Thursday, March 17, 2016

Epicurus and the Prayers of Men: How Materialism Perverted the Quest for Happiness

by Nomad

The lost philosophy of one ancient Greek offers an answer to what's gone wrong with modern society. 


Quest for a Happy Life


The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus lived about 300 years before Christ. His writings survive in mostly in notes collected by later biographers. It's enough to understand, in a general way, the philosophy he taught back then and why the ancients thought so much of the man and his ideas.

According to Epicurus, the study of philosophy was actually a quest of a happy tranquil life, which he defined as a life free of pain, filled with tranquility and free from fear of things that could not be controlled. A happy life, he taught, could only be attained "by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.

Friendship, indeed, was key to happiness. 
Epicurus held that a wise man would feel the torture of a friend no less than his own, and would die for a friend rather than betray him, for otherwise his own life would be confounded.
Later his teaching would be criticized as being hedonistic since he taught that pleasure and pain were measures of good and evil.
Other philosophers would push the envelope even further with the idea of "eat, drink and be merry." An insouciant and indifferent life filled with luxury and no thought of tomorrow. 

The Romans later seized upon this Epicurean philosophy as a license to ostentatious excess and greed on a scale never seen before.

Wealth was flowing into the Roman capital and on an "unprecedented scale in the form of tribute, taxes, and profits from commerce and banking." It wasn't just gold and silver, but luxuries items too. All meant for the ruling class with none at all for the lower classes. (The trickle down had yet to be discovered, I imagine.)

As one source points out:
Luxuries coveted by Rome's increasingly wealthy citizens streamed through the ports. Shipwrecks have revealed the scale of the trade: marble to face new imperial buildings, lead and bronze ingots, unguents and fragrances, silks and dyes, Baltic amber, linen and cotton from Egypt and India, gold, silver and gems, marble and bronze statues stripped from temples in Greece.
The wealthy class- the Roman 1%- could justify their lavish banquets and luxuries with a perversion of Epicurean philosophy

Early Christians- and many Stoics- condemned the life dedicated solely to the pursuit of luxuries and physical pleasure. The ease with which Christianity conquered Roman is a testament to that rejection.
Many Romans saw the extravagant life as a sure road to depravity, not a sign of some exalted life to be sought or admired, but as a form of barbarism. 


The Philosophy Before the Fall 

It was also seen as a threat to national security. The lust for both power and wealth (for heavier items of "bling" around one's neck) would surely undermine the Republic, many Roman historians wrote, and lead just as surely to an Empire that oppressed the world. 

The Greek historian Polybius, who was born about 100 years after Epicurus, attributed the decline of democracies to an addiction to luxuries. Polybius wrote that when a democratic Republic has enjoyed a high level of prosperity, it seeks a master "but soon regrets it."
This master, Polybius warned, would inevitably seek power for himself at the cost of liberty for all. According to this general proposition, luxuries were as corrosive to the public good as acid. 

And what's more important, Polybius was writing long before the collapse of the Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome. At the time he wrote, most Roman citizens would have thought the Republic was at its highest point.
Sure, there were squabbles between very ambitious men with a lot of political power but all in all, things couldn't be better. Sure there was a vast inequality between the classes and but wasn't that a normal and natural condition in all societies? 

In actuality, the Roman Republic was reaching the edge of a cliff, on the verge of turning into a brutal oppressive thousand-year regime, ruled by a long series of gangsters, tyrants, and madmen.

And just before the collapse of the Roman Republic, there were other voices. Listen to what the Roman politician, Cicero said in his diatribe against Cataline in 63 B.C
For there is no nation for us to fear,—no king who can make war on the Roman people. All foreign affairs are tranquilized, both by land and sea, by the valor of one man. Domestic war alone remains. The only plots against us are within our own walls,—the danger is within,—the enemy is within. We must war with luxury, with madness, with wickedness.
The richer the nation became, the more determined would be the pursuit of material satisfactions by individuals at the expense of the common good.

Material comforts made men soft and effeminate. Nations that pursued luxury would be defeated by the armies more austere, virtuous and warlike. Eventually, when the emperors finally became so utterly incompetent that's exactly what happened. It fell to the warlike invaders of the North and to the virtuous Christians that came from the East.

It is strange too that Epicurus has been blamed for advocating hedonism and a life of pleasure. It's a misreading of what the philosopher meant.
Epicurus' idea of pleasure had a very different meaning He interpreted as a sense of tranquility and peace of mind, and it could only be found by limiting one's desires and expectations, not by surrendering to each and every desire.

Being transitory, the physical pleasure found in sexuality or from satisfying one's sensual desires, ranked very low on this scale. 
A person who understands what is desirable and what is to be feared would not be motivated to acquire inordinate wealth or power, but would lead a peaceful life to the extent possible, avoiding politics and the general fray.

A Fearless Philosophy

Fear also had to be banished in order to live a happy life. A life of fear isn't much of a life for a human being. 

If, as he believed, death was the absolute end of both body and soul, then it need not be feared. As the meme above suggests, Epicurus taught that the gods did not reward or punish mortals and, therefore, we are on our own. Religious superstition had to be rejected in the search for a happy life.
As one source notes:
Interestingly, despite his rejection of the gods as having any bearing on human life, Epicurus encouraged his followers to worship the gods. This is partly for the sake of conformity, but also because the gods are perfect beings who deserve worship and honor. Morever, people receive aesthetic pleasure from contemplating their perfect existence.
In some ways, his philosophy was a prelude to our modern concepts of science.
Epicurus taught that the basic constituents of the world are atoms, uncuttable bits of matter, flying through empty space, and he tried to explain all natural phenomena in atomic terms.
The body and soul are also made up of atoms which come together temporarily and then dissolve again. There is, he taught, no afterlife to expect or to fear.
The greatest destroyer of happiness, he taught, was an anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death.

Imperfection of the Teaching

His philosophy had its critics. Many asked if one doesn't fear divine (or mortal) punishment or look forward to rewards from the gods, then where is the motive for living justly? 

Epicurus' answer was not very satisfactory. He said that one could never have a tranquil life with the guilt and anxiety of discovery, the fear of exposure, always on his mind.
Yet, the problem is that it presumes the existence of a conscience and an understanding of right and wrong. Real life often tends to show that evil minds, as a rule, have neither. 

Even atheists could see the logic. The idea of a divine justice- whether it existed or not- was necessary if only to keep some people in order. Some people could not be motivated solely by the pleasure of doing good works, by friendship or even pleasure. Fear (and perhaps greed) was the only motivator such people could comprehend.
*   *   *
Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, the humble philosophy based on friendship, a happy life and sharing caught on and spread throughout the ancient world.

One reason for this was its inclusiveness and lack of pretention. Epicurus conducted his classes in the garden of his home and his philosophy became known as "The Garden." Unusual for the time, he taught both male and female students in his school.
In an era of great political suspicion, his school was criticized for admitting slaves to his classes and his community and for harboring a possibly seditious and atheistic philosophy.

Nevertheless, in his time Epicurus' ideas proved popular and later communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries after his death. In that time, the Epicureans observed certain rituals  such as the celebration each month of the day (the 20th) on which Epicurus was born or wearing rings bearing an image of Epicurus.

Later Christians conducted similar secretive meetings and shared many of the same ideals as the Epicureans, such as brotherly love, and an openness to all comers.
However, under the reign of ever-fearful emperors, the Christians were accused by the Roman State of being a terrorist threat and were hunted down, imprisoned and annihilated.
Transforming Christians in living burning torches was certainly as an unmistakable message to the public.

Epicurean Life Today

When it comes to the Epicurean idea of happiness, our modern lifestyle often falls short of these very basic and very old perimeters. Peace of mind and tranquility don't seem to count for much. And Epicurus would not be surprised by a feeling of non-specific discontent.

A Pew Research survey in various countries made some interesting discoveries about happiness. On average, richer countries are indeed happier, but only up to a point. The study found that wealth isn’t everything when it comes to happiness. Good health, for example, was far more important than having cash in pocket.

Although the US is the richest nation in the world, it is not the happiest, according to another study. Actually, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland, consistently rank among the happiest and most satisfied nations. Comparatively, these nations are only comfortably rich but not fabulously so.
Results showed that while rich individuals tend to be happier than poor people, higher average incomes aren't always followed by gains in happiness, a seeming contradiction first noted by University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin. Known as the "Easterlin Paradox," this fact is illustrated by American economic growth. Since the 1960s, U.S. gross national product per capita has tripled, Helliwell and his co-authors point out, but average happiness has remained unchanged.
It is the natural outcome of substitution material possessions and wealth for close friendship and the pleasure of sharing what little one has. 

Look at the cover of the magazine. It has effectively hijacked the meaning of the Epicurean life. It's very devious and very subversive if you think about it.

According to the philosophy, only true happiness could be found by lowering one's expectations and creating a life without fear, such as the fear of losing your job, losing your house, fear of missing your loan payments, becoming a victim of crime, or random terrorism. 
Happiness wasn't a private jet- "a world of luxury.. for those with discerning taste." It was a life in which friendship is valued for its own merit, rather than a means of getting the power and wealth you desire. 
Clearly the Epicurean life is not adaptable to a material world. It would be viewed as a threat to the capitalist ideology.

Therefore, the ideas of Epicurus had to be corrupted and twisted to mean quite the opposite than how they originally taught in that sunny Greek garden over two thousand years ago. 


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