A similar bid for relevance gives rise to contemporary discussions of policy or politics, in some of which Ms. Wilson inserts her own views or “reconstructs” what Epicurus might have said. In a chapter called “What Is Real?,” she adduces the idea of “racial inferiority” as an example of an “Unthing,” an illusion without atomic substance. This leads her into a critique of housing and zoning laws that, in her view, perpetuate urban poverty in nonwhite neighborhoods. Abortion, pollution and climate change are also addressed, in ways that feel opportunistic or forced. Ms. Wilson can be an insightful philosophic guide—and Epicurus is a thinker who deserves an insightful rediscovery—but her attempt to address a wide range of modern problems feels inauthentic. From many of these, Epicurus himself would have simply sought to escape.
I assume most authors don’t get to choose their titles, so I didn’t think this would be an actual how-to guide, but I have to agree — I came away from How to Be an Epicurean with the impression that Epicureanism was more or less indistinguishable from progressive liberalism. This would have come as a surprise to the very un-progressive Nietzsche, for one, who generally had only positive things to say about Epicurus — his aphorism from which this very site takes its name is presumed to be in reference to the Epicurean ideal (the “coarser brother” is presumably Stoicism). And my own Epicurean theories about the meaning of life and nonexistence after death certainly haven’t led me to progressive political conclusions. Not that I wanted to see Epicurus viewed through a “conservative” lens, of course, which would have been equally tendentious. I would have just preferred for him to be allowed more opportunity to speak for himself with Wilson providing additional clarifying context, rather than having him sit on her lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy, offering up “his” opinion on climate change.
But if Wilson overshares her personal political views, she under-delivers when it comes to making Epicurus sound insightful enough to read for oneself. Epicurean wisdom here sounds a lot like unhelpful platitudes and truisms. When faced with the intractable problems of the human condition, we apparently should review the evidence calmly and dispassionately. Well, thanks for that. “The answers to many such questions are available to anyone who makes a search for them,” she says after raising hypothetical questions about the costs and benefits of welfare-state programs. Good to know that’s settled! Neil deGrasse Tyson would no doubt agree. Unfortunately, this kind of relevance-seeking will only make Epicurus irrelevant once modern progressive doctrine morphs into its next phase, and he deserves better than that.