I met Luke Slattery by chance in Catania, Sicily, just outside the airport.
Being Sicily, buses were running late, and we were anxious and tired. Luke asked if we knew which bus to take to get to Siracusa. Apparently we didn’t look as lost as we were. Even though he had just come off a much longer flight from Australia and seemed equally discombobulated, we clung to him like children. Finally, an English speaker. We could all be lost together, and that felt much better.
We struck up a conversation on the bus ride and found out some interesting things about each other. When I told him I was working on a novel loosely based on Plato’s life, he went right into discussing Dionysius, Alcibiades, Dion…how the hell did he know about these people? Usually just the mention of Plato and people’s eyes glaze over, or they say, “Oh, the allegory of the cave.” Then he handed me his book and I understood. He was a classics scholar.
Both writers, we were here for the same reason—an ancient history adventure. One night while sitting out on my doorstep in Siracusa, I read his book. Yes, an entire book in one sitting. See, this is part of a Penguin series that’s meant to “fill a gap…short enough to be read in a single sitting—when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.” Perfect for a bit of vacation from vacation.
Luke argues in Reclaiming Epicurus that Epicurus provides a fresh “philosophy of the Garden” that speaks to contemporary questions of sustainability and consumerism, as well as how to live an ethical life in a Godless universe.
What you may not know about Epicurus:
“A contemporary self-styled Epicurean is little more than a gastronomic fetishist: a foodie. The sage himself, by this measure, was certainly no Epicurean.”
“Plain dishes, Epicurus believed, ‘offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table.’”
“…while other ancient philosophers practiced an indifference towards grief—even at the loss of a favored child—Epicurus felt this attempt to cauterize ourselves from sorrow with a Stoic steeliness of heart was ultimately inhuman and ‘apathetic’.”
“Lucretius…On the Nature of Things, is our most ample source for the Epicurean view of a physical world structured around atoms and guided by entirely physical forces…”
“The Epicurean idea of a godless universe composed of natural elements that can be observed and studied is at once prescient and proto-scientific, and it gave succor to the early modern thinkers of the seventeenth century.”
“Indeed, despite its contemporary resonance, the complete philosophy of Epicureanism is often strange. Believing in the absolute authority of the senses, Epicurus considered the sun little bigger than an orange because it seemed that size to the naked eye.”
“‘For just as there is no use for a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of the body, so there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.’ That sickness, in Epicurean terms, is rampant desire.”
After many misfired emails, we found Luke by chance again, at a cafe by the Piazza del Duomo. He helped us find and negotiate for Sicilian marzipan, the very “Epicurean” desire of our friend back in the States, who had requested that we bring some back. Then we enjoyed a meal of seafood—seriously “Epicurean” for a Tucsonan desert rat such as myself…fresh, local and bathed in white wine—and delightful conversation, followed by a moonlit stroll through the Piazza, in the middle of which was St. Lucia Cathedral, built around and into the columns of the ancient Temple of Athena.
While our feast may have been Epicurean, and our friendship most certainly, I wonder about the philosophy. Does the meaning of human life come down to the perfect moderation of desire?
OR: If I could literally eat nonstop (I really like potato chips and, dare I admit, that crazy awful nacho shit from the convenience store) and gain pleasure from doing so without gaining 500 pounds and being miserable in my obesity, and without throwing up; in other words, with zero negative consequences, should I then do so and be contented that this is what it’s all about?
That’s an open question. Ball in your court. It’s actually a complicated idea if you think about it.
By the way, I could have made the same analogy with sex, but I decided to keep things on this side of wholesome.