BOOK REVIEW: Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson

Epicureanism: A Very Short IntroductionEpicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like all ancient schools of philosophy, Epicureanism birthed an adjectival oversimplification that has eclipsed the word’s original meaning and obscured the full story of this philosophical system. Platonic refers to the teachings of Plato, but platonic is a friends-without-benefits scenario. A Cynic is a minimalist who eschews comfort and rejects social norms, but to be cynical is to think the worst. A Stoic believes that there are things one can control and things one can’t and that one should act virtuously in the former case and indifferently in the latter, but a stoic is an emotionless automaton. Epicureans developed a comprehensive system of philosophy that included metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy, but an epicurean is a hedonist, probably dripping butter from his chin. The tenet that there is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure became the whole picture, and lost was the understanding that moderation is a virtue.

Being unacquainted with Epicureanism, I was surprised to learn that it was the least superstitious, as well as the most compassionate, of all the ancient Greek philosophies. Like most people studying ancient philosophies, I’m most interested in those aspects that might be called “philosophy of life” – i.e. ethics, politics, and other aspects that deal in how one should live. [As opposed to the more arcane questions of metaphysics and epistemology.] The reason is simple; the former ideas have aged better, while ancient metaphysics, for example, appears ridiculous in light of all the science that has come along. For this reason, I tend to overlook the long-discredited ideas of ancient philosophers. However, I’ve come to see that these ideas informed the life philosophy of each school (and, also, that there are degrees of wrong.) For example, the Epicureans, being atomists, were correct to a point, and in rooting their entire system in nature (rather than gods and the supernatural) they avoided preoccupation with pleasing the gods and developed an acceptance of the fact that sh!% happens (and it’s not due to angry gods.) So, while many of the details of Epicurean atomism were far from the mark, it did yield a less superstitious outlook (and was less wrong than most ancients.) My point is that I ended up benefiting from this guide’s comprehensive approach.

If you’re looking for an overview of Epicureanism, or you think the defining characteristic of an Epicurean is a love of heavy sauces, you should definitely check this book out.


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