Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pyrrho and Epicurus at the APA

In CoPhi today it's Pyrrho the deep skeptic,  Epicurus the hedonist (though I've indicated *my dissatisfaction with applying that label to him) and seeker of simple pleasures and happiness; and APA the behemoth that tried to eat philosophy. 

What an amusing fantasy mental image to visualize: toga-clad old Greek and Roman wisdom-seekers roaming the Baltimore or Boston or Atlanta Marriott, amidst all those smoldering pocketed pipes and raggedy patched tweeds and all that careerist angst at the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division meeting in December. I'd skip a post-Xmas visit with the family in St. Louis, to see that. 

Actually I did attend a Central Division APA at the St. Louis downtown Marriott back in the '80s. (It was the Whitey Herzog era, "What a Team/What a Town/What a Time!" booster banners dotted the streets. Better red than dead, they were.) Spotted no obviously-Pyrrhonic skeptics or Epicurean hedonists. But, philosophers behaving badly, being obtuse about credit card swipes and obnoxious about "the fine points of life?" Oh yes indeed. 

I'm not a big fan of professional philosophy conferences, though I've done my share of APAs and TPAs and SAAPs etc. They're necessary for "networking" and maintaining professional relationships and collegial friendships. But skype and other new communications technologies have begun to supplant the demeaning   job "meatmarket" function of these conferences. Good riddance. 

On the other hand, I do cherish the bizarre memory of strolling through a Vegas casino en route to Bill McKibben's SAAP keynote on the environment in 2000. Euguene, Oregon. Lexington, Kentucky. Milwaukee. New Jersey. College Station. Bakersfield. I've been everywhere, man...

Well, Carlin Romano's point is that the time has come to "think differently and more inclusively" about philosophy in America. It's not just for us card-carrying APA pros anymore. Thankfully so.

Today's AtP reading concludes at the outset of a discussion of the ideas of political philosopher Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars et al), who says our national identity (in contrast to most nations) is largely invented rather than inherited. The Constitution itself, and the Constitution Day public reading thereof which I'll be participating in, on our campus next Tuesday, is a prime example of what he means.

I caught Walzer on the radio during my commute Monday. He argued for a U.S. military strike in Syria. What a pleasant surprise, for a change, to find our leaders apparently opting to give diplomacy and peace a chance before letting the bombs fly. On the other hand, he's right: we can't afford to turn a blind eye to children being murdered, anywhere. The whole world should be watching.

Back to Pyrrho and Epicurus... but first a quick follow-up on Plato and Aristotle. Check out this version of School of Athens.

As for Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in some ways it anticipated Epicurus’s garden and what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls “graceful-life philosophies” that proclaim in all simplicity: “we don’t need answers and don’t need much stuff, we just need to figure out the best way to live.” Then, and only then, will we be happy.

As for Pyrrho: If you’d asked him Who rules the Universe?, he might have replied: Lord knows. Cats, again. And pigs.

Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” Hecht comments: “This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-- can end in a flash, without warning. Stay on your toes, but don’t fret too much about the storm.
One more little animal image for Pyrrho, whose name I prefer to pronounce compatibly with this mnemonic trick: just remember that a pyrrhonic skeptic is like a piranha fish, toothily devouring every proposed candidate for belief. Cats and pigs too, probably.

And as for Epicurus, Jennifer Hecht‘s got his number. It’s listed.
For an Epicurean, somewhere there are beings that are truly at peace, are happy… The mere idea of this gentle bliss is, itself, a kind of uplifting dream. After all, we human beings know a strange thing: happiness responds to circumstances, but, basically, it is internal. We can experience it when it happens to come upon us; we can induce it with practices or drugs; but we cannot just be happy.

No, we must work to “solve the schism” between how we feel and how we want to feel. Happiness is a choice and a lifetime endeavor, and though it comes easier for some than for others there are tips and tricks we can use to trip our internal happy meters and achieve ataraxia, peace of mind, simple contentment, “tranquillity, or the freedom from disturbance and pain that characterizes a balanced mind and constitutes its first step toward the achievement of pleasure.”

Stop fearing the harmless and remote gods, Epicurus said. Stop fearing your own death, it’s not (as Wittgenstein would echo, millennia later) an event you’ll ever experience. “Life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it.”

*Sissela Bok calls Epicurus a hedonist, but that's only technically correct. Yes, he said pleasure's at the heart of happiness. But what kind of pleasure?
A happy life is tranquil, simple, loving, and above all free from pain, fear, and suffering, available to all regardless of social status, nationality, or gender. Such a life of pleasure, Epicurus held, would of necessity have to be a virtuous one; ...

That’s Alain de Botton, author of a text I used to use in this course, and controversial proponent of religion for atheists. (Don’t confuse him with Boethius.) His interview with Krista Tippett was instructive. Like Jennifer Hecht, he wants us to use philosophy to enhance our bliss and sweeten our dreams.

Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism share a common root. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

I’ve been thinking some more, btw, about a student’s question whether Oprah is a philosopher. I’d say she has philosophical moments, sometimes asks the hard questions, and is indeed seeking to have and share a “graceful” (if opulent) life. So, sure. Same for the poets (like Whitman) who let us off the hook for contradicting ourselves (“I contain multitudes.”) I don’t think the Philosophy Club should be exclusive or restrictive. Many of my colleagues would disagree, amongst themselves, at their annual association meetings and in their ivory towers. They’ll never give me a car, either.

Anyway: we won’t suffer a meaning deficit, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:
Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy. A free ride to the APA, not so much.

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