Philosophy Books » Ancient Philosophy

The best books on The Epicureans

recommended by James Warren

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics by James Warren

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics
by James Warren


For most of us, an Epicurean means someone devoted to pleasure and enjoying themselves. But the real Epicureans had a very different philosophy of how to live. Cambridge University professor James Warren talks us through the philosophy of Epicurus and explains how it’s still relevant today—particularly when it comes to facing death.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics by James Warren

Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics
by James Warren

Buy all books

Before we get going on the books you’ve chosen, could you say something general about who the Epicureans were?

The Epicureans began as a school of philosophers in the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece. So that’s the period historically. It’s usually dated to the death of Alexander the Great. Philosophically, it’s the death of Aristotle: they died within a year of each other, so that lines up rather neatly.

It has its origins in a school that was founded in Athens by Epicurus, after whom the school is named. That was a piece of land that he owned that was called ‘The Garden’ because that’s what it was. People would gather there and talk philosophy. Epicurus had developed a systemic view on what were, by that time, pretty much agreed to be the standard areas of philosophical inquiry. So, he had a view on natural philosophy; he had a view on what he called ‘canonic’ or logic, which includes epistemology for us, and also on ethics and political philosophy. Epicureanism became a universal kind of philosophical view on the world, the commitment to which was supposed to give you the truth about how the world is, how it works, and also to give you a recipe for living a good life as a human in that world.

So is the idea that the metaphysics is the foundation for the ethics, so that you understand the way the world is and that allows you then to live well?

To a degree. We might come to some specific cases in which a particular understanding about the nature of the world generates an immediate ethical output. So for example, understanding that the world and everything in it is generated out of atoms moving around in a void: that leads you to believe correctly, says Epicurus, that you too are a combination of atoms that have come together at this particular point, but those atoms will disperse, and when they do, you will cease to be.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Now, Epicurus thinks that certain direct ethical implications follow from that, for example, about how you should view the time after your death and so on. Other cases involve for example him thinking that a proper appreciation of natural phenomena and natural processes—particularly understanding that they’re not directed by any divine agency or for any particular natural good—will allow you to stop fearing, or being concerned unnecessarily about, certain things that might happen around you in the world. So there are cases like that.†

Otherwise, sometimes the ethics looks as if it’s separable in certain important ways from the physics. When we come to it, perhaps we can talk about how in his ethics (he’s a hedonist) he has a particular view about pleasure and certain things follow from that, that are probably independent of any particular view about the physics of pleasure.

Since you’ve mentioned Epicurus’s attitude to the time after death, this might be a good point to mention that you wrote a brilliant book called Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics which shows that this isn’t just a scholarly interest for you. Obviously, this is founded on deep knowledge of Epicurean philosophy, but in this book you discuss Epicurus’s attitudes to death as if he’s making a contribution now to current thinking about how we should live in relation to death. Not all present-day classical philosophers do that. You’re not putting philosophy in a museum in this book—you’re showing how ancient philosophy can be relevant to our lives now. How did you come to write this book?

It emerged out of some work I was doing while I was a student and was one of those cases where it seemed to be unfinished business for me, after I’d finished writing the essay that I had to write. And, as you say, it’s one of those cases where there was a very direct and immediate kind of conversation to be had between these ancient texts and the particular arguments that Epicurus is raising, that are supposed to justify what he thinks is the correct attitude to death, but are fascinating and relatively easy to carry across without anachronism and without talking at cross-purposes between a modern sensibility and a modern approach and his own ancient world view.

“If death is harmful, who does it harm?”

It’s one of those cases where you can bracket out some of the particular bases for his premises, but supply something equivalent that we would accept, and then it’s very straightforward. I wasn’t innovative in this, I should point out. There was a lot of really important work, in particular a beautiful 10-page essay by Thomas Nagel just called ‘Death,’ reprinted in his book Mortal Questions, which in many ways was my provocation to write this, and which also encouraged a lot of really interesting work from people who aren’t specialists in the ancient texts to engage with the arguments.

What I thought I could do was reintroduce a more detailed and closer attitude to the ancient texts, because I think in some ways they were more sophisticated than some of the discussions that I saw happening gave them credit for. Also, I could talk in the other direction, and introduce or perhaps show to some classical scholars the ways in which these remain urgent and impressive and interesting arguments that we can wrestle with now.

It may be a caricature of Epicurus, but for somebody who hasn’t read or heard of Epicurus’s ideas about death, the central one for me is that when I’m here, death isn’t, and when death’s here, I’m not, so we shouldn’t be too bothered about it. What’s more, we don’t worry about the eternity before our conception, why worry about the eternity afterwards? There’s an asymmetry in our tendency to worry about the period when we might have lived. Those two thoughts seem to be absolutely transferable to the modern age and a lot of people find consolation in them.

That’s right. And I think they’re quite hard to resist as arguments because they are very straightforward. So to take the first one first—that he says death is nothing to us because ‘when it’s present we are not and when we are present it is not’—that does indeed put a very clear challenge and obstacle to anyone who wants to think that death is harmful. Because if it’s harmful, who does it harm? We can talk about the death of a person being harmful to others, that’s a natural and an obvious kind of thought. But is it harmful to the person themselves? If it is—or if you want to try to claim that it is—then the immediate question is, well: when is it harmful? It can’t be harmful after the person is no longer there, because there’s nothing to harm. It seems equally odd to claim that it’s harmful before it has happened, because here’s a living person. Now, there are all sorts of quite sophisticated ways that people have tried to come up with answers to that, but it’s quite interesting that you have to say something quite sophisticated to mount a defence of what you might think is a very intuitive thought, that death can harm the person who dies.

The second of the arguments that you mentioned, one I like to label a symmetry argument, is equally fascinating, because it also then introduces questions about our attitudes to the past and to the future, in particular the prenatal past, the time before I was born and the post-mortem future, the time after I’ve died. Now, most people don’t think that it’s at all possible or even conceivable that they were harmed before they were born. There are some qualifications you might have to put on that, things that might have happened before you were born that lead to harm that you experience during your lifetime, but you weren’t harmed at that time, when you weren’t born yet. Let’s also specify that being born means whatever the time is when I come into existence, so it might not be the time when you pop out, just to avoid that controversial area.

“He introduces questions about our attitudes to the past and to the future, in particular the prenatal past and the post-mortem future”

So we tend not to think that’s even conceivable, but then Epicurus says, ‘What’s so different then, about the time that’s going to be there after your death?’ To him they look like mirror images of one another. It’s really tricky to justify that asymmetry. Or—and I think this is also an interesting twist—if you think that the time after your death might indeed be harmful for you, why doesn’t it also therefore turn out, that you should be concerned about all of that time before you are alive; perhaps if you’re going to have a symmetrical view of things then either neither is harmful or both are harmful. And if you want to justify an asymmetrical view, then why should it be the case that the prenatal time is not harmful, but the post-mortem time is?

I can imagine somebody like Woody Allen saying: “Oh my God, now I’m worried about the time before my death, and it’s made me even more neurotic,” but for most people it has the opposite effect.

Think of all those great things you missed. If you’re worried that after you’ve died you’re going to miss out on various things, you’ve missed out on a huge amount already! That’s clearly a kind of absurdity that an Epicurean might use to their advantage to say, ‘It’s not just that we happen not to be worried about the time before we were born, but that we’re correct to do.’ And then if you add that to a claim that the two times are symmetrical, then it should follow that we should also feel the same way about the time after our deaths.

I would say to anybody reading this that Facing Death provides an excellent way into these arguments, to see the complexity of the secondary arguments that Epicurus has given rise to and it’s a very clear critical engagement with the profound questions that he raises that are there for any of us, particularly if we don’t have a belief in an afterlife. I think it gets more complicated if you believe in the possibility of an afterlife; but if you don’t, then Epicurus still has a lot to say. So now I think we should get onto the books you’ve chosen. Your first choice is a new translation of Diogenes Laertius, whose final book is devoted to Epicurus. Who was Diogenes Laertius? He shouldn’t be confused with Diogenes the Cynic, by the way. There are a few Diogenes around and they get muddled up sometimes.

Yes, and there is, unfortunately, another Epicurean Diogenes, Diogenes of Oinoanda, who constructed a massive wall on which he inscribed all sorts of Epicurean philosophical texts, which was a very odd thing to do. The question ‘Who was Diogenes Laertius?’ is a very good one, but we don’t have a very good answer to it. We know very little about Diogenes Laertius, who we think was writing in the early part of the third century AD.

This is quite a time after the foundation of the Epicurean school. But what he does is he constructs a work in ten books that is a history of philosophy of a kind, which attempts to trace philosophical thinking from its origins in the sixth century BC all the way through to—and the latest people he mentions tend to be the second century AD—but more or less things seem to have come to an end in terms of innovation, according to Diogenes, by about the middle of the Hellenistic period. Epicurus is the subject of the final book, because he stands at the end of one of these lines of influence of one philosopher to another.

Diogenes is very keen on making this a personal story. He’s both interested in telling us all sorts of odd and fantastical stories about the individual philosophers, but he’s also very interested in showing how each of these individual philosophers was influenced directly and personally by other predecessors. I think of it as a family tree of philosophies with Epicurus as the final branch of one of those family trees.

There is a really lovely new volume, the OUP translation, which is beautifully illustrated and so on and they’ve managed to produce it at a reasonable price for once, although it’ll hurt your back carrying it around.

That makes it sound a bit like Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists.

Yes, and I think Vasari might well have known Diogenes; it was a sort of model for him . . . We get to Book 10 of Diogenes Laertes’ book, and here’s Epicurus. Diogenes goes through his familiar procedure. We start off with some biographical information and he tells us about where Epicurus came from, he then lists the works he wrote, tells us something about his lifestyle, how he died. Diogenes also often drops in little poems of his own about these philosophers, which tend to be quite awful.

What’s interesting for us in particular about the Epicurean book is that Diogenes quotes three letters in their entirety that Epicurus wrote to various students, each of which summarises a particular area of Epicurean philosophy.

Do you think this is a reliable source?

Yes, it looks to be genuine Epicurean language. It’s clear that this is the language that we know Epicurus used elsewhere. We know it’s the kind of thing he did. Diogenes offers these summaries as a way of presenting Epicurean philosophy to his readers. One letter summarises Epicurus’s views on physics, one on meteorology and cosmology, the third his views on ethics. Then, at the end, we have a collection of maxims that Epicurus produced that are supposed to be a handy guide for the Epicurean to go back to constantly to reinforce their views.

Could you give an example of one or two of the maxims?

The first two are really interesting. The first one is about the gods and the first maxim says, ‘The blessed and immortal has no troubles himself and causes none for anyone else. Hence, he has nothing to do with resentments and partisanship, all such impulses are sign of weakness.’ So it’s a summary of an argument that says, the gods are immortal and perfectly happy beings and because they’re perfectly happy, it can’t be the case that they engage in any sort of shenanigans with mortals. They don’t care what we do; they’re not upset if we don’t sacrifice to them properly. They don’t get pleased if we do, because that would mean they’re somehow dependent for their happiness on us. And the upshot of that is: don’t worry about them. They’re not going to be angry with you. They’re not going to save you. So all of those fears that people have concerned with divinities can be set aside. They’re just empty fears and you needn’t worry about them.

And then the second one is—and this shows again how central this was to Epicurus’s view about getting things right—the maxim about death. He gives a slightly different argument from the one that we were discussing. It says, ‘Death is nothing to us for what has been dissolved has no feeling and what has no feeling is nothing to us.’ So the idea is when you’re dead, you’re not going to perceive anything. And because you can’t perceive anything, Epicurus thinks you can’t be harmed or benefited. That’s in part because he thinks the only harm you can endure is pain and the only benefit that you can have is pleasure. And so death can’t be good or bad for you in that respect.

But there are about 40 of these maxims that cover the various aspects of his philosophy. I think they were supposed to be recited and memorised as a handy aide-memoire for Epicureans to have at the front of their minds.

So would this Book 10 of Diogenes Laertius’s book be quite a good way of getting a handle on Epicureanism? Because it seems to be written almost as a teaching text.

That’s right. It’s a really excellent introduction to Epicureanism. It gives you a summary of the kind of person Epicurus was.

What kind of a person was he?

He comes across as a really quite unusual person. But all of these philosophers do, in one way or another: that’s what what you expect of a significant philosopher.

“Epicurus seemed to think there were no barriers to achieving happiness and understanding the world based on gender or profession”

We learn about how when Epicurus set up his school in Athens, he scandalised people by allowing all-comers to join, including women, including people that others claimed to be prostitutes. He seemed to think there were no barriers to achieving happiness and understanding the world based on gender or profession or anything like that. You also get his last will and testament that Diogenes sets out. That’s something he does more than once in the book. Aristotle’s will is in there too. Epicurus’s tells you something about the concern he has for the people in his school and making sure that they are able to retain ownership of the garden after his death and so on.

Then we move quite quickly onto a summary of the philosophy in Diogenes’s words and then there are these three, relatively short, letters that cover most of the major points of interest for Epicureanism.

After this conversation, I’m going to go and buy that book for sure. The second book that you’ve chosen is a translation of Lucretius. We haven’t mentioned Lucretius yet, so perhaps we ought to say who he was and why he’s so important in relation to Epicurus?

We’ve sort of leapfrogged Lucretius a bit. We’ve had Epicurus in the Hellenistic world of Athens and then we’ve Diogenes Laertius in the Imperial Roman period, they’re both Greek authors. Lucretius is a Roman and he’s writing in Latin. He’s writing at about the same time that Cicero is alive and is writing his own philosophical works in Latin. It’s pretty clear Cicero had read Lucretius. It’s towards the end of the first century BC in Rome. This is the period when the Roman Republic is coming under a tremendous amount of strain. We’re about to head into the period of the Civil Wars and so on, but Lucretius produces something quite extraordinary. It’s a poem. It’s long. It’s in six books of about twelve hundred or so lines each, which set out, again, a systematic version of Epicureanism, addressed to this imagined interlocutor called Memmius. Lucretius explains to Memmius, starting from the very first beginnings of Epicurean physics, how he should think about how the world works and so on. Included in there are also excurses on certain ethical aspects of how this should work.

“Lucretius produces something quite extraordinary”

So you get a book that concentrates on the fact that you should consider the world to be made out of atoms and void. There’s a discussion, that gets quite technical, about what properties the atoms have, what properties they don’t have, and how atoms that don’t have themselves something like colour, when they come together in certain arrangements, can produce bodies that do have colour. Then you get descriptions of the nature of the human soul which, again, is a bundle of atoms inside your body that permeates in various ways and allows you to perceive and think and so on. He has a description of how we perceive, how we dream, how we can think.

Along the way he sets out the Epicurean view that our perceptions give us true information about the world, so we don’t need to be sceptics about the way the world appears to us through our senses. And he sets out the long set of arguments for why the soul is something that’s mortal. After that we have a long excursus on why death isn’t a bad thing, because the soul is mortal. In fact, the symmetry argument that we were talking about earlier, is most prominent in Lucretius’s version. It’s late in Book 3. It’s certainly not so prominent in the Epicurean texts that we’ve looked at so far. Then you get accounts of how civilizations arose, how different species came to be and so on and it ends with a description of the plague in Athens in the 5th century, which is a curious way to end, in some ways. Some people have said that this is because the poem was unfinished but also, I think, it’s a way of trying to show both the miserable state of the world immediately prior to Epicurus’s arrival in Athens—where he could set out the remedy for all of the distress that people were feeling—but also people have suggested that it’s a kind of final exam at the end of the book. Can you retain your equanimity and feelings of undisturbed-ness, even in the face of these kinds of natural disasters? And he emphasizes that it’s natural. This wasn’t divine vengeance or anything like that. It’s just something that’s part of the way the world works. It’s also I think very beautiful Latin. That’s not a universal view amongst students, certainly. They find it quite hard going because it’s extremely argumentative and sometimes very technical. But I think the poetry is really lovely and that’s why it’s quite interesting to get a verse translation as well as looking at a prose translation.

You’ve mentioned this aim of achieving a tranquility of mind. That’s certainly a central feature of Epicureanism. But how is that distinguished from the sort of equanimity that a Stoic might seek?

It’s distinguished in that it’s very clearly a hedonist position as well. So when Epicurus is describing the goal of life, what the ‘telos’ is, the goal, the end to which you should strive, he says it’s a pleasure. But what he means by pleasure is something quite counterintuitive. He thinks that the highest pleasure you can reach, you reach when all pain is removed and beyond that point, you’re merely varying your pleasure; you’re not increasing it at all. So that’s the first odd point, and I think he doesn’t perhaps convince many people of that.

That sounds like a philosophy written by a man with a toothache.

He did clearly struggle with physical illness, certainly towards the end of his life and I’ve sometimes wondered whether we shouldn’t take more seriously the fact that in the ancient world I imagine most people spent most of their time in physical discomfort. But in fact physical discomfort isn’t really what he’s bothered about. What he’s mostly worried about is mental pleasure and mental pain and what he thinks is really the goal of life is to attain what he calls ‘ataraxia’ which is an absence of trouble. The mental disturbance which tends to be a kind of fear or a kind of desire that you can’t satisfy, that kind of pain, that’s what mars a life, and if you can rid yourself of those, if you can live a painless life in the sense of having no mental pain (he would call it sort of psychic or psychological pain), then you’ll live a life of the highest mental pleasure and that’s what would guarantee a good life.

But that does sound like Stoicism to me, you know, the idea that you achieve this equilibrium by not being bothered by things that you can’t control.

That’s true, but they differ in an important way. The Stoics aimed to do that by persuading you that various things that people think about are merely indifferent and that the only thing that’s of true value is virtue. Virtue is something that’s not going to be marred by illness or inconvenience or anything like that. Epicurus in contrast thinks there’s an important role for virtue, but virtue isn’t the good for Epicurus: pleasure is the good. So his form of equanimity is one where you remove pain. Pain is bad for Epicureans, whereas the Stoics just deny that it’s a bad thing.

Or else use techniques to mitigate it, so that it doesn’t disrupt their life . . . So if somebody gashes someone’s leg, if it were done to us, most of us would be in agony, but the Stoic is supposed to distract him or herself so they become indifferent to that pain.

That’s right. And that’s because the Stoic is supposed to remind themselves that pain actually isn’t a bad thing. That’s the way it works for Stoics. It can only be a bad thing if it stops you being virtuous, and because physical pain can’t do that, then it’s not really a bad thing. Whereas the Epicureans wouldn’t deny that the pain of an injured leg is bad. Epicurus has this strange thought where he says, ‘Well, although I’m in physical pain I can recall lots of excellent philosophical conversations and that pleasure is what I’m focusing on.’

So Epicureans don’t deny that the physical pain is a bad thing, but what they would do is say that what you need to do is arrange your life so as to have as little possibility in it for pain as possible. You wouldn’t go and do extreme sports and so on, because that’s likely to cause you physical pain sooner or later, but similarly you would try to arrange your desires so that you don’t desire things that you’re unlikely ever to satisfy, because that would generate a kind of pain of want.

“All that matters is that you’re not hungry, you’re not thirsty, you’re not cold”

Epicurus lives quite an ascetic kind of life. All that matters is that you’re not hungry, you’re not thirsty, you’re not cold. So it’s not particularly important what you eat, just as long as you’re not hungry. If you are the kind of person who has very refined tastes, then those sometimes won’t ever be satisfied and that’s going to cause you distress. Whereas if it doesn’t matter what someone serves you for lunch, then you’re always going to be satisfied by that.

And then as we’ve said there are the two principal causes of fear, which he thinks are major sources of mental distress: fear of the Gods and fear of death. He thinks he can show quite clearly that those can be discarded. There’s no reason to fear those at all.

That’s a really clear way of distinguishing Epicureanism from Stoicism. Back to Lucretius, then. His book was potentially very subversive in its afterlife. Presumably it wasn’t so subversive in the relatively tolerant first century BC Rome.

Yes. The mainstream aristocratic Roman values were not friendly to Epicureanism. They thought Epicureans neglected duty for pleasure, that they were only interested in what’s advantageous, rather than what’s virtuous, and so on. Cicero, for example, has lots of things to say that are critical about them. But Lucretius’s book wasn’t censored or banned or suppressed in any way.

It’s not the kind of philosophy you’d imagine soldiers following. They have to be ready to endure pain.

That’s right. Although again, you know, there’s the idea that you can overcome the physical pain if it should happen. There are some stories that suggest that Caesar may have been an Epicurean or had Epicurean tendencies. Sometimes I think that may be because anyone who perhaps offered a view that could be taken to be sceptical of the possibility of gods interfering with the world, might be labelled in this way. So people have wondered about whether this is a label Caesar himself would espouse. But there were prominent Epicurean aristocrats. Cicero’s friend Atticus was an Epicurean. There’s some thought that some of the conspirators against Caesar may have had Epicurean interests, but it was probably a minority view amongst literate, aristocratic Romans.

Am I right that Lucretius’s book was the main vehicle through which Epicureanism came through into the Renaissance and then into the Enlightenment and influenced a lot of what happened subsequently?

I think that’s right. The story of the book’s survival is quite remarkable. I’m no expert on this, but it only survives by a thread. It certainly doesn’t survive in many copies that we can trace back very far. It’s easy to see how it can be thought of as subversive. There are stories throughout the Renaissance and early modern period that show difficulties that people who wanted to engage with Epicureanism may have faced, perhaps in particular because of this anti-religious attitude that it was supposed to have, and this materialist view that the world was just a material, random association of atoms. That obviously went against the dominant world view of the time in important ways.

Right through to the 19th century presumably?

Yes, quite. So the story of the reception of Epicureanism is quite a bumpy one, although when it has its defenders they tend to be quite fervent. Lucretius is a good example of that. When people buy into it they often do so wholeheartedly and with a kind of zeal. I’ve heard Lucretius described by one of my colleagues as a fundamentalist (not in a critical way, I think). But these people really do think this is a life-changing worldview.

Well, it is quite amazing to have come up with those ideas. A lot of them resonate today. Obviously the physics underlying them was different, but intuitively Epicurus seems to be on to ideas that seem consistent with a 21st-century worldview, scientifically and even possibly morally for many people.

One way to put this I think is that there’s much less of a gap between the way the Epicureans view the world generally and what most people nowadays think of the world than with any other ancient philosophy that I can think of. Certainly Stoicism, Plato, Aristotle all have various views about the nature of things that are much harder to carry across for a modern sensibility.

I think some contemporary Stoics and Aristotelians will say, ‘You would say that wouldn’t you, having made a speciality of studying Epicurus!’

I think contemporary Stoics take the bits of Stoicism they want and ignore the weird theological stuff, which actually is the basis for much of Stoic ethics.

Let’s go on to the next book you chose, which is quite different. It’s about the survival of a villa in Herculaneum after the eruption of Vesuvius, which I believe contained a library of philosophical works.

It’s another remarkable and curious accident in some ways. And it’s one of the things I think that, for me at least, makes Epicureanism a really challenging and interesting area to work on because we have this variety of kinds of evidence. We’ve got Diogenes, we’ve got Lucretius, and we have a range of other secondary texts.

The town of Herculaneum, in southern Italy, was one of those that was completely destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and when it was excavated it was discovered that there was a rather opulent villa just a little outside the town that had a library, and in that library were preserved—albeit in a scorched, carbonized form—papyrus rolls of ancient books. Quite a lot of them in fact. It’s likely that we haven’t excavated fully the extent of the library. There may well be texts still remaining to be discovered. So this book by David Sider about that villa is a lovely introduction. It’s detailed, but accessible and it talks about how papyrus is made, how ancient books were made and used, and then describes the history of the excavation of this villa and the recovery of these texts, first of all in the 18th century.

It’s a fascinating story that continues now with people who are interested in novel ways of reading and unrolling these papyri. They’re a bit like a tightly packed loo roll, with a kind of core and then the rolls of papyrus wound around it. But the papyrus has completely carbonized as a result of the eruption. So it’s very difficult, first of all to unpeel one layer from another. Previous attempts to do so have often resulted in damage to the roll. Then, even when you unroll it, what you’re faced with is black text on a black background, which is extremely difficult to read. For a long time people had to just hold it to the light so that the light reflected slightly differently off the ink than off the base papyrus and gradually and carefully and meticulously transcribe what was there.

“There may well be texts still remaining to be discovered”

People are now developing really interesting technological ways of CT scanning these papyri and digitally unrolling it, if they can, which does less violence to the thing that’s there and may well be a way of proceeding in the future that will give us better and better readings of these texts.

Anyway, David Sider sets out all of these challenges and the interest of the texts. What might matter for the study of Epicureanism is that many of these texts, in fact the majority of them, are indeed quite technical and detailed philosophical texts by members of the Epicurean school, including Epicurus himself. We have bits of works by Epicurus that we didn’t have through the indirect transmission from people like Diogenes or people quoting him in later antiquity. These are direct texts from antiquity, which is a very unusual. It’s the largest find of papyri outside Egypt and through an enormous painstaking effort by scholars, especially since the 1970s, we are now beginning to produce more and more and better understood editions of these works, and they really are transforming our understanding of the richness of what Epicureans were doing as well.

One example is lots of works by an Epicurean author called Philodemus who was a rough contemporary of Lucretius, but who wrote in Greek rather than Latin. From him we’ve got all sorts of works on aesthetic theory, which is a gap that we otherwise wouldn’t know anything about from the other kinds of texts that have survived one way or another.

That is amazing luck, isn’t it? Am I right that you couldn’t go to a library and just pull out books by Epicurious yet? There’s not enough reliably written by him.

You can, but they’re really quite hard to read, in the sense that what you’ll find is even in areas where the text is legible, it’s often damaged. What papyrologists have to do is work out precisely what can be read and then depending on how optimistic they are, they often suggest what went in the gaps, based on their understanding of the overall text. There are various bits where we’ve got a more or less continuous text, where you can you can actually translate it. So there are editions available, but they tend to be not just quite technical to read but also the ancient texts themselves are often rather more specialised and technical in their subject matter.

In contrast, Lucretius and his contemporaries presumably would have had access to a much wider range of Epicurus’s writings.

Yes, that’s quite likely. Lucretius seems to have based his work on Epicurus’s On Nature, which was an enormous multi-volume work, bits of which we have surviving on these papyri, but we don’t have the full work by any means. In fact, we’ve got good reason to believe there were multiple copies of Epicurus’s On Nature in that villa; often there are multiple papyri that have the same parts of Epicurus’s On Nature on them.

Why would somebody have multiple copies of the same book do you think?

It may be that some of them are copies they themselves had commissioned. It does seem it might have been a matter of conspicuous learning to have multiple copies. It looks like some people were deliberately trying to source better copies than the ones that they had, because it was known there were textual variants and so on, and maybe they were trying to source older copies as antiquarians might search out first editions of things.

Because the Roman did collect Greek antiquities didn’t they?

Oh, yes, and this is similar. That same villa is also famous for the enormous range of sculpture that it contained.

So it’s almost like the library of an antiquarian book collector?

Yes, and the other interesting thing is if you want to get a sense of what the villa was like, the Getty Villa in Malibu, California is modelled directly on that floor plan. So you can go and pretend to wander around the Villa of the Papyri.

Let’s move to your last two choices, which are a different kind of book. They sound, in your description, pretty similar in their aim in that they are looking at Epicureanism from a modern perspective. Is that right?

That’s right. The last two books I’ve chosen are discursive critical engagements with Epicureanism, so ways of presenting the material but also getting to grips with it in the sense of trying to evaluate the arguments, trying to evaluate the cogency of the arguments and so on. These are the kind of books that I would set my students to read once they’ve read the primary texts. So these are ways of getting them to work out where they might direct their fire if they’re interested in getting to grips with this stuff.

So it’s treating it as philosophy. It’s giving it the respect of being arguments worth engaging with, rather than simply historical relics. Let’s take the first one Tim O’Keefe’s book about Epicureanism.

Tim O’Keefe is a really excellent scholar of Epicureanism. There are a number of works that are explicitly supposed to be introductory to people who are wanting to engage with Epicureanism in this way. I chose this one because it’s a relatively brief, but really well written and very philosophical. Tim deliberately avoids the philological nitpicking that you might get elsewhere and takes you directly to the meat of things. It’s very readable and it covers the whole range of Epicureanism. He doesn’t merely concentrate on the ethical stuff that people find fascinating; he’s just as interested in Epicurus’s theory of perception, of knowledge, and so on. So, I think it’s a really good way in. If that doesn’t suit, then I should mention there’s a really excellent Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, which has multiple authors, but I think is certainly worth checking out. I edited that particular volume so it didn’t make it onto my list.

But it does the same thing but from multiple voices…

That’s right, though I think there is a virtue to having a single guide to take you through it, actually, because that person can look at the system as a unity and present it in ways that make interesting connections.

What about your final book choice? Julia Annas is a philosopher as well as a Classicist. She usually engages with the ideas when she talks about ancient philosophers.

The book is called The Morality of Happiness. It’s not devoted entirely to Epicureanism: it’s a really deep and sophisticated presentation of the way these ancient philosophers went about thinking about ethics. So Julia starts with Aristotle, quite reasonably, because in some ways that’s the first systematic approach to ethics in this vein that we have, but also takes on those schools after Aristotle. So the Epicureans are one, the Stoics are in here as well. And then she also looks at some Sceptics and various other kinds of people like that.

“What you want to do is live a life that avoids the harm and maximises the good”

Why I think this is potentially interesting is that it’s a way of fitting Epicurus into a broader philosophical context and showing the ways in which Epicurean ethical theory is part of a way of thinking about approaching these questions that’s shared with Aristotle and the Stoics, but also what Julia does really well is draw out the various important differences between these schools and how they go about things.

So for example, there’s a really interesting section about how these schools appealed to the notion of nature, or what is natural for humans to do. Aristotle has a view of what humans are by nature, the Stoics have a view of human nature, the Epicureans do too. They all share that.

But they’re different they’re different views of human nature? What’s the Epicurean view?

Epicurus thinks of us as animals: we are basically animals, although we have rational abilities that other animals lack. Our nature as living things is such as to dictate that we have various basic needs in order to keep going. So we need to drink, we need to eat, we need to remain at a certain temperature and so on, and also we have natural reactions to the world and those natural reactions boil down, principally, into the two reactions of pleasure and pain. So certain things cause us perceptible harm and certain things cause us perceptible benefit. And if you think of that as our nature, if you want to live as good a life as possible as an animal of that kind, what you want to do is live a life that avoids the harm and maximises the good. You do that by recognising what your natural needs are.

One illustration of this is Epicurus’s treatment of desires that he sees people around him have, for example the desire for political power. Just imagine having a desire for political power, thinking that’s a good thing. Well if you understand properly what you are by nature, you’ll recognise there’s nothing really in your nature that shows that that’s something worth having. That’s not a natural desire to have for Epicurus. So it’s unnecessary. Epicurus thinks that reflecting properly on what your human nature is, will lead you to recognise that that’s a completely empty desire. And therefore you will stop desiring it, with the great benefit that you won’t get upset if people vote against your motion in the Senate. Nor will you strive to attain the rank of consul or prime minister and it will make your life a much better one as a result.

That makes it sound like a kind of egoism. It’s concerned with one’s own desires.

It is, yes. That’s another aspect that Julia draws out: the way in which all of these theories are, in a way, egoist. The driving question is always ‘How can I make my life go as well as possible?’ Now in certain other formulations that will of course involve what Julia calls ‘other concern’, so it will matter to you how other people fare, because, for example, if you’re Aristotle you say that part of what humans are by nature are animals that live in societies. So your nature is as a social animal and in that respect the good of the people in your community is something that matters for you and for your life going as well as it could.

But it’s a really important question whether the Epicureans have a strong foundation for other concern. That’s something that the ancient critics do worry about too. If really the central question is what does this do for my pain and my pleasure, then do I really genuinely care for someone else? Am I only caring for them in so far as it impacts upon my pleasure or pain? And I do think the Epicureans have something of a struggle to say anything particularly in favour of what we might call genuine other concern.

That’s a really excellent, balanced selection of five books, and incredibly useful. I’ve got one last question, though You’ve obviously devoted many years of your life to studying the Epicureans: would you describe yourself as an Epicurean?

No, I wouldn’t.

But having read your book about death, you have been influenced in your thought by Epicureanism? Where do you stop short?

Where I don’t follow them is: I don’t think that everything that’s of value can be reduced to its production of pleasure, and I think if you are sceptical about that, then many of the Epicurean recipes are significantly undermined.

But nevertheless in some areas it’s obviously important to you?

Oh yes. I think the Epicureans attitude to the divine is something that lots of people might take seriously. Their attitude to death, too, is powerful and persuasive in large part. And I also think they probably are right that many of the things we desire are things that actually don’t make our life better if we get them or worse if we fail to get them. So that’s certainly something to bear in mind. But their central claim that the only good is pleasure, doesn’t carry weight with me.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

December 21, 2019

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

James Warren

James Warren

James Warren is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College.  He is currently completing a book on the moral psychology of regret in ancient philosophy, to be published by Oxford University Press.

James Warren

James Warren

James Warren is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College.  He is currently completing a book on the moral psychology of regret in ancient philosophy, to be published by Oxford University Press.