Living for Pleasure by Emily Austin – An Epicurean Guide to Happiness | Philosophy books

nToday one dreams of practicing the physics, medicine or biology of the ancient Greeks. But their ideas about how to live are always inspiring. PlatoAnd Aristotle and the Stoics have all the missionaries of the twenty-first century. Now it’s Epicurus’ turn, and his advocate is the American philosopher Emily Austin.

Living for pleasure is more likely to trigger feelings of deja vu. One reason “ancient wisdom” persists is that most thinkers have come to very similar conclusions on some key points. Don’t be fooled by the shallow temptations of wealth or glory. Follow what is truly valuable to you, not what society tells you is most important. Be the sovereign of your desires, not their slave. Do not be afraid of death, because only a superstitious person fears divine punishment.

The more general such claims are, the easier it is to agree with them. But when we delve into what makes different philosophers different, what seems like good universal sense can suddenly seem a little strange.

The defining characteristic of Epicurus is his insistence that pleasure is the source of all happiness and is the only thing truly good. Hence the modern use of the word “epicurean” to mean gourmand. But Epicurus was not an immoral fanatic. He thought it was the greatest pleasure ataraxiaA state of tranquility in which we are free from anxiety. This raises suspicions about false advertising – freedom from anxiety may be nice, but few would say that it is positively pleasurable.

However, in a world where even the possibility of being lost inspires fear, freedom from anxiety seems very attractive. How do we get it? Mainly by satisfying the right desires and ignoring the rest. Epicurus believed that desires could be natural or unnatural, necessary or superfluous. Our natural and necessary desires are few: healthy food, shelter, clothing, company. As long as we live in a stable and supportive society, they are easy to achieve.

We feel anxious when we devote our energy to pursuing things that are unnatural, unnecessary, or both. These desires are “extravagant”. It’s not always bad, but it should only be enjoyed if the opportunity presents itself, and it’s not actively pursued. Sex and good food fall into this category. The philosopher wrote: “Those who are in need of extravagance enjoy it most.” Believing that only haute cuisine will suffice for you is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Unnatural and unnecessary desires, such as wealth, power, fame, or eternal life, are considered “destructive,” and should be avoided like the plague. They deny us any chance to feel like we’ve had enough. There is always more wealth, life, or power to be had, and so if we want it, we can never be satisfied.

The clarity and brevity of Austen’s prose mean that she covers much of the detail of Epicurean thought in 24 short chapters. Anyone fond of the modern fashion of Stoicism should read her book to see why the greatest contemporary competition offers a better model for living. The Stoics tell us that the only thing that matters is virtue, that we should be indifferent when loved ones die, and that the universe works incrementally, so in the end there is nothing bad in it. Epicurus was a realist enough to accept that external circumstances can make life unbearable, grief normal and real, and shit happen.

It speaks to all of us, but it doesn’t offer a universal recipe for the great life. Freedom from anxiety is a good thing, all other things being equal, but many would say that it was the desire to let go of calm that enabled them to push themselves and live a fuller life. Austen shows at the end that Epicurus is a very good guide for life’s journey, but you should let some other thinkers show you as well.

Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life is published by Oxford University, USA (£16). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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