Living for Pleasure - an Epicurean Guide to Life

notes on Emily A. Austin’s book about the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his teachings

I bought Dr. Austin’s book after reading the review in the Guardian since I’m used to Stoicism being trendy but not hearing much about Epicureanism – and I think I lean more toward the latter if we’re to discard more modern philosophies like existentialism and stick with the ancient Greeks.

I’m probably being a bit ambitious by taking notes on a scholarly book about philosophy, but what the hell. Citations are courtesy of pandoc. This page is not a scholarly work itself, so you probably shouldn’t cite it in your own academic work.

contents

Chapter 1: Maybe We’re Doing It Wrong

Because people so consistently seek pleasure, the Greek philosopher Epicurus reached the conclusion that pleasure is the source of our happiness and the only truly good thing. (Austin 2022, 2)

So, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, etc. Epicurus was primarily a hedonist.

Does this mean pleasure über alles? Are the hedonistic ethics of Epicurus an excuse or license to do as we please as long as it feels good in the moment, consequences be damned?

No. 

“We don’t need some old philosopher like Epicurus giving license to our failures of self-control and calling it ethics and happiness.”

(Austin 2022, 2)

So, we can’t claim that we’re living a good life just because we wake up every morning with sore genitals, runny noses, and tinnitus after nights devoted to sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll.

“The last thing we should do is cavalierly dismiss Epicurus as a debauched glutton, but let’s not lose sight of how powerfully liberating it can be to hear that pleasure is good.”

(Austin 2022, 2)

NO SHIT! This is especially important for Americans to hear. Despite the cynical use of hedonism in advertising and marketing, our society is still tainted by Puritanism and Victorian prudery. The trendy philosophy, especially for men, is a bastardized Stoicism intended to encourage asceticism and emotional repression. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m sick of hearing about how I ought to be stoic and focused on duty just because I didn’t have the sense to not be born male1.

Hell, any man who grew up Catholic2 or in an Evangelical church probably got a guilt trip whenever they displayed an unplanned and unauthorized erection. Women are still told that they should only have certain kinds of sex, with a husband, for procreation and to keep that husband from “straying”3.

Furthermore, any ideology that punishes hedonism not only fails to stamp it out, but drives its victims to pursue pleasure in more transgressive ways than they otherwise might. As psychologist Erik Sprankle posted on Twitter:

“I grew up Catholic” is a euphemism for “I’m into BDSM.”

@DrSprankle: 24 November 2022 at 10:55PM

I didn’t exactly grow up Catholic4 but Sprankle’s post still makes me feel seen.

According to Austin, it is pleasure that gives shape and color to our lives, and any philosophy that denies their genuine value seems to promise little more than a steady diet of cold gruel for the soul. (Austin 2022, 3)

I think Austin is ignoring pain here. It too gives shape and color to our lives, though the shapes are often unpleasant to look upon and the color seems to range from arterial red to eigengrau. Nevertheless, the absence of pleasure and pain alike would indeed be a cold, gray life and the soul of one condemned to such an existence must surely be impoverished by the lack of meaningful experience.

What is the greatest happiness in life? Is it…

One suspects that Epicurus would approve of most of these – though he might take exception to Genghis Khan’s conception of the greatest happiness and perhaps that of Edmond Dantès as well. I doubt he’d be keen on having “fuck you money”, either, if it isolates its holder from the rest of society.

Consider the rest: can one enjoy art, food, drink, friendship, love, sex, victory, or leisure while beset by anxiety? How many people cannot take full pleasure in their time away from work because they know they must return to jobs that not only do not spark joy during working hours, but poison one’s happiness outside of work? How many have had the joy of sex stolen from them because they can’t get out of their own heads, exist in the moment, and enjoy the presence of their lovers?

Whatever pleasure and happiness you strive for rests on an anxiety-free foundation, and Epicurus considers that stable, anxiety-free state the ultimate pleasure. We’ll call it tranquility, though Epicurus wrote in Greek, so he called it ataraxia. (Austin 2022, 3)

This makes sense, because if one ascribes to ethics deriving from those of Aristotle, ataraxia seems to be a pre-condition for eudaimonia, which can be taken to mean ‘flourishing’ though it literally translates to a state or condition of ‘good spirit’.

I think there’s some evidence for this in psychology as well. While Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not supported by empirical evidence, I think it remains a popular meme because it is useful. However, if Maslow doesn’t do it for you, perhaps you’d prefer Manfred Max-Neef’s matrix of fundamental human needs. Resolving needs provides temporary tranquility and thus renews one’s lease on Epicurean happiness.

This also implies a hierarchy of pleasures, I think, which may be paradoxical since the highest pleasure according to Epicurus is a precondition for full enjoyment of the “lesser” pleasures. However, I think this paradox can be resolved by getting at the root of one’s anxieties.

It might seem that all this talk of anxiety is taking us far afield from the original discussion of pleasure. Epicurus, though, rightly points out that our anxiety and its attendant emotions largely arise from our desires, what we think will give us pleasure.

(Austin 2022, 5)

This sounds familiar. Doesn’t Buddhism teach that desire leads to suffering since many of our desires can never be satisfied at all, or can only be temporarily satisfied?

Can Epicurus point us toward answers for how best to live under capitalism, especially as it grows ever more totalitarian? Austin seems to think so…

The best strategy for plumbing the depths of our negativity is something along the lines of “follow the money”5. When we intensely desire something we aren’t sure we can get—anxiety. When we get it and worry we can’t keep it—anxiety. When we compete for what we want or want what others have—anxiety, envy, and resentment. When it, whatever “it” is, needs to be perfect, a whole container ship of anxiety. In brief, catalog your unsatisfied desires and you will catalog your pain.”

(Austin 2022, 5)

Yep. That sounds like life under capitalism. And all that pain born of unsatisfied desire is how the Devil gets at you, according to Alice Cooper…

“Gimme” by Alice Cooper, from Brutal Planet (2000) (click to view)
“Gimme” by Alice Cooper, from Brutal Planet (2000)

However, this isn’t about Christianity. I just can’t seem to get away from it because of my background. The boy can pull away from the Church, but getting the Church to pull out of the boy is a different proposition altogether6.


Bibliography

Austin, Emily A. 2022. Living for Pleasure - an Epicurean Guide to Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at contact@starbreaker.org.