Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Epicureanism and Us

Well over two thousand years ago, a man in Southern Europe came up with an attitude to life that shook his word to the core. It was then buried, with very good reason, for millennia.

The man was Epicurus, an Athenian living in the 3rd Century B.C. Epicurus' teaching was simple. It starts with two observations about the world:

  • In the first place, everything is made of tiny atoms. Is there an essence of a tree? No—just a collection of atoms that human beings call "tree" for their convenience. The gods might exist, but they, too, are made of atoms, and in any case they don't need to be around to run the show.
  • It follows that our souls are nothing more than the moving patterns produced by twirling particles. There is therefore no life after death. Once the atoms that make us up go their separate ways, that's it. No eternal bliss and no hellish torture.

What does this mean? Epicurus would reject that question. That the world is made of atoms doesn't mean anything; it's just true. But given the physical facts, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can, given how lucky we were to be born at all.

So, with no fear of punishment, should we live our lives like Don Juan; drinking alcohol, sleeping around, and ferociously mocking justice? Well, said Epicurus, living like that probably won't make us happy. We might be plagued by a guilty conscience, for instance. The true pleasure in life also doesn't come from wild Bacchanals—it comes from treating other people well and enjoying deep friendships. That kind of pleasure is steady, strong, and lasts a lifetime. To that end, Epicurus was the most self-controlled and righteous man of his day.

The doctrine caught on like wildfire: thousands of people found themselves suddenly liberated from the terrifying threats of their ancient religions by a philosophy that promised them relaxed happiness. By the time of Jesus' birth, Epicureanism was the most popular philosophy in the Mediterranean, and growing fast. Never have so many human beings openly embraced pleasure, denied the gods, and had such a good time doing it.

Epicurus bust2.jpg
A rare uncheerful moment for Epicurus.
Jew and early Christians, on the other hand, despised the doctrine. Imagine you're an early Christian who thinks that we're miserable because of our sins, and that because God loves us so much, he sent his only son to rescue us. Epicureanism knocks the legs off your entire worldview, in a far more insidious way than mere paganism. For Epicureanism doesn't just deny Christ: it denies sin, and thus the very need for salvation that Christianity is built on. It's only natural that you'd rather swat the Epicurean fly than risk its soul-destroying bite.

Monotheists therefore quashed Epicureanism as soon as they took the reins of the Western world, saddling it with slander that it's borne ever since. In Judaism, the traditional term for an evil heretic is an epikoros. And Christians succeeded in making us picture the Epicureans as slobbering, lustful aesthetes. (The OED defines Epicurean as "Devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.")

Despite a brief revival in the 18th century and another in the 19th, it's been mostly gone ever since. Pleasure is something that's always guilty - an impermissible departure from virtuous religion, simple decency, decent simplicity, or the iron cage of capitalism.

And that's the history of an unfairly treated worldview. Is it a worldview we can accept?

This is really two questions in one. First is whether we agree with Epicurus' scientific claims. The answer to this is pretty clear: we can't take Epicurus' physics that seriously, at least not at face value. The cosmos obviously look nothing like he imagined, and it's pretty clear he was just guessing when he pontificated about atoms. Nevertheless, his basic assessment of reality still holds water: the world is made of drifting particles, and our lives are made of elaborate combinations of those particles.

More controversial is how we should face that fact. Epicurus said: we happen to be alive, so let's enjoy ourselves. After all, if nothing will live after our deaths, what's the point in pursuing any goal besides our own enjoyment?

I don't think we should rush to that conclusion so quickly, in part because it isn't a logical conclusion at all. Part of the beauty of Epicurus' science is that it leaves the question of values marvelously open. We can pursue pleasure or some other good. We can order our lives in whatever shape we choose. Sure, pleasure is easy and tempting to endorse, especially since we don't have an instruction manual telling us what other values are worth endorsing. But that's where experimentation comes in: if we want to figure out what's good and evil, we should live our lives until we find out.

So here's my verdict: though Epicurus' insistence on enjoyment is a necessary correction to centuries of masochistic repression, it's a pretty narrow-minded response to the enigma of the world. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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