Emily Austin is a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University.
Below, Emily shares 5 key insights from her new book, Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Emily herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Pleasure makes life good.
The idea that pleasure is good might not sound like a “big idea,” but let’s not lose sight of how powerfully liberating it can be to hear that we should prioritize life’s rich and varied joys rather than treating them as an afterthought. We’re so often cautioned about the dangers of pursuing pleasure and the ways it can lead us astray that we can overlook that pleasures both large and small are what give shape and color to our life. When we reflect on why our life is good, we remember things like the birth of our children, a long and boisterous dinner with friends, a concert in the park, that sunny day in autumn, our life-long friendship with someone we can rely on. And yet in the daily hum and bustle of our lives, we find ourselves wasting time on things that don’t matter, passing up opportunities to make the kind of memories and forge the kind of relationships that go into the stories we tell ourselves about what has made our life good. Epicurus thinks a philosophy that doesn’t encourage us to give genuine, front and center value to life’s assorted joys just can’t make sense of what makes our lives meaningful.
At root, then, Epicurus’ life philosophy is hedonistic, but that’s not to say he was a champion of gluttony, some kind of ring-leader of life-long frat boys in period-appropriate togas. Epicurean hedonism is subtle, intellectually refined, and grounded in science. Thousands of years before Darwin, the Epicureans offered an evolutionary account of the origin of the species. As a result, Epicurus recognizes that human beings are animals, albeit very sophisticated and highly evolved animals. For Epicurus, humans desire pleasure and tranquility by nature, chiefly because we, like other evolved animals, want to survive and feel secure. Just like other animals, we do not want to feel anxious and afraid.
Unlike other animals, though, we have souped-up brains that make it possible for us to pursue pleasure and avoid pain strategically. In other words, we can use our fancy brains to make informed calculations about what actually produces joy and tranquility. If we use our practical reasoning well and take the long view, we might discover, for example, that we are wasting our time chasing things that we don’t need—like great wealth—and neglecting things that we do—like deepening our relationships with friends we can trust. Our anxiety indicates that we’re doing pleasure wrong, and Epicureanism can help us do pleasure right.
2. Some desires are necessary, some desires corrode.
If we want joy and tranquility, we need to learn to regulate and limit our desires. Now, some philosophers might tell you that the best way to rid yourself of anxiety is to eliminate all desire—that’s not Epicurus’ approach. He thinks some desires are strictly necessary for survival and security, and other desires are for harmless extravagances that add variety and joy to the happy life. Our tranquility depends on satisfying the necessary desires—we really do need things—and we can gain memorable joys from harmless extravagances if we pursue and savor them with the right attitude. I have a lot to say about necessary and extravagant desires in Living With Pleasure, but for now I want to draw attention to Epicurus’ third kind of desires—the corrosive ones—which he considers the greatest threat to our well-being.
“To put it succinctly, greed is inconsistent with satisfaction, and tranquility is a form of satisfaction.”
The core feature of corrosive desires is that they extend without natural limit. Unlimited desires complete the sentence “you can never have too much _____.” You can never be too wealthy, too popular, too powerful, too profitable. You can never live too long, have too many followers, get too many clicks, too many likes. Epicurus thinks corrosive desires rip at our well-being for a number of reasons, but the main problem is that they simply cannot be satisfied. There is always more to be wanted, stretching forever into the future, more, and more, and more. To put it succinctly, greed is inconsistent with satisfaction, and tranquility is a form of satisfaction.
While we should desire what Epicurus calls “natural” wealth, or wealth within limits, the desire for limitless wealth or profit undermines individual and communal tranquility. The greed for life, for unlimited time or to live forever, keeps us from experiencing the satisfaction and joy on hand with us every day. The desire for limitless political power and influence transforms us into panderers who lack control over our own values, and seeking limitless approval leads us to hand over the rudder of our life to the whims of whatever it turns out millions of strangers want to watch on YouTube.
When we place natural limits on our desires, when we focus on the things that matter, many of us might find ourselves surprised to discover that everything we need for joy and tranquility is already within reach, especially if we prioritize it. If we stop wasting time chasing the uncatchable rabbit of desire, we can spend our time cultivating the kind of relationships and habits of mind that offer unalloyed joys to a satisfied mind. In particular, it gives us time for one of the most distinctive things that human beings need—friendship.
3. We need friends, good friends.
Considering that humans are both vulnerable and social, Epicurus thinks choosing good friends is the very best thing we can do for our well-being and tranquility. Now, our need for friends might strike many of you as obvious, but Epicurus’ view is actually pretty controversial. His Stoic competitors, for instance, thought that needing friends was a sign of weakness, and they in fact mocked Epicurus for admitting that he needed friends.
And yet today, even after modern research has shown us the importance of strong social connections (sorry, Stoics!) many of us don’t have the friends we need. An alarming number of people report having no good, reliable, long-term, supportive friendships. So what’s going wrong? Quite frankly, Epicurus thinks our priorities are messed up—we don’t prioritize making or spending time with friends, and when we do prioritize friendship, we often choose our friends badly—we focus on the wrong things.
“A good friendship is rooted in things we can control, like loyalty, kindness, and concern.”
The guiding principle of Epicurean friendship is that friends don’t make friends anxious. An Epicurean friendship has two essential features: confidence of mutual support, and confidence that the friendship is rooted in shared, stable values. We’ve already addressed social support, but what of this other criterion—“shared, stable values”? Consider, for example, “drinking buddies”—the friendship is rooted in drinking together, and if one friend stops drinking, the friendship loses its foundation. By the same token, many friendships are grounded in popularity, wealth, business advantage, beauty, or coolness, all of which are subject to fortune. A good friendship is rooted in things we can control, like loyalty, kindness, and concern. With that foundation set, friends should make as many joyful memories together as possible.
4. Managing misfortune.
Epicurus’s strikingly modern natural science influences how he approaches the question of suffering. While some philosophies, like Stoicism, see misfortune as part of a divinely ordered plan—as in some fashion cosmically good—Epicurean natural science maintains that our universe resulted from the non-intentional motions of atoms. So for Epicurus, misfortune has no cosmic purpose—it just happens. And because Epicurus is a hedonist, he thinks pain and suffering are bad by definition. Epicurus, then, gives people strategies for coping with misfortune, not for denying that misfortunes are genuinely bad or pretending that they’re good. One distinctive Epicurean strategy has a surprising amount of empirical support. Let me tell you a story.
A very good friend of mine was in his early twenties when his long-time friend accidentally shot him in the gut with an arrow fired from a compound bow. They were temporary employees quality-testing the bows for a sporting goods company. My friend underwent numerous surgeries, spent fifteen days in the hospital, and now has a sizable scar. When he first told me this story, I recognized his narrative as Epicurean. He said that when you find yourself lying in a hospital bed for a month, a situation with ever-increasing likelihood as we grow older, your memories are one of the only good, readily available sources of pleasure. He resolved to fill his life with as many things worth remembering as he could, which in effect changed his whole way of doing things.
My friend’s story illustrates Epicurus’ favorite tool in the toolkit for getting through misfortune—replaying pleasant memories—and it turns out studies show it’s a very adaptive behavior. Research psychologists call it “positive distraction,” and you probably even practiced it in the pandemic when you called up old friends to reminisce. Epicureans think that when we reflect on past and present joys, we express “gratitude,” and Epicurus thinks we can strengthen our capacity for gratitude. We can make it a daily habit to build our library of memories by privileging time spent with friends, by welcoming opportunities for daily joys.
“Epicureans think that when we reflect on past and present joys, we express “gratitude,” and Epicurus thinks we can strengthen our capacity for gratitude.”
Of course, memories alone can’t get a person through misfortune. Epicurus thinks we also need time and an ability to make peace with the fact that we can’t change the past. And friends, of course. When we face adversity and misfortune, friends help us in two ways: by being there to support us, and by featuring in the memories of joy that help get us through rough times.
5. Appreciating science.
Epicurus bases a lot of his advice in his natural science. While their rivals, the Stoics, were trying to predict the future by interpreting the entrails of sacrificial birds, the Epicureans were developing an account of the world that didn’t catch on for another two thousand years.
Now, when Epicurus says we should study and appreciate science, he doesn’t mean we all need to devote our lives to science. But he does think we need enough scientific understanding to escape superstition and tell the difference between a good and bad explanation, between an expert and a stooge.
Think about how the perversion or rejection of science made getting through the COVID pandemic far more difficult and anxiety-provoking. People called the virus a hoax, refused a vaccine because of something they saw on YouTube, even sometimes killed each other over masks. Shelves were empty of horse de-wormer and charlatans peddled all kinds of ridiculous cure-alls. Just a basic grasp of science could have saved us a lot of horror. The famous Roman Epicurean, Lucretius, even wrote about how many of these same issues cropped up during the plague of Athens—it seems the phenomenon is timeless.
Epicurus’ natural science also informs some of the deeper and heavier parts of his philosophy of life. Epicureanism is perhaps the only ancient school of philosophy to really grapple with how we can find purpose and tranquility in a universe that doesn’t come ready-made with meaning. Though his physics entails that suffering has no cosmic meaning, he nevertheless thinks we can find true joy. Though his physics means that death is the end of our existence, he nevertheless argues that death is nothing to fear, that life itself affords us sufficient joy without needing more. And while his natural science reminds us that we are animals, it also reveals that animals like us can use our powers to live well and create secure communities, and least if we reset our priorities.
The Epicureans created their meaning by finding joy in friendship, wonder in studying the natural world, and security in their bonds with neighbors. And yes, the Epicureans really did love a good dinner party! Epicurus writes that we should “philosophize and at the same time laugh,” and I hope my book captures both Epicureanism’s seriousness and its playfulness.
To listen to the audio version read by author Emily Austin, download the Next Big Idea App today: