Somerset Maugham on Epicureanism over one hundred years ago

  • I am reading Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage which he wrote in 1915, and is his thinly disguised autobiography. I was tickled to read this dialogue on Epicurus and pleasure. The characters are Cronshaw (based on the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice) and Philip Carey, the main character, who is based on Maugham himself. The scene is a Parisian cafe (the Closerie des Lilas) in the late 1890's.

    I am amazed at the clarity of this piece of writing, and explanation of Epicurean thinking, written over a hundred years ago.

  • Oh My Gosh That is GREAT! Thank you! Never had a clue that that existed! Please post more as you find it! Thanks!

    Also I should ask - What comes after that? Does Philip get a reply?

    Also, I know nothing whatsoever about Maugham or that book other than that it is famous. However I'll likely file that quote away in a special place. Please be sure to post if there are other aspects of that book that are relevant to our use of it.

  • Philip doesn't get the kind of reply we would like. The novel is really Philip's growing up and learning things for himself, and all the conversations he has with people end in an inconclusive 'figure it out for yourself' kind of way. Maugham (as Philip) had a very conventional Victorian Christian upbringing, and at this point in the novel he is slowly and painfully shedding all this Victorian morality.

    I don't know if Morrice (Cronshaw) was really an Epicurean. He led an interesting life in both Paris and Canada, so it is possible.

    Or maybe this is just Maugham putting the words into Cronshaw's mouth, what he (Maugham at the time of writing the book in 1915) thought himself, and how the Maugham twenty years earlier in 1895 would have reacted (as Philip).

    Anyway, at this point in the novel the conversation is interrupted, and a little while later it resumes like this:

  • Maugham clearly likes Epicurus. He mentions him now and again in all sorts of places.

    Much later in the novel is this line:


    [Philip's] reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere: it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred

    And on Maugham's ninetieth birthday in 1964 he wrote in the Sunday Express newspaper (January 26, 1964):


    I have had such a full life – but I face what will come calmly. I still do not fear death; in fact, I look forward to death with no apprehension for I do not believe in a hereafter and so, if I have sinned in men’s eyes and have not been punished, I have no fear of punitive treatment when I cease to remain on this planet.

    I do not know whether God exists or not. None of the arguments that has been adduced to prove His existence carries conviction, and belief must rest, as Epicurus put it long ago, on immediate apprehension. That immediate apprehension I have never had...

    I have been a hedonist always and now there are so few pleasures left to me.