Promising New Book ("Living For Pleasure") and Great New Article ("Are The Modern Stoics Really Epicurean?") Both By Emily Austin

  • I will say I really like Austin's terms natural, extravagant, and corrosive desires. Granted, "extravagant" may not be exactly correct, but, as it gets at the "not necessary" aspect of this category, I endorse her choice.

    I'm currently on chapter 15, and I have found Austin's work spot on and fully endorse the work as a great starting point.

    As for Cassius 's Kennedy misgiving, I see Dr. Austin only using his book as an example of what is meant by courage with Kennedy's book Profiles of Courage. I don't see this as political at all, simply a literary allusion.

    I have completely enjoyed the book so far, and wish I wrote it myself.

    Do I wish she covered some topics in more depth? Yes. Am I satisfied with how she's covered the topics she does cover? Yes!

  • Good to hear Dons comments so far.

    Quickly: I've tended to use the Kennedy and McCain names more because they are easy for me to remember rather than because she dwells on them. The general point is to me as Charles is stating it - it's important to keep saying that many assessments in life are personal,

    and different people will evaluate their pleasure and pain reactions differently. The more complicated the issue the more opinions will vary.

    In a better world we would have 50 or 100 books like this which give their own personal takes and wording on how they apply Epicurus. As it is, we have this one and maybe a small handful of others, with this probably the most successful by a good distance. For that reason I am happy to dwell on the positive aspects and mainly use any "negative" comments to hopefully contribute to what she or others may write later. We've needed something like this for a long time time and I am very happy it exists. What she has done will allow us to do better in the future and keep improving the quality of our presentations.

  • Just as an example where I'm at right now (emphasis added):


    Many scholars have argued that while Epicurus recognizes that sex is pleasant, he is actually largely hostile to sex, even more so to love. If you find it difficult to make sense of how Epicurus could reject sex and love and still have said what Athenaeus claims, then you are in the good company of me, at least. I think Epicurus’ concerns about sex and love have been overstated. That Epicurus thinks sex and love should be selected prudently makes complete sense, especially given the many ways it can cause and sustain anxiety. Nevertheless, Epicurus thinks sexual pleasure and committed romantic relationships are natural, but unnecessary, desires (or so I argue). In the terms of this book, they are extravagant desires, and all extravagant desires can adorn the tranquil life if you do them right.

    Her calling out academic assumptions and "common knowledge" that she sees as erroneous or misguided is both refreshing and well reasoned! Her analysis, to me, takes in the scope of Epicurus's philosophy instead of trying to impose a perspective on it like many academics seem to try and do. That is a breath of fresh air.

  • Yes her analysis is far better than we generally get. Might she have gone even further? Echoing Kalosyni's concerns about extravagance, I recall this from Menoeceus:

    "We must consider that of desires some are natural, others vain, and of the natural some are necessary and others merely natural; and of the necessary some are necessary for happiness, others for the repose of the body, and others for very life."

    Focusing on that language, does "extravagance" advance the ball as far it is should go? When you look at the variations of "necessary" from "necessary for very life" vs "necessary for happiness" that is a huge degree of separation.

    Sure romantic love might not be "necessary for life" but for a lot of people it might well be "necessary for happiness."

    So if "extravagant" is elevated to a title in itself, where does romantic love fall? If it is necessary for happiness for a lot of people then it's not "extravagant."

    So to repeat her analysis is a lot better than we generally see, but there's room for making these issues more clear. We can't blame Epicurus himself for this ambiguity -- he makes it clear in Menoeceus that "necessary" itself has a context, and he doesn't (in a letter of general advice) start giving us a long detailed list of where things should fit.

    Just as Austin says that Epicurus didn't write something as condensed as the tetraphmarkon, but that his follows wanted it, I think we have to be very careful with natural and necessary talk not to condense Epicurus too far and thereby muck things up.

  • I didn't really finish my thought did I?

    So when she says Epicurus thinks sexual pleasure and committed romantic relationships are natural, but unnecessary, desires (or so I argue). In the terms of this book, they are extravagant desires, and all extravagant desires can adorn the tranquil life if you do them right.

    ...that's a departure and an improvement from the standard academic implication that Epicurus was an ascetic and advised against sexual pleasure and romantic relationships completely.

    But she still leaves open and in fact embraces the conclusion that they "can adorn the tranquil life if you do them right" which is less than a full-on endorsement of considering the possibility that for some/many people they may be not only natural but "necessary for happiness."

    That's where the terminology is an improvement from the standard awful academic implications, but still leaves further to demolish the ascetic implications of the academic perspective entirely, which aren't justified in what we have from Epicurus himself in Menoeceus.

    "can adorn the tranquil life" needs to proceed further to open the door to "depending on the person, necessary for happiness."

  • All of this brings up for me the importance of not creating an exact list of what brings pleasure and what brings happiness -- because it will depend on the environment and culture that one is living in.

    Metrodorus, as quoted in the book:


    I hear from you that the movement of your flesh is abundantly disposed toward sexual intercourse. As long as you do not break the laws or disturb noble and settled customs or vex any of your neighbors or wear out your body or use up the things necessary for life, indulge yourself in any way you prefer. However, it is impossible not be constrained by some one of these things. For sex never profits, and one must be content if it does not harm.5

    The idea that "sex never profits" is no longer true, as studies have shown it is good for the health of the body -- And there is birth control, and the consent movement.

  • Labels shape how we think, and so I don't like the word extravagant one bit:

    From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:



    ex·trav·a·gant ik-ˈstra-vi-gənt 

    1 a : exceeding the limits of reason or necessity extravagant claims
    b : lacking in moderation, balance, and restraint extravagant praise
    c : extremely or excessively elaborate an extravagant display
    2 : extremely or unreasonably high in price an extravagant purchase
    3 a : spending much more than necessary has always been extravagant with her money
    b : profuse, lavish

  • As to the Metrodorus comment I would go further and even question the accuracy of the quote.

    As usual with such fragments, we don't have the full context, and to say "sex never profits" we have to ask what is the original wording and what is really meant by "profit."

    So far as we know the Epicureans were not in the habit of talking capitalist theory, but they were in the habit of finding pleasures to be pleasing. That sex is generally pleasing goes without saying, and we aren't in the habit of condemning pleasures unless more pain than pleasure results. It would not be accurate or consistent with Epicurus to say that "sex always produces more pain than pleasure" so far as I can tell from the overall surviving texts.

    So I would not take this quotation as sufficient cause to question that sex was being carved out as an exception and was intended to be labeled as a pleasure that always produces excessive pain. It's much more likely that there is missing context, or translation issues, or even intentional slanting of the way the text has been transmitted.

  • Labels shape how we think, and so I don't like the word extravagant one bit:

    Yes I agree.

    Seems to me this is a prime example of perspective.

    From the point of view of "Thank goodness she's doing better than most academics and not making Epicurus a total ascetic" the phrase extravagant desires can adorn the tranquil life if you do them right seems a great relief and improvement.

    From the point of view of "Do we really want to convey to new readers that Epicurus thought all romantic love is an 'extravagance'?" I think the answer is clearly "No!"

    So my view is to both appreciate that her wording is an improvement, while at the same time resolving that there is a lot further that she / we / all Epicurean writers needs to go to improve this wording.

    The real problem here is that the Academics have Epicurean discussions in a total box and that box needs to be demolished, not just lifting the lid up around the edges.

    And by the way, the ultimate aim and description of the goal is not "the tranquil life." The proper wording is "the PLEASANT life."

    And she knows that. The title of the book is not "Living For Tranquility."

  • And by the way, the ultimate aim and description of the goal is not "the tranquil life." The proper wording is "the PLEASANT life."

    And she knows that. The title of the book is not "Living For Tranquility."

    Good to point that out. And thinking further about "unnecessary" desires -- I don't like that word "unnecessary" either, lol.

    We don't label a desire as unnecessary until for a particular individual they see for themselves that it is so -- when they see that it brings more pain than pleasure, causes way too much pain to aquire it, or is impossible to aquire -- and this can only be determined by that individual AND at a later time that person may be in a different situation and decide to pursue that desire.

    So in some sense "unnecessary" is really an artificial label used as a "coping mechanism" -- there are no absolutely unnecessary desires.

    Do you think this is correct?

  • As to whether it's a "coping mechanism" I really think it's more a "thinking mechanism." In my view that the best way to understand the entire necessary and natural discussion is to put it in the context that Torquatus presents it, as a subtext of the discussion of wisdom. To me the key is to focus on what he says is "the principal of the classification" and see the discussion as a way not to cope but to think toward the future result rather than just blindly engage in every momentary pleasure:


    The great disturbing factor in a man's life is ignorance of good and evil; mistaken ideas about these frequently rob us of our greatest pleasures, and torment us with the most cruel pain of mind. Hence we need the aid of Wisdom, to rid us of our fears and appetites, to root out all our errors and prejudices, and to serve as our infallible guide to the attainment of pleasure. Wisdom alone can banish sorrow from our hearts and protect its front alarm and apprehension; put yourself to school with her, and you may live in peace, and quench the glowing flames of desire. For the desires are incapable of satisfaction; they ruin not individuals only but whole families, nay often shake the very foundations of the state. It is they that are the source of hatred, quarreling, and strife, of sedition and of war.

    Nor do they only flaunt themselves abroad, or turn their blind onslaughts solely against others; even when prisoned within the heart they quarrel and fall out among themselves; and this cannot but render the whole of life embittered. Hence only the Wise Man, who prunes away all the rank growth of vanity and error, can possibly live untroubled by sorrow and by fear, content within the bounds that nature has set. Nothing could be more useful or more conducive to well-being than Epicurus's doctrine as to the different classes of the desires. One kind he classified as both natural and necessary, a second as natural without being necessary, and a third as neither natural nor necessary; the principle of classification being that the necessary desires are gratified with little trouble or expense; the natural desires also require but little, since nature's own riches, which suffice to content her, are both easily procured and limited in amount; but for the imaginary desires no bound or limit can be discovered.

    In any situation where choices are involved, being wise means you're going to have to decide which desires to pursue based on the expected return in terms of pleasure and pain. Things that are "necessary" are gratified with little trouble or expense; things that are "natural" are also generally easily procured and limited in amount; but for the "imaginary" desires no bound or limit can be discovered.

    To me the whole exercise is mainly a way to visualize and predict the expected the cost-benefit analysis. I don't see it as retrospective coping as much as I see it as a means of prospective anticipating the results so you can make wise decisions all the way through toward the goal of maximizing pleasure.

  • Don (or others) I wonder if there is a precedent for the "natural and necessary" classification in the writings of Plato or Aristotle such as you found for the bread and water discussion. If there is that might also place this in context.

  • Don (or others) I wonder if there is a precedent for the "natural and necessary" classification in the writings of Plato or Aristotle such as you found for the bread and water discussion. If there is that might also place this in context.

    Selected Fragments, by Epicurus


    471] In the second chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle characterizes desires as groundless and trifling (κενὴν καὶ ματαίαν) if they are not related to or subsumed under an overarching goal of life; in this fragment and in Fragment 442, Epicurus applies the same terms to certain kinds of desires.

    Just a quick response for now.

  • Several thoughts on topics brought up above:

    If we struggle with words like natural, necessary, "not necessary," and "empty" to describe desires, we're struggling with Epicurus. Those are his words.

    The reason I like "extravagant" is that it's slightly over the top but, for me, evokes Epicurus's own sometimes-playful use of language. The "extravagant" = "not necessary" also evokes the idea of "It's possible to find pleasure in the barest circumstances such as while eating the simplest of meals: barley bread and water, and in the midst of the most dire of straits like at the point of dying in great pain. But it IS nice to have those other pleasures, and we include them all in our definition of the good." That is why I harp on Epicurus, Metrodorus, and Philodemus stating that the internal pleasure of tranquility (ataraxia) is a more secure source of pleasure than pleasure arising from external sources. We always have the pleasure of tranquility readily available in our minds - if we work at achieving it, nurturing it, maintaining it. That's why they place a high value on tranquility.

    Stepping back a minute: There are several places where the necessary desires are discussed:

    Letter to Menoikeus:

    on the one hand, there are the natural desires; on the other, the 'empty, fruitless, or vain ones.' And of the natural ones, on the one hand, are the necessary ones; on the other, the ones which are only natural; then, of the necessary ones: on the one hand, those necessary for eudaimonia; then, those necessary for the freedom from disturbance for the body; then those necessary for life itself. [128] The steady contemplation of these things equips one to know how to decide all choice and rejection for the health of the body and for the tranquility of the mind, that is for our physical and our mental existence, since this is the goal of a blessed life. (My translation)


    26The desires that do not bring pain when they go unfulfilled are not necessary; indeed they are easy to reject when they are hard to achieve or when they seem to produce harm. (Saint-Andre)


    29Of our desires, some are natural and necessary; others are natural, but not necessary; others, again, are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.

    [Epicurus regards as natural and necessary desires which bring relief from pain, as e.g. drink when we are thirsty ; while by natural and not necessary he means those which merely diversify the pleasure without removing the pain, as e.g. costly viands ; by the neither natural nor necessary he means desires for crowns and the erection of statues in one's honour.--Scholia](Saint-Andre)


    But how says our philosopher? 'The desires are of three kinds, natural and necessary, natural but not necessary, neither natural nor necessary.' To begin with, this is a clumsy division; it makes three classes when there are really only two. This is not dividing but hacking in pieces. Thinkers trained in the science which Epicurus despised usually put it thus: 'The desires are of two kinds, natural and imaginary;11 natural desires again fall into two subdivisions, necessary and not necessary.' That would have rounded it off properly. It is a fault in division to reckon a species as a genus. 27 Still, do not let us stickle about form. Epicurus despises the niceties of dialectic; his style neglects distinctions; we must humour him in this, provided that his meaning is correct. But for my own part I cannot cordially approve, I merely tolerate, a philosopher who talks of setting bounds to the desires. Is it possible for desire to be kept within bounds? It ought to be destroyed, uprooted altogether. On your principle there is no form of desire whose possessor could not be morally approved. He will be a miser — within limits; an adulterer — in moderation; and a sensualist to correspond. What sort of a philosophy is this, that instead of dealing wickedness its death-blow, is satisfied with moderating our vices?