Epicurus, who was born in 341 BCE, spent most of his life on the outskirts of Athens, in a compound called the Garden, where he and his followers ate and drank and talked endlessly about the pursuit of happiness. Their quiet little idyll was the subject of many obscene rumors. One gossip said Epicurus hosted ten-course feasts every night. Another claimed the philosopher had 18 orgasms—in succession!—in a bed full of virgins. His rivals, the Stoics, cast him as the villainous promoter of unchecked desire.
In reality, Epicurus’s life was far less debauched. He owned just two cloaks and subsisted mostly on bread and olives. His only vice, it seems, was a fondness for cheese. The pleasures he sought — the pleasures that gave shape and color to his life — were simple ones. Food, shelter, scientific inquiry, and above all friendship. Because pleasure, as Epicurus understood it, wasn’t about carnality: it was the absence of anxiety. In a word—tranquility.
It’s a refreshingly modern perspective. Why have so few people heard of it?
Well, we’re hoping to change that. This week on The Next Big Idea podcast, host Rufus Griscom sat down with Emily Austin, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest and unabashed Epicurean, to discuss her new book, Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life.
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The Epicurean way of life
Rufus Griscom: How would you summarize Epicureanism in a few sentences?
Emily Austin: Well, one of the things that’s great about Epicurus is he thought philosophy should be very practical. He thought philosophy wasn’t worth doing unless it diminished people’s anxiety or made their life go well. And so Epicureanism is fundamentally a philosophy about making your life go better.
Epicurus thought that because we’re just like other animals, in some sense, we make sense of the world through pleasure and pain. What it is for life to go well for us is to have pleasure and avoid pain. And so he was what’s called a hedonist. He thought the good was pleasure and the bad was pain.
He didn’t mean this in a decadent sense, although he did think pleasure made life good. He was very committed to the idea that what we should do is put pleasure front and center in our life, and we should prioritize it. But one of the main things that keeps us from doing that is that we are racked by anxiety.
So in some sense, the starting point for Epicureanism is to clear out that background noise, the stuff that makes us anxious and gets in the way of the pleasure that we really want. The fundamental aim is to live a good, satisfied life that’s filled with pleasures that you select prudently.
Rufus Griscom: Epicurus’s definition of pleasure, as I understand it, is nuanced in a number of ways. It was not just physical pleasure but also psychological. He saw friendship and community as, arguably, the number one source of pleasure. I think the conventional set of assumptions people have when they hear the word hedonism are that it’s all about short-term physical pleasure, which is really not at all the way that Epicurus and his followers saw the world.
“So it’s true that he’s not a sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll hedonist, but he does think there are a lot of available pleasures.”
Emily Austin: So it’s true that one of the misconceptions about Epicureanism is that they’re foodies or debauched gluttons or people who are sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll hedonists. That’s clearly not true, but I feel like some defenders of Epicureanism tend to overcorrect and say, Oh, no, he’s not about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. He actually can live on bread and water alone. He doesn’t relish any of the kinds of pleasures we think of when we think about everyday pleasures. That’s definitely not true either. It’s more of a middle ground. So it’s true that he’s not a sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll hedonist, but he does think there are a lot of available pleasures that are ready at hand and that are accessible to us all the time if we privilege them. And those aren’t about eating bread and water.
Rufus: What’s great about the teachings of Epicurus and his followers is that there’s a lot of great advice about how to cultivate friendship, how to select friends, and how to be a great friend.
Emily: So part of the idea is that we all want friends, but we’re just not very good at it. He thinks we choose them for the wrong reasons, and then when we do have good friends, we often don’t prioritize them. And so his advice is that we should select our friends in light of who will be there for us. They need to be reliable and trustworthy. The bedrock is trust. And if you don’t have that, if you don’t trust that the person will be there in a time of distress, then you just shouldn’t pursue friendship with that person.
Then you need a shared sense of value. That doesn’t mean you love all the same things. What matters most is that you base the friendship on something that’s not subject to fortune. Kids do this all the time, right—and, unfortunately, this is true of adults as well—they select their friends on the basis of who will make them more popular, who will make them look better. If you base a friendship on something like that, then when the person stops being able to deliver, either through misfortune or circumstance, the justification for the friendship dissolves. Whereas if you base your friendship on things that you can reliably supply one another, like mutual support and joy, things that are within people’s control and not subject to fortune, then your friendship will be more stable.
Rufus: I love that he’s writing this 2,300 years ago!
“What matters most is that you base the friendship on something that’s not subject to fortune.”
Emily: Isn’t it amazing?
Rufus: It really is. And I love this line that you write: “Close Epicurean friendships are jointly secure attachments enriched by shared joys and a concern for each other’s personal growth. At root, the guiding principle of Epicurean friendship is that friends don’t make friends anxious.”
Emily: Psychologists use the term attachment. And what makes an attachment insecure is the worry that the person will abandon you. What makes an attachment solid is if you feel that you can depend on the person so that you can be independent of them, but also when you need them, they’re going to be there for you.
The three kinds of desires
Rufus: Let’s talk about the three types of desires. You break out necessary desires, extravagant desires, and corrosive desires.
Emily: So one thing that I like about Epicurus that differentiates him from the Stoics is that he thinks that some things are necessary for happiness. He thinks that we have some desires that we have to satisfy—food and drink and shelter, but also friends and a working knowledge of science that keeps us from falling prey to superstition.
And then there’s this second class of desires, which is where all the good interesting stuff happens in Epicureanism. And they’re called extravagant desires. These are fancier versions of necessary desires. Like, instead of water, you might want a nice IPA. Instead of regular food, you might want a really tasty sandwich. Epicureus thinks these things can really deepen the joy in our lives. But they’re not strictly necessary for our wellbeing, which is not to say that they’re not desirable and that we shouldn’t enjoy them, but we shouldn’t let them distract us from what’s necessary, right? So you wouldn’t want to pursue a tasty sandwich if it meant neglecting your children. So these extravagances we’re allowed to want as long as they don’t cause us a lot of anxiety or effort or distract from necessary things, as long as we don’t take them to be necessary for our happiness.
Rufus: And then the third is corrosive desires.
Emily: Necessary desires, you have to fulfill them. You need to prioritize them. The extravagant ones, they’re great and they actually deepen and enrich your life. But the corrosive ones, they have to go.
“One thing that I like about Epicurus that differentiates him from the Stoics is that he thinks that some things are necessary for happiness.”
The easiest way to think of them are when people think that there’s something you can’t have too much of. So you can never be too rich. You can never be too profitable. You can never be too popular, have too many clicks, too many likes. You can never satisfy a desire like that because there’s always more.
On managing misfortune
Emily: Misfortune can happen to us for no reason and for no purpose. That doesn’t mean that it will keep us from ever having joy again, but it does mean that we need some strategies for dealing with it. And one of the best ones for Epicurus is to reflect on all these joyful memories that we have.
My partner, when he was 22, was shot with an arrow from a compound bow in the gut. He was in hospital for two weeks, and when we first met, he told me the story, and he said that when he was there, he realized that the only thing that he could do was play his memories to himself. He was reflecting on all the good things in his life. And he decided that was going to trade money for time and experiences. There are some costs to that, but there are a lot of benefits. And so he just thought, If I find myself in this situation again, like in a nursing home when I’m old, I want to be able to replay good things. And I thought, Wow, how Epicurean!
You May Also Like:
- Emily’s 5 Key Insights from Living for Pleasure
- Why the Key to Getting Ahead Is Staying Still
- How to Live a Good Life, According to 5 New Books
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