When you think of Epicurus, you think above all of friendship (if you are new to him, be assured that friendship was important to him).
People refer to “my friend” when they they really, in truth, mean “my acquaintance”. One of the most startling things about the modern world is the growing self-absorption. Two people, calling each other “friend”, talking past each other, chattering on about their own lives and asking little or nothing about the life and goings-on of their “friends”. You can’t call friendship endless twitters and emails about oneself. Friendship, if it means anything, means caring and attentive conversation, in equal measure, about the concerns, joys and sorrows of your interlocutor. If you really care about him or her, can restrain yourself from talking only about yourself, and you are true equals, then friendship can be genuine and rewarding. Some of the angst of the modern world is caused by the frustration brought on by one-sided “friendship”.
We went Hamleys yesterday on the Tube. Hamleys is the biggest toy shop in the world. We ought two magic thumbs that light up and you can pretend that they are coming out of your mouth, ears or nose. Additionally, we bought two wind-up toys. We had a happy outing. Ataraxia.
“I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror”.
(arson McCullers, quoted in The Week)
I have no idea what the context was of this remark, but it seems appropriate at this time of American elections. About to re-enter the American scene, I dread the whole down-and-dirty business. Epicurus disliked involvement in politics because it riled people up and affected their equanimity, to no very good purpose. Better to be with friends and have a good laugh. Ah, now there is something to strive for – a good laugh.
The UK has the third most slothful population in Europe, with two-thirds of the population taking little physical exercise, say British researchers. 63% of adults (with higher rates in women than in men) do not take the recommended amounts of exercise, such as a brisk 30 minute walk at least 5 days a week, or more vigorous exercise for 20 minutes three times a week.
Speaking as someone who takes plenty of exercise and is less heavy than he was at 18 years of age (hearty self-congratulations! Cheers! Hurrah!) etc,. I could conceivably find myself resenting having to pay taxes or higher insurance premiums to try and cure people whose indolence has given them a whole raft of health problems (the 63% will no doubt say “Tough, mate, that’s what doctors are for.”) But as an Epicurean I have to be considerate, moderate, tolerant and understanding. It’s tough that business of trying to be Epicurean.
“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country – and we haven’t seen them since”.
Gore Vidal, quoted in The Guardian
The finale of the Olympics was billed as a “festival of British music”. Excuse me! It was all pop music, endless pop music.
I personally found the words of most of the songs yawningly banale, and the accompaniments derivative (note: the word” derivative” is used by professional composers to put down other professional composers). If you try to produce music that is beautiful, haunting, soulful, imaginitive or enlivening you are looked at askance. One musicologist maintains that all the tunes that can be written have now been written – that’s because he and his fellow cohorts don’t know how to write tunes. There is little to appeal to the soul or the feelings in British pop music, if what we saw during the finale is anything to go by. On the contrary , there is an awful lot of it, it has to be accompanied by antics to make up for all that is wrong with it, and it is dead boring. There! An “emperor has no clothes moment”.
Is there anyone out there who is prepared to argue with me?
Epicurus would comment, no doubt, that if music, however indifferent, gives pleasure then don’t knock it. Maybe he would be right. But personally I cringe at the imagine Britain gave to the world, and for nearly four hours!
My grandchildren have a chicken run at the bottom of their garden. My (nearly 4 year old) grandson’s job every morning is to go and collect the eggs every morning in rain and snow before he goes to school. The family try to produce as much food in their allotment as is possible, and the chickens are part of their self-sufficiency system.
I asked my grandson what he wanted to be when he grew up. He replied that he wanted to to be a farmer. ”In that case you can have your very own chickens”, I said to him, thinking it must be fun going out and finding the eggs. ”Oh no,” he replied , ” I’m going to buy those in when I grow up.”
You can try to impart a zest for a particular way of life, but you can also be sure that your children will have their own ideas, some from a very early age.
Epicurus would comment, “Whatever gives you ataraxia and peace of mind”.
A quote from Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s book “The Fifth Woman”:
Society had grown cruel. People who felt they were unwanted or unwelcome in their own country reacted with aggression. There was no such thing as meaningless violence. Every act had meaning for the person who committed it. Only when you dared to accept this truth could you hope to turn society in another direction.
Mankell, one of the most brilliant contemporary crime writer, is trying to tell us something, but what? This seems to be a comment on the massive immigration that has changed the look, feel and maybe the culture of Swedish society. If so, what is the answer? Is it fair to say that, prior to globalization and easy migration Sweden was a happier, homogeneous place? Is it wise to allow resident populations to feel the country is leaving them? Or is it right and just to accept the attitude of many that poor immigrants have as much right to live in developed countries as you and I, and to oppose it is racist?
Where would Epicurus, indeed any ancient Greek philosopher, stand on this issue?
Like the United States, Britain is experiencing a “long-term terminal decline in democracy” as the power of the big corporations grows and politicians become less representative of the ordinary citizens. Democratic Audit says that although Parliamentary select committees are holding civil servants and politicians to better account, control over political decision-making is less and less democratic. Public faith in democratic institutions is increasingly poor, the constitution is in a mess (my word -ed.), there is decreasing participation among many classes of voter, and the influence of money in elections (a legacy of Thatcher) is causing democracy to wither on the vine. Only 1% of the population belong to a political party and just over 60% of eligible voters went to the polls in 2010. Meanwhile, the politicos listen to the big corporations and the big money and introduce more and more potentially repressive legislation.
It may not happen during my lifetime, but I forecast that unless we can find more good men and women who believe, like Epicurus, in the common good of all citizens, getting along together, social justice, and no special favours for the rich, then revolution is, in the long term, unavoidable in both the UK and the US.
Where are all the measured, thoughtful and wise men when we need them?
(comment on a Guardian article, July 13th 2012)
Here is something you may or may not know. The target of Revelations (New Testament) was originally the Roman Empire and the horrible things the Romans did to the Jews, including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The writer , John, was a refugee from that brutal war.
Why was it included in the New Testament despite protestations from numerous Christians at the time? The “evil Empire” had embraced Christianity, so why should it not have been viewed as just another apocalyptic prophesy from John, a Jew in a long line of Jewish prophets?
The answer seems to be that Athanasius, bishop in Egypt and a man of huge ambition and ability to get his way, was intent on getting a fixed content of teachings in what was to be the New Testament and silence all dissent. The beliefs of Christians were fluid at the time, and the debate on what Jesus said and what this new religion was about was being hotly debated.
Athanasius saw an opportunity to re-interpret Revelations and use it in a cynical way to anathematize his fellow Christians who disagreed with him about doctrine. Thus began the exclusion of “heretics” (those who disagreed with him). Revelations, once aimed at the empire, was now aimed at fellow Christian dissidents. Anyone who thought that Jesus was subsidiary to his father, anyone who thought that Christ was within us and objected to the growing army of priests and deacons, was termed the Beast and threatened with hellfire. His policy was very effective. We only know about the dissidence and the debates because some enlightened monks hid the Dead Sea scrolls.
To some Revelations seems to be the ravings of a man on some drug or other. But to the poor and oppressed, to this day, the ideas contained in it still resonate. So by accident Athanasius did the right thing.
What has this to do with Epicurus? It illustrates the way ambitious men can use ruthless tactics to get their way,in the sphere of religion as elsewhere. In this case, with the passage of time, the outcome as arranged by Athanasius has come to be regarded by those who know no better, as the word of God. What Jesus would have thought of it all I have no idea.
Epicureans flinch from such manipulation and prefer consensus and working together, however hard that might be.
If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them and half as much money.
(Abigail van Buren)
Carmen has raised a very important issue in her comment on “A question about Epicureanism” on August 4th. I think this issue deserves commenting upon in its own right. I quote her in part:
For me the difficulty posed points to a weakness in Epicurean philosophy: a significant amount of the anxiety we experience is CAUSED by social and economic arrangements which play out in the one arena Epicurus counsels we avoid: politics.
“How do I get food? clothing? shelter?” Having work, a place to live, and food require the kind of social cooperation which, by definition, involves politics.
This is an issue that concerns me, too, one that I have wrestled with personally. When I started this blog I tried to discuss what Epicurus would think of a host of modern-day issues were he alive today. In pursuing this rather difficult line of thought (how could I possibly be right more than a fraction of the time?!) I wandered perilously close to party politics and was publicly criticised for it (rightly if I claim to be an Epicurean).
And yet Carmen is right. If you eschew politics and refuse to get involved or even vote, how can you stop the bad guys taking all the power, all the money and all the opportunities, leaving you frantically anxious and without food, clothing and shelter?
The simple times in which Epicurus lived apply no more. Now you have self-absorbed, greedy corporations and mega-millionaires with unprecedented resources, sucking the life-blood out of their nations and communities, paying little tax and congratulating themselves because “God” has blessed them and not us.
Given this modern scenario I can only conclude that Epicurus would actually abandon his strictures on politics and agree that, stressful though it might be, it is better to undergo the stress of opposing the corporatocracy now than to have even worse more stress by being deprived of freedom and the necessities of life later on. Epicurus could never have foreseen the undermining of democracy and the hi-tech surveillance and intrusion into private life that is the hallmark of Homeland Security, supposedly operating for our safety.
Can we have a new style of Epicureanism? Is it valid? Or are we doomed to even greater stress and insecurity?
Nearly 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety, a greater proportion of the population than anywhere else in the world. The next most anxious nation is Colombia, and they have something to really worry about. In 2004 Americans spent $2.1 billion on anti-anxiety drugs, and if my experience is anything to go by, the cure is worse than the disease. At the bottom of all this is the emphasis on success and money. Everyone expects to be successful, and the reality is that the US is socially immobile in comparison with other countries, and its rich people are sucking the cash out of the pockets of the middle classes. Something tells me this cannot last.
I received this question from a subscriber. I will not mention his name:
What advice would Epicurus give to someone who cannot supply themselves with necessary goods? In other words, if you can’t fulfill necessary desires can you still be happy? And, if so, how?
The subscriber does not specify necessary goods, but I take this to mean food, basic clothing and a roof over one’s head.
I will try to address this interesting question in the next day or two, but can anyone help with a constructive reply?
There is a school photograph of Alan Turing, the famous mathematician, along with the other boys in his term. There, along with Turing, is my own father, aged, I think, 13. I have been reflecting on both men. One, my father, was desperate to be successful and even famous. The other was shy and reclusive, finding it difficult to make friends. Eventually he took his own life, aged 42. The first was a sportsman, a school rugby hero, but one that never did become famous; the second, a genius, is now hailed as the father of the computing age, revolutionizer of logic, cryptology, information technology, artificial intelligence, and even biology.
My father did speak of Turing, but was never a close friend. He would have been surprised to learn that this year the world of science is celebrating the life of his famous, introverted schoolmate.