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Catherine Wilson teaches us that there is more to Epicureanism than eating, drinking, and being merry.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies
Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

Catherine Wilson was most recently Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and is now Visiting Presidential Professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her latest book is How to Be an Epicurean (2019), published simultaneously in the UK under the title The Pleasure Principle. She lives in New York City and London.

Catherine Wilson teaches us that there is more to Epicureanism than eating, drinking, and being merry. Epicureanism is not an excuse for having a good time, it stresses the importance of living a good life. Epicureans maintain a philosophy that promotes reason, respect for the natural world, and respect for fellow human beings.

What is Epicureanism? Who was Epicurus? How did Epicureans become utilitarians? Is Epicureanism just utilitarianism? Was Epicurus an atheist? What is the scope of Epicurean influence?

Further Reading:

How to be Epicurean, by Catherine Wilson

Using Epicurean Philosophy for Finding Happiness, written by Jodi Clarke

Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, written by Catherine Wilson

Buddhist Ethics Does Not Advocate State Action, written by Aaron Ross Powell

Stoicism, Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Epicureanism, Encyclopedia of Libertarianism



00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell…

00:09 Paul Meany: And I’m Paul Meany.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Catherine Wilson, she’s a visiting presidential Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and author of the new book, “How To Be An Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well,” welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:22 Catherine Wilson: Thank you.

00:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Between stoicism, a bit of a restilianism, epicureanism, even Buddhism in a certain way, ancient ethics seems to be really hot right now. Everyone is into it, there’s lots of how the Stoics can help you hack your morning sorts of articles, what’s going on there?

00:42 Catherine Wilson: I think it’s two things: One is we’ve been flooded with self‐​help books. Every time you go through the airport, there’s a big rack of them. How to fix your life and solve all your life problems and get ahead in your career and make millions in real estate, and at the same time, philosophy… Moral philosophy has become so technical that very few people understand what anybody’s talking about outside of their quite narrow specialism. Whereas ancient philosophy is really pretty accessible. They were talking to each other, they were talking to students, and people find this deeper than self‐​help, but at the same time applicable to problems in their own lives.

01:40 Aaron Ross Powell: Was their project then… So there’s… Yes it’s easier to just pick up and read, well not Epicurus ’cause we don’t have much, but later thinkers articulating his ideas, but it’s relatively easy to pick these guys up and it’s much more complicated to pick up a treatise on meta‐​ethics that just came out from Oxford University Press today. But is there something also about the nature of their project like a difference between the way that they’re approaching philosophical questions of, in this case, living well than the way that we tend to think about it today?

02:07 Catherine Wilson: Yeah, I think so because what they were trying to do is fit their ethics and their political philosophy often into a system that was much larger whether cosmology, a theory of nature, theory of life and death, probably a theology or in the case of Epicurus an anti‐​theology, Lucretius, and philosophers today don’t try to do that. In fact, you’d look very eccentric if you try to write a theory of everything.

02:40 Paul Meany: Yes, so these philosophers they had extremely broad opinions on all kinds of things, and so did Epicurus write about just nature and politics and ethics all in one? Like is it all just one cohesive whole for him not by separation disciplines we have today at all?

02:56 Catherine Wilson: I think it’s gonna be hard to answer that question till we’ve recovered more of the ancient books that he wrote in ancient text. He supposedly wrote 37 different treatises, calling the books, on these topics like kingship and nature and love, and we don’t know, because these were all destroyed. The majority of the manuscripts in the eruption of Vesuvius are just now being out‐​rolled and read and reconstructed. When they are reconstructed, I think we’ll be able to see how systematic they are. But Lucretius, I think, really did make a system out of it, and on the nature of things there, one topic really does flow very naturally into the next.

03:48 Aaron Ross Powell: So what would plunge into Epicureanism, specifically then, and… I think for a lot of listeners an Epicurean is like that Roman robot on Futurama or is that… The glutton or is the name of people who are really in the cooking magazines, but what is Epicureanism? What’s the core of his set of ideas?

04:15 Catherine Wilson: I think one of the central ideas, and you’re right, that’s our cliches are of somebody with two forks digging into some big pork roast or something, or being very finicky about their choices of wine and cigars and things. I think the central idea in Epicureanism, I think, is the idea of the limit. Well, first materialism and second, the limit. So, as you know, Epicureans think there are just atoms and void ultimately, nothing else. No supernatural entities, no gods, no souls. So everything has got to be somehow a combination of these small particles, not exactly what we think today, but there’s certainly that historical relation. And the idea of the limit is that everything is made up is a combination of these particles. It sticks together for a while. It can undergo different transformations and changes, but ultimately it’s going to fall apart. So you can’t expect anything to be permanent, though you can expect things to have the lifetime that things like that should generally have and that applies to the cosmos, to political empires, to people’s life and health, and many other things you can think of.

05:48 Aaron Ross Powell: Who was… What do we know about Epicurus himself?

05:51 Catherine Wilson: That Epicurus was the founder of his school first, emigrated to Athens, he wasn’t born there, and he seems to have been supported by wealthy friends. I’ve always wondered about how did he get to wherewithal to buy a house in the middle of a garden that is to say a grove of trees, and feed and entertain all these people for so many years. Well, apparently he had help from other people who approved of his philosophy. I’m not sure how they were making their money, but he certainly wasn’t involved in politics and commerce or the usual ways that people made money back then. So he had a school, he had followers and students, males and females, apparently maybe some former slaves and they took their meals together and had conversations and probably took notes, wrote books.

06:55 Paul Meany: So it feels like when you read about Epicurus the vast majority people at the time did not understand what he was doing whatsoever, and they thought he had some sort of giant house that had loads of different meals and was really lavish, and they were always having lots of fun, and doing all these crazy things. So the kind of life he actually led, what did it look like roughly from what we know?

07:13 Catherine Wilson: Well, he, Epicurus says you only need a little bread and cheese and water. You don’t need fish and drinking‐​bouts and things like that. So meals were probably fairly modest though I don’t believe they were quite as modest as that, bread and cheese. Probably the usual things that other Athenians ate, I don’t know how much drinking there was, in the platonic corpus you get the sense that philosophy and alcohol went together, still doing some quarters, and I don’t really have a sense of whether that was… Whether it was the same way for the Epicureans.

07:55 Aaron Ross Powell: And then we don’t have a body of his writing in the way that we do with Plato or Aristotle, so how are we… You have written a book about Epicureanism, what are the sources that you’re drawing on for this?

08:11 Catherine Wilson: We have a collection of sayings, the Vatican sayings, and we have these scrolls that are being unrolled, from Herculaneum and being reconstructed, and we have the testimony of Diogenes Laertius who wrote these 10 books on the philosophers and who gave the best account that he could from letters that Epicurus had written, that he had access to, and otherwise we have Lucretius, who did have Epicurus’ book called ‘On Nature’ and who then wrote his on the nature of things based on that book of Epicurus’.

09:00 Aaron Ross Powell: We talked a little bit about their metaphysics, the atoms and void, and the limit, but… And one of the interesting things you talk about briefly in your book is… Did they… Did they discover evolution?

09:15 Catherine Wilson: They discovered what was later called the system of perishing because they had to explain how if there were no gods, no creator God, which I think all of the other major sects of ancient philosophy, maybe with the exception of Aristotle who thought the world had always been here, they had to explain how could there be plants and animals with their incredible structures and functions. So they argued, “Well, atoms came into combination and some of these combinations were stable, others were unstable, the stable ones persisted and eventually stable combinations that could reproduce themselves persisted. That’s one account you get, in other places Lucretius just describes, animals as springing from the earth from seeds. So sometimes atom seems to mean seed or seminal principle or something, but system of perishing was there and of course everybody in the 18th century knew about this. Well, everybody who is interested in this problem, if God didn’t create plants and animals who did? They were familiar with it, and Darwin was certainly familiar with it himself.

10:36 Paul Meany: So from all these kind of abstract and metaphysical principles did Epicurus drive any sort of ethical philosophy from all this?

10:43 Catherine Wilson: Yes, very much so. Since… Because of the principle of the limit, we’re all going to die that’s the end, there’s going to be no reward and no retaliation for our good or bad deeds. So what should we be doing? We should be trying to enjoy ourselves by avoiding the sources of pain in ordinary life as much as possible, and we should also avoid harming other people. I think at some point Epicureanism got to be seen as a selfish, egotistic philosophy, but it really wasn’t at the beginning because that prevention of harm principle, was really quite fundamental.

11:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Where does that move from… So we’re all limited beings that are going to die to… So I can see how you get from there to like you should pursue happiness for yourself because you only get so much time and you’re not… Make the best of it that you can and you’re not gonna get rewarded in an after life, so you shouldn’t really factor that in, so do what’s gonna be good for you. But how do we get from that ‘Human beings is limited’ to caring about the well‐​being of others? Is it? On the one hand I imagine it like it’s good for me to care about you and to be nice to you because it instills good feelings in me, or I don’t like seeing… It makes it’s hard to watch other people suffer something like that, or maybe… Or that there’s recognizing that you are also a limited being, there’s something wrong with making your limited time here suffer. Is it related to those or how do you get that connection?

12:36 Catherine Wilson: Yeah, I think that’s right, they’re both… There are really two ways to get at it and one is the sort of prudential way. So Epicurus thought when you’re around people that you know… If you are manipulative, deceptive, untrustworthy, you’re going to get social punishment, people will avoid you and they won’t interact with you. And that idea became very influential in the 18th century with Hume and Smith arguing that you don’t need a transcendental source for morality because social relations, praise and blame will take care of it. But he admitted that, well, sometimes people do get away with being really terrible friends, people like them anyway because they have other qualities.

13:24 Catherine Wilson: But the sort of general altruism, like, “Why should I care about people who are not my friends, who can’t retaliate against me, they’re on the other side of the world,” and they’re the Epicureans who are not like the Stoics who thought that benevolence should… Just should extend itself from me to the family and further and further out to the rest of the world. So they didn’t really have a theory of universal benevolence or anything like that. But it was easy to get from where they were to utilitarianism, which 19th‐​century writers did, Bentham and Bill especially, just by thinking, “What’s worth having?” Well, pleasure and freedom from pain, “If it’s so for me, it’s so for others.” And then you have to add the premise, I suppose, “Why shouldn’t I increase my pleasure at their expense, causing pain to them?” And I think that’s just… It’s just another premise that justice is the avoidance of the harm that one person can do to another.

14:36 Aaron Ross Powell: Is Epicureanism just utilitarianism then, as we currently understand? Obviously it wasn’t, ’cause utilitarian wasn’t a thing, but are there other meaningful differences between those two theories?

14:51 Catherine Wilson: Well, the Epicureans would put it in terms of justice and convention, but I think it is a utilitarian theory, except that as you were suggesting, they weren’t really interested in politics, they thought politics is painful, stay out of it, you don’t want the vexation. But if you had to assign them a theory, I think that’s the one you would assign them.

15:17 Paul Meany: Why were Epicureans so against going into politics? Lucretius talked all about why you shouldn’t do it at this time. And whatnot. Why is that the case?

15:26 Catherine Wilson: Well, look what happens to people. They get mixed up in scandals, they get insulted, they get attacked by their political rivals and accused of incompetence and stupidity and not understanding things and having bad values. It’s really a lot of assault on your personality. And what do you get for it? Well, you might get power or fame, or you might be able to do some good, but they seemed rather skeptical of your ability to do some good. Of course they’re living in Greek and Roman times, and the power sources are not democratic.

16:11 Aaron Ross Powell: They have a theory of the state though, so it’s not like they just didn’t talk about the political realm in any form. What is the theory of the state and in both… And they talk about both as a story of its origins and a theory of it’s, I guess legitimacy or authority.

16:33 Catherine Wilson: Theory of the state is I’m sure in one of those lost books of Epicurus, because he did write on politics, but it doesn’t show up in the materials that we have, as far as I know. And what shows up in Lucretius is the story of humanity’s voyage from solitary animalistic existence to civilization, with the inferences that you can draw from it. But the sixth book of Lucretius describing the plague of Athens is sometimes thought to be a metaphor for the sixth state that is just so corrupt and rotten that it’s just going to collapse.

17:22 Paul Meany: So are Epicureans kinda like anarchists, want to go back to the time where there was no political power, or can we never really go back to that state of innocence we had before?

17:34 Catherine Wilson: Right. Lucretius is very even‐​handed. So ’cause on one hand civilization is great, we’ve got, he would say, sculptures and roads and poetry and things like that. We would probably say drugs and transportation and things like that. So that’s wonderful he thinks, lots of benefits to living in a technologically advanced society. At the same time he really feels that virtue has been lost and that warfare, especially, is the great curse of civilization.

18:15 Aaron Ross Powell: Would that though push to… That would push to Paul’s point though of… Do they connect necessarily warfare to the state in the sense that… So I guess one way to think about warfare would be, “We need the state to protect us from the warlords,” and so that would be an argument against going back to state of nature, anarchism. But the other possible way to think of it would be that the state is the warlords, right? The reason we have war is because we have states that go to war, and so therefore the way we would limit war would be to get rid of those things that go to war. So there’s a tension there.

19:00 Catherine Wilson: Oh, right, yeah. I think it’s really both because in the history of humanity, you have people maybe fighting with sticks and clubs and things, but nothing terribly bad happens, they just run away at the end of it. But as soon as you have wealth accumulation and princes and kings, and a nobility, then you have to start defending the city, that becomes very important in Plato. So the state becomes the owner of the military, which becomes a basically parasitic class living on everybody else’s labor, waiting for the need for them to do something. And you also become aggressive, because now you’ve got all these soldiers, they’re sitting around, and the neighbors have some goods and gold and treasure and fields and population.

19:48 Catherine Wilson: Why not go use your people to see what you can get? So yes, the growth of the State and all the evils of militarism go together for both reasons. Could you… How could you get rid of them? Could you really go back to people living in villages with sticks and clubs and no armies? No, that doesn’t make any sense. But the other way out is the way that Hobbes thought was sensible. You centralize authority. So instead of having rival princes and people jockeying to become emperor of the world, you get a centralized authority that can serve a policing function.

20:35 Aaron Ross Powell: Is this… So some of this is you’re like… The Epicureans had like a proto‐​social contract theory of government, which was Hobbes’ theory as well. Is that true? Did they have something that we can reasonably call that, and then did that influence Hobbes?

20:56 Catherine Wilson: Yes, absolutely, because if you don’t think that the model for the state lies in the regular movements of the heavens or the commands of God revealed in sacred scriptures, what else could it depend on? Just the agreement of people about what kinds of rules they want to have for themselves, and that will change, they emphasized, as circumstances change.

21:22 Paul Meany: Was it controversial to take the beliefs on of someone like Epicurus? ‘Cause through history, he might have been thought of as an atheist almost ’cause he didn’t believe in the benevolence of the gods, they don’t really care what happens, everything’s just atoms. Was it controversial to be an Epicurean throughout European history?

21:37 Catherine Wilson: Oh, yes, yeah. And that may be one reason that Epicurus was a little careful about what he said. He said, “There are gods, but they’re not gods like ordinary people believe, that you should still have a pious attitude, you should still take part in the festivals and visit the temples.”

21:57 Aaron Ross Powell: Because impiety didn’t work out for Socrates. Impiety didn’t work out for Socrates.

22:01 Catherine Wilson: No, no. [chuckle] Lucretius is much more damning about religion. So he starts off talking about the Iphigenia story where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to get the Goddess to change the winds, and he says, “That’s the kind of thing religion makes you do.” But of course, there are Christian authors and also Jewish and Islamic authors of the epicure they were dangerous people.

22:32 Paul Meany: Isn’t there a painting of Lucretius stomping on the snake of superstition or something like that?

22:37 Catherine Wilson: Oh yes, Epicurus’… I think it’s Lucretius crowning Epicurus who has the snake or dragon of superstition under foot.

22:49 Aaron Ross Powell: What… So there’s influence on some of those enlightenment thinkers but what is his… What is the scope of Epicurean influence? Because we hear obviously Aristotle was maybe the most influential philosopher who’s ever lived, and the Stoics had their hands on the reins of power throughout Rome, but what kind of… What does Epicurus influence look like going forward?

23:17 Catherine Wilson: Okay, I think Epicurus is more important ultimately than either Aristotle or the Stoics.

23:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Oh really?

23:24 Catherine Wilson: So yeah, well I take that position.

23:25 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a big claim.

23:27 Catherine Wilson: So… [chuckle] So first for the sciences. Form and matter as basic ontology that didn’t really get developed into anything we’re familiar with now, whereas atomism, you can trace it historically from Epicureanism to 17th century revival of atomism and refinements and developments right down to the present day. It’s a very continuous history and the Epicurean attitude towards science, which is everything has an explanation. That’s a physical explanation. Now of course, we don’t think it’s just atom smashing into each other and rebounding or anything like that, but there’s a physical explanation but it’s gonna be hard to get to because we can’t see those particles, and all we can do is propose models of what’s happening and then try to find ways to test them, but there will often be different possible explanations for the same phenomenon, and that’s why science is difficult, and that’s why there’s much about the world that we don’t understand, but that we potentially can. So science is one stream and the other stream is this political stream that we were talking about earlier.

24:49 Catherine Wilson: Because if they’re just… If everything’s just atoms and void and if normativity is convention and decision that changes as circumstances change, then there are no timeless truths, there are no political models that are necessarily the best for all times and places and human welfare becomes what you really want to have in focus all the time.

25:18 Paul Meany: So, I can see from this, there’s one really great point, the one point that worries me. One way that’s great is that it kind of demystifies government or the state. It’s not this magical entity, it’s not God‐​given, it’s not divine, we’re not political animals. We can change. It doesn’t… There’s no one way of doing things. There’s lots of different ways of doing things that might have a state and might have different degrees of it, or might not have a state at all. But the one worrying thing is that if everything conventional, would Epicureans be against the idea of rights or something like that.

25:48 Catherine Wilson: This is something that I talked about in the book. Bentham said, “Rights are nonsense on stilts,” famously. So that seems a very shocking thing to say because we really think human rights, that’s maybe the only thing that can justify you going to wars, is to preserve human rights and the right not to be incarcerated for no good reason or just political reasons.

26:18 Catherine Wilson: The right to defend yourself, the right to all sorts of other things. We feel very deeply that these are somehow intrinsic to human beings, but the Epicurean position is, “That’s kind of a superstition.” And what we call rights are really decisions that we can’t imagine going back on. We’ve decided you shouldn’t be held without trial indefinitely in solitary confinement. That’s just a really bad thing that we’re never going to change our minds about, so we’re going to call that a human right and so on. For things like the right to healthcare, the right to an education, people do disagree about those things, whether there’s a right to them or you have to earn them or you have to be lucky. But if you take an Epicurean perspective and you think you have a right to those things or that people do, then you’re saying, “Well, that’s the balance of pleasure and pain is such that those allocations should be made.”

27:26 Aaron Ross Powell: How does that plan to… Going back to earlier in the conversation on other regarding‐​ness, it seems like at some level you could simply define a right as taking seriously like the worth of others to a very high level, right? So, if I should care about your well‐​being and I care a lot, then I will end up believing that you have certain rights or at least acting as if there are things that it’s always wrong for me to do to you. If rights are conventions or they’re simply things you know like… We’ve gotten to a point where we can no longer imagine going back on this. But that’s not a strong support for them because there will be people who can imagine all sorts of crazy things and that evolution of it. There are lots of things that we couldn’t imagine going back on now that people 200 years ago couldn’t have imagined holding the position that we do. Does that conventionality undermine this notion of a necessity of regarding the welfare of others and not just my own? Does it just go back like as an acid and eat at that requirement, too?

28:43 Catherine Wilson: I think it has. It was meant to have that intention when, for example, the UN came out with a list of I think 42 different rights that people have globally. And you might say, “Well, where did that come from? Did we just look into the interior of people and see there are 42 things that we are obliged to do for them at whatever cost?” So yes, an Epicurean says that’s kind of superstitious. But we can still discuss whether it would be good to further other people’s just in other people’s lives in those 42 different ways and how much it would actually cost us. And this is where I think people are often a little bit misinformed. So, Partha Dasgupta, for example, estimated somewhere that you would need only 5.5% of global GDP to bring everybody in the world up to a decent standard of fresh water, enough food, enough healthcare. That’s not a huge amount. And you could set the bar quite high, probably for 10%. So it’s not as though we’re being asked to go live in huts so that other people can get their vaccinations or anything like that.

30:04 Aaron Ross Powell: So this brings up something. This is a broader issue. This is a take‐​a‐​step‐​back sort of issue that I thought of as I was reading your book. And it came up in the context of your political discussion. You have a chapter, I think Epicureanism and social justice, I think is the title of the chapter. But I think it’s also, it’s broader than that, is that we’ve got these moral theories. And so what you’re doing in this book is saying, “You ought to be an Epicurean and here’s how to do it and here’s why I think you will benefit. But you want to be an Epicurean.” And so what that involves is that project fundamentally involves saying, taking this theory as articulated by Epicurus as Lucretius, extracting something from that and then operationalizing it, applying it in the world so that it becomes meaningfully action guiding. I can say as an Epicurean I’m faced with this situation, how should I respond based on my Epicurean priors? But that move, that taking action depends on stuff external to Epicureanism, per se. So it depends on knowledge of the world on other theories that we accept or reject.

31:28 Aaron Ross Powell: So you and I, I’m quite certain would disagree on a lot of political issues, but our disagreement isn’t necessarily… We could accept… We could both accept a certain set of Epicurean priors like we should act in ways that are the best interest ourself and others, we should try to help when the costs aren’t out‐​weighed and so on. But we can get to radically different conclusions, based on other knowledge that we have, other beliefs. And so given that, how do we meaningfully be Epicureans or be any other theory and know how to act rightly in accord with that when we can get to such divergent like actual actions in the world. Does that make sense? I’m kind of talking my way through it, but…

32:21 Catherine Wilson: Yeah, that’s a great question. So it seems to be quite possible that, say, you would accept that the world is made of atoms and we’re all gonna die and there are no gods who created things. And yet, as you say, you and I might have quite different beliefs about dessert or taxation or what we do about poverty and slums and things like that. And I think, well, it’s still the Epicurean perspective is quite helpful because it says there’s… There are scientific scientific facts that could help us decide which of us has the right policy. We’re all trying to do the same thing, we’re all trying to make the world a decent place for people, but still not have to sacrifice too much of our own enjoyment. So we all agree on that. And then then the question is, well, how does the world work in invisible ways causality that we can’t directly perceive such that it’s causing, say, poverty or unemployment or warfare? And the epicurean says, Well there’s an answer to that because these things are all mechanisms and there are no supernatural influences. And if we find out how society works, how the world works, then we can see how we can might have the right kind of social technology and economic technology that will improve things.

34:00 Paul Meany: So it’s a work in progress kind of philosophy. It keeps moving forward every time. It’s never just one… I think the stoics have one set of principal. Virtue is the Aim, and that’s that but Epicureanism will always just be changing every while.

34:10 Catherine Wilson: ‘Cause yeah, learn about the world. There’s so much to learn and when you’ve learned maybe you’ll see how to make things better.

34:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a… I don’t know, call it like an epistemic humility. Requirement? One of the critiques that some gets made of utilitarianism or consequentialism in general, is it introduces an analysis paralysis, sort of problem. If like I… The right, action for me to take is the one that’s gonna produce the best consequences and I have to add up all of the consequences both now and into the future, and everyone who might be impacted that’s an extraordinary amount of information that might be impossible for anyone to know but is certainly impossible for me to know in the moment, because I can’t take the rest of my life to make the decision. Either.

34:57 Aaron Ross Powell: It is. And so it might be that I act out of the best intentions, and with strong Epicurean or consequentialist utilitarian principles and I just get it wrong the consequences of my act are not as good as I hoped or not quite the same as I expected them to be. And we all know that none of us think that we’re omniscient beings. But it would seem that that would then counsel for at least trying to limit the scope of my actions such that if I’m choosing between… So like nutrition science is one of these things where it’s constantly every day, there’s just a study that contradicts the prior study, that contradicts prior the study and so on.

35:47 Aaron Ross Powell: And so, I can say like, “Okay well, I’m gonna try the best I can but it might be that this thing if eating margarine turns out that was a mistake, but I ended up just kind of hurting myself but if I were to instead institute a policy through a political mechanism that said, Okay well I’m gonna make everyone eat this stuff, right? Then I’m operating on the same level of knowledge. There’s just as much of a risk that it’s going to be the right or wrong for any given person as it was for me making individually, but if I’m wrong, the consequences are much worse because I’ve now compelled everybody to make the same ultimately wrong decision with that. Are we, if we’re gonna go through this add up. The consequences or happiness does that mean that we should avoid making decisions that are broader in scope, which would then seem to have… ’cause a problem for political action, which is kind of by definition, broader scope than individual action.

36:53 Catherine Wilson: Well, there are lots of really tough objections to consequentialism you mentioned the sort of content point that we just can’t almost predict the future, all these unexpected things happen and who are we to know how things are going to turn out, especially when we’re dealing with millions of people and lots and lots of different factors coming into play. And there’s also the problem of interpersonal comparisons of well‐​being, how do we know that something is something valued, by A is also valued by B but I think what we can do is and Mattison has made this point, that instead of thinking in utopian ways about designing a system from the top down, we look for particular problems as they arise. I mean I think that’s something your institute does. I was kind of looking at your books and articles and things. So you look at a problem like monopolies so you look at a problem like urban poverty, then you try to figure out what’s going on, what has been tried and what seemed to work, what didn’t seem to work. And when you’re lucky the experiments are already there because different communities have tried, it one way or tried it the other way.

38:12 Catherine Wilson: You don’t have to go and force everybody to eat margarine or take some drug but you might have to experiment with giving them or not giving them food stamps, or free vaccinations or something.

38:26 Paul Meany: Then the problem comes in that you’re gonna have to harm people eventually and that would go against Epicurean principles of, “Let’s have this tester. Let’s try this new policy let’s test it on some people and maybe it lasts for a few decades. And it’s really harmed some people’s ability in society to get ahead or to have certain kinds of education and whatnot. So if I… The way I… Everyone reads it differently and the way I interpret it was, is that you’re not gonna know very much. There’s so much about the world to know, so it’s best off just to stick to your own guns to let other people do as they will do. And to… There was a good quote by Hume and it was, “The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal welfare.” I thought that was a really good idea. Just the idea that we should just work together instead. Dodge these grand projects for other people, just work together at an interpersonal level. That’s what I would take from it. I just find it that’s there’s so many different perspectives you can come out with from Epicureanism.

39:25 Catherine Wilson: Yeah. You’re right that some experiments may harm some people if you do something or you decide not to do something that you were doing. But I think we are seeing the results of some experiments that involve taking things away that really have made things worse. People say that… I live in New York now. People say, “Oh, New York is so much safer than it was in the 70s,” and that’s true, I think you’re much less likely to get mugged in the street than you were in the 70s. But I’m someone who does a lot of walking around, and when I go to the South Bronx, I think, whatever policy is in play, it’s just not working. These people are really miserable, the streets are full of trash, they’re lying down on the sidewalk and there’s signs saying, “Don’t lie down on the sidewalk,” “You can’t camp here in front of Harlem‐​125th Street Station.” Things are not working, and they’re not working in a city that is incredibly rich. Because then you go 100 blocks downtown and it’s just money, money, money everywhere. So here, seems to me, some kind of intervention is needed, and there were forms of intervention that I think were being done earlier that are not being done anymore.

40:54 Aaron Ross Powell: I think this brings it back to this question of… So, this is a… Epicureanism. And this is a common theme in a lot of the ancient ethics, is that they’re doing ethics. And ethics and moral philosophy can be used interchangeably, but they tend to think of them more as, “Ethics is guide for living,” whereas moral philosophy is, “We’re going to analyze right action.” And so, this is, it’s meant to be a personal ethics, like, “You as the individual are going to act in the world.” And so, if we’re saying, “Okay, so we’re not… ” At some level, we can’t say, like, “Well, we’re gonna institute an Epicurean state from the top‐​down,” because we don’t necessarily know exactly what that would look like, but that’s also not really on the table as an individual. As an individual, you just get to do the kinds of things an individual can do. So, you could see what’s going on in New York, and then you can donate to a particular cause or support a particular candidate, or push for a particular ballot measure, and vote for‐​against it, but it’s this very limited thing and you have to take the world as you find it. And it seems to me that there’s a problem there, again, for the action guiding‐​ness of it. There’s a worry, I think, that any given ethical theory can become a mechanism for justifying our priors, in a sense.

42:34 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m very interested in Buddhism, and have read fairly deeply, in early Buddhist texts, and then I see that Buddhism has become very hip in Silicon Valley and whatnot, but you read these people and they’re using Buddhism to, like, “Well, this is the way I’m… I’m running my start‐​up on these principles.” Well, no. That’s not how it works. You’re just taking a handful of things and justifying your priors. And in the political realm, I worry how much the priors are doing all of the work, I guess. Take poverty. We can say, “Well, there were programs that were, say social welfare programs, that were giving people money or were supporting people in certain ways.” And so, maybe the answer is, the prudent thing to do would be to re‐​institute those programs. But we might also say that the reason we see this widespread poverty is because of occupational licensing that’s keeping people out of professions by ending competition for existing people, or it’s stop‐​and‐​frisk policing, or it’s the war on drugs. So, instead of, like, “We should start doing X,” the way to end poverty is just to stop doing A through F. And so, we’re gonna have those disagreements, and we could have those disagreements with lots of different moral theories.

44:08 Aaron Ross Powell: I published a book with lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, edited a volume called “Arguments for Liberty”, that was a bunch of philosophers to articulate their preferred moral theory, and then argue for why libertarianism flows from it. But you could do the same book for why progressivism flows from it, or why conservatism, or why Marxism. And some of them might seem more plausible than others, but reasonable people could do that sort of thing. And so, that’s… My question is, is we adopt this theory and then we go out into the world, in what ways does the theory… In case, it would be Epicureanism, but this would apply to all sorts of things. In what ways does a theory really change the kinds of things that we already wanted to do, or already preferred to do, or already believe?

45:00 Catherine Wilson: Gosh, that’s a large question. I think one point you wanted to make is sometimes, things we have done that we thought were incrementally useful in helping people, like having a bunch of regulations for becoming a, I don’t know, a sports physiotherapist or something, you need an MA or something. I’ll say, “Well, that’s just irrational and making things worse.” Certain zoning practices or commercial practice could just be making things worse. And so, yes, that’s something to keep in mind. I think that the important prior, as you’re calling them… Sort of a new concept for me in Epicureanism is, the powerful and clever ones will try to take advantage at the expense of the more clueless and weaker ones. That’s just a priori. And there are many places where that isn’t happening, but the place that everybody’s worried about right now where it is happening, is Global Wealth, staying out of the taxation system because very clever lawyers, very clever financiers have figured out how to do this. And this is just an example of this Epicurean principle from the history of humanity, that that’s what they do and politically that’s what we have to combat, ethically and politically.

46:29 Aaron Ross Powell: When the average person right now, you look around the way that people typically people, say in the US live this bracketing side politics, just like daily life sort of stuff. What would, if more people took Epicureanism seriously what kinds of things would we change about the way that we live?

46:56 Catherine Wilson: I think we would consume less, we would do more things with our hands and minds and in the outdoors, we would thereby preserve the planet, growth would have to be zero growth. I don’t think we can go on indefinitely just taking stuff out of the ground unless we all wanna really live in a plastic bubble on Mars which I don’t think we do. So I think we could re‐​tool our lives to have just as much on Epicurean principles enjoyment without as much acquisition, without as many things, without as many consumer goods, without as much throughput as the economists call it.

47:47 Aaron Ross Powell: We started this conversation by noting how hot ancient ethics seemed to be. And so, Epicureanism has competition on the pop philosophy book shelf, I suppose. So, why should someone who is looking for an ancient ethical theory pick the one you’re advocating over the others.

48:17 Catherine Wilson: I don’t think stoicism works. Stoicism says that when anything goes wrong in your life and it will go wrong, you just have to get some distance on it and see everything from a very detached perspective. Marcus Aurelius has absolutely lovely passages about this. They’re aesthetically beautiful. But do they even work? And I’m not persuaded that they do. Where the stoic says emotion is your enemy, you want to have a tranquil life in which you are undisturbed by things, and the Epicurean says, “No, the emotions and George Ainslie I think, has made this point, the emotions are what make life worth living.” And you’ve got to accept that there will be ups and downs, you just want to be reasonably prudential so as to avoid the worst things that can happen to you. And of course, you do have to sometimes come to terms with your illness, or your losses, or your political disgrace, or your intellectual failure but you don’t have to live as though you’re always preparing for the worst, you can let things come.


49:44 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thought, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​Freethought podcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtPod. As always please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thought is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.