Being an Epicurean: A Philosophical Guide for Modern Life

Epicureanism, the school of thought that originated from the ancient philosopher Epicurus, has long been equated with self-indulgence thanks to its ideas about pleasure. Epicurus believed that pleasure was good and pain was bad, but over time that central claim became increasingly co-opted so that “epicurean” eventually signified a hedonistic attitude.

But there’s a lot to learn from the philosophy, according to Professor Catherine Wilson (The Graduate Center, CUNY). First, though, we need to correct our understanding of it. “Epicureanism was always a controversial philosophy, and it needs rethinking in some respects,” Wilson writes in her new book How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well.

Across four major sections, Wilson explains and then applies Epicureanism—one of the five major schools of thought studied during Greek and Roman times—to modern life. She hopes the result offers a helpful guidebook. “[P]hilosophy can point the way to the sources of satisfaction that are available to almost every human being and to strategies for facing off against the major threats to human happiness,” she writes.

Whether readers find the philosophy useful for their own lives or “offputting,” she writes, “real Epicureanism is probably considerably different from what you might have thought.”

As she begins exploring how to apply Epicurean thought to the present, Wilson touches on subjects like morality, community, laws, the self, love, and even death. She explains how “death is not to be feared” because that mindset creates anxiety and pain. Plus, Epicureans believed life has a natural limit, so the fight to extend it takes away from the pleasure of enjoying the time each person gets.

Wilson stipulates that How to Be an Epicurean is just a starting point for those interested in Epicureanism. “I can’t solve for my readers all or even many of the problems of modern life,” she writes, “but I hope my book will help you to acquire a framework for living.”