Wilson (Catherine) - "How To Be An Epicurean"

  • I don't have this book yet, but it appears to be a variation with changes of "The Pleasure Principle" released in Britain for the UK audience. We can use this thread to discuss "How To Be An Epicurean" as people begin to get and read this one.

    I know that Ms. Wilson is making the podcast rounds as well, so it will probably make sense to set up a thread for each of her major interviews, which I will do now with the Philosophy Bites podcast as suggested by SamJ

  • I used to get the Economist, but it tended to pile up unread. Excellent journalism, but too much copy every week! I'll be interested in seeing this as well if we can get it.

  • Since The Economist requires a subscription, you can't click on then link to access it. However, if you do a Google search for the title of the article in a private tab, the text will load long enough to copy/paste it all.

    "In Catherine Wilson’s manual on 'the ancient art of living well', her guide is the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who advocated a calm life of modest pleasure. By explaining how the world was, he thought philosophy could show people how to live. Ms Wilson, an Epicurus specialist, agrees. Her intelligent and readable book lies, she says, somewhere between technical philosophy and “advice columns”.

    To latter-day secularists, Epicurus’s formula for a happy life has obvious appeal. Step one was to see the world for what it was. Everything was made of matter, including mind and spirit. The only life was this one. The gods took no interest in humans and were neither vindictive nor demanding. Life’s aim was happiness, understood as tranquil pleasure and freedom from pain. The pain that most concerned Epicurus was 'mental terror': anxieties rooted in false beliefs about 'the nature of things' (the title of the grand philosophical poem by his Roman follower, Lucretius). Step two was applying such knowledge to human existence. That meant not expecting too much, finding simple satisfactions and not agonising about mortality.

    Epicurus opened his school, the Garden, outside Athens early in the 3rd century bce. Followers, it was said, included women and slaves. None of his 300 or more works survive; his thoughts came down through Lucretius and, later, biographers.

    Christian thinkers considered him an atheist and amoralist. In Jewish tradition, 'apikoiros' meant a heretic. Dante put Epicureans in hell for denying the soul’s immortality. In popular lore, Epicurus was patron to gluttons, publicans and brothelkeepers. The 'sensualist' slur stuck. Later 'epicure' came to mean an aesthete or foodie. Epicurus’s scientific speculations—on atomism and natural selection—sound uncannily modern but rested on brilliant inference, not experiment. Read today, the detail sounds barmy.

    The life-advice, by contrast, sounds like common sense for people thrown onto their own ethical resources without traditional guidance, as is widespread now. Epicureanism spread as the Greek city-state fell into decline, empires emerged and social authority grew distant and impersonal. Although Ms Wilson does not stress it, the parallel with the current disoriented mood is striking.

    In her book’s first part, she sketches Epicurus’s proto-democratic world-view. The senses, which are the source of knowledge, are common to all and reliable. Each knows what pleases or pains them. As people know their own minds, they cannot easily be bossed about by presumed betters.

    'Living well and living justly', part two, builds on the Epicurean picture of morality as useful rules for reducing harm. Be canny about your pleasures. Don’t stress over worldly success. Be good to friends. Enjoy sex but beware its risks. Don’t expect too much of parenthood. Above all, stop worrying about death. As Dryden put it, when translating Lucretius:

    'What has this bugbear death to frighten man,

    If souls can die as well as bodies can?…

    From sense of grief and pain we shall be free

    We shall not feel because we shall not be.'

    In her last two parts, Ms Wilson probes the philosophical underpinnings. A handy, schematic table contrasts Epicureans and Stoics. Ms Wilson notes Epicurean contempt for religious superstition, self-serving clergy and faith-based warfare, but sees common ground with believers in the shared conviction that 'morality matters'.

    She notes and answers doubts that have dogged Epicureanism, but urges readers to make up their own mind. Is death truly no harm? After all, it cuts short plans, projects and responsibilities which give lives purpose. For his part, Stoic Cicero complained that Epicurus wanted happiness to be both virtuous and pleasant. Yet being fair, firm or a good friend—to take three common-or-garden virtues—need not be pleasant and may be taxing. Can everything today’s liberal-minded Epicureans tend to approve of—human rights, abortion, social justice—really be reconciled with the idea that pleasure is all?

    Floating over Epicureanism, for all its appeal, is a sense of loneliness. Family life is inessential. Friends are merely instrumental. Everything comes back to “How is this for me?” Perhaps not philosophy but an over-defensive temperament is at work. Could it be that in arming themselves so well against life’s anxieties, Epicureans overlook its riches?"

  • And now I see once again how divergent peoples' views of Epicurus can be. The article is negatively loaded from start to finish. I guess one has to ask whether this negative loading comes from the writer, or from Catherine Wilson. My preliminary estimate is that it comes from Catherine Wilson, with some slight embellishment by the article writer.

  • Ah you have a good memory!

    Actually I have bought the epub of the new book - I will check right now ---

    Here is the version from "How to Be An Epicurean" and yes it is exactly the same

  • I guess I will need to get the book so I can say I read it when I diss it, although every single excerpt and interview has been convincingly awful enough.

    I can take this comment down, Cassius, if political, but they mention abortion rights not being compatible with pleasure. Lol, in what way??? I'm in training for a month, right now, to learn to do them. It's actually quite enjoyable to provide a medical service someone wants! It's generally not a teary occasion-- patients are relieved to have this available. When I see the protestors I just think ah, Children of the Corn, which gives me an interior giggle. I thoroughly enjoy being part of efforts to maintain and improve the freedom of women!

  • I am going to put my thoughts in this thread as I go, hoping for comments, and maybe eventually can pick out which parts to put in a full review.

    I have read the intro, and here are a few things I noticed:

    1) She identifies several specific modern stressors such as pollution, which I think is largely accurate, and then she makes the astonishing statement "we live longer than our ancestors but in a sicklier fashion." Really? I have not seen evidence of that. Seems like she needs to cite sources. Anecdotally ( I know, not evidence lol), I would be functionally blind in premodern times and one of my kids would have died from appendicitis in childhood or from the sepsis she had due to a secondary infection of chickenpox, a year before the vaccine-- and she's a healthy, athletic young adult.

    2) p 21 "no philosopher who is honest about it can give you a formula for being happy"... hmmm. If she means it isn't going to be precise math, ok. But if she is saying the general method of the hedonic calculus isn't reliable, I disagree.

    3) P 22 the philosophy "needs rethinking in some ways"-- guess we will find out how, in her opinion, this is so.

    4) P 24 "they sought... to balance the ethical treatment of others with our own self-interest"-- omg. So, what is ethical, then, lol? "Balance" used this way is a huge pet peeve of mine. There is no need to balance-- the pleasure of others is on the same side of the scale as my own, inseparable, although this depends on specifically who they are. These things are inseparable for a typically empathetic human. Understanding this is absolutely critical to understanding Epicurus, I believe. Believing that these pleasures are on opposite sides of some imaginary scale will lead to nonsense finagling, every single time. You only wind up with this stuff if you forget about subjective feelings.

    5) P 24, discusses what she sees as the 3 key claims of Epicurus-- material nature of reality, no divine oversight, and finality of death. Although I do think these are important, I do not know that I would consider them more important than the way he put subjective feelings of pleasure and pain into the Canon or that this can be derived from those 3 items without the experience of feelings.

    6) P 27 I may be over my head here-- could use some help. She includes the sense perceptions of sweet, bitter, etc as "conventions" as opposed to "natural"-- I think she has misunderstood. The specific words may be conventions, but the sensory information is natural. IMO this whole idea of conventions and nature as being different is unhelpful. Everything is nature. Our conventions arise from natural processes in our brains-- they certainly can't be supernatural. I would say the key element is whether a process or object is amenable to change by human action or not, which does not depend on whether it is social or not. This line of thinking makes me think of people who believe we should go "back to nature"-- lol, we have not left it. They think there was some mythical golden age. But maybe there is something Epicurus said that she is referring to, and I am the one who is confused.

    7) P 34 "Epicurus himself pointed out that the direct pursuit of pleasurable sensations is usually self defeating." What? Did he do that? I missed it. She doesn't give a reference-- help me out? This doesn't sound accurate at all, for my own life. Definitely I use wisdom to choose the sensations and the setting, etc, but direct pursuit works very well for me almost all the time. I made homemade spaghetti for my family a few days ago, and I was definitely taking direct action to pursue the pleasures of taste and friendship around the table.

  • Great notes thank you!

    She's very right about that! I hope she tells us explicitly what part of her book is "rethinking" and which is what Epicurus said!

  • OMG another of Elayne's quotes:

    This is going to go down as one of the most ridiculous statements in the book. As part of our review we ought to come up with a collection of "incorrect" statements, and I have to think this one would be near the top!

  • 5) P 24, discusses what she sees as the 3 key claims of Epicurus-- material nature of reality, no divine oversight, and finality of death. Although I do think these are important, I do not know that I would consider them more important than the way he put subjective feelings of pleasure and pain into the Canon or that this can be derived from those 3 items without the experience of feelings.

    I completely agree. I was talking with someone privately yesterday who made a statement to the effect that ETHICS is the most importan, and that epistemology and physics are subsidiary.

    I said that I think the deemphasis of physics and epistemology is the pattern of "the Cambridge approach" and as a result they end up staying in the "rationalist / platonic / stoic" camp and they force-fit Epicurus into their pre-existing models. But if you thoroughly fix in your mind first in the physics - that the universe has NO supernatural or eternal ideal goals, then it's easier to dismiss those and follow "pleasure and pain" to their logical conclusions. And also with the epistemology the same thing - the role of reason/logic vs the senses anticipations and feelings is pretty much the whole ball game too, because "reason / logic" is how all these supernatural and/or ideal virtue ethics are supported --

    The real issue here is FEELING vs the abstractions of logic

    Which can be reconciled if we recognize Feeling as the king, and reason/logic as the tools for maximizing our best feelings, but NOT reconciled if reason/logic is allowed to be the ultimate judge of "proper feeling."

  • I'll have to see if I can get a comp. copy at work. I keep seeing Wilson showing up on my article feed & on fringe youtube searches.

    From my brief understanding, it seems this book is full of errors. But it's worth looking into, maybe I can pirate a mobi or epub/pdf of it.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Thank you Hiram!!!

    Lots to comment on but sadly this immediately jumps out at me:

    Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of ‘choice and avoidance’. "


  • Man!! she cannot resist the politics can she? Argh again!!!


    "Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded. "

  • Quote

    "The value of philosophy is that it typically poses a challenge to conventional and socially powerful ideas."

    No!!!! The value of philosophy is that it heals the sick and helps us lead happier lives!

    She just cannot leave the politics alone!