Epicurean Simplicity

Epicurean Simplicity
by Stephanie Mills
Island Press, Washington D.C., 2002


I loved Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, one of the first books to warn us about environmental degradation. We were still near the top of that particular slippery slope back then. Leopold died in 1948, characteristically, while helping fight a grass fire on a neighbor’s farm. Fifty-four terrible years later, Stephanie Mills, environmental activist and writer, tells us that Leopold is one of her personal heroes. In her new book, Epicurean Simplicity, and in her life, she does him proud.

My own newfound and rapidly growing interest in the philosophy of Epicurus is what led me to Mills’ book. We need to learn very quickly to live more lightly on the Earth. But alarmist polemics, the mongering of fear, guilt, and shame just don’t work. Few people will tolerate feeling deprived of comfort and pleasure for very long — nor should they.

Epicurus advocates a radically different approach. In his thought, pleasure is good in itself, and offers a reliable guide to a well-lived life. In the light of Epicurus’ philosophy, the way to live lightly is to fully savor all the wonder and beauty that constantly surrounds us. Deep satisfaction, not repression, will head off inordinate and damaging desires. Thus the title “Epicurean Simplicity,” which means voluntary simplicity informed by the pleasure- affirming philosophy of Epicurus.

This is how Mills lives, simply and carefully, in a little house among some regrown woods in the upper Midwest. The book chronicles a year of that life in poetic detail and lyric beauty. It is at once an example of how to live as an Epicurean, and an Epicurean pleasure itself for readers who love the sensual play of words. At times the author gives us exquisite descriptions of the natural life around her. At other moments, she reflects on what all this means. Sometimes she seems to go off on small tangents, but they always weave back in, like the variations on a theme found in an elegantly patterned musical fugue.

Mills is blessedly free from self-righteousness; instead, by sharing her thought processes as she makes her own personal choices and compromises, she invites each reader to explore the ambiguity and complexity required of anyone trying to reestablish right relationship with our wounded Mother Earth. Judy Harrow.

» Originally appeared in PanGaia #43

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