How to Be an Epicurean by Catherine Wilson [Book Summary – Review]

How should we navigate our lives? Is our primary focus meant to be the relentless pursuit of success and material comforts – constantly striving for the next career advancement or saving for a bigger home? Alternatively, should we commit ourselves to a higher purpose, like the chase of knowledge?

These questions look hard to answer, and individuals throughout history, have been arguing on the matter for several years. However, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, the solution is surprisingly straightforward: our objective should be to find pleasure and evade pain.

Despite its apparent simplicity, that basic principle has a lot of complexities. Epicurus also had additional wisdom to share, covering a broad spectrum of subjects, including physics and even death. Does it sound demanding? On the contrary – it promises to be enjoyable.

In this book, you’ll discover

  • the shared character between Epicureanism and Darwinism.
  • the thing that happens to the soul after death; and
  • the difference between Epicureanism and Stoicism.

Buy this book from Amazon

Chapter 1 – Epicureanism, the ancient Greek philosophical school, goes beyond a focus on pleasure; it constitutes a comprehensive theory of everything.

Nowadays, Epicureanism is often associated with images of grandeur – envisioning an aristocrat in a wine cellar or a gourmet relishing a lavish meal. Typically, Epicureanism usually entails just pleasurable, self-indulgent living, particularly emphasizing food and drink.

However, it is beyond that. 

The fact is, that the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus emphasized the significance of pleasure. A perspective emphasized by his noteworthy follower, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. Yet, they recognized that it was complicated. For example, they acknowledged that excess pleasure now could result in pain afterward.  The fact is, others are also in pursuit of pleasure, cautioning against seeking personal pleasure at the cost of others.

Moreover, Epicurus and Lucretius had so much to say about different topics, including nature, physics, history, love, death, and religion – almost every aspect. Remarkably, many of their insights remain relevant in today’s context.

During the third century BCE, Epicurus lived together with his followers in Athens, dwelling in a grove commonly referred to as his garden, situated outside the city. Unfortunately, the majority of his writings had been lost, with a lot buried as a result of the popular eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. However, during this period in Rome, Lucretius wrote a lot of Epicurean texts, remarkably his long poem “On the Nature of Things.”

Despite its average fame nowadays, Epicureanism has played a pivotal role in the history of philosophical thought. It left a lasting impact on various philosophers, for instance; notable figures like Karl Marx,  John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A lot of the American Founding Fathers, among them Thomas Jefferson, were Epicureans as well.

Epicurus holds a fascinating position in the history of science; he created one of the earliest atomistic theories, now recognized as Epicurean atomism. Based on this theory, everything comprises atoms – minuscule, indivisible particles that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Furthermore, these atoms constitute the only permanent entities in the world. All the things we see – whether individuals, nature, or objects made by humans – are mere arrays of atoms. When these entities transform or disappear, it signifies a reorganization of the atoms.

While the specifics of Epicurean atomism do not align with modern scientific understanding, within the context of ancient philosophical theories, it is remarkably correct. The same extends to Lucretius’s theory of human development. You might even refer to it as  “natural selection” which we will look into in the following chapter.

Chapter 2 – In Epicureanism, there are no supernatural powers; therefore it usually sounds remarkably modern.

The ancient Epicureans posited that in the past, atoms were randomly assembled into numerous animals, surpassing the current existence. However, only some, possessing advantageous traits such as speed or intelligence, managed to survive. This implies that there was no divine force orchestrating the creation of the natural world that surrounds us, a belief that was mocked everywhere for several centuries.

Similarly, the work of Charles Darwin was mocked in the nineteenth century. His theory of natural selection was usually compared to the principles of Lucretius. However, nowadays, Darwin’s ideas are accepted everywhere, and Lucretius’s work is seen as a precursor to them.

The insights of the Epicureans regarding consciousness remain relevant and valid now.

If everything is composed of atoms, the question arises: what is the origin of our sense of consciousness? The Epicureans proposed the existence of a special and particularly lively type of atom, which they termed “soul atoms,” as the source. However,  it’s not necessary to fully accept this concept to ponder on consciousness in an Epicurean manner.

Rather, consider the things constituting our beings. Is it more plausible that our consciousness arises from the specific arrangement of atoms each individual possesses, or is there some, non-physical entity living in us? From a contemporary scientific view, the former option appears more credible.

However, this brings us to a different question: why do we experience consciousness if we are only a random arrangement of atoms? Science provides an answer aligning with a modern-day Epicurean perspective: consciousness possesses an evolutionary edge.

Compare a robotic vacuum cleaner to a mouse, considering the whole tasks programmed into the robot. Now consider the whole additional thing the mouse can do that a robot cannot, such as telling that this is food and engaging in reproduction.

How does it perform all these tasks? Partly through emotions – fear prompts it to avoid cats, while love motivates it to care for its offspring. The unmechanical functioning of the mouse’s brain is what allows it to thrive, and a similar principle applies to the human brain, a lot.

As our sense of consciousness originates within the brain, it ceases to exist when our bodies perish. From an Epicurean perspective, it is suggested that our soul atoms dissipate into the air and transform into a different thing.

However, this doesn’t need not be discouraged; it can catalyze to encourage us to lead the most fulfilling life possible while we are still living.

Chapter 3 – Epicurean ethical philosophy revolves around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; however, with both morals and prudence.

What path should you choose in life? According to Epicurus, this question centers on avoidance and choice. In simple terms, one should opt for pleasure and steer clear of pain. Epicurus considers our natural inclination toward this pursuit as natural, and nature is the most significant force.

However, excessive indulgence in pleasure can have adverse consequences, – consider a hangover. Consequently, Epicurus advises acting with prudence, considering the long-term as well as immediate consequences of pleasure and pain. This can get complicated.

For each choice you make, a thoughtful and prudent evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages is necessary, and choose what aligns with one’s best interests.

At times, it is simple. Should you go through the little pain of visiting the dentist? Yes, to avoid more pain from an untreated cavity afterward.

Consider a more difficult case: should you purchase an insurance policy to guard you against the rare event of pipes bursting? If the likelihood of such an incident is nearly zero, one might argue against it. But, what if you have concerns about the pipes? Or what if having a sense of security from knowing you’re covered makes you happy? In such scenarios, the Epicurean stance would be to go for it.

Prudence, basically about you. However, what about every other person? What of morality?

The Marquis de Sade, who said he was an Epicurean, stated that he was aligning with nature by pursuing his pleasure, even if it involved inflicting harm on others. However, this interpretation misses a crucial aspect of Epicurus’s teachings – the emphasis on acting by moral conventions.

Epicurus noted that kindness generally comes naturally to individuals. However, he also recognized what could be gained towards actions such as torture, murder, or theft, indicating that human nature might at times be drawn towards that path Hence, he advocated for human-made laws and institutions. Despite them not happening naturally, laws are essential to avoid a plunge into disorder and chaos.

Acknowledging that moral conventions are not natural, they evolve, and systems are usually flaws – as illustrated by the author’s reference to the American criminal justice system. Nevertheless, the artificial invention of law is deemed essential, serving the purpose of maintaining order and allowing individuals to, for the most part, continue enjoying pleasurable lives.

Chapter 4 – Certain pains are unavoidable, such as the ones encountered in matters of love and death.

The opponents of the Epicureans, the Stoics, held a pessimistic view of passion, likening it to a sickness. However, Epicureans said passion needs to be embraced. Also, acknowledging that if passion is similar to a sickness, isn’t it still a natural occurrence? Diseases, after all, are unavoidable at times.

Acknowledging the challenges of romantic love, both Epicurus and the particularly ardent Lucretius understood that love brings joy and even pain. Consider the anguish of uncertainty about reciprocated love or the pains of jealousy when they are loving another person.

However, does this imply that we should avoid love? Instead, it suggests recognizing that the pain associated with it is an integral part of life. Similar to death. 

Epicurus himself decided not to get married, though he permitted his followers to do so if they wished. But, his perspectives on women were noteworthy. Epicureanism stood out as the only ancient philosophical school that welcomed women to be a part of them and were seen as equals, showcasing a remarkably modern aspect of Epicurean thought when studied today.

It’s important to know that not all relationships are a man-woman dynamic. A contemporary Epicurean view on homosexuality is accepting. Prohibiting such relationships can result in significant distress. There’s no objection to any relationship, provided it is done sensibly and ethically, with no harm inflicted upon others.

Just as we must acknowledge that love brings both pain and pleasure, we also need to recognize the certainty of death. According to Epicurus, death is bad, – as a matter of fact, it is the worst thing that can ever occur to humans. But, he advises against fearing or vehemently opposing it.

Similar to everything else in the world, whether living or inanimate, human life has a natural limit. When that limit is reached, acceptance is key. The death of an elderly person should not bring about sadness, provided they have led a happy life; it is simply a natural part of existence.

What happens after a person dies? According to the Epicureans, there is nothing. In simple terms, existence ceases, and our atoms transform into a different thing. In Epicureanism, one notable effect of this perspective is the absence of a cosmic justice system, unlike in certain religions. There are no rewards for the virtuous or punishments for the wicked. This emphasizes the importance of leading a good, moral, and enjoyable life on Earth while you still have the opportunity to.

Chapter 5 – The difference between convention and nature is at the core of Epicureanism.

Rocks have weight. Water is in a liquid state. Fire is hot. All of these are attributes we usually associate with these entities. Lucretius referred to them as properties, – he would say, rocks possess the property of heaviness. Properties are natural; they constitute an integral part of the essential nature —the defining characteristics that make what they are.

However, when it comes to person—whether free or enslaved, rich or poor—Lucretius viewed these differently. He referred to them as accidents, characteristics that could change without altering the fundamental nature of a thing.

To say this differently, Epicureanism differentiates nature and convention. Natural things are basically as they are, unchangeable. However, conventional things could be one way or the other, and they can be changed. At times, we can change them on our own.

This difference implies the existence of three groups in the world. The first group encompasses indestructible entities, simply atoms. The second group includes natural things such as plants, animals, and stars. Lastly, the third group comprises conventional things, things humans made. This group encompasses items such as clocks and driving licenses, and abstract concepts such as royalty and cash.

Although conventional things may have physical forms, their significance is dependent on the content. For instance, if a pound coin appeared in ancient Assyria, it wouldn’t function as a pound coin since it couldn’t be used as such. Likewise, if Queen Victoria were present in that context, she wouldn’t hold the status of a queen.

Nevertheless, conventional things have real impacts on the world. While concepts like poverty may exist only by convention; however, it signifies that there is hunger among people. Likewise, war, a human invention, results in the loss of human lives.

Similarly, contemporary Epicureans argue that human rights are conventions – although a lot of other philosophies state that they are natural. From an Epicurean perspective, assuming rights were natural, we won’t need people to talk about them or debate them; we will just observe rights. 

Even weird, history is dependent on convention too. Consider this perspective: Have you personally lived through the Trojan War or the Cambodian genocide? Unless you have, your knowledge of these occurrences is derived solely from the accounts of others. While these testimonies can accumulate to provide a good understanding of what transpired, they never quite attain the status of objective facts; our understanding of occurrences is usually judged from subjective human understanding.

Moreover, following the same line of reasoning, there are constraints on our general perception founded on our senses. This realization presents a worrying aspect we will further look at in the following chapter.

Chapter 6 – It is not possible to identify what is true; however, we can approach the closest truth.

One repercussion arising from Epicurean Atomism is that we can never see what is happening – atoms are just very minute. The only thing that is visible to the eyes is the blur that all those millions of small particles form in aggregate after they have gathered to create bigger things. 

Also, each person possesses a unique set of senses and past experiences. Therefore, there’s a slight difference in the things we all see when we look at the universe.

So, how do we know the actual truth? Unfortunately, achieving 100 percent certainty is almost impossible.

Nevertheless, we must strive to do our best. The key lies in adopting empiricism – a truth-seeking strategy centered on acquiring understanding from our senses.

Empiricism encourages us to gather comprehensive details about a subject and determine what is most likely to be the truth. This represents the closest approximation we can get to the truth.

For instance, if you witness your neighbor’s house burning down, it is reasonable to believe it occurred. When someone else reports the incident, it is essential to evaluate whether they have the knowledge and lack any intent to deceive you. If the evidence aligns, accepting their account is justified.

Empiricism has its imperfections, even in modern science. In the 1980s, a lot of scientists asserted that margarine was healthier than butter, leading many individuals to alter their diets. Subsequently, it was later discovered that the margarine at that time was, in fact, worse than butter.

Maintaining a dose of skepticism is healthy. Nevertheless, it is still rational to heed the current scientific consensus, recognizing that it may be proven inaccurate later on. For now, it represents the best approach we have.

Applying an empirical strategy to climate change is crucial. Is there a likelihood that the scientific consensus could be inaccurate, similar to that of butter? The chance is very slim. It’s essential to recognize that scientific methodologies continually advance – the evidence for climate change now is way better compared to the evidence supporting margarine over butter in the 1980s.

Moreover, it’s important to acknowledge climate change as a moral issue, given that people’s lives are at risk. We bear a responsibility and cannot disregard the problem by entertaining doubts about its existence.

Is it possible to be specific about climate change? No, as with many other things, it is unattainable. Nonetheless, our actions should align with the best available evidence.

Chapter 7 – If you wish to live a pleasurable life that has meaning, choose Epicureanism

Consider a scientific approach to religious beliefs, they begin to seem improbable. The author recommends a moral obligation to question the idea of a deity overseeing and managing everything.

Although certain parts of religion do not conflict with Epicurean values. Some religions partake in charitable activities and a lot of religious teachings promote good morals. But, the superstitious parts of religion do not align with the rational view of Epicureanism.

However, if you are considering an alternative non-religious philosophy, Stoicism has recently gained popularity. However, life for a Stoic may not be as pleasurable as it is for an Epicurean.

As stated earlier, Stoics disapprove of emotions, considering them as “diseases.” However, Epicureans embrace emotions as a natural aspect of life – what is more natural than feeling and desiring pleasure?

A Stoic may say that seeking a pleasurable life is selfish. Is it not more suited to lead a life that is not only pleasurable but also holds significance? The Epicurean response to this question of what the term  “meaningful” actually implies in this context.

The brains we have is what differentiates us from animals. We can make long-term and make decisions based on a comprehension of complicated abstract concepts. It is through these actions that our lives acquire a sense of meaning. For example, having a successful career or engaging in charity work might be considered meaningful accomplishments.

However, it is an error to assume that we should relentlessly pursue these goals to an excessive extent. Reflect on some of the most prominent historical people, and contemplate how many engaged in destructive wars or selfishly amassed wealth. Striving to be extreme overachievers may lead us away from our real human nature.

This is why Epicureans think that a well-lived life does not necessitate a filled awards cabinet or victorious wars. A meaningful human existence can be achieved just by doing the things you do and loving people who are close to you.

Ultimately, cosmic scale, nobody is that important. Our world is home to numerous species, and the universe to a lot of planets, all devoid of any divine purpose.

This realization might evoke a sense of insignificance, making our lives seem small. However, the mere truth that we are all different, conscious human beings in an immense and purposeless world can also instill a sense of magnification. Consider the wonder that these minuscule, imperceptible atoms have fortuitously arranged themselves in a way that allows you to contemplate your thoughts and experience all your feelings.

Isn’t it extraordinary? How fortunate we are to exist!

How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well by Catherine Wilson Book Review

Epicureanism, an ancient philosophy, urges the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, emphasizing doing things rationally and morally. In Epicureanism, there are no supernatural powers or even an afterlife; however, it is not a pessimistic philosophy. Instead, it motivates individuals to hold on to the pleasures and wonders inherent in the present life.

Buy this book from Amazon

Download Pdf

Download Epub


Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile:

Recent Posts