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How to Be an Epicurean

The Ancient Art of Living Well

By Catherine Wilson
13-minute read
Audio available
How to Be an Epicurean by Catherine Wilson

How to Be an Epicurean (2019) brings the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism into the modern age. This fascinating “theory of everything” is about much more than seeking pleasure, and it can help you live an enjoyable, moral, and meaningful life today.

  • Pleasure seekers looking for a philosophical creed
  • Philosophy fans who want to learn something new
  • Modern-day Stoics seeking another ancient philosophical perspective

Catherine Wilson is a philosopher who has taught in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She’s currently Visiting Presidential Professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She’s written several other books on Epicureanism, including A Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism, as well as books on the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and René Descartes.

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How to Be an Epicurean

The Ancient Art of Living Well

By Catherine Wilson
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
How to Be an Epicurean by Catherine Wilson
Synopsis

How to Be an Epicurean (2019) brings the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism into the modern age. This fascinating “theory of everything” is about much more than seeking pleasure, and it can help you live an enjoyable, moral, and meaningful life today.

Key idea 1 of 8

The ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism isn’t just about pleasure – it’s a theory of everything.

These days, when people think of Epicureanism, they tend to imagine scenes of luxury – an aristocrat, perhaps, in his wine cellar, or a gourmand tucking into a generous dinner. Epicureanism often just means pleasurable, hedonistic high living, with a weirdly strong emphasis on food and drink.

But there’s far more to it than that.

It’s true that the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasized the importance of pleasure. And so did his most influential follower, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. But they also acknowledged this was complex. Too much pleasure today, for instance, can lead to pain later on. And of course, other people are seeking pleasure too, and we shouldn’t seek our own pleasure at their expense.

Plus, Epicurus and Lucretius had a lot to say about nature, physics, history, love, death, religion – nearly everything. And a lot of it’s still highly relevant today.

The key message here is: The ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism isn’t just about pleasure – it’s a theory of everything.

Epicurus lived with his followers in Athens in the third century BCE, in a grove – usually called his garden – outside the city. Most of his writings were lost – many were buried by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. But by that time, over in Rome, Lucretius had written many of his own Epicurean texts, notably his long poem On the Nature of Things.

Despite its unprestigious reputation today, Epicureanism has had a major role in the history of thought. It influenced many philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx. Several of the American Founding Fathers were Epicureans too, including Thomas Jefferson.

Epicurus also has an intriguing place in the history of science: he developed one of the earliest theories of the atom, which is now known as Epicurean atomism. According to this theory, everything is made up of atoms – tiny, indivisible particles that are invisible to the eye. Not only that, but these atoms are the only truly permanent things in the universe. Everything we see – people, nature, human-made objects – are simply arrangements of atoms, and when these things change or cease to exist, that’s just the atoms rearranging themselves.

The details of Epicurean atomism aren’t correct, according to modern science. But as ancient philosophical theories go, it’s actually pretty accurate. In fact, the same goes for Lucretius’s theory of the development of human beings. You might even call it “natural selection,” as we’ll explore in the next blink.

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