Epicurus and the Good Life

Sunday, May 11, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 4, 2012

What Is It

Though his name is often misleadingly associated with indulgence in sensual pleasures, the Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a far-reaching system of thought that incorporated an empiricist theory of knowledge, a description of nature based on atomistic materialism, and views about the importance of friendship. His notions of what constitutes a good life have preserved the relevance of Epicurean philosophy for contemporary life. A diverse array of thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson, Diderot, and Jeremy Bentham, have considered themselves Epicureans. So what is the legacy of Epicurus, and how have his ideas become integrated into the fabric of modernity? With great pleasure John and Ken welcome David Konstan from NYU, author of A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by dispelling some common myths about Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BCE, did not espouse the constant pursuit of fine food and wine or other sensual pleasures. Instead he believed that the key to human happiness lay in avoiding pain and satisfying our natural and necessary desires for food and friendship. He also believed that the desire for immortality was unnatural and unnecessary, since it could never be satisfied.  John and Ken debate this point about whether an aversion to death is natural. Ken insists that even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, nonexistence is something that seems bad in and of itself. But John responds with one of Epicurus’ arguments—nonexistence after life can’t be any better or worse than nonexistence before life, so Ken would have to be committed to saying that the period before birth is bad.

David Konstan, Professor of Classics at New York University joins our hosts to shed more light on Epicurus’ interconnected theories of psychology and metaphysics. Epicurus believed that much of our displeasure in life, and much of our motivation for seeking out unnecessary riches, came from anxiety about an afterlife, which most Greeks believed was a state wherein the gods would continue to rain misfortunes upon us. As a strict materialist, he did not believe that the human soul outlived the body. Therefore he thought there was no afterlife, and so nothing to fear in death. Yet he knew that it was hard to get over this fear of death on one’s own, and so encouraged his followers to form communities of friends who would discuss life and death together.

David also highlights Epicurus’ main differences with a competing contemporary school of thought, stoicism, as well as the similarities and differences between his beliefs and Buddhist thought.    

Epicurus was an atomist almost 2000 years before such a view gained widespread acceptance. He had a theory of natural selection, and of changes in the human social order, though not of the appearance of new species. His notion of repressed anxieties was remarkably Freudian. But Epicurus’ striking relevance to modernity doesn’t end with the fact that he presaged scientific consensus—his most important contribution may be how relevant his psychological insights are today. Epicurus would point out that advertising is all about inducing unnatural and unnecessary desires in people, and playing on our fear of death. He believed philosophy should be like therapy, steering us away from unnecessary desires and assuaging our fear of death.  

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:51): Roving philosophical reporter Caitlin Esch talks to UCSF neurologist Howard Fields and Jennifer Mitchell, Clinical Project Director at Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, about the neural networks and chemicals involved in pleasure and pain.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 44:05): Ian Shoales riffs on the distinction between Epicureanism and gluttony, feed-caps and fez, and Nero and Nero Wolfe, and concludes that hipsters are the last true Epicureans.