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November 30, 2010: An Epicurean Redefined

November 30, 2010

I have been enjoying reading “Marius the Epicurean” by Walter Pater (1885.) The story surrounds the life of a fictional Marius, set in 2ndC.Rome. Marius is somewhat of a classical period Forrest Gump where, through the course of his life, he “meets” (in theory if not in person) such classical heavy hitters like Homer, Plato, Heraclitus, Galen, Asclepius, Epicurus, and he eventually becomes the secretary to Roman Emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Dense reading indeed, but after reading, last night, the best rendition of the myth of “Cupid and Psyche” that I have ever read, I’m hooked. The way the character of Marius is scanning, he didn’t gibe with what I understood what an epicurean is, and since I’ve always been kind of muddled between the difference between “gourmet”, “gourmand” “gastronome”, “bon vivant”, and “epicurean” I decided to consult Websters, which defines them:

  • gourmet: *(implies being a connoisseur of in food and drink and being discriminating enjoyment of them)
  • gourmand: one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking
  • gastronome: (implies one has studied extensively the history and rituals of haute cuisine)
  • bon vivant: (implies the enjoyment of fine food and drink in company)
  • epicurean: 1) a follower of Epicurus. 2) (archaic) one devoted to sensual pleasure; sybarite 3) one with sensitive and discriminating tastes, especially in food or wine (this implies and fastidiousness and voluptuousness of taste)

(* Quotations designate synonyms to epicurean and how Websters has defined them to it.)

Well, no wonder I was muddled. They all seem to do with someone who enjoys food or drink. It appears to me that a “gourmet” seems to be discriminating about food; “gourmand” is someone who eats for the sheer pleasure of it; “gastronome” is one  who really studies more the presentation of food and etiquette; “bon vivant” enjoys the social aspect of a meal; and “epicurean” seems to be like a “gourmet” but the way it’s defined, the word seems to have a slightly hedonistic edge to it. So, I did some research to try to find the truth.

Epicureanism was founded by the philosopher Epicurus about 307 BC. who advocated the pursuit of modest pleasures, the absence of bodily pain, and the freedom from fear, in order to lead a meaningful, tranquil, and simple life through knowledge of the world’s workings and the limits of one’s desires. Epicureans valued friendship above all things.

Mmmmmm…let’s see: “modest” pleasures…check; “simple” life…check; “limiting of one’s desires”…check. Well…not quite the hedonistic people they are made out to be, are they?!!!! Yes, pleasure, for the Epicurean, was the goal, as in “absence of pain.” Epicureanism reminds me more of Thoreau (although he advocated the “simple life” I haven’t found any evidence to prove T. considered himself an Epicurean, although he most certainly knew of their ideals.) So where did this idea of the Epicureans being hedonistic come from? Well, you have a popular “pagan” philosophy who seemed to want to live their life in morality and peace…after the first century. Where did the “hedonistic” label come from? Three guesses (and you won’t need the last two!)

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