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From Aurelius to Epicurius: Dr. Emily Austin analyzes the role of happiness through an ancient lens

September 29, 2023

On Monday, Emily Austin, professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, explored in her lecture titled “How much social justice do we really need?” how happiness can exist in a world where social injustice runs rampant.

Austin specializes in ancient Greek philosophy, specifically theories of complex emotions, including the fear of death, grief, patriotism and comedic malice. She began by discussing the role that ancient Greek and Roman philosophies often take in the present day.

“When [scholars] try to transfer ancient wisdom traditions into modern discussions, they tend to want to soften some of the harsher features of the philosophies,” Austin said.

Austin highlighted some of these harsh aspects, focusing on the themes of happiness and social justice—or lack thereof—in two ancient Roman and Greek schools of thought: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

“Both schools require us to think about what matters most,” Austin said.

Austin began by describing Stoicism, which values virtue as the only intrinsic good and regards all else, including many forms of social justice, with indifference. She explained the importance of the Stoics’ belief in an all-knowing divine providence, which often gets left out of modern discussion of Stoicism but may account for the Stoics’ indifferent attitude toward social justice.

“Anger, rage, distress and resentment, but also an intense desire to attain or maintain social justice, are all irrational to the Stoics. They’re indifferent,” Austin said.

Although Austin believes that there is something to be said for the self-empowered nature of Stoicism, she described it as an “easily weaponized philosophy” because it can be used to encourage complacency around injustice.

Austin then shifted her focus to Epicureanism, which argues in favor of a hedonistic perspective: in order to be virtuous, one must seek pleasure and avoid pain. To encourage pleasure, Epicureans must prioritize essential needs over what Austin described as “extravagant” needs. Social justice is a mechanism for essential needs in order to foster community and keep society properly functioning.

“If people are hungry, unsheltered, suffering social abandonment, fear for their safety or lack access to a necessary education, then the society has failed to set proper priorities,” Austin said.

Although Austin’s thinking sides more with the Epicurean view than the Stoic one, she closed her lecture by asserting that both schools hold views that remain viable contenders for people seeking happiness and resilience in a broken world.

“Neither needs to be ‘modernized,’” Austin said. “They are what they are, take ’em or leave ’em.”

Austin was invited to Bowdoin by Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aliosha Barranco Lopez, who was inspired after reading Austin’s book on Epicurean strategies for happy living, “Living for Pleasure.”

Barranco Lopez hopes that those who attended the lecture left with a better understanding of how ancient texts can help inform our lives today.

“There’s all this talk about America [having] an epidemic of loneliness. One of the important things for Epicureans is that you should have healthy relationships with people; that’s fundamental for having a good life,” Barranco Lopez said. “I think that’s one of the main takeaways: look at the texts and see what wisdom you can get out of them, even if they don’t completely fit with your intuitions of modern life.”

The talk drew a range of attendees, including philosophy major William Warlick ’24 who noted his interest in ancient philosophy.

“I’d taken a Stoicism class my freshman year, and I wanted to revisit some of those topics with a visiting scholar,” Warlick said.

Other attendees, like Claire Crawford ’27, are newer to philosophy and were eager to discover more about the area of study.

“I did not have much exposure to classical philosophy before the talk, so all of it was new to me, and I found it really interesting,” Crawford said.


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