How To Be An Epicurean by Catherine Wilson: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Be An Epicurean by Catherine Wilson.

In short

How To Be An Epicurean shows how Epicureanism can be a practical philosophy and is, in some ways, a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be A Stoic (the Stoics & Epicureans have always been rival philosophical schools). In the book, Wilson gives an introduction to the Epicurean views on natural science, religion, ethics, morality, and how to have a meaningful life.

Overall it’s a good introduction to the Epicurean philosophical school and clearly shows that while Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, it is more nuanced than that; seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is important, but there needs to be some moderation as well (when it hurts others, or society, for example).

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“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 ask you to try and 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.”

“[N]o philosopher who is honest […] 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 of happiness.”

Underlying beliefs of Epicureanism

The Epicureans held that most people have a wrong image of their nature and the universe. Three of Epicurus’ (in)famous beliefs are that 1) all that exists is composed of material atoms, 2) even if a god would exist, it does not care about humanity, and 3) there is no life after death.

In contrast to the Stoics, the Epicureans did not believe that “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.”

The Epicureans made a distinction between nature and convention. The first included all living things, and is constantly changing – but in many ways predictable (like the seasons). Convention means attitudes, perceptions, or beliefs. These includes ideas, tastes, and many human constructs that are not found in nature (such as poverty or marriage). This dichotomy helps when critically looking at society but also our own egos – my perceptions or tastes are not better than others’.

“The Epicurean recognises that the tendency to fall apart is built into the nature of things. Aware that this is so, she preserves, repairs and restores where this is in her power, and accepts the inevitable when it is not. Further, she recognises that the future is genuinely open and unpredictable. We do not know what combinations will come along or what accidental ‘swerves’ will upset a delicate balance and make for sudden reversals. The Epicurean expects the future to be predictable and stable where experience and science have shown it to be so, but she is always prepared for surprises.”

Epicurean ethics

“Ethics is the study of how to live and what to do. As Epicurus says, it is about personal ‘choice and avoidance’. It is about my decisions on what to pursue and what to avoid, and avoidance is as important as choice.”

For the Epicurean nature is at the root of all decisions: pleasure, whether sensory, emotional or intellectual, is a good that should be chosen, and pain or evils, whether physical or psychological, need to be avoided.

But that does not mean the Epicurean will overindulge, or put pleasure above all else. “Epicurus reminds us that the pursuit of small pleasures now can bring on severe pains later, while the endurance of certain pains now can bring on more pleasures down the road. I need to choose and avoid prudentially, in view of the long-term effects of actions that are readily foreseeable.”

So even though the Epicurean has a balanced approached to pleasures, it is still a philosophy of hedonism. If you know that smoking or drinking is bad, but still want to do it (especially when it doesn’t bother other people), then that’s totally fine.

Sensory pleasure is often associated with expensive things – but, even in rich countries, most of the population will not be able to afford it. So the goal should not be to get the best of the best for yourself but to improve your “sensory environment” from what it is today. And even though it is a cliché many of the best things in life are free – think about relaxation, relationships, exercising, et cetera.

Of course this position can be pushed to the extreme: the hedonistic paradox (or treadmill) is that directly seeking pleasure does not lead to pleasure. “Pleasure arises as a by-product when we are engaged by what we are doing or experiencing, and people like to do and are engaged by different things.”

On the other side, Epicureans try to avoid displeasure and pain. This can include serious pains like fevers, aches, nausea, but also psychological pains such as hopelessness, jealousy, anxiety, and – to a lesser extent – unpleasurable feelings like stress, boredom, and tiredness. All these conditions stop you from enjoying the present moment, and so the Epicurean will try to solve them.

There are many cases where we don’t want to cut our losses due to sunk costs (things we bought, things we think we have to suffer through), but to the Epicurean it’s better to get rid of them. In fact it’s better to git rid of things if you can do so: it saves you the hassle of owning them. When it comes to pleasure and happiness choice is important, but avoidance as well.

“Avoiding pain is more important for overall satisfaction with life than pursuing pleasure, and there are many unnecessary sources of trouble and vexation in our lives.” Examples include cars (do we need it or is it a convention) and pets (does the pleasure outweigh the downsides of pet ownership)?

“The Epicurean cannot tell you, any more than the average newspaper columnist can, exactly what to do to get out of a painful situation, just as he can’t tell you exactly how to get more pleasure into your life. But he encourages you to do something: to make a graceful and quiet exit, to summon up the courage for a confrontation that may or may not turn out the way you want it to, or to make a deliberate decision that the situation just has to be endured.”

“The Epicurean believes that we naturally avoid and seek to remedy mental and physical pain and welcome pleasure in a prudential fashion. We should do so without feeling either guilty or deserving. Too much prudence, however, is as inadvisable as too little. […] Impulsive actions […] can bring enormous satisfaction.”

Epicurean morality

“It is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honoroubly and justly without living presently.” – Epicurus

“Epicureanism is not a philosophy of pure selfishness. The teaching that pleasure if the only real good and pain the only real evil goes for everyone, not just for me. And it is obvious that my enjoyment of my pleasures can have adverse effects on you or on others, causing you or them pain, or depriving you or them of pleasures.”

So the idea of morality to Epicurus is based on “harm-reducing conventions.” It’s not just about the longer-term consequences of something for me personally, but also to others. Pleasure you seek personally should not cause pain to others.

For the Epicurean morality is not something static though: it evolves and changes of time based on current circumstances or a better understanding of the world. “And just as the sacrifices of prudence when it comes to long-term planning are not always warranted because they interfere too much with my present enjoyment, a society may decide to allow some harms to some people because the benefits to others are greater.” Example: cars on the road.

Contrast of Epicurean morality to:
– Theological ethics: top-down and learned from sacred texts, they are fixed for all time.
– Moral realism: moral facts or moral truths that are discovered. The Epicurean believes morality evolves based on experience and reflection, and since our practices will change, morality will change with it.
– Stoic morality: the Stoics had the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice) that should be followed. Courage might mean sacrificing yourself in battle, and justice could mean executing someone close to you – things the Epicurean cannot agree with.

To an Epicurean, morality cannot come from religion – because the scriptures are full of commands (human inventions) and are also not reviewed in light on new traditions and ideas.

“When the starving man steals a pie from the windowsill, he commits an anti-social act that reduces his pain and gives him the intense pleasure of consuming it. He must anticipate punishment, in case he fails to arouse the compassion of the community, and he must decide whether the pie-stealing venture is worth it. By the same token, adulterous lovers must take account of the harm they are causing to others and make an effort to mitigate it. They, too, may be starving, but whether they will attract punishment of compassion is mostly out of their control.” (p.120)

Death and suicide

The Epicureans did not view death as an evil, or something to fear. They believed in the “natural limit” of things – everything has a ‘best before date’ and nothing lasts forever. Life is long, but nobody lives forever neither; human beings deteriorate.

“When we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.” – Epicurus

“Pains which produce great distress are short in duration; and those which last a long time in the flesh cause only mild distress.” – Epicurus

“If I am dead, I am not having any experiences, good or bad. Those who say of me, ‘All her troubles are over’, have it right, but those who say of me, ‘She is resting peacefully’, have it wrong. As long as I am experiencing the good and the bad, I am still alive. If I am resting peacefully, I am definitely still alive.”

“Suicide is almost always based on the misperception of actual circumstances, and a failure to appreciate the courses of action that can remove suffering. It is overwhelmingly likely that the suffering of the despondent person […] will not be as long lasting he or she thinks. […] Further, suicide usually harms others severely and so is usually immoral. It is cruel to the parents or children or friends of the suicide, who may be haunted for the rest of their lives. It may be intended to punish others for their neglect or treachery, but is more punishment than could fit any such crime and is unlikely to have an improving influence.”

Epicureanism & Meaningful life

Epicureanism had a lot of influence to 18th and 19th century leaders & philosophers, including Jeremy Bentham (“Mankind is ruled by two masters, pleasure and pain”), John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and some of the American founding fathers including Tomas Jefferson: “’I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (no the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.’ Jefferson accused the traditional rivals of Epicureanism, the Stoics, and especially Cicero, of misrepresentation, hypocrisy and ‘grimace.’”

“However, where, as Rousseau pointed out, human beings in the state of nature enjoyed their work – their hunting, gathering and handicrafts – most modern people do not. Both feudalism, in which a peasant class works for and is controlled by its overlords, and capitalism, in which nearly everyone is an employee, destroy personal autonomy, make our labour ‘alienated’, and prevent people from developing their innate intellectual, social and aesthetic capabilities. Those of us who do enjoy our work, most of the time, and who are able to enjoy a range of aesthetic and intellectual experiences, are extremely lucky. But we are a minority.”

There are two conceptions of a meaningful life. 1) Individual achievement – doing something, or being someone. 2) Moral or spiritual achievement – meaning is derived from service and sacrifice.

Both conceptions of meaning are linked to human characteristics, and an Epicurean would agree that exercising human characteristics can create meaning – both when it comes to achievement or service. However, selfish pursuit of money or fame is not the way to go, and either should sacrifice at the expense of your own life be pursued.

“The most satisfying activities in life are those that substitute knowledge for ignorance and that bring order and beauty into the world, repairing damage and overcoming disorder. A life can be good in Epicurean terms, even if it does not involve achievements validated and rewarded by mainstream society, or great sacrifices and struggles against worldly temptations.”

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