Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life, by Emily A. Austin

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Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

In my first, diagnostic year at Sussex there was a required course in Philosophy. Turned out to be Brit logical positivism. Allegedly to help recent school leavers bursting with sex to construct a rational argument. It didn’t. It faintly polluted the welcome vibe of a progressive, liberating university with the stale air of an Oxbridge SCR holding a party for animated corpses. 

Luckily, there’s no chance of wasting time on dry, abstract and humourless agendas with Emily Austin. She can even refit the bleedin’ obvious (broadly, ‘pleasure is better than boredom or pain’) in attractive and intriguing ways. Though her approach is securely founded on specialised study and knowledge, she understands the helpful use of an informal style and familiar analogues in a work of explication aimed at the common reader. It’s a breezy, candid performance in the warmly personal American vein – the author is Professor of Philosophy at Lake Forest University – and you take it as you find it. You’re even invited to skip chapters that have you nodding off.

I didn’t drowse for a second. This party is alive. Aside from the ins and outs of philosophical belief, which are patiently clarified to ensure the reader doesn’t ‘stray perplexed amid conflicting schools’, the high thinkers of classical antiquity are presented as fully engaged with debating real-world problems. You can almost hear the contentious voices of Epicurus, the founder, and his Stoic critics as they banter across the centuries. Yet Austin makes it axiomatic that principled hedonists have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk in a privileged community of lofty intellects, of Epicurus’s ‘Garden’ on the fringe of Athens. To structure her account, the author arranges it as twenty-four compact chapters, each one focussed on a key topic; there are some repetitions and overlaps, but they act as useful linkage, keeping the reader on track. Morals, ambition, money, desire, friendship, family relations, and more: all the cardinal signposts are there. 

In discussing them Austin identifies three categories of pleasure. Most basic is the assurance of necessities: food, clothing, shelter, personal security, etc. A group of supportive friends might be included. Beyond those lie ‘extravagant’ though harmless desires such as vacations, chocolate, wine, flowers, sports. Then there are the ‘corrosive’, pleasures – overreaching ambition, say, drug or alcohol addiction, a frantic craving for wealth and power, that can mean misery for others if not oneself.   

So Epicureanism is ‘a theory of happiness’. Austin freely uses the terms ’tranquillity’ and ‘satisfaction’ for an ideal happiness. It doesn’t entail limitless appetites, supercharged ecstasies, acid trips and sexual orgies, hanging from chandeliers, raising hell, shooting the moon and going for broke. Appetites, even passionate ones, should be balanced with prudence and the long view (‘deferred gratification’) or else become a self-sabotaging trap of hangovers and worse penalties. Such values have for so long permeated the ethical and cultural codes of Western social formations that they tend to be taken for granted. They are indeed hard to contradict, except for dedicated ravers. But in a world where Putin, Brexit and COVID 19, among numerous lesser culprits, have diminished or twisted the available supply of pleasure with global consequences, what is to be done?

Give credit for courage to the author here. Her account of Epicureanism is largely descriptive, not advocacy. However, she is refreshingly candid in having included subjective testimony where relevant and her final chapter, while not quite casting her as an agony aunt, justifies the book’s sub-title. There’s some wise counsel in it, and judicious reflections, all in a humanist spirit. ‘Accentuate the positive’ is in there, optimism being one of the classic American virtues, but it isn’t the whole of the message. Austin completely understands that the individual life tends to be messy and unpredictable. We are assaulted by volatile waves of feeling, unforeseen emergencies, changed conditions. Stoic or Epicurean, or an unstable mix of these and other influences on our daily lives, we half the time blunder about in the dark. That is where philosophy can be of use. Her concluding words are:

At its least, Epicureanism offers a diagnostic tool for why decadence does not bring satisfaction. At its best, it offers  a path out of the wood.

One of the side-benefits of reviewing is turning up charmingly contingent snippets of information that you never suspected before. Austin mentions, in the course of contrasting European and US attitudes to gastronomic pleasure, that until the arrival of COVID 19 it was actually illegal for French office staff to lunch at their desks. Yes, really. Americans did so, or ate ‘on the run’, as a matter of course, often alone (so did I). That instantly evoked for me rich mental savours of past holidays in France, pulling off the motorway to park in agreeable small towns and enjoy the fifty-franc prix fixe lunch in restaurants full of happy citizens on their break. I miss the indulgence, but don’t mope. I live on the gorgeous, palpable recollections, a vital affective database. And Epicureanism is cool with that. Right on, Epicurus.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Emily, A. Austin, Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life, (Oxford University Press, 2022). 978-019197558324.001.0001, 307pp., hardback.

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