportunity to develop their talents and contribute to how the world is going to look and operate.
Although I have found Epicurean philosophy to be a rich source of ideas for thinking about nature, society, and personal life, the decision to write about Epicureanism for a broader readership presented a challenge nothing like the ones I was used to in my professional role.
First, in the more than 2,000 years since Epicurus founded his school of philosophy, the world has undergone a series of technological and political upheavals. We have experienced the Industrial Revolution, the agricultural revolution, the rise of global capitalism and factory labour, and the Internet revolution. We have an understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, engineering, computing and the social sciences that has enabled us to develop and transform our environment and to accumulate and share experiences in ways that could never have been foreseen. We can observe and communicate at the speed of light with people on the other side of the world. Could the ideas of an ancient philosopher from a time when civilisation, though not the world itself, was young, and when what expert knowledge there was lay in the hands of a small elite, really have any relevance today?
Second, Epicureanism is an optimistic philosophy, but it is not the intellectual equivalent of comfort food. Lucretius described Epicurus’s world view as bitter medicine that he aimed to sweeten through the sensuous imagery of his poetry. The Epicureans were concerned with how to think clearly and objectively about the world and about our social and political relations with one another, and they did not shrink from stating inconvenient truths. Could modern readers be persuaded that it was worth taking the medicine?
Third, the words ‘Epicure’ and ‘Epicurean’ are associated with unbridled consumption and high living. If you think visually, the first image that comes to mind might be that of a dainty, emaciated aristocrat, fussing over his wine cellar, or that of a fat, jowly, solitary diner with a voluminous napkin tucked under his chin, tackling an enormous roast. You probably weren’t thinking of a middle-aged woman who owns a bicycle and whose refrigerator at the moment contains only a few wilting green onions and half a jar of marmalade.
In fact, Epicurus did consider pleasure, including pleasure in food and drink, to be not only the main motive of our actions but also the supreme good. As he put it:
Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.
This may strike you as an unacceptably frivolous and selfish claim. What would the world look like if everybody forgot about calories, the family, sales goals, deadlines, grades, the nation, truth, honour and responsibility and instead went all-out in the pursuit of pleasure? What about the sexually transmitted diseases, overdoses and bankruptcies that would inevitably follow? What about the feelings, pleasures and choices of the sadist? And isn’t the pursuit of pleasure expensive and ecologically irresponsible?
Let me reassure you that real Epicureanism is neither frivolous nor dangerous to health, nor a threat to other people. Epicurus himself pointed out that the direct pursuit of pleasurable sensations is usually self-defeating. At the same time, he stated clearly that the best life is one free of deprivations, starting with freedom from hunger, thirst and cold, and freedom from persistent fears and anxieties. Living well requires friends to entertain and comfort us and curiosity about nature and how the world works. It doesn’t require stupendous achievement or large outlays of cash. And life can be and feel significant even without religious faith in the usual sense. Although it might seem surprising in light of the many attacks from medieval and early-modern Western theologians on Epicureanism for its atheistic framework, the Epicurean conception of the good and meaningful life can even be found in the Jewish and Christian bibles. Ecclesiastes 8:15 says, ‘Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ Isaiah 22:13 says, ‘Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.’
Although Epicureanism is a way of life, this is not a lifestyle book in the usual sense. I start off with a generous helping of Epicurean physics, the theory of nature and history, with the Epicurean theory of everything. My contention is that ethical and political values are grounded in particular ways of seeing the world, about which we are normally unreflective. Philosophy brings these assumptions to the surface and makes them explicit so that they can be examined, and refined or discarded. Our choices should flow spontaneously from our examined convictions without our having to take on board and remember specific rules, including rules for living. I can’t solve for my readers all or even many of the problems of modern life, but I hope my book will help you to acquire a framework for living, not only comfortably and happily, as far as possible, but in a responsible and meaningful way.
NOTE ON THE TEXT
Most of Epicurus’s original writings have been lost, though the collection destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE has recently been partially rescued and partially restored to legibility. I’ve drawn on the most available of Epicurus’s letters and sayings and on Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, based on Epicurus’s still mostly unreconstructed book On Nature. Bibliographical information is found at the end, along with suggestions for further reading.
HOW THE EPICUREAN SEES THE WORLD
BACK TO BASICS
The totality is made up of bodies and void… Beyond these two things nothing can be conceived… Among bodies, some are compounds, and some are those things from which compounds have been made. And these are atomic and unchangeable…
There are certain particles whose concurrences, movements, order, position and shapes produce fires; different combinations of them form things of different nature, but they themselves are unlike fire or any other thing…
Let’s start with a set of questions – large ones, with significant implications – to which the Epicurean has a definite answer. Is there anything completely indestructible and permanent in the universe? If so, what is it? And why does the Epicurean answer to such an abstract question matter?
In thinking about endurance, we can immediately rule out tables and chairs, houses and skyscrapers, pens and pencils, and all other objects that human beings fabricate. All of these items have finite useful lives ranging from a few months to a few thousand years. Any of these items can be broken up by taking a crowbar or a wrecking ball to it, or just by snapping it in two in the case of pens and pencils. Left to themselves, over hundreds or thousands of years, each of these items will crumble into dust. Plastic bags, we have learned to our dismay, will persist for an astonishingly long time, perhaps a thousand years in landfills, but eventually they, too, will be broken down by light or heat, or by chemicals or micro-organisms.
Very well, what about enormous natural objects like mountains or the ocean? They are not so easy to destroy, but enough nuclear weapons or a very large asteroid could flatten the Himalayas. And in time – in hundreds of millions or several billion years – all life on our planet will have long been extinct. The earth will be consumed by the sun within 5 billion years, and our galaxy will collapse.
What, then, about the chemical elements – hydrogen, carbon, uranium and so on? There are many competing scenarios for the end of the universe as we know it and the disappearance of every galaxy, but in all of them the chemical elements, too, will eventually vanish.
Even time and space, and the so-called elementary particles, the quarks and gluons and bosons, will cease to exist, according to current theory.
But, surely something must continue to exist! The universe can never wind down into nothing… zero… total annihilation…?
THE EPICUREAN ATOM
The ancient Epicureans argued that everything in our experience is perishable and will someday perish. But once something exists, they reasoned, it cannot just become nothing. Correspondingly, the entire universe could not have come out of nothing. It follows that the universe must have emerged from something and that something will always exist, no matter how broken up the objects of experience come to be.
If they were right – and let’s go along with their reasoning – after the destruction of every man-made object, every geographical feature, every star and planet, and every chemical element, and after the disappearance of time and space, something must be left from which a new universe could be rebuilt.
From the time that human beings began to philosophise, many came to the conclusion that the eternal something that existed before the universe ever appeared and that can maintain it or even outlast it must be intelligent and creative – a Mind with a Plan. Creation stories take many different forms, but they have in common the idea that there must have been a definite beginning to the world and that it was brought into being for some purpose by its Creator. Human beings were the special concern of this powerful entity, and the rest of the universe was constructed according to the needs and characteristics of human beings and the grand plan of the Creator for them.
Epicurus rejected these assumptions. He maintained to the contrary that the elements of the universe are eternal and uncreated. There is no ruling mind or master plan involving them. His reasoning begins from the idea of destruction rather than from the idea of construction.
Destruction occurs when the parts of a thing, whether a boulder, or a house, or an animal body, are separated from one another by tearing, grinding, smashing, chopping, wearing away or being exploded. The truly indestructible and permanent things that remain after all such operations are the ‘atoms’ – in Greek, the ‘uncuttables’. Epicurean atoms are the ancestors of the modern scientific concept of the atom, but somewhat differently imagined. They are located and move in the void, the empty space separating visible objects and constituting the tiny gaps between the atoms of different shapes and sizes within objects. Apart from the atoms and the void in which they move and collect, sticking together and interweaving, there is nothing.
These atoms, Epicurus supposed, are far too small to be seen by human eyes. But the existence of tiny indestructible particles composing everything was suggested not only by the reasoning just described but by common observations. ‘A finger ring,’ says Lucretius, ‘is worn thin on the inside; the fall of water drop by drop hollows a stone; we see the stone pavements of streets worn away by the feet of the crowd.’ The atoms were thought to resemble the dust motes that can be seen drifting in a ray of light coming in through a window. According to Epicurus, they have different shapes and sizes, but are devoid of colour, taste and scent. They can move in all directions and have no tendencies except the tendency to fall downwards, and the ability to rebound from one other, and to become entangled with other atoms to form physical objects of perceptible sizes. Frequently, an atom ‘swerves’ in an unpredictable fashion. If they didn’t, they’d all end up in a pile at the ‘bottom’ of the world.
The Epicureans theorised that, given sufficient time, the atoms would fall into stable patterns. They would form multiple worlds, or ‘cosmoi’, each with its own plants and animals, its own stars and sun. Such worlds were, they thought, constantly coming into being and breaking up, furnishing the material for recycling into new worlds.
‘The same atoms,’ Lucretius points out, ‘constitute sky, sea, lands, rivers and sun: the same compose crops, trees and animals.’ But if the atoms have no qualities other than size, shape and motion, how can they give rise to our noisy, colourful, scented, textured world? The answer, he explains, is that combinations and arrangements of atoms can take on qualities they do not possess individually. He employs the analogy of letters and words.
"An excellent debut... General readers interested in how the ancient Greeks viewed the good life will take great pleasure in Wilson's entertaining guide to Epicureanism for modern times."
- "Wilson] guides readers through what can seem a very contemporary philosophy valuing rational thought, physical evidence, non-self-interested justice, and human free will.... This is a valuable introduction to a very influential philosophy."—Booklist
- "A universe made only of atoms and empty space? No life after death? Carefree gods indifferent to mortals? Freedom from anxiety the highest good? These were basic themes in ancient Epicureanism, and Catherine Wilson shows eloquently how this ancient and most humane philosophy, when creatively interpreted and applied, can help us to live well in the world today. Even if this book does not make an Epicurean of you, it will teach you to appreciate and admire Epicurus's wisdom and his relevance for our times."—David Konstan, professor of classics, New York University
- "So glad to see our Epicurean cousins back in the game! This is a new golden age of practical philosophy!"—MassimoPigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic
- "Catherine Wilson's book achieves something rare intellectually, the steep task its author explicitly sets for herself: it carves out an accessible explication of an idea, Epicureanism, to give readers more genuine, immediate agency over their lives. But this isn't a book for Epicureans, or only for Epicureans. It's a book for anyone who wants to use careful thought to make better considered, happier choices."—MatthewWolfson, journalist
- "intelligent and readable"—The Economist
- A spirited tour and defense of Epicurean philosophy . . .—City Journal
- Wilson's command of her subject is unquestioned... All in all, she is an admirable guide along the Epicurean path.—The Post and Courier
- On Sale
- Sep 24, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Basic Books