Living for Pleasure by Emily Austin: an Epicurean guide to happiness

A timely guide to the Greek philosopher – and rival to the Stoics – who saw freedom from anxiety as the ultimate goal

Julian Baggini

Epicurus’s distinctive feature is his insistence that pleasure is the source of all happiness and is the only truly good thing. Hence the modern use of “epicurean” to mean gourmand. But Epicurus was no debauched hedonist. He thought the greatest pleasure was ataraxia: a state of tranquility in which we are free from anxiety. This raises the suspicion of false advertising – freedom from anxiety may be nice, but few would say it is positively pleasurable.

Still, in a world where even the possibility of missing out inspires fear, freedom from anxiety sounds pretty attractive. How can we get it? Mainly by satisfying the right desires and ignoring the rest. Epicurus thought that desires could be natural or unnatural, and necessary or unnecessary. Our natural and necessary desires are few: healthy food, shelter, clothes, company. As long as we live in a stable, supportive community, they are easy to achieve.

We become anxious when we devote energy to pursuing things that are unnatural, unnecessary or both. Such desires are “extravagant”. They are not always bad, but they should only be enjoyed if the opportunity happens to arise, not actively sought out. Sex and fine food fall into this category. “Those who least need extravagance enjoy it most,” the philosopher writes. Believing that only haute cuisine is good enough for you is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Unnatural and unnecessary desires, such as for wealth, power, fame or eternal life, are considered “corrosive”, to be avoided like the plague. They deprive us of any chance of feeling that we have enough. There is always more wealth, life or power to be had and so if we want them, we can never be content….