Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review: How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well

How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living WellHow to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well by Catherine Wilson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After listening to a podcast interview with Wilson about this book, I was really looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it was quite disappointing. I found it superficial both in its explication of Epicureanism and its application to contemporary life. There was little insight about Epicureanism or how to apply it to one’s life today. With the title of How to Be an Epicurean, I expected it to be “self-helpy” but I didn’t expect it to be as trite and insipid as the worst of the self-help genre.

Though each chapter starts with epigraphs of quotations from Epicurus and Lucretius, there is not a lot inside the chapters that connects directly to their writings. There is almost no way for the reader to check Wilson’s assertions about what Epicureanism says. There are no footnotes to indicate the sources. There is an appendix with quotations but there is no indication how these connect to the text itself. I get this is not a scholarly work, but this is a serious flaw and weakens Wilson’s analysis and presentation since it can be hard to tell where Epicurus ends and Wilson’s interpretation and views begins.

The application of Epicureanism to contemporary life is unfortunately as superficial.. Wilson frequently uses the rhetorical device of “The Modern Epicurean believes” but it is not at all clear to whom this refers or how the claims made in the guise of the Modern Epicurean connect to Epicureanism proper. It is hard to not to conclude that The Modern Epicurean is just Wilson and her views of how to think about the various contemporary issues regardless of how well these views cohere or not with ancient Epicureanism.

There are few caveats to my disappointment and criticism that might not apply to other readers. First, I’m a professional philosopher and this book is clearly pitched to a general readership, not those trained in philosophy. Second, I regularly teach Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, and so while no expert on Epicureanism, it’s fair to say I’m quite familiar with Epicureanism. It might be that as a general introduction to Epicureanism, this is a good starting point for those with no background in the subject and that Wilson provides a spur to further interest in Epicureanism. However, the flaws I discuss here probably undermine it being that spur.

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