Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How to be an Epicurean

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The preface to the sixth edition of Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving (the preface is included also in the current (seventh) edition) begins:

I REALIZED recently that this book might have been more accurately titled The Epicure’s Guide to Shaving, for Epicurus[i] would surely approve making necessary tasks enjoyable. He thought that chance encounters of atoms falling through the void, randomly interacting, produced—after much time—us and the world in which we live. In his view we cease to exist when we die, while the atoms of our body continue to tumble along through time and space.

Because Epicurus believed that life is a one-shot deal, he made enjoying life a high priority. A dissolute lifestyle tends to have highly unpleasant consequences, so it makes sense to seek enjoyment first in the small things of life, which is what we mostly encounter day to day. Learning new ideas and mastering new skills are examples of activities that provide enjoyment without harm.

Take, as a random example, the morning shave: an Epicurean who shaves will seek a way to derive enjoyment from the task: to spend his (limited) time doing things he doesn’t enjoy makes no sense when he could instead do them enjoyably. Moreover, an enjoyable task requires little willpower: you are drawn to the task rather than having to push yourself. Indeed, a task can even be restorative and energizing; rather than draining you, a task approached properly can provide both enjoyment and a satisfying sense of fulfillment.

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote several books on a mental state he termed “flow”: a focused, absorbing, satisfying involvement in what is happening in the moment[ii]. So another way to state the Epicurean position is that one should arrange his or her life to maximize the opportunities for flow to occur. Flow is a mental experience, so introspection combined with an attitude that encourages the enjoyment of small things—to look for joy, and to think about how to find more occasions of joy—is an obvious step.

This book is my contribution to an Epicurean lifestyle: the book offers a way to make a necessary chore enjoyable. But don’t stop just at shaving.

[i] Epicurus: See and (of course) the Wikipedia entry.

[ii] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: See Each person can find activities appropriate for him or her that will promote flow: rock climbing, painting or drawing, gardening, cooking, playing a musical instrument, and the like. Csíkszentmihályi defined the term in his studies and in the fascinating book that emerged from them, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience ( for inexpensive copies).

Catherine Wilson, most recently Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and now Visiting Presidential Professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, whose latest book is How to Be an Epicurean (2019), published simultaneously in the UK under the title The Pleasure Principle, writes in Aeon:

Like many people, I am skeptical of any book, lecture or article offering to divulge the secrets of happiness. To me, happiness is episodic. It’s there at a moment of insight over drinks with a friend, when hearing a new and affecting piece of music on the radio, sharing confidences with a relative or waking up from a good night’s sleep after a bout of the flu. Happiness is a feeling of in-the-moment joy that can’t be chased and caught and which can’t last very long.

But satisfaction with how things are going is different than happiness. Satisfaction has to do with the qualities and arrangements of life that make us want to get out of bed in the morning, find out what’s happening in the world, and get on with whatever the day brings. There are obstacles to satisfaction, and they can be, if not entirely removed, at least lowered. Some writers argue that satisfaction mostly depends on my genes, where I live and the season of the year, or how other people, including the government, are treating me. Nevertheless, psychology and the sharing of first-person experience acquired over many generations, can actually help.

So can philosophy. The major schools of philosophy in antiquity – Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism and, my favourite, Epicureanism, addressed the question of the good life directly. The philosophers all subscribed to an ideal of ‘life according to nature’, by which they meant both human and nonhuman nature, while disagreeing among themselves about what that entailed. Their original writings, most of them widely accessible, readable and thought-provoking, remain a resource, not just for philosophy students and specialists, but for everyone interested in the topics of nature, society and wellbeing.

What was a ‘school’ of philosophy for the ancient Greeks and Romans? Essentially, it was a group that shared common beliefs and values. Its members would meet regularly to listen to lectures by the leader, to discuss the philosophical issues among themselves and with occasional visitors, and to work out how to defend their views against the objections of their competitors’ schools. Accounts of the lectures and discussions might make their way into written texts, crafted by the leader or his students. Philosophy was not, however, a form of public education. Between 40 and 80 per cent of the population of Athens in the first few centuries BCE were male and female slaves. Some of them might serve and entertain at philosophical functions but did not participate.

Plato, who collected the thoughts and discussions of his 5th-century BCE teacher Socrates, emphasised the cultivation of the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Plato considered these virtues, and other ‘forms’ such as truth and beauty, more real than anything composed of matter. Virtue, he thought, was the route and the only route to eudaimonia, usually translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘flourishing’. Dishonesty, cowardice, gluttonous, lustful, intemperate behaviour and mistreatment of others could produce only a disordered and unhappy personality.

The audiences that Socrates and Plato meant to address consisted most typically of ambitious and spoiled young men from top Athenian families who needed to be set straight. Was Plato’s theory of human flourishing through virtue meant to apply to women? Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics led all-male academies. The women of the time were largely confined to the household, at least the respectable ones. Their domestic occupations would not have given them opportunity to display courage (mostly understood as courage in battle), or wisdom (as they lacked an education and experience of the world outside the home), or moderation (as they had no sexual freedom and did not take part in heavy-drinking parties), or justice (as they had no scope to judge adult men and to mete out rewards and punishments). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE stated explicitly that virtue was different for men and for women. For women, obedience was the top virtue and so presumably conducive to their flourishing.

Aristotle wrote on a much wider range of subjects than Plato had, from marine biology to human reproduction, from political organisation to drama and rhetoric. In ethics, he pointed out that some supposed virtues could be too much of a good thing. Too much courage was foolhardiness; too much moderation was stinginess and asceticism. Too much wisdom might make you seem pompous, I suppose, and a fanatical commitment to justice would exclude mercy and forgiveness, which seem virtuous. But Aristotle’s main contribution to moral philosophy is often considered to be his point that to be happy you have to be somewhat lucky. If you are born with a terrible, progressive disease, or into the middle of a war, or if you happen to have powerful enemies who impede you at every turn, your chances of flourishing are lower than otherwise. For eudaimonia, you not only have to practise virtue; you need friends, your health and a decent income.

A third major school of philosophy, Stoicism, represented by a number of teachers and writers in the Greek and Roman traditions, including Epictetus and Seneca, reverted to the Platonic view that external events cannot diminish the wellbeing of the good person. The world, they thought, is ruled by providence; all that happens is fated to happen, and we must embrace our individual fates and the past and the future that has been determined for us. As things could not have happened otherwise, regret and remorse over past decisions and actions are pointless.

Not only regret, but all emotions, including anger, pity and love, are ‘diseases’ of the soul in need of a cure, though a general benevolence towards humanity was permissible. An emotional reaction, they maintained, always involves the illusion that some external event, a rejection letter, or a friend’s betrayal, or meeting someone fantastic, or being tortured, is objectively bad or good for you. An emotion, they said, is just a bodily disturbance that causes mental disturbance. To restore tranquility, one should remember that these things happen all the time, that they were fated to happen, and that the self is an ‘inner citadel’ that can withstand any attack.

Stoicism has many adherents even today because it offers explicit coping mechanisms for everyday adversities. Psychotherapeutic techniques that involve getting distance or perspective on individual problems have a lot of overlap with Stoic techniques. But there are many problems with Stoicism – and psychotherapy. The major one, in my opinion, is that these techniques haven’t been proven. I have found no well-designed and methodologically sound empirical study showing that emotionally troubled people who undergo perspective-inducing therapy fare better, after some given length of time, than emotionally troubled people who just wait for time to heal their wounds.

A second problem with Stoic practices is that emotions make life feel worth living. Emotional numbness and absence of motivation is the main feature of depression. Drugs that reduce affect are widely disliked by patients who have been prescribed them. Recent empirical work suggests that we need the emotions to make decisions; otherwise we just waffle endlessly, making up rationales and counter-rationales for some course of action. And finally, the Stoic claim that pity for the suffering of others just makes you feel bad yourself is deeply inhuman.

The fourth major philosophy of antiquity was developed in the 3rd century BCE in Athens by Epicurus and taken up by his 1st-century BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius, the author of the great didactic poem ‘On the Nature of Things’. Epicureanism challenged both the overall organisation and the accounts of the way to eudaimonia of the other philosophical schools. Epicurus and his followers formed a sort of commune based in Epicurus’s house, surrounded by a ‘garden’, outside the city walls. The Epicureans took their meals in common, discussed science and ethics, and socialised. Women were included in the sect, and their flourishing was not understood differently to that of men. Epicurus was notorious for his nonmarital relationships that combined sex and philosophy.

Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics each made a place in their systems for a god, or godlike intelligences, as the creator or the rulers of the world. And in their various ways, they all agreed that matter by itself was dead, illusory and devoid of any characteristics except being a lump. Spiritual entities, such as Plato’s forms, or Aristotle’s souls, or the Stoic’s world-enlivening pneuma, had to be brought in to explain life, thought and the changes observed in nature.

Epicurus, by contrast, was a materialist. All that really existed, he declared, were indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles, invisible to the naked eye, with various shapes and sizes, but devoid of colour, odour, flavour and sound, and separated by void space. In combination, they gave rise to the physical world and all its phenomena, including thought and perception. The atoms had formed the world by themselves – originally sticking together just by chance and growing into larger stable complexes. If there were gods, they too were made of atoms. But there was no need to appeal to the gods to explain any happenings on Earth or in the sky – or for that matter in history or in anyone’s personal life. The soul was composed of atoms as well; it dissipated into the air at death, so there was no immortality, or resurrection, or transmigration of souls.

Their theory of nature had ethical consequences for the Epicureans. Prayer was useless, and there was no hell, regardless of what the priests taught, for the wicked. The life of eudaimonia was simply one in which pleasure dominated over pain. This required prudence, and the ability to tell the difference between experiences and occupations conventionally assumed to be pleasurable and those that were truly pleasurable.

The Epicureans had no patience for the Stoic claim that human beings are self-sufficient, without need for the approval, goodwill or assistance of others. They doubted that the mind could, or should try to repress or dissolve emotions. To be happy, they insisted, we need to be engaged with external things and with other people. When things go badly, we will suffer, and there is no real cure except time and distraction. So it’s essential to be aware of the most frequent external causes of misfortune and to steer clear of them before misfortunes happen. As the future is not predetermined, and as humans have free will, this is possible.

Political ambition and wealth-seeking almost always cause anxiety and disappointment. So does romantic love when unrequited, which sociologists tell us is most of the time. So try not to get or remain snared! (Obsession with someone unavailable will fade quicker with no contact, according to Epicurus, and, according to Lucretius, temporary diversion with just about any willing bystander can help.) Many painful illnesses can be avoided by prudent behaviour and correct choice of food and drink, and, when those befall us despite our best efforts, intense pains are short-lived and long-lived pains are mild.

Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of ‘choice and avoidance’. They knew that immediate intuition about costs and benefits is unreliable. One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout. But there is nothing virtuous about poverty and deprivation, and no one’s misery is ever deserved. Martyrdom for a cause is pointless, and, if we punish wrongdoers, it should be only for reasons of deterrence, not for revenge; if punishment doesn’t work, it is morally wrong to punish.

But if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas in atomic minds, why be moral?

The Epicureans had two answers to this question. One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain.

The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends. Unlike Aristotle, who thought one’s friends should be chosen for their virtue (rather than for their advantage), Epicurus thought that friends were just people who thought more or less the same way you did, whom you just happened to like.

Although few of us want to drop out and join a residential philosophical cult in the suburbs, carrying the Epicurean perspective into daily life can be of personal value.

A first point of departure for thinking about Epicureanism in a contemporary context is the fact that competition for power, esteem and financial reward (none of which the Epicureans regarded as real goods) is built into every aspect of our society. We are urged to strive for promotions and better salaries, for the best GPAs, test scores and university places, for recognition and approval from colleagues, for the best possible mate in terms of looks and status. Advertisements on the New York subway urge me to get a diploma, bid for construction contracts, initiate and win lucrative lawsuits, and fix my face and figure. My glossy alumni magazine glorifies those faculty who discovered or invented something patentable, or who at least seem to be on track to do so, and its advertising urges me to invest my wealth with prestigious firms to acquire even more wealth. The bestselling self-help books advertised on Amazon, and lining the shelves in the airport newsvendors, promise to boost me to a top position where I can make all the decisions and boss others around, and to crush the self-defeating behaviour preventing me from finding lasting love.

This success-driven focus of contemporary life is complemented by a focus on the passive consumption of supposed comfort- and pleasure-inducing objects, such as speciality mattresses and bamboo-fibre socks. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more to read (and to ponder).

Two book recommendations (included in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending):

No Contest: The Case Against Competition

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2019 at 8:41 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Mental Health, Shaving

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2 Responses

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  1. Profound stuff that digs deep! Thanks for sharin’.

    Steve Riehle

    5 November 2019 at 8:57 am

  2. What a terrific article (as always) from Aeon! My 45-day steak “project” was just such an epicurean exercise. As for shaving…it epitomizes the approach of finding great pleasure in routine tasks!


    6 November 2019 at 2:20 am

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