Good morals and tranquillity aren’t the first things that come to mind when we think of diehard hedonists, whether it’s Don Juan or Dorian Gray. But Epicurus, the greatest champion of hedonism in antiquity, seems to square the circle. Only pleasure, he argues, makes life worthwhile. And if we do pleasure right, we will also be virtuous and serene.
From Socrates to the Sceptics, all ancient philosophers advertised their schools as gateways to a happy life. Emily Austin makes a powerful case for choosing Epicurus as our guide. A pleasant life, Epicurus insists, does not consist in ‘drinking bouts and continuous partying’, ‘enjoying boys and women’ and ‘consuming fish and other dainties of an extravagant table’. That’s all the more surprising because the original Epicureans, as Austin notes, held a ‘remarkably modern’ view of the world: everything, including human beings, is a random configuration of atoms moving through an infinite void. Yes, gods exist, but they are so blessedly happy that they wouldn’t get their hands dirty by crafting nature, let alone mixing in human affairs. But isn’t that a world in which ‘everything is permitted’, of the kind Dostoevsky warned about?
To avoid sliding into debauchery, Epicureans make one key claim: nothing can top the pleasure of peace of mind. They want us to escape the frenzy of chasing every transient pleasure and the accompanying pitfalls: anxiety about missing out, frustration if we do, envy of those who get more, fear