Archive for February 23rd, 2017

Epicureans & Stoics

February 23, 2017

It’s Epicurus and the Stoics today in CoPhi, and (I think) more walking philosophy reports, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” and don’t “hide your ignorance… you’ll never learn.” Well, the un-bookish oafs currently running the show in Washington haven’t concealed their ignorance, but will they ever learn? Will we ever learn to stop electing un-bookish oafs?

Epicurus and his friends retired from public life, having lost all patience with the unhappy society of their peers whose fear of death they diagnosed as a waste of time and a violation of logic. Better to live simply and bravely with your pals, they thought, pursuing (but not wallowing in) pleasure and avoiding the gratuitous mental pain of the material rat race. Like Aristotle they wanted to live well and flourish, with a bit more emphasis on fun and happiness. Also like Aristotle, they deeply valued friendship. Their commune inspired Marx’s dissertation.

Contrary to scurrilous popular rumor they weren’t lascivious hedonists or self-indulgent esthetes, preferring a plentiful pot of cheap stew to share over good conversation. Bread, cheese, and olives were staples – their version of pizza. The most valuable commodity of all, they thought, was the precious gift of time. As their admirer Henry Thoreau would eventually say, they considered  that”the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” In the long run we’re all safely dead, he and they figured, so we’d better make the best of the time we have.

“Epicurean” is another of those adjectives that’s drifted far from its progenitor’s intent. Check out the latest issue of Epicure magazine, promoting the “gourmet lifestyle” and designed for globetrotting “bon vivants” and “well-travelled foodies.” Epicurus and friends would rather have just hung out in the Garden and chatted over their modest but filling fare. “If you start drinking expensive wine, then you’ll very soon end up wanting to drink even more expensive wine, and get caught in the trap of longing for things that you can’t have” – not without abandoning your friends and slaving your time away to pay for your refined and expensive taste in vino. I’ll stick with the Bay Bridge Sauvignon they sell at Kroger for $2.99, and the sale-priced IPA.

Be calm and carry on, as we say. “Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an epicurean, in his day. “Death is not an event in life.” Well, that sentiment’s a bit self-centered but it’s literally true, with respect to one’s own demise. “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.” But what of the pain of losing friends and loved ones? We must turn to the Stoics to deal with the loss of precious others, and may then find them coming up somewhat short of heart and soul.

Ataraxia, calm, tranquility, serenity, equanimity… that’s the big stoic aim, based on the idea that we can’t control external events but can control our inner attitudes and responses. Can we? Shouldn’t we try, in any case? We should control our emotions, say stoics like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Cicero thought we shouldn’t worry about dying, but not for Epicurus’s reasons. Live now, Seneca said, life’s long enough for those who make the right choices about how they spend the hours of their days. Annie Dillard and Maria Popova agree, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” But did Seneca make the right choice complying with crazy Nero, in his final hour? Not his finest, I’d say.

The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.” They’d have been pleased to ponder all those game-changing “new” exoplanets, and (unlike some religions, says David Weintraub) to welcome ET. Winston Churchill too: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Some questions: Are you afraid of death, of dying, or of any other aspect of human mortality? Why or why not? What’s the best way to counter such fear? Are you epicurean in any sense of the word? Have you experienced the death of someone close to you? How did you handle it? Do you believe in the possibility of a punitive and painful afterlife? Do you care about the lives of those who will survive you? Which do you consider more important? Why? Do you consider Epicurus’s disbelief in immortal souls a solution to the problem of dying, or an evasion of it? Do you find the thought of ultimate mortality consoling or mortifying?

And one more: Can Epicureans and Stoics help us break our addiction to the spectacle of Drumpf “…as each new day brings a new scandal, lie or outrage, it has become increasingly difficult to find our epistemological and ethical bearings: The spectacle swallows us all.” Can we afford the luxury of ignoring him? Can we sustain our sanity if we don’t? What do you say, Emperor?

  • “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
  • “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” 
  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” 
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” 
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
The slave said something very similar. “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” 
Don’t you wish the emperor and the slave had been on the ballot in November?
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Happy 384th birthday to master diarist Sam Pepys, who expressed an epicurean attitude when he observed “how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” He was more the hedonist, though. “The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it; and, out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate, but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it.” Gather ye rosebuds…

5:30/6:26, 55/76, 5:34

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