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Thinkers and theories

‘To be happy ... we need to be engaged with external things and with other people.’ A migrant child receives her food at a refugee shelter in a former hotel in Berlin, Germany, 9 June 2016. Photo by Stefanie Loos/Reuters

How to be an Epicurean

A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

Catherine Wilson

‘To be happy ... we need to be engaged with external things and with other people.’ A migrant child receives her food at a refugee shelter in a former hotel in Berlin, Germany, 9 June 2016. Photo by Stefanie Loos/Reuters

Catherine Wilson

was most recently Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and is now Visiting Presidential Professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her latest book is How to Be an Epicurean (2019), published simultaneously in the UK under the title The Pleasure Principle. She lives in New York City and London.

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Like many people, I am skeptical of any book, lecture or article offering to divulge the secrets of happiness. To me, happiness is episodic. It’s there at a moment of insight over drinks with a friend, when hearing a new and affecting piece of music on the radio, sharing confidences with a relative or waking up from a good night’s sleep after a bout of the flu. Happiness is a feeling of in-the-moment joy that can’t be chased and caught and which can’t last very long.

But satisfaction with how things are going is different than happiness. Satisfaction has to do with the qualities and arrangements of life that make us want to get out of bed in the morning, find out what’s happening in the world, and get on with whatever the day brings. There are obstacles to satisfaction, and they can be, if not entirely removed, at least lowered. Some writers argue that satisfaction mostly depends on my genes, where I live and the season of the year, or how other people, including the government, are treating me. Nevertheless, psychology and the sharing of first-person experience acquired over many generations, can actually help.

So can philosophy. The major schools of philosophy in antiquity – Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism and, my favourite, Epicureanism, addressed the question of the good life directly. The philosophers all subscribed to an ideal of ‘life according to nature’, by which they meant both human and nonhuman nature, while disagreeing among themselves about what that entailed. Their original writings, most of them widely accessible, readable and thought-provoking, remain a resource, not just for philosophy students and specialists, but for everyone interested in the topics of nature, society and wellbeing.

What was a ‘school’ of philosophy for the ancient Greeks and Romans? Essentially, it was a group that shared common beliefs and values. Its members would meet regularly to listen to lectures by the leader, to discuss the philosophical issues among themselves and with occasional visitors, and to work out how to defend their views against the objections of their competitors’ schools. Accounts of the lectures and discussions might make their way into written texts, crafted by the leader or his students. Philosophy was not, however, a form of public education. Between 40 and 80 per cent of the population of Athens in the first few centuries BCE were male and female slaves. Some of them might serve and entertain at philosophical functions but did not participate.

Plato, who collected the thoughts and discussions of his 5th-century BCE teacher Socrates, emphasised the cultivation of the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Plato considered these virtues, and other ‘forms’ such as truth and beauty, more real than anything composed of matter. Virtue, he thought, was the route and the only route to eudaimonia, usually translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘flourishing’. Dishonesty, cowardice, gluttonous, lustful, intemperate behaviour and mistreatment of others could produce only a disordered and unhappy personality.

The audiences that Socrates and Plato meant to address consisted most typically of ambitious and spoiled young men from top Athenian families who needed to be set straight. Was Plato’s theory of human flourishing through virtue meant to apply to women? Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics led all-male academies. The women of the time were largely confined to the household, at least the respectable ones. Their domestic occupations would not have given them opportunity to display courage (mostly understood as courage in battle), or wisdom (as they lacked an education and experience of the world outside the home), or moderation (as they had no sexual freedom and did not take part in heavy-drinking parties), or justice (as they had no scope to judge adult men and to mete out rewards and punishments). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE stated explicitly that virtue was different for men and for women. For women, obedience was the top virtue and so presumably conducive to their flourishing.

Aristotle wrote on a much wider range of subjects than Plato had, from marine biology to human reproduction, from political organisation to drama and rhetoric. In ethics, he pointed out that some supposed virtues could be too much of a good thing. Too much courage was foolhardiness; too much moderation was stinginess and asceticism. Too much wisdom might make you seem pompous, I suppose, and a fanatical commitment to justice would exclude mercy and forgiveness, which seem virtuous. But Aristotle’s main contribution to moral philosophy is often considered to be his point that to be happy you have to be somewhat lucky. If you are born with a terrible, progressive disease, or into the middle of a war, or if you happen to have powerful enemies who impede you at every turn, your chances of flourishing are lower than otherwise. For eudaimonia, you not only have to practise virtue; you need friends, your health and a decent income.

The Epicureans had no patience for the Stoic claim that human beings are self-sufficient, without need for the goodwill of others.

A third major school of philosophy, Stoicism, represented by a number of teachers and writers in the Greek and Roman traditions, including Epictetus and Seneca, reverted to the Platonic view that external events cannot diminish the wellbeing of the good person. The world, they thought, is ruled by providence; all that happens is fated to happen, and we must embrace our individual fates and the past and the future that has been determined for us. As things could not have happened otherwise, regret and remorse over past decisions and actions are pointless.

Not only regret, but all emotions, including anger, pity and love, are ‘diseases’ of the soul in need of a cure, though a general benevolence towards humanity was permissible. An emotional reaction, they maintained, always involves the illusion that some external event, a rejection letter, or a friend’s betrayal, or meeting someone fantastic, or being tortured, is objectively bad or good for you. An emotion, they said, is just a bodily disturbance that causes mental disturbance. To restore tranquility, one should remember that these things happen all the time, that they were fated to happen, and that the self is an ‘inner citadel’ that can withstand any attack.

Stoicism has many adherents even today because it offers explicit coping mechanisms for everyday adversities. Psychotherapeutic techniques that involve getting distance or perspective on individual problems have a lot of overlap with Stoic techniques. But there are many problems with Stoicism – and psychotherapy. The major one, in my opinion, is that these techniques haven’t been proven. I have found no well-designed and methodologically sound empirical study showing that emotionally troubled people who undergo perspective-inducing therapy fare better, after some given length of time, than emotionally troubled people who just wait for time to heal their wounds.

A second problem with Stoic practices is that emotions make life feel worth living. Emotional numbness and absence of motivation is the main feature of depression. Drugs that reduce affect are widely disliked by patients who have been prescribed them. Recent empirical work suggests that we need the emotions to make decisions; otherwise we just waffle endlessly, making up rationales and counter-rationales for some course of action. And finally, the Stoic claim that pity for the suffering of others just makes you feel bad yourself is deeply inhuman.

The fourth major philosophy of antiquity was developed in the 3rd century BCE in Athens by Epicurus and taken up by his 1st-century BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius, the author of the great didactic poem ‘On the Nature of Things’. Epicureanism challenged both the overall organisation and the accounts of the way to eudaimonia of the other philosophical schools. Epicurus and his followers formed a sort of commune based in Epicurus’s house, surrounded by a ‘garden’, outside the city walls. The Epicureans took their meals in common, discussed science and ethics, and socialised. Women were included in the sect, and their flourishing was not understood differently to that of men. Epicurus was notorious for his nonmarital relationships that combined sex and philosophy.

Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics each made a place in their systems for a god, or godlike intelligences, as the creator or the rulers of the world. And in their various ways, they all agreed that matter by itself was dead, illusory and devoid of any characteristics except being a lump. Spiritual entities, such as Plato’s forms, or Aristotle’s souls, or the Stoic’s world-enlivening pneuma, had to be brought in to explain life, thought and the changes observed in nature.

Epicurus, by contrast, was a materialist. All that really existed, he declared, were indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles, invisible to the naked eye, with various shapes and sizes, but devoid of colour, odour, flavour and sound, and separated by void space. In combination, they gave rise to the physical world and all its phenomena, including thought and perception. The atoms had formed the world by themselves – originally sticking together just by chance and growing into larger stable complexes. If there were gods, they too were made of atoms. But there was no need to appeal to the gods to explain any happenings on Earth or in the sky – or for that matter in history or in anyone’s personal life. The soul was composed of atoms as well; it dissipated into the air at death, so there was no immortality, or resurrection, or transmigration of souls.

Their theory of nature had ethical consequences for the Epicureans. Prayer was useless, and there was no hell, regardless of what the priests taught, for the wicked. The life of eudaimonia was simply one in which pleasure dominated over pain. This required prudence, and the ability to tell the difference between experiences and occupations conventionally assumed to be pleasurable and those that were truly pleasurable.

The Epicureans had no patience for the Stoic claim that human beings are self-sufficient, without need for the approval, goodwill or assistance of others. They doubted that the mind could, or should try to repress or dissolve emotions. To be happy, they insisted, we need to be engaged with external things and with other people. When things go badly, we will suffer, and there is no real cure except time and distraction. So it’s essential to be aware of the most frequent external causes of misfortune and to steer clear of them before misfortunes happen. As the future is not predetermined, and as humans have free will, this is possible.

If life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as justice are only abstract ideas, why be moral?

Political ambition and wealth-seeking almost always cause anxiety and disappointment. So does romantic love when unrequited, which sociologists tell us is most of the time. So try not to get or remain snared! (Obsession with someone unavailable will fade quicker with no contact, according to Epicurus, and, according to Lucretius, temporary diversion with just about any willing bystander can help.) Many painful illnesses can be avoided by prudent behaviour and correct choice of food and drink, and, when those befall us despite our best efforts, intense pains are short-lived and long-lived pains are mild.

Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of ‘choice and avoidance’. They knew that immediate intuition about costs and benefits is unreliable. One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout. But there is nothing virtuous about poverty and deprivation, and no one’s misery is ever deserved. Martyrdom for a cause is pointless, and, if we punish wrongdoers, it should be only for reasons of deterrence, not for revenge; if punishment doesn’t work, it is morally wrong to punish.

But if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas in atomic minds, why be moral?

The Epicureans had two answers to this question. One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain.

The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends. Unlike Aristotle, who thought one’s friends should be chosen for their virtue (rather than for their advantage), Epicurus thought that friends were just people who thought more or less the same way you did, whom you just happened to like.

Although few of us want to drop out and join a residential philosophical cult in the suburbs, carrying the Epicurean perspective into daily life can be of personal value.

A first point of departure for thinking about Epicureanism in a contemporary context is the fact that competition for power, esteem and financial reward (none of which the Epicureans regarded as real goods) is built into every aspect of our society. We are urged to strive for promotions and better salaries, for the best GPAs, test scores and university places, for recognition and approval from colleagues, for the best possible mate in terms of looks and status. Advertisements on the New York subway urge me to get a diploma, bid for construction contracts, initiate and win lucrative lawsuits, and fix my face and figure. My glossy alumni magazine glorifies those faculty who discovered or invented something patentable, or who at least seem to be on track to do so, and its advertising urges me to invest my wealth with prestigious firms to acquire even more wealth. The bestselling self-help books advertised on Amazon, and lining the shelves in the airport newsvendors, promise to boost me to a top position where I can make all the decisions and boss others around, and to crush the self-defeating behaviour preventing me from finding lasting love.

This success-driven focus of contemporary life is complemented by a focus on the passive consumption of supposed comfort- and pleasure-inducing objects, such as speciality mattresses and bamboo-fibre socks. We women are urged to seek relief from bias and obstruction in the corporate world by treating or indulging ourselves with sticky desserts and complicated cocktails, perfumed lotions, potions, candles and all manner of personal services such as massages, waxing and spa treatments.

The accumulative, competitive luxury-seeking society has brought us, everyone will agree, beauty and utility, hot and cold running water, new medicines to relieve painful and disabling conditions, wonderful new devices for communication and entertainment, as well as asparagus and strawberries out of season. Lucretius mentions roads, architecture and sculpture as the advantages produced by civilisation in his own time. We could add jet travel, escalators and the cinema, along with much else. But the intense efforts to change the world, more often motivated by ambition and hope of financial gain than by pure benevolence, have also brought us warfare and the enormous economic waste of military preparedness, the exploitation of working men and women, poverty and deprivation, and environmental destruction.

Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded. And if money, fame and luxury articles really made people happy, we would have to consider only the political costs of our modern aspirations and habits. But the evidence is that an agreeable life depends neither on achievements or worldly goods, and is not served by attractively packaged fripperies, deceptively promising escape into another dimension of harmony and relaxation.

Everyone who has ever received them will agree that it is pleasing to get a promotion, a raise, a favourable notice, a grant, a prize or an invitation. A desire for validation by one’s fellows for one’s personality or outputs seems to be built into our psyches. But everyone can agree too that the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded, though it is also fleeting, is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self. Contrary to what is still assumed in some management circles, external rewards are not especially motivating. Motivation and dedication can arise only from the actual pleasure of an activity, whether it takes place at a desk or on a playing field or in a shop or studio or on a building site.

An Epicurean strategy for avoiding pointless consumption is to regard shopping as a museum experience

Epicurus emphasised the pleasures of learning and speculating about nature and the social world, and Lucretius pointed out that what was exceptional about human beings was their creativity and handiwork. People enjoy figuring things out and getting things to work, or just getting things to look, sound and taste better, for themselves and for others. Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment. The ability of our hands to manipulate small objects with speed and precision is unique to humans. Together with the appreciation of beauty in colour and form, this endowment adds the arts to the sciences, as the best that humans can do.

One of the tragedies of life in civilisation is that most human work doesn’t require or develop human ingenuity and artistry. Nevertheless, every human being who is not living in conditions of total cultural deprivation can activate them. The traditional pastimes of childhood were activities carried out for their own sake: crafts and puzzles, reading about animals, history, far-off places and the future, exploring the outdoors, and helping adults and younger children. Their adult equivalents are found in kitchens, sewing rooms, garages and workshops, along with libraries and lecture rooms. Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction. In these activities, hands, eyes and mind are engaged with the material world, and it is your own taste and judgment that determine the outcome. You don’t need to win a prize at Cannes.

Decades of research have established that wealth above a certain level does not add to an individual’s satisfaction with life, and older people who have achieved considerable worldly success often report that raising their children and enjoying their adult company has given them more satisfaction than any career recognition they obtained. Yet the discoveries of happiness researchers seem to resemble those of nutritionists. They are accepted as true, but they don’t motivate.

People know – in principle – what is good for them to eat. If you give them a test asking: Which is better for you: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and animal protein in moderation? Or muffins, cookies, ready meals, fast food and soft drinks? just about everyone will give the right answer. And if you asked: Which is the basis of a better life: friendships, creative activities under your own control, enquiring and learning, tasty food and refreshing drink, and contact with nature? Or status, influence, money and the purchase of as many goods and services as possible? most people would give the right answer, too.

So why is the truth so hard to internalise and act on? In the case of nutrition, you have to fight mainstream culture, with all its propaganda, alluring displays and incentives. The same is true in the case of personal wellbeing.

An Epicurean strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached. There exist mattresses that can seemingly make boring marriages or miserable solitudes more fun, and of course creams and lotions for eternal youth. You can enjoy looking at or perhaps handling these objects; you don’t need to purchase and store them.

The value of philosophy is that it typically poses a challenge to conventional and socially powerful ideas. At its best, it tries to replace them with more difficult, less palatable, but better ideas. Epicurean philosophy described a material, constantly evolving world without a just and benevolent deity – and a long human history of domination and deception. This seemed harsh to his many critics, and Epicureanism became associated with ‘crude materialism’, ‘reductionism’, and with a finicky, self-indulgent form of hedonism, associations that only a return to the original writings can fully correct. Rather than making us feel dwarfed, Epicurus’s expansive and objective view can give us insight into our own situation and powers. Like other good philosophy, it urges us to let our decisions and actions flow spontaneously from our understanding of ‘the nature of things’ and how the world actually works.

Catherine Wilson

was most recently Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and is now Visiting Presidential Professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her latest book is How to Be an Epicurean (2019), published simultaneously in the UK under the title The Pleasure Principle. She lives in New York City and London.

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