back to the garden

Epicurus, the widely-misapprehended philosopher of simple pleasure and trouble-free living, was the original “Life is Good” spokesperson. Not lavish, not a bed or roses (though quite cultivable, like a garden), and not forever. But good, and not merely “good enough” in the privative Lake Wobegon fashion either.

Simon Critchley has already told us Epicurus is his favorite dead philosopher, and we know he framed the “problem of evil” David Hume found insoluble. Now we get Alain de Botton’s angle, beginning with as un-Epicurean a “Happiness acquisition list” as can be.  Opulent houses, penthouse apartments, personal aircraft, sumptuous comestible delicacies, pointless luxury goods… versus friends, freedom, and thought.

At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering ‘What will make me happy?’ as ‘What will make me healthy?’ Insatiably-high levels of consumption and interminable acquisition definitely won’t, in either case. Gross appetitive indulgence generally won’t, for most of us. Expensive stuff is mostly a distraction and hollow compensation for the real goods, most of which can’t be bought at any price. Fame, celebrity, and power belong to some of the most notoriously shallow and dissatisfied people we know. Nothing satisfies him who is not satisfied with a little. Better free your mind instead.

Epicurus noted that two things impede man from living happily: fear of God; and fear of the horrors beyond the grave. It was necessary, therefore, to have a physics (metaphysics) in which there would be no further reason for the existence of these fears. The universe, the Epicureans said, is infinite and in the infinity of space worlds are formed and dissolved by the same law. Between one world and another there are empty spaces. In these spaces the gods, made up of atoms, live happily among themselves, unconcerned with the world of men…

The human soul is also formed of atoms which are separated at death. No thought, therefore, of death and of the time which will come after it enters the Epicurean teaching. Similarly, we should have no thought of the time before our birth, for then our soul in its original state was dissolved into atoms… In a world of this kind, where there is no fear of the gods or of the life beyond the grave, man, governed by mechanical laws, must strive to live as best he can.  Radical Academy

A life free of mental anxiety and open to the enjoyment of other pleasures was deemed equal to that of the gods… prayer for the Epicureans consisted not in petitioning favors but rather in a receptivity to this vision… Nor is such pleasure difficult to achieve: it is a mark precisely of those desires that are neither natural nor necessary that they are hard to satisfy. Epicurus was famously content with little, since on such a diet a small delicacy is as good as a feast, in addition to which it is easier then to achieve self-sufficiency, and “the greatest benefit of self-sufficiency is freedom.” SEP

Oinoanda was built on the top of a high mountain in the ancient province of Lycia, which is now modern southwest Turkey.   Toward the end of his life, the second- century AD philosopher Diogenes presented to his city a large inscribed limestone wall conspicuously located in an open area generally referred to as the “Esplanade.”  The inscription proclaimed the wisdom of Epicurus, who had lived five centuries earlier.  This unique text, rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, has attracted many modern readers.

“…we ought to make statues of the gods genial and smiling, so that we may smile back at them rather  than be afraid of them.”

Lucretius: “Mankind is perpetually the victim of a pointless and futile martyrdom, fretting life away in fruitless worries through failure to realize what limit is set to acquisition and to the growth of genuine pleasure.

So… a revised, much more modest (and more reasonable) acquisition list concludes: the obstacles to happiness are not primarily financial. Or material, or supernatural.

What will it take to get us finally re-thinking our relentless national obsessions with economic growth and eternal salvation? The writing is on the wall.

INTRO STUDENTS: CLASS CANCELLED TODAY, the roads are unsafe We’ll double up and do both Epicurus and Seneca on Wednesday.

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2 Responses to “back to the garden”

  1. antiphonsgarden Says:

    Epicure speaks about the delight of a simple life, and I join in his trust that once the main needs like shelter,food&digestion ,sleep,creativity&communication are fulfilled , the “plus value” is absurd…may I ad, as absurd as a speculative market build on 13 times over evaluated “hot air”.

  2. antiphonsgarden Says:

    De botton seems to be a pure product of the self marketing stink tank era.
    Instead of philosophical “entrepreneurs”, a bit more generalised recognition of everybody ability to reflect is needed.

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