New York: Oxford University Press, 2023
307 pp. $18.95 (hardcover)
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is said to have written four hundred books on subjects ranging from physics to morality, but almost all his writings are lost today. Most probably were destroyed by medieval Christian monks who thought his views incompatible with their own. They were right about that. What little we know about him shows that Epicurus was among history’s greatest advocates of reason and happiness. He rejected mysticism in favor of an atomic theory of matter and urged people to jettison religious morality in favor of a secularism that focused on living a fulfilling life on Earth. That’s why it’s so fitting—and so welcome—that Oxford University Press’s new series of “Guides to the Good Life” would include Emily Austin’s volume exploring the ideas of this oft-neglected thinker.
The loss of Epicurus’s writings puts Austin at a disadvantage, though. All we have of his own words are four letters to friends and some collections of quotations. These, along with the unfinished, book-length poem De Rerum Natura by his Roman admirer Lucretius and the dialogue On Moral Ends by his Roman critic Cicero—both of whom lived three centuries after him—provide nearly all we know about Epicureanism. That’s not a lot compared to the plenty that remains of Plato and Aristotle, and scholars still disagree over such basic questions as whether Epicurus thought people should have children.
All the more impressive, then, that Living for Pleasure offers such a thorough presentation of Epicurean morality and in such a readable, entertaining style. This is not a book of technical scholarship—it is philosophy put to its proper use: counseling us on how to live better. That’s what Epicurus wanted: He thought the purpose of life is happiness and that happiness consists of a sort of serenity or steadiness he called ataraxia. This word is sometimes translated as “absence of anxiety,” but that phrase implies that Epicurus considered human beings essentially feeble creatures, which is not true. He meant instead to warn against intense passions on the grounds that they lead to disappointment and stress. He thought it was wiser to lead a tranquil life—one that includes savoring luxuries but not panting after them. “Epicureanism,” writes Austin, “is fundamentally about evaluating our desires to determine whether they benefit or harm us and whether they merit our energies” (256).
We accomplish this by separating desires into the categories of “corrosive,” “necessary,” and “extravagant.” Corrosive desires are self-destructive or tend to become addictive—they can overwhelm our self-control and even self-respect. Necessary desires stem from the ordinary and inescapable needs of life; these include not only food and shelter but also knowledge and curiosity about the world, which we need so we don’t get duped by frauds who take our money or adopt superstitions that cause us to live in fear. Extravagant desires are for things we can relish but also live without—luxuries that are fine to enjoy but aren’t essential. The wise person shuns corrosive desires, pursues necessary ones, and savors extravagant desires occasionally without losing perspective on their relative unimportance. . . .
You might also like
1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1102a, in Terence Irwin, trans., Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2nd ed., 1999), 16.
2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1122a–1123b, 54–56.
3. Paul Nieuwnburg, “Aristotle on Ambition,” History of Political Thought 31, no. 4 (Winter 2010): 535–55.
4. A. E. Stallings, trans., The Nature of Things (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), 36.
5. Speech at Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962, https://web.archive.org/web/20180315230845/https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm.