Book Review of “How to be Epicurean”, by Catherine Wilson

In recent months, many book reviews have been published, as well as podcasts and essays written by Catherine Wilson herself to promote her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I finally had the opportunity to read, evaluate, and write my own review of the book.

I too have accepted the challenge of inviting modern people to the study of Epicurean philosophy, and have continued to learn constantly after writing my book so that some of my opinions may have evolved, and for that reason I probably have greater sympathy for Wilson’s efforts than most reviewers. The reader must understand that every approach to the task of presenting Epicureanism to a modern audience will bear the mark of our own personal histories, values, and idiosyncrasies, and is bound to be culturally specific and idiosyncratic. Apologists for capitalism and anarcho-capitalists will not love her book, but her arguments are often sound, if incomplete. Below are some of my specific critiques and commentaries.

The Good

The author says, accurately, that there are no natural rights, only conventional rights.

She calls for policy to be based on evidence.

The moral problem of euthanasia is very well explained in pages 138-140.

I applaud that she’s not afraid to tackle issues of sex and intimacy.

The Bad

In page 177, she claims that “no one can claim to perceive reality directly”. The premise behind the canon is that it is, indeed, possible to apprehend reality directly with our faculties. She didn’t delve into the Epicurean canon in much detail.

In page 183-4, the author’s (incorrect) view that the atomic theory is unempirical could have been turned into an opportunity to discuss the acceptable methods of inference–but, either way, this view is an error: atoms have been photographed (see this article by Live Science).

The Influence of Hostile Narratives

When reading Wilson as a non-academic proponent of Epicurean philosophy, it becomes very clear to me that she moves in (academic?) circles that are quite hostile to Epicurean ideas, and–in spite of her sincere and well-meaning defense of Epicurus–has suffered the contagion of these ideas to some extent.

For instance, she accepts accusations by the intellectual enemies of Epicureanism that are false as if they were historical truths. In page 112, she states as fact that Lucretius committed suicide without once evaluating the credibility of the claim or its dubious source. Suicide is forbidden in Epicureanism except in cases of terminal illness or while lying mortally wounded in battlefield. This is only one of many false accusations against Lucretius by the enemies of the Epicureans.

The author elsewhere gives credit to misogynistic accusations against the Garden. Proponents of virtue ethics and religions at times seemed to think that all emancipated women are whores, and described many of the women who participated in the Garden that way. The truth is that many of the founders were married, had children, and were raising them in the environment of the Garden. It was a family environment, as attested also by Epicurus’ final testament.

Wilson’s defense of empiricism in page 183 is not strong enough. She points out the dangers of scientific advance, and critiques empiricism as if ignorance (and its false consolations) were without dangers. This is the exact opposite of Michel Onfray’s bold Promethean Bio-Ethics, which I much prefer. We must not deny that there are dangers in knowledge, but I sense here also that she concedes to opinions that are foreign to the Epicurean study of nature, and which sometimes depict scientific advance as an insult to God, or as otherwise arrogance on the part of mortals.

Epicureanism is NOT a Philosophy of the Polis

On that note, the author seems to have accepted also (page 208) the insinuation that Lenin was in some way influenced by Epicureanism because he favored historical materialism–a doctrine that derives from Marx. She insinuates that Hobbes was Epicurean, yet the philosopher and author of Leviathan advocated for the big state and was a philosopher of the polis (of the nation-state).

Marx and Engels (who, she claims, were influenced by Epicurus) were also definitely not Epicurean, but their ideas that machines should do our work, that they should free men to enjoy their time, and that people should own the means of production have antecedents in Philodemus’ Art of Property Management scroll–particularly in the “delegation of tasks” doctrine.

The problem with conflating such a wide array of thinkers with the Epicureans is that this takes away the Epicurean Gospel from the realm of individual ethics into the realm of political and Platonic ethics, and confuses natural community with political community. We should consider the kings and mobs quote, which shows that neither the excesses of elitism/traditionalism nor of collectivism (as is the case with communism) are healthy according to the Epicureans. This quote places Epicureanism outside of the narratives of the right and the left of the political spectrum.

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Wilson argues that wealth should be shared (page 222), but does not link this with the sources. This is not entirely clear to me, but it seems that Epicurus DID say in VS 67 (above) that wealth should be shared … with friends or neighbors, not necessarily with the impersonal polis. Later Epicureans, like Thomas Jefferson, worried about the excesses of wealth disparity and called for the use of taxation to fix this problem.

Not Enough Sources Cited

The author does cite sources at times, but not often enough, and this is a bit problematic. For instance, when she claimed that the residents of the Garden were evading both politics AND business, I asked myself: What would be the source of that? I came across this potential source:

The love of money, if unjustly gained, is impious, and, if justly gained, is shameful; for it is unseemly to be parsimonious even with justice on one’s side. – Vatican Sayin 43

When arguing against “concentration of wealth”, or “greed”, maybe she should’ve cited her Lucretian and Epicurean sources in detail. One must particularly object to this in page 104:

Epicureans put no stock in the notion of individual desert, they are unmoved by arguments that the wealthy deserve their wealth and the poor do not deserve to partake of it.

The author, again, does not cite sources, and this seems to contradict Metrodorus’ instructions in Vatican Saying 45 that we should take pride in our own qualities, like our strength and self-sufficiency. I am unfamiliar with a source that would appear to justify “being unmoved by arguments” related to individual desert. VS 67 and a Philodeman scroll (Art of Property Management) advise that the wealthy should share their wealth with their friends–but this says nothing about “deserving” what one has.

The Importance of Mutual Advantage

In page 108, Wilson confuses the reader needlessly re: how laws can be just and yet not be of mutual benefit. Either she is contradicting the sources, or not expressing herself clearly. She could have easily cited PDs 37-38 on how rules may and do change.

I applaud that the author appeals to the importance of empirical data and sound science when discussing policy issues, like global warming and climate change. Empirical data is important. However, she did not mention how mutual advantage relates to policy. It is difficult or impossible to connect a philosophy of personal ethics like Epicureanism to policy at the level of state, or of community, without appealing to mutual advantage. If Wilson had appealed to the sources while explaining the concepts of justice / morality, she would have encountered repeated references to “mutual advantage” and this would have added credibility and clarity to her arguments.

If she had relied, again, on the first principles (in this case, the last ten of the Principal Doctrines), her explanation of how Epicurean philosophy provides moral guidance would have been much more cogent and complete. The fact that an area the size of Delaware has been declared unlivable in Louisiana has economic effects, and the building of new dams there and in other coastal regions would result in the spending of billions of dollars that would have to come from the pockets of tax payers. The problems generated by climate change are not abstract. If they are discussed in concrete, measurable, observable terms as they are directly experienced, then the issues of mutual advantage and disadvantage may be addressed. This is how Epicurean morality works, and Wilson wasted an opportunity to encourage her readers to philosophize like Epicureans about these issues.

There’s a reason why the founders made frequent appeals to memorize the sources. Epicurean ideas are much easier to explain and understand, and a lot more difficult to misconstrue or confuse, if they are explained from the sources. Our insistence on citing sources is not because we think Epicurus was infallible and we obey his unfailing authority. The arguments in the PDs, the VS and other sources were carefully articulated after hours and hours of discussion by the founders, and the words were carefully chosen for a reason–which it is our task to discern–, and by her failure to cite sources, the author risks sounding preachy, loses a bit of the clarity of her message, and reduces her credibility (as we’ve seen in some of her book’s reviews).

In one passage, the author tries to argue that a lack of justice in the afterlife (hell, or reincarnation) should not generate existential anxiety. Here, again, mutual advantage could have helped to explain that people are capable of being fair and moral without having to tremble in fear of hell. People who are cruel, exploitative, or unreliable, burn bridges with their fellow citizens and create many disadvantages for themselves and others. People who are fair, honest, and reliable, create many advantages for themselves and others.

Mutual advantage is also one of the most business-friendly principles in Epicurean doctrine, and it’s no surprise that Wilson’s defense of Epicureanism comes off as not business friendly. She barely mentioned this crucial component.

In Closing

These criticisms–as I said initially–do not take away from Wilson’s overall praiseworthy effort to promote Epicurean ideas. She has potentially initiated a conversation with her reader that–I hope–will contribute to her reader’s happiness. These efforts will always bear the mark of the idiosyncrasy of the proponent, and that is to be expected.

My goal in writing this post is to help students of Epicurean philosophy to connect the content to the sources, and to more critically read this and any other book inviting us to study Epicurean philosophy. For this reason, I invite readers of Wilson’s book to join us at the Garden of Epicurus Facebook group and share any questions you may have while reading this or other books.

Further Reading:

  Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism

A hostile review from the Wall Street Journal written by a Stoic

Another book review written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life: A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

How to be an Epicurean: A philosophy that values innocent pleasure, human warmth and the rewards of creative endeavour. What’s not to like?

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.