Epicureanism: the ancient philosophy that won’t go away

A Roman Feast, by Roberto Bompiani (1821-1908)

How to Be an Epicurean
By Catherine Wilson
Basic Books, 304pp, £30/$30

“Our starting point will be this principle: nothing is ever created by divine power out of nothing.” So begins Lucretius’s 1st-century BC poem De Rerum Natura, an expression of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism. An ancient forebear to today’s atheist materialists, Lucretius attributes most religion to fear of “all sorts of things happening on earth and in the sky with no discernible cause”. He proposes a prescient theory of atoms and an asinine account of change called “the swerve”. Lucretius set the doctrine of Epicurus to dactylic hexameters because he found it otherwise “unpalatable” without “the dulcet strains of poesy” and “the sweet honey of the Muses”.

Caricatured only slightly as utter selfishness in both the eremitic and hedonistic varieties, Epicureanism proved incompatible with Israelite religion and early Christianity. Whereas the Church professes a God of infinite love whose difficult service is eternally liberating, the Epicurean tells us pain is pointless, and with no distant deity waiting to kill our buzz, our only limitation is someone else’s good time. As the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright said of Epicureanism in the first of his 2018 Gifford Lectures: “The gods don’t care, and they won’t judge us.”

Most people in the ancient Western world did not hear this message as good news. Epicureanism faded into obscurity in favour of Stoicism, and Christianity flourished.

But Epicureanism has made a comeback, gradually replacing Stoicism as what Wright calls the “default mode” of Western life.

The preponderance of a de facto Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, even among people who identify as Catholics, proves Wright’s suspicions true.

Catherine Wilson goes a step further, embracing and promoting Epicureanism per se. Her new book, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, ought to give Christians pause. In Wilson’s work, the profligacy that seems so hilarious and absurd in François Rabelais and spooky but pathetic in Aleister Crowley becomes mainstream and even boring.

“Let me assure you,” Wilson asserts, “that real Epicureanism is neither frivolous nor dangerous to health, nor a threat to other people.” The slogan “If it feels good, do it” has finally lost even the slightest tinge of counter-culturalism. But we knew that already.

Wilson describes Epicureanism as “the most interesting and relevant of the ancient philosophical systems”, and she takes care to address and dismiss its controversial status before offering what is mostly a Lucretius-lite self-help book. She advises: “The reflective Epicurean will consider honestly what purchases have really brought pleasure and which ones were not worth the effort or the outlay.”

In a few places, however, Wilson stakes bolder claims: welcome to the forward-thinking world that sexists like Plato, Aristotle, St Paul and St Augustine beat back for a while, but which Hobbes and Darwin and all our modern heroes have been leading us back to. “Above all,” Wilson tells us, “resist superstition and the temptation to turn pain into moral virtue.”

Epicureanism offers no afterlife, but Wilson assures us (based on no evidence) that “being dead is not unpleasant or painful”. We are also supposed to accept the miracle that kindness, generosity and justice “flow naturally” in a world without God. Epicurean morality is generally individualistic; but Wilson has to innovate a bit, as she acknowledges that the ancient Epicureans were probably opposed to abortion.

How to Be an Epicurean is a frustrating but easy read, which ends with the pleasant surprise of Wilson’s personal reassurance that we need not take her or her preferred philosophy seriously: “If you find the Stoic outlook more fitting to your own beliefs and experiences than the Epicurean, so be it.”

Sir Roger Scruton once quipped, “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative’, is asking you not to believe [her]. So don’t.” Good advice there. We can only hope that Wilson’s drawing attention to the Epicurean waters we swim in may provide an opportunity for Catholics to propose the Good News as a satisfying alternative. Wilson’s book reminds us to make a more concerted effort to put Epicureanism back in the category of passé philosophical runners-up. After all, how not to be an Epicurean is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8): Jesus Christ.