How to be an Epicurean (instead of being a Stoic)

By Robert Wright, Feb 08 2020

A few months ago NZN ran an excerpt from my conversation with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic. Well, one of Stoicism’s rival schools of philosophy in ancient Greece was Epicureanism, and one of Massimo’s colleagues, Catherine Wilson, has written a book called How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I interviewed Catherine on The Wright Show a few weeks ago, and below is part of our conversation. I went into her book knowing little about its subject, and I came away from it feeling a real affinity with Epicureanism—not just for its very reasonable approach to living, but also for its very congenial (to me, at least) political vibes. 

ROBERT WRIGHT: Why don't we start out by talking about the role of pleasure in Epicureanism. One of the connotations of the term “Epicurean” today is of a kind of hedonism, self-indulgence. And I think, on the one hand, you're going to say that that’s … misleading. On the other hand, pleasure does play a central role in the logic of Epicureanism, as a value that … you can organize your life around. Do you want to talk about that? 

CATHERINE WILSON: Yeah. Hedonism is pleasure taken to extremes, and no Epicurean ever recommended that. ... They saw that there are two limitations on that: first, you usually get yourself into trouble if you go too much into the pleasures of food, drink, sex, power domination; [and second,] there are ethical limits. So there's no way to go all out and stay within the limits of Epicureanism. 

On the other hand, what they do is give you a permission to enjoy innocent pleasures, and they don't see an opposition between pleasure and virtue, which all the major moral philosophies and religions seem to do. There's a kind of core of asceticism in not only Western, but Eastern thinking, and Epicureans were completely opposed to it. …

Stoics aim to be able to preserve their equanimity and even happiness under even highly adverse conditions ... and that entails an ability to, to some extent, divorce yourself from the guidance of natural emotions, right? Is there a broader distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism in the way we think about our animal nature? 

Oh, I think so. … Stoics will tell you that they only want to free you of the painful emotions. [But] really, the rhetoric suggests otherwise. Seneca thinks any little bit of emotion is bad, the emotions are diseases.

Epicureans think of the emotions as like perception, something that we’re outfitted with that is conducive to our survival and functioning. 

So in the first place, they think you can't just suppress your emotions by thinking in certain ways—and secondly, why would you want to? If you could just take a pill that would make you completely numb against grief, against all forms of irritation, as well as against wanting things, liking things [and] being motivated to pursue things, life would seem incredibly numb and boring.


You alluded to the limits that we, according to Epicureans, should impose on ourselves as we pursue pleasure. … In addition to yourself at that moment as something you legitimately think about—[that is,] it’s fair for me to want to be happy and enjoy pleasure at the moment—there are two kinds of constraints on that.

One is trade-offs between my happiness and the happiness of my future self, … and [the other] is [trade-offs] between my own happiness and the happiness of other people—[which is] where we enter the realm of ethics and morality, right?

Exactly. …

I guess I'm a little fuzzy on the ethical guidelines I'd take away from Epicureanism. I'm not sure exactly when I should respect a trade-off between my happiness and another person's and when I shouldn't. First of all, did Epicureanism actually influence the emergence of utilitarianism in modern philosophy? 

Absolutely, yes. Bentham was a particularly hard Epicurean utilitarian. Mill, who follows Bentham and modifies him a bit, also refers to Epicurus. 

I don't think the original Epicureans ever thought in terms of measurements of utility or making social decisions based on utility. They were really just thinking of interactions between people who knew each other well. So their first influence is really on the theories of morality you see in the 18th century, where people's reactions to each other—of approval and disapproval and esteem—are what's shaping and controlling people into having reasonable social behavior.

One reason I bring up utilitarianism is [that], according to utilitarianism as it’s commonly taken, no one person's happiness is more important than another person's happiness. If you take that as a guideline for setting up a moral system from the outside, I guess you’d want a certain amount of equality. But if you take it as a guideline for your personal moral conduct, [it may seem like] a really extreme prescriptive philosophy. ... If I really take seriously the idea that everyone else's happiness is as important as mine, then whenever I'm enjoying something at the expense of any increment of enjoyment of another person, I should change that. So, in theory, I should be spending all my time giving away food to people who have less. … That’s certainly not the idea behind Epicureanism, right? 

That’s right. … The Epicureans thought of morality—or justice, as they called it—as a convention to prevent one person from harming another. That's a really good basic definition—I think it's better than any other definition of ethics that you can find anywhere—but that doesn't imply that you have to go along with Peter Singer and give away all your possessions and salary to the point where you’re as badly off as the worst person.

I know Peter a little, he's never given me any money, actually, so… But seriously, he comes closer to walking the walk than a lot of people. He takes that very seriously. But you're right: he is a utilitarian, and his version of it is pretty demanding. …

I guess the key distinction is between actively harming someone and failing to help them. I'm sure that [the Epicureans] would say, if you see someone who's about to die, you do something. But there isn't the same mandate to go out looking for people to help than, say, a utilitarian might articulate; … it's more about thinking of yourself as not having the right to harm people via things you do. Is that fair?

That’s part of it. But … an Epicurean is also very worried about pain that's imposed on people for no good reason. So I would think a latter day Epicurean would be very critical, for example, of our prison system and the way in which people are living in slums and ghettos and tenements these days. And, to the extent that those situations are coming about because someone is benefiting from it—someone is getting an advantage from this treatment of others—an Epicurean would say that's unethical. 

Of course, some of those are a product of a government policy more than the actions of any one individual. In other words, there's nothing I can do about conditions in the prison very readily except as a citizen advocating policy. … But let's make this a place holder. I want to talk about Epicurean attitudes toward the political authority itself, their view of things like patriotism and so on, but let's now back up to a really foundational level. 

How nature works

You spend a certain amount of the early part of the book talking about the Epicurean conception of just how nature works. … This is something that I've often seen emphasized in discussions of Lucretius’ long poem On the Nature of Things, in which he kind of popularizes EpicurusIt's a view of the world that in some ways resonates with a modern scientific worldview. … So you want to talk about that a little? ...

Sure. They were atomists…

Which is to say, they believed in atoms.

Yeah, which were tiny material particles, although sometimes—this gets a bit complicated—they speak of them as seeds. 

Atoms and the void existed. We would never be able to see the atoms, they thought. They came together kind of randomly, but some stable configurations stuck together, and some of these stable configurations actually were living things that, as it turned out, could reproduce themselves, and that's how we got all of the plants and animals and humans in the world. That's one account. 

The other account is that there were just seeds of these animals, plants, humans, living things—just kind of in the earth—but they developed and came to the surface by nature. So, no creationism, no intelligent design, nothing like that. Everything comes from matter.

[The Stoics, on the other hand,] have this pneuma that is an all pervading substance that has some kind of spiritual qualities, or organizing power, or something like that. … It's a rational principle, maybe a morphological principle, a developmental principle. It's what they thought you needed because just bits of matter were not going to be enough to construct a world.

I think Lucretius even … has a kind of a natural selection theory. The animals that had too many parts that didn't work together so well died out and the ones that were functional survived.

People have noted that Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, who wrote his own long poems, writes some things that sound kind of like natural selection. And you make the point, I guess, that Erasmus read Lucretius himself.

Yes, that's right. And I'm sure Darwin himself [did too]. It drives me crazy when I go to a museum—I think even the natural history museum did this—you get the impression from reading their little blurbs that everybody in the Victorian period and before was a creationist, nobody had an inkling that anything else was possible until Darwin came along and set everybody straight. This is simply untrue.

This Lucretian theory, this Epicurean theory was in the background for a very long time. Even in the 17th and 18th century people were talking about it and saying, well, that really is a leap, that really is speculative—but they were thinking about it and discussing it, and even putting it forward in a cautious way.

Soul atoms and religion

It’s a pretty materialistic theory. … [But] there's one thing that may not sound so modern to some people, which is that, to account for the ability of some animals, including humans, to have a subjective experience and pleasure and pain and so on, they posited these things that they called “soul atoms.” It's a special category of atom that we have, and my desk or a rock don’t.

That's right. And these soul atoms are just distributed through your whole body, and they make you able to feel and smell and hear and see and move and be alive.

But that said, it was materialist in a sense that we're still talking about atoms. And in any event, their takeaway was that there is no afterlife. Once you die, that’s it for any kind of coherent soul. It was fundamentally—well, maybe “atheistic” is too strong a word, they didn’t dismiss the idea of gods …—but they kind of moved them to the periphery of their thinking, is that [right]?

Yeah. I think Lucretius is actually a bit different from Epicurus, because Epicurus was really trying to convey some sense of piety and love of the gods, so he puts them off in another cosmos, where they don't interfere and don't even know that we're doing all these things in our world—they’re off in their own world where they're immortal. (It’s a little hard to see how they can be immortal because they're just atomic as well.) He's not exactly hostile to religion (maybe in some of the texts that we don't know about, he was). But Lucretius is really fierce.

Lucretius starts out by talking about the sacrifice of Iphigenia as what religion makes you do. You could look at some Old Testament examples for that as well. He thinks that priests have manipulated people, have frightened them with stories of hell. It’s all about social control. There's really nothing positive that Lucretius has to say about religion that I can find. 

Moral and political authority

Another implication of the Epicurean view of nature has to do with the way they think about authority, both moral and political. They may or may not be moral relativists in the sense that some people are today, but they're closer to that than a lot of Greeks, including Stoics. Is that fair? 

Yes. They think that morality is a convention that’s agreed on in our society, and that it changes as circumstances change. … They’re seeing it … as a social instrument for avoiding harm. Not just for cooperation—many people today talk about cooperation as being the basis of ethics—but they see it in this, I think, more sensitive way as avoiding advantage, avoiding exploitation.

And then similarly, they're more skeptical of how much reverence we should treat political authority with, right? …

They think two things about political authority. 

One, you need it. If you don't have a centralized authority, you essentially have competitive people vying for supremacy and self-aggrandizement. So you need a central authority to keep people in line. 

On the other hand, they see this potential for abuse. They do have a story of civilization where the clever ones kind of persuade the not-so-clever-ones—or the more openhearted and less suspicious ones—to work for them. And in this way, you get essentially conditions of labor slavery, which all ancient societies had and which you might think we still have today in various forms.

So, with both moral and political authority, they don't buy the idea that it derives from a divine source, as has so often been believed. … Were they not moral realists? I take moral realism to mean that you believe that there is such a thing as moral truth, there’s some absolute … out there. The Epicureans were not moral realists, is that true?

Not in today's metaphysical terms. Because, remember, there are only atoms, void, and what people think. So morality is a set of beliefs existing in people's heads, and those beliefs don't correspond to something outside their heads, because the only things outside their heads are atoms, void, and things made of atoms and void. …

Nature as a moral guide

There’s a difference between [Stoicism and Epicureanism] in the way they think of nature as providing or not providing moral guidance …, right? The Stoics … combined “is” and “not”, I guess you'd say. They thought that nature itself embodied, in a certain sense, moral laws or moral guidance. Is that right? 

I think they, like Plato, tend to see in the regularities of the heavens a model for how people should be: very predictable and steady and imperturbable.

So somewhere out there in nature was embedded a kind of moral guideline. Although nature, as it impinges on organisms on a day to day basis, on us, was actually in some ways something to be resistant to the Stoics. Our natural emotions were viewed with tremendous skepticism and suspicion. 

Yeah, that's right. Marcus Aurelius talks about the human soul as an inner citadel that is impregnable, whereas the Epicureans see us as just a part of the world: stimuli coming in, your actions going out, you're feeling this way or that way about what is happening. 

The Stoics sort of want to say: you can be the center of calm and order, the fray of the world is out there, but it doesn’t have to disturb you, and you can make changes in your own head such that it doesn't disturb you. 

And the Epicureans were both skeptical of how realistic an aspiration that was, and not so sure they'd want to get there anyway? 

Exactly. They felt this prescription against grieving for dead friends or relatives was just barbaric. How could you ban grief as a legitimate emotion? 

So, … even though there is this central respect for pleasure in Epicureanism, there's a certain kind of respect for the negative emotions as well? 

I think so. I don't think I can cite any passages that would support that, but … Descartes, who I think took up this Epicurean, anti-Stoic view, says somewhere that all the emotions are good. Even grief … brings you a kind of joy in the end. And none of them should be shunned [or] disparaged, they're all part of human experience. 

When you're really having a bad time with someone or something, you do just think, “Oh no, I want to get rid of this. This is just really unpleasant. Why am I so obsessed about this thing?” But I've found that just working on your own head is not very effective, whereas changing your circumstances, changing the inputs, that's what really works—and then you're able to change your way of thinking and develop a more objective and distanced attitude. 

But I think, along with the Epicureans, that you can't do it just by retreating to your inner citadel. 

By the way, you referred to Descartes’ version of Epicureanism as being anti-Stoic. Were Stoicism and Epicureanism thought of as rivals back in the day? …

Oh yeah, absolutely. … The source for that is Cicero, because in many of Cicero's dialogues—the one on the nature of the gods, Tusculan Disputations, maybe some of the others as well—he really sets them against each other. He has a spokesperson for the Epicurean view, a spokesperson for the Stoic view, and they get to present their best case and kind of question each other.

Virtues and war

Another comparison you make is that Stoicism is a virtue philosophy: they posit four [virtues]—what is it, courage, wisdom, temperance, [and justice?] …  As you said, [Epicureans] emphasized justice, [as well as] temperance as a practice to make sure that you don't cheat the future self by indulging the present self—but it's still not a virtue philosophy per se, right? So what does that mean exactly?

I think what an Epicurean might say about courage—and Kant would say this as well—is that it can be misused. You can do courageous things like walking into a bank and holding up the bank teller—it takes a lot of courage, but it's not a good thing to do. So why are we idolizing courage as such, as opposed to the actions that are helpful rather than harmful?

Actually, another dimension you do the comparison along is attitudes toward war. I don't know whether Stoics valorized war, but it is a place where you can display your courage, and Epicureans are more skeptical of the virtue of war, you might say.

Yeah … They see war as connected with civilization and as one of the problems with civilization. 

Other ancient philosophers … take war completely for granted, it's just part of life: you go and conquer and you defend yourself against being conquered because, obviously, people want your stuff and you want their stuff. That's just sort of unchallenged by most of the ancient philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics… So military valor is really prized in ancient societies. It's thought to be a very, very good quality to have. 

And Epicureans think—well, if you want to be happy, don't join the army. Don't get into ships and start going off and marauding and looking for treasure. Find your happiness and peace and contentment at home. …

Natural law and free will

Did [Epicureans] believe there were no laws of physical nature or just there were no moral laws derivable from the nature of physical stuff?

No laws of physical nature in the sense in which 17th century people—Galileo and some opticians before that—[meant this]. They're regularities and tendencies, habits of nature, like the fact that sheep give birth to more sheep. …

But laws of nature in anything like the quantitative sense or some scientific sense, they just don't have those—but nobody else does really [before] the 17th century, except in this idea that “Providence has so arranged the world”, the Stoics would say, “that you have these rights that are grounded in nature, and you have these obligations that are grounded in nature.”

If they thought there were no laws per se of the physical world, maybe that answers a question I had. 

You say that Stoicism is deterministic, and Epicureanism … emphasizes more the role of chance. In one sense, it makes sense because the Stoics so emphasize dealing with the hand you've been dealt: … whatever your fate is, there's a way to preserve equanimity amid it. And that makes sense if they view the world as deterministic and your fate at any given moment as having been inevitable. 

But I didn't really understand why the Epicureans, with an atomistic worldview, would not be deterministic. Maybe they're closer to quantum physics, I guess. [That’s] just the way they thought of the world: quirky. 

Yeah. The atoms are just knocking around. They have a general tendency to fall downward, whatever that means. But they're also kind of being pushed upward, and they don't fall in straight lines because sometimes they just swerve—which Epicurus thinks is somehow the basis of free will, though he never explains how that actually works. 

But they do stress choice and avoidance, those are their big terms. So they do believe in free will, they do believe in human power. …

Family life

Stoics thought family life was almost an intrinsic moral good, whereas the Epicureans could take it or leave it?

Well, there, Epicurus and Lucretius seem to divide again as they did in religion. 

In the Epicurean Garden, it was kind of a free-for-all, because they had women, they had “philosophical women.”  These women are called “courtesans” in ancient literature, but that just means they're not married and they're not prostitutes—they’re what we would call today “sexually liberated women” who are free to have affairs and arrangements with men. 

Epicurus thought that was the ideal situation. He thought marriage and children would just bring you trouble and vexation. But if a philosopher wanted to get married, that was okay, it wasn’t prohibited or anything like that. 

Lucretius seems to have a more favorable view of marriage. He thinks that, if you don't have children, you're really missing something, that’s really a shame and maybe you should get a different spouse since you're not having children with this one—because it's all just biology and physics, you haven't been cursed by the gods, you just need a different material arrangement. 

Suicide and politics

Another difference, you say, is that Stoics thought that suicide was sometimes the option to choose, Epicureans not so much.

I think the Epicureans were especially dubious about all the political reasons for suicide that you find in the Stoics. Of course, Seneca's an example of political suicide, driven into the corner by Nero. 

I’m actually not familiar with that story. So it was the honorable way to go because…

He was probably going to be assassinated anyway. So, the Epicurean view is, if you get mixed up in politics, you're asking for trouble. You're going to be dealing with tyrants and maniacs and assassinations and executions and enemies and persecution. Save yourself the trouble. They always get criticized for being apolitical, but that was what they really thought: it's only ambition that would make people willing to get into that sort of situation. And then to kill yourself because things are going badly for you because of the tyrant? Well, you know, it's really too bad that you got into that situation, but it's sort of ridiculous. 

I think they would be more sympathetic with physician-assisted suicide—somebody whose health is just so awful that they don't want to live anymore, there's no hope for them. But Epicurus, even there, tries to kind of cheer people up and say that even blindness is tolerable, people can compensate. 

Suffering and pain

As I understand it, you're saying the Stoics saw suffering as inevitable, the Epicureans saw it as minimizable. That might surprise some people.

I actually did a conversation with Massimo on comparisons and differences between Buddhism and Stoicism. [The Buddhist] view is, in some ways, like the Stoics’. You can deal with the situation, especially if you don't take your emotions too seriously, in a certain sense, or view them with a certain kind of critical distance. 

The way it's generally put in a Buddhist context is [that] physical pain may be inevitable, but suffering is not. Suffering is more interpretive. It's like, choosing to let the pain be a problem is what leads you to suffer from the pain. ... And I would have thought that Stoics might put it the same way—but you’re saying that the Stoics see suffering itself as in some sense unavoidable. 

No, no. I think I should have really put that differently because—yeah, they think that suffering can be suppressed, it’s mentally controllable. It's trouble that you can't avoid for the Stoics. 

So if you're in political life, as we were just saying, you're going to run into trouble. If you're in family life, you're going to run into trouble. It's trouble that you can't avoid, but you can avoid suffering. ...

The Epicureans would say you can do a lot of things to avoid trouble in the first place, or to get out of it quickly by your actions—not by rearranging your head—in case you do run into it.

International law

And we've kind of alluded to … a certain skepticism on the part of Epicureans about patriotism, nationalism. It … follows from … their view of political authority. There were places in the book where I almost got a sense that they would have been fans of international law, but I guess that wasn't a term that was actually in use then.

Well, if you think of international law as the centralization of an authority to prevent people from harming each other—yes, they would have been in favor of things like the UN, if it were more effective than it is, and maybe had a different conception of itself than it is. 

So they would say, look, what's a country? A country is just a bunch of atoms that people in their minds have decided to call their country. They have drawn arbitrary boundaries and lines and said, these are the borders of our state. Why would you have emotional attachment to such a thing? Particularly if it involves aggression against other people.

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