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Wednesday, April 12, 2023

What sort of philosophy is appealing?

I got interested in Epicureanism about a couple of years ago, when I read this statement from Bryan Caplan in one of his blog posts: "The best three pages in philosophy remain Epicurus’ 'Letter to Menoeceus'.” 

When I hunted up the document and read it -- it's not very long -- I was impressed, and I started to read books about Epicureanism. So far I have read five. The first four were, in the order I read them, Epicurus and the Pleasant Life, Haris Dimitriadis; Epicurus and His Philosophy, Norman Wentworth DeWitt; Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson and How to Be An Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, also by Catherine Wilson. (If you read the Letter to Menoeceus you'll see that Epicureanism, contrary to popular impr ession, is not all about fancy meals and "wine, women and song"; Epicurus is clear that many desires are harmful. It's a remarkably modern and sensible philosophy, in contrast to Stoicism, which seems to be having a moment for reasons I can't make out). 

I've just finished my fifth book on Epicureanism, and it's the one I like best of all: Living for Pleasure by Emily A. Austin. 

It's a new book, it's only been out for a few months. Dr. Austin is a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University. I love the book both because Professor Austin does a great job of discussing Epicurus' philosophy, which I largely agree with, and explaining how to apply it to one's life, which I am trying to do. Professor Austin is, as one might expect, a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy. She knows Greek, Latin and German. Most of her academic papers concern with how ancient Greek philosophy deals with the fear of death, and there's a funny passage in the book about that; apparently professors when they meet ask what each other's specialty is, and when Austin answers the question, she often gets the response, "Maybe let's talk about my work instead of yours." I guess it's not a very flirtatious conversation topic. 

In spite of the fact that it's a new book put out by an academic publisher, Oxford University Press, it's reasonably priced; my copy is a Kindle that cost about $11.

I mention the book not only because I have to assume that some of the blog's readers might be interested in a good book about philosophy, but also because I was struck by one of Professor Austin's statements in the last chapter of her book, where she  begins by explaining why she wrote the book and how she chose her academic specialty:

"I have welcomed the recent resurgence of interest in philosophy as an approach to living, an idea that fell out of favor among Anglo-American philosophers in the early twentieth century for reasons no one can fully explain. I chose to study the Ancient Greek philosophers for two reasons -- they resisted the modern impulse to over-specialize and they thought philosophy could help  us make sense of our lives."

Doesn't that last sentence describe Robert Anton Wilson a bit? He was a generalist interested in many different topics, ranging from quantum physics to Beethoven to James Joyce. And he tried to figure out what was the best way for him to live; see Cosmic Trigger 2, for example.

But I remain puzzled that Wilson did not write more himself about the ancient Greek philosophers. Yes, there are many mentions of Aristotle in his work. But where is the mention of Pyrrho, and the other Greek skeptics, whom I assume a skeptic such as RAW would have read about

Pyrrho is said to have reached India, as he apparently traveled with Alexander the Great's army. There are at least two books which argue that  he interacted with Buddhist philosophers and was influenced by them: Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia by Christopher Beckwith, and Pyrrho's Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism, by Douglas Bates. So I would think Wilson would be intrigued. Perhaps it is simply that modern culture is so vast, it's impossible to come across everything interesting. 


Yah Mo B. Goode said...

If you're looking for something a a little lighter, I strongly recommend Epicurus The Sage by Williams Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth. It's a graphic novel mainly about Epicurus but which also summarizes Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers, and features Alexander as a youth. Consider it the Classics Illustrated version.

Branka Tesla said...

It seems to me, no surprise the hedonistic approach to life came from someone who lived in Mediterranean part of this planet. The style of life and the everyday rhythm of life are still more relaxed in all of the Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Portugal. Life is more important than work. Most people know how to live and enjoy life. (Just a reminder: in Europe people get one month paid vacation!) It's so important to know how to live in a moment.

Thank you for  recommending "Living for Pleasure" by Emily Austin. I look forward to reading it.

Speaking of embracing and practicing pleasure, if you have not read Timothy Leary's "The Delicious Grace of Moving One's Hand" , I strongly recommend it. On page 38, while visiting a friend and staying in her house Leary writes: "It was a delightful introduction to hedonic consciousness. Indeed the very existence of pleasure as a way of life had been unknown to me."

Originating from Mediterranean area "pleasure as a way of life" had been known to me for decades. It's part of our DNA and I personally keep trying to increase my "hedonic index".

Van Scott said...

Your point about philosophy, and how so much of it does little to help us make sense of our lives is well taken. Richard Rorty is one of my favorite modern (1950 or later) philosophers. He enjoyed a brief renaissance when it was pointed out that one of his works written in the 90’s predicted the election of Donald Trump, and he’s mentioned briefly in Michael Johnson’s Afterword to TSOG. In one of his books he writes that academic philosophy has deteriorated to the point that philosophers now talk about things that only other philosophers care about. Sadly this seems to be pretty accurate to me. The connection to people’s actual lives has been lost. Another philosopher Michael mentions is Isaiah Berlin, and I think that you and many readers of this blog would find him interesting. I recommend his Four Essays on Liberty as a start. You might also like Russian Thinkers which discusses Bakunin and other Russian anarchists.

A contemporary philosopher I really enjoy is Peter Sjostedt-Hughes who is known as a philosopher of psychedelics. His stuff can be pretty demanding but his books contain some excellent essays on Nietzsche and some of the clearest explanations of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy that I’ve ever read.

Oz Fritz said...

Great post! RAW parodies Plato's ideal forms in one place. RAW and Crowley got influenced on skepticism by David Hume who put it back on the front burner in the 18th Century. I've seen a paper claiming that that Hume was the only one to consistently carry on Pyrrhonian skepticism and another paper claiming that Hume criticized Pyrrhonism as "the excessive variety of skepticism at odds with common life." Deleuze's first book called David Hume examined his skepticism and empiricism.

Gilles Deleuze remains my favorite philosopher. He revived my interest in philosophy going on ten years ago now. Like RAW, Deleuze sometimes writes in the Hermetic style. One characteristic of this style: eclectically choosing some ideas and rejecting others from a variety of sources to construct a view or multiple views. His book, Logic of Sense that I'm covering in a video series, uses the Stoics and the writings of Lewis Carroll as a jumping off point. Epicureans get several positive citations in the book as well including points where the Epicureans and Stoics stand in agreement.

From reading Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, it seems many of them didn't come across as rigid sectarians, also taking more of an eclectic approach. Different Stoic philosophers appeared at odds with one another over key ideas. For instance, some got into Plato and Aristotle while others looked at alternate views. The Stoic dude linked to in the post has a lot of videos on the subject. He's a little hard for me to take except in small doses.

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations gets acclaimed as an important work in philosophy pertaining to daily life. I personally liked it despite it coming off at times as preaching a moral code.

I'm interested to get more background on Epicureans. Thank-you for the recommendations.