How to Live Well as an Epicurean

Professor Catherine Wilson, author of "How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well"

Epicureanism sometimes gets a bad rap as a pleasure-seeking lifestyle, one that verges on effete self-indulgence. Visiting Presidential Professor Catherine Wilson (Philosophy) hopes to change that perception. The Epicureans of ancient Greece, she says in her new book, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, “sought to uncover the real sources of joy and misery in our finite lives and to balance the ethical treatment of others with our own self-interest.”
 
Her book offers a roadmap for applying Epicureanism to contemporary life. There are even implications for those in academia. “We are urged to strive for promotions and better salaries, for the best GPAs, test scores and university places, for recognition and approval from colleagues,” Wilson wrote in a recent essay about the book. Those types of achievements can feel hollow, but there are other academic pursuits that offer the potential for true Epicurean fulfillment.  
 
“I think there is a real difference between activities that bring pleasure, such as trying to solve a problem, mastering a new subject, or even finishing up a book or a thesis, and ‘extrinsic goals’ such as getting a job in a famous place, or a prize or becoming the nation’s leading expert on X,” Wilson told The Graduate Center. “External rewards can give you a thrill lasting maybe a few days, but they are only valuable insofar as they enable you to do the kind of work you enjoy or to do more of it. I find the very idea of incentivization insulting.”
 
And while many workers these days only get to use their “intelligence and creativity” when they’re off the job, Wilson says that academic life, by and large, remains “the exception. So much is under your own control, ranging from going for a walk almost whenever you want to, to bringing your baby to the office, to exploring a topic on your own. There are constraints, but it's a good life.  My CUNY students are some of the most lively and thoughful I've ever taught. I hope they keep that freshness and enthusiasm.”   
  
But how does she reconcile simple Epicurean joys with her own impressive résumé (degrees from Yale, Princeton, and Oxford, and author of more than a half-dozen books, including two others on Epicureanism, A Very Short Introduction to Epicureanism and Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity)?
 
“Yes, I had a top-notch education, but I am aware that it depended largely on luck — the luck of being born into a family that made it a priority and sacrificed accordingly,” she told The Graduate Center. “I have always worked in public universities, apart from a couple of visiting posts in private universities, and I think low-cost, well-funded public education is one of the greatest goods a society can provide. Personally, I think of myself as lacking ambition. I have no goals apart from just finishing books and papers I've started. What I've always had was curiosity and pure enjoyment in reading and writing.”
 
She added: “If my writing or lecturing adds to a reader’s or hearer’s knowledge, or just brings them pleasure or encouragement in their own researches, that is absolutely the best I can hope for.”

Submitted on: JAN 3, 2020

Category: Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Philosophy