Delight Springs

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Stoics & Epicureans

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."

True to his doctrine, Epicurus died painfully but without fear or complaint. He "suffered all his life from bad health, but learnt to endure it with great fortitude. It was he, not a Stoic, who first maintained that a man could be happy on the rack."

And "in a final letter to Hermarchus, Epicurus writes, 'On the happiest, and the last, day of my life. I am suffering from diseases of the bladder and intestines, which are of the utmost possible severity.' But he goes on, amazingly, 'Yet all my sufferings are counterbalanced by the contentment of soul which I derive from remembering our reasonings and discoveries.'" Critchley
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 CiceroSenecaEpictetus, and Aurelius, lest they overwhelm us with the madness of violent feeling.

Marcus Aurelius asks, 'Why do you hunger for length of days?' The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. "Pass on your way then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go." 

Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things [pragmata], but by the opinions [dogmata] which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But
the terror consists in our opinion of death, that it is terrible."
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.”

3.1.18

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