Epicureanism in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

If you, like me, have read premodern philosophers not just for antiquarian interest but also as possible sources of wisdom, you will probably have felt a certain awkwardness. Looking for guidance or assistance in ordering our own beliefs, attitudes and actions, we inevitably run into the problem that the great thinkers of the past knew nothing about what our world would look like.

This is not just a matter of technology; it is primarily a matter of social and cultural change. What use is ancient philosophy to me if it presupposes a patriarchal slave-society at every turn? What use is it, if it does not know of nation-states or global markets, or almost literally any institution that I will encounter in my life?

Nor can this problem be resolved simply by ‘proving everything and keeping what is good’, accepting maxims we find useful and rejecting advice we deem problematic. If we think ancient philosophy could be relevant to our lives, it should not be just to confirm our preferences but also to criticize and change them. There must be some transferable logic to whatever school of thought we approach; it must have enough structure, enough internal coherence to challenge us. On the other hand, it must have enough generality or flexibility to be displaced to the 21st century without completely breaking down into tiny parts.

Catherine Wilson claims to have identified the sect that can do this, and it is the philosophy of tiny parts. “Epicurean materialism is, to my mind, a sound basis for humane and enlightened political action”, she writes in The Pleasure Principle (222, see below for full reference). This is a strong claim, but it is warranted: Wilson’s book, which presents Epicureanism as ‘a philosophy for modern living’, does indeed manage to connect sympathetic advice about life in our time to core principles of Epicurean or sometimes more generally materialistic philosophy.

‘Advice’; yes, Wilson’s book is partly a self-help guide – “That hangnail is bothering you? Go snip it off right now.” (87) It even provides a list of pleasing and painful sensory stimuli. But it is explicitly not a book with ‘rules for life’, and there are few tricks or shortcuts except the advice to remove things from your home if they do not spark joy. Wilson probably does not actually believe that she has to explain to us that bird song and waves are nicer than car horns and other people’s music; but she does believe that most of our lives would improve if we allowed ourselves to enjoy them in affordable and accessible ways. What is good is easy to get.

Wilson’s reflections are presented in a gentle tone, in accessible language but without condescension. They are also condensed. Wilson will calmly – but at a scary pace, rarely using more than a few paragraphs – present Epicurean considerations pro and contra infanticide, suicide or taking sexual advantage of other people. (On the whole, she summarizes in a table on page 265 comparing Epicurean and Stoic views, suicide is “not recommended”.)

To my mind, it would require great courage or confidence to present my own worldview in such a transparent, readable and unassuming manner. But Wilson’s book does not project courage; rather, it projects kindness and patience. It assumes little on the part of the readers except that they approach the book charitably. The mind of the experienced Epicurean, evidently, is simply unafraid that its simplicity will be mistaken for naivety, unafraid that its conceptually parsimonious analyses of deeply culture-laden or taboo moral questions will be misunderstood for insensitivity.

The metaphysical core to Epicureanism is the premise that humans are aggregates of matter. Our existence has a natural end, and we basically have nothing better to do than to enjoy ourselves while we are here. Beliefs that we have a higher purpose are usually based on a misapprehension of our condition, and they are vulnerable to abuse. Religion especially can easily be turned into a tool of exploitation and oppression (64; 239).

Wilson shares Epicurus’ casual attitude towards the answers to particular scientific questions; her materialistic metaphysics does not require much in the way of scientific support. She recognizes that it is extremely difficult to explain how our brain produces experiences; that there are many open questions when it comes to consciousness. Nevertheless, it is clear as day that somehow it is the trillions of neurons in our brain that do the trick. Sure, there may be follow-up questions pertaining to, for instance, the evolutionary function of consciousness. These the Epicurean will follow “with interest, never doubting that the mind is, at any rate, a natural thing whose existence is dependent on the smallest particles and subtlest forces of the physical world.” (53)

This means it will disintegrate, like all material things. The universal condition that Epicureanism famously tries to help us face is death. The easy work here is to reiterate the commonplaces that materialists should neither fear nor hope for an afterlife, and that the dead don’t suffer. The hard work is to convince us that the loss of our lives is not something to be dreaded, even though it takes away from us literally all we have. This, I suspect, may be harder for the Epicurean than for more absolutist philosophical sects. The Stoic can look at life as an opportunity and therefore a duty to be virtuous, so that death closes the window for that opportunity but at the same time releases us of this duty. With the Platonist, the Stoic can say that it is our relation to the absolute and universal that defines what is meaningful about our lives, that the object of our intentions rightly directed is durable: humanity is a more worthy object of our attachment than particular humans, and what is best in ourselves will not perish as long as there are other good people.

The Epicurean, in recognizing that our world and our life are contingent, particular, idiosyncratic, cannot say this. It encourages us to befriend and love individual people, then has little to cushion the blow of losing them except that such loss is to be expected. It wants us to enjoy our own life as much as possible, so that in losing it we will lose even more.

Wilson believes there is a meaningful distinction between “death at the right and wrong times”; there is a difference between life coming to a natural end, and being cut short. Natural death even “liberates the particles from which I am composed to form more vigorous entities” (142). As an attempt at theodicy, this is only half-satisfying. Yes, in a universe like ours, it is hard to conceive of consciousness and experiences coming about without the reshuffling of matter and the destruction of complex structures somehow coming into the picture. We are, naturally, a kind of creature that is mortal – it was going to be either this or nothing at all, and we are the lucky ones. But in another sense, our experiences are more immediate than our insight in their necessary finitude. Our lives and the things, phenomena and people we cling to do not appear to us as perishable and mortal. They appear to us as vital and deserving to persist. From this perspective, the recognition that their days are numbered is always a terrifying surprise, an extra fact about them that has nothing to do with their nature.

This is partially an admission of Epicurus’ point: we should learn philosophy in order not to be deceived about how things are. We ought to be aware that everything is material, and therefore perishable. But while Epicurus may be right about what the highest attainable good is given the circumstances, the question remains whether it is attainable without self-deception: can we optimally, that is without fear, enjoy a life that we know to be meaningless? Or can we have meaningful lives in a nihilistic cosmos?

In the second-to-last chapter of her book, Wilson deals with the meaningful life from an Epicurean perspective. She confirms that the meaning of our life cannot be anchored in the nature of the cosmos, since the universe is blind and does not care about us. “The desire to feel cosmologically important”, Wilson says, is “hard to satisfy because we are not.” (256) Meaning consists, rather, in finding things that “resonate with me” (249). This is how we understand languages or works of art to be ‘meaningful’, and according to Wilson we can understand our own life in a similar way – it is meaningful to learn about what interests you, and to care for things you care about.

It seems to me that Wilson has done a subtle but convincing job of interpreting the Epicurean advice to cultivate your own garden in such a way that it makes sense in a globalized world, where no garden exists only unto itself. What resonates with us can be our environment in a global sense: the Epicurean finds meaning in “deepening his understanding of poverty, disease, the climate, the rise and fall of stock markets, the history of the earth and the behaviour of animals”. He may even do something about these things, but not “on a heroic scale” (251). Finding meaning in improving the world remains a species of pleasure, and seeking it at the cost of extreme self-sacrifice may imply making a net loss.

This seems to imply that Epicurean engagement with politics and climate is more modest and cautious than Stoic cosmopolitanism. The attitude Wilson offers on behalf of the sect may not seem quite up to the challenge to more radical-minded activists, but to me it seems psychologically more sustainable than its more ascetic alternatives, especially for the large multitude of global citizens whose efforts to improve the world take place outside of the spotlights. In any case, Wilson now has Epicurus’ disciples interested in politics and policy; what do they bring in terms of political philosophy?

Apart from providing a materialistic and hedonistic perspective on traditional ethical issues, Wilson ties Epicurean epistemological principles to a view of political opinion- and decision-making that centers around experience. Epicureans think of experience as in itself reliable, but also as variable based on our surroundings. They are not surprised by our living in partisan bubbles, but also want to interest us in gathering more relevant experience. This comes in the form of ‘hard’ evidence, but also explicitly in the form of subjective testimony, because to the Epicurean policymaker personal experience is not an annoying distraction but the very object of concern. “The aim of the Epicurean is to mitigate fear, pain and anxiety. […] She wants to hear from people who are afraid to go to sleep without a gun under their pillow, from people who are grieving a young child killed in a gun accident, and from teenagers whose schools are now staffed with armed guards.” (181)

Wilson’s clear and apt examples suggest that Epicurean principles can sustain political attitudes that are technocratic in their utilitarian aims, but democratic in their insistence that everybody’s experience counts. They explain why there is genuine political value in making new voices heard, but don’t warm to resolutions based on ignorance and one-sided perspectives; “although there are alternative perceptions, there are no alternative facts”, Wilson warns.

In general, Epicurean policy goals are sensitive more to empirical considerations than to absolute principles. Learning more about how social institutions affect the experiences of the people they concern will affect our evaluation of what social justice consists of. Wilson can even directly cite Epicurus here: “If someone passes a law and it does not turn out to be in accord with what is useful in mutual associations, this no longer possesses the nature of justice.” (223) Epicureanism, in Wilson’s introduction, has adaptability to new insights and openness to societal change written into its very constitution.

In short, The Pleasure Principle delivers. In Wilson’s capable hands, Epicureanism retains its time-old virtues – its opposition to superstition, greed and ambition, and its promise to help us lead lives free of fear and disturbance – but also develops beyond expectation its cosmopolitan potential. Wilson’s Epicureanism is a philosophy with a plausible materialistic worldview, that provides classical solutions to perennial existential questions at the same time that it provides self-help advice for the modern world, and parameters for societal commitment and citizenship in the 21st century. That is a lot to accomplish in the space of one short, accessible book. The fact that Wilson pulls it off may serve as direct albeit anecdotal evidence that a healthy dose of Epicureanism is good for the mind.


Edition used for this text: Catherine Wilson, The Pleasure Principle. / Epicureanism: A Philosophy for Modern Living. Harper Collins: 2019.