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How to Be an Epicurean:
The Ancient Art of Living Well

by catherine wilson
basic, 304 pages, $30

Oenoanda was an ancient town of modest size and middling prosperity, perched on the rugged hills above the River Xanthus in Lycia, now southwestern Turkey. It was here, sometime around the reign of Hadrian (a.d. 117–38), that a citizen named Diogenes erected a portico destined to bear one of the longest Greek inscriptions ever carved. More than a hundred fragments of ­Diogenes’s grandiose inscription have been found. It is conventionally estimated that the text was more than twenty-five thousand words long and sprawled more than two hundred feet. Diogenes had “reached the sunset” of his life, and he wished to impart the wisdom of philosophy to posterity. His advice covered physics, ethics, religion, epistemology, and what we might call cosmology. If he had given his message a brief title, he might have chosen How to Be an Epicurean.

That is the title of philosopher Catherine Wilson’s new book on “the ancient art of living well.” The book belongs to a mini-genre that is having a moment, presumably as publishers recognize the commercial potential of upper-middlebrow books that package smart and readable takes on ancient philosophy with a dash of self-help. Thus we have John Sellars’s Lessons in Stoicism and Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic. (We lack, alas, How to Be a Pythagorean.) How to Be an Epicurean holds its own among its kind, with jargon at a minimum and lively examples on every page. Wilson offers a crisp and thoughtful invitation to take Epicurus and his philosophical system seriously.

Epicurus lived from 341–270 b.c. Born at the dawn of the Hellenistic era, he came of age at a critical moment in Western philosophy, when the great burst of creative intellectual energy in classical Athens was channeled into enduring schools. Epicurus was indebted to the atomism of ­pre-Socratic philosophy and the pragmatic humanism of the Sophists. Yet he has not always been held in high esteem. In antiquity, his hedonistic philosophy made him and his followers a target for scurrilous rumors. By the early modern period, Epicureanism was a byword for depravity; in the words of intellectual historian Ada Palmer, Epicureanism was “a generic term of abuse, interchangeable with ­atheism, blasphemy, even sodomy.” (One group of sixteenth-century friars were ­accused of living “as sons of iniquity . . . as Epicureans and Lutherans.”) The indecency forever associated with the philosopher’s name obscures what he really taught and makes it easy to underestimate the influence of his school, in both ancient and modern times. It was no accident, after all, that in the scene recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul ascends the Areopagus in Athens and confronts “certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics.” These were the two ­dominant schools of philosophy in the first century.

Very little survives of Epicurus’s writings. Lucretius’s poem De Rerum Natura thus looms large in any attempt to retrieve ancient Epicurean thought, and the work’s sheer beauty has often been admired, even when its content was regarded as dubious or dangerous. The inscription of ­Diogenes is far less elegant, but it remains as one of the few lengthy expositions of Epicureanism to survive from the ancient world.

The basic elements are clear. Epicurean philosophy espouses a ­materialist ontology. It holds that matter is all there is and that matter exists ­eternally in time, both forward and backward. Matter exists in the form of atoms (from the Greek for “indivisible thing”) suspended in a void; atoms are imperceptibly small and indestructible units that combine in different ways to ­create the ­phenomenal world that we experience. There is no immaterial soul, no part or principle of our being that transcends our embodiment. Death is the end, with complete finality. But we have nothing to fear in this fact, which offers peace of mind against the dread of punishments in the afterlife. The whole ­cosmos is made up of matter, just as we are—ever changing from state to state in kaleidoscopic diversity, but neither coming into being nor passing away. The planets in their movements can be demystified by physical explanation, and life ­itself can be accounted for by a kind of evolutionary theory avant la lettre. ­Immortal beings known as the gods might exist, but they are not responsible for the creation of the ­cosmos or of human life.

The appropriate response to our condition is to live a life of rational pleasure. Hedonist ethics are the core of Epicurean philosophy. Diogenes of Oenoanda tells us that he conceived his inscription as an “anthem to celebrate the fullness of pleasure.” The fullness of pleasure is the only measure of what is right and good, the only unit of value by which we may determine how we ought to live. Even virtue can be judged only by this one yardstick. Epicurean philosophy proposed a withdrawal from public affairs, for it saw the polis as an arena of violence, vainglory, and oppression, rather than as the source of binding duties or a site for fulfilling our most distinctly human capacities. For the Epicurean, community is achieved in private association, where friendship offers a true source of pleasure.

Hedonism, of course, can mean many different things. We know that Epicurus had a strong and particular view of which pleasures were to be relished, though we wish we knew more about what exactly he had to say on the matter. It is clear that ancient Epicureanism put little stock in the physical pleasures; it was not a philosophy of cheap gratification. In the words of Diogenes, “Joy of real value is generated not by theaters and . . . baths and perfumes and ointments, which we have left to the masses, but by natural science.” The aim of the ancient Epicurean was to achieve ataraxia, which means tranquility, an inner peace closer to zen than to orgiastic indulgence. Health and tranquility are static rather than kinetic pleasures, to be sought for their own sake. In the words of one ancient text, the promise of the Epicurean garden was that it “does not whet your appetite: it quenches it.”

The high value placed on tranquility and the concern for the nature of different kinds of pleasure were central to ancient Epicureanism. The reason for this centrality is important. As Julia Annas showed in a brilliant essay more than a generation ago, though Epicurus was a hedonist, his philosophy was eudaimonistic. That is to say, Epicurus set out to describe the nature of the final human good, which he considered to be happiness or eudaimonia. For Epicurus, virtue is good, but it is good because it allows one to live pleasantly, free of pain and disturbance and fear, and in a state of health and serenity, achieved mainly by the hard work of living philosophically.

It is here that the contrast with modern receptions of Epicureanism is sharpest, and one wishes that Wilson went into more detail. In construing Hobbes and Bentham and Marx as modern Epicureans, she is not wrong. Bentham’s utilitarianism is Epicurean in inspiration and spirit. It reduces all forms of value to a single measure, dissolving all “benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” to the universally fungible quantum of utility. But from Hobbes onward, hedonism was sundered from its eudaimonistic origins, and from ­Bentham onward it became an almost infinitely flexible foundation for imagining the good life and justifying political action. Utilitarianism provides the value system of social engineering projects inspired by Marx, as well as the basis for consumer capitalism. (It is telling that William Stanley Jevons, the godfather of marginal economics, was an orthodox Benthamite, and the modern belief in markets is grounded in the promise of their delivering satisfactions more efficiently than any alternative.) In a sense, then, most contemporary ideologies owe a debt to Epicurus and his school, even as modern materialism and hedonism have strayed from the definite contours provided by the eudaimonistic framework of ancient philosophy. Rather than accumulate quanta of utility, the eudaimonistic framework seeks a happiness that arises from living in the best way.

Wilson concludes with an engaging comparison between Epicureanism and Stoicism. For a few centuries, these schools vied for supremacy among the literati of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. They shared the materialist outlook that was widespread in the late Hellenistic and early Roman age. As the author of Acts knew, they were the heavyweights of the first-century world. When Paul confronted “certain philosophers,” he did so as a Christian speaking the language of Platonism. It is not a confrontation Wilson reckons with: why or whether we might believe in some kind of being not contained by atoms and the void. But this kind of question gnawed at the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean. The opening centuries of the new millennium witnessed first a renewed Platonism, then a revived Aristotelianism, and finally a Christianity that could adapt them both and that eventually displaced the dominant schools of the Hellenistic period.

Diogenes of Oenoanda died, presumably in a state of tranquility, but perhaps aware that clouds of change were on the horizon: “The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep).” He held out hope for an Epicurean future, a golden age of reason and philosophy when “all will be full of justice and mutual love, and there will be no need of walls or laws and all the things we contrive on account of one another.” Alas, little more than a century after his death, the stones used for his inscription were hastily repurposed as a defensive wall to repel invaders.

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and provost at the University of Oklahoma.

Image by LegesRomanorum via Creative Commons