So we heard from Kierkegaard a couple of posts ago, and his prescription for happiness, at least as it existed in his own mind. Kierkegaard largely turned his back on the pleasures and joys of this world (other than philosophy and religion), putting all his faith as well as his formidable intellectual capital into a vision of an afterlife that would ultimately reward the denial or disinterest in pedestrian earthly pleasures.
His philosophy is far more nuanced and rich with rhetoric than that brief summary suggests, but at base, Kierkegaard and a segment of Christianity that has at least partially mirrored his views aren’t overly enamored with this fallen world, regarding it as mere waystation and proving ground for the eternal joy to come.
Google tells me it’s about 1,725 miles from Copenhagen to Athens, but it’s a lot farther than that philosophically from Kierkegaard to another subject of this post, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose vision of how to live and what to value is probably on a far distant side of the planet from Kierkegaard’s.
And then there’s Hollywood, farther yet from both Copenhagen and Athens, where an intriguing movie also addressing the subject of human happiness just hit the theaters in the form of The Giver, based on a popular novel by Lois Lowry.
The Giver is about a world where human misery, poverty, war and unhappiness have been wiped out via a rigid social structure of total control by “elders” who are abetted by the distribution of mandatory mood-altering substances to the entire population. The result is complete suppression of both human emotion and history.
That means no more arguments, wars or crimes of passion, but also no dancing, kissing or carousing. Rather like a gated Seventh Day Adventist retirement community in an Iowa suburb, where peace reigns supreme, and dullness rules the day.
Is the trade-off worth it? The Giver gives a decided thumbs-down to the whole notion.
All philosophers essentially probe the question of “How are we to live?”, but Epicurus focused his own life and work on one aspect of that question, presupposing as he did that the basic answer to it is, “In a way that makes us happy.”
That led him to ponder the subsequent question of how to achieve happiness, which begat an entire philosophical system (“Epicureanism”) as well as an extended community in his own day known as “The Garden,” a kind of early commune dedicated to the stress-free pursuit of happiness, which he tied closely to freedom from pain and strife.
For Epicurus, pleasure is the highest good, but with some significant caveats as we will discuss below.
“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”
Interestingly, the word “epicurean” is bandied about regularly in foodie and other lifestyle magazines in a way that does violence to much of Epicurus’s actual philosophy and his own definitions of pleasure. Epicureanism’s dictionary definition:
“fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking. Synonyms: gourmet, luxury, lavish, deluxe, rich. Antonyms: austere, simple, plain, modest, frugal.”
Epicurus aimed for achieving a state of equanimity and freedom from strife and turmoil, achieved at least partly by avoiding involvement in potential downers such as politics and romance.
In truth, while Epicurus hailed the centrality of pleasure, he did not at all mean by that indulgence in mindless hedonism and sensate experiences. His tastes in both food (happy with some cheese, olives and lentils) and romance (never married, considered sex too complicating) and most all else tended toward the “modest and frugal” that the dictionary cites as antonyms to epicurean ways. His clothes closet reportedly contained just two cloaks.
What Epicurus really loved and pursued with relentless passion was the extended and intensive company of friends and good conversation involving the life of the mind.
On those matters, I believe I can speak for both myself and most people of my acquaintance: We get too damn little and would like a lot more.
Still, Epicurus’s focus on the pursuit of happiness does raise some questions. Is happiness really the main goal of human life?
Epicurus aimed for a state of equanimity and freedom from turmoil, achieved at least partly by avoiding involvement in potential downers such as politics and romance. But given that both of those need ongoing attention if our species is to survive and thrive, is there perhaps a head-in-the-sand quality to the Epicurean prescription for happiness?
And if we achieved his desired state of happiness non-stop, would we any longer be really, really happy, or are the heights of happiness forever dependent on occasionally tasting the dark draughts of despair?
As the movie’s hero pursues his journey to restore memory, history and emotion to human existence, he is pursued by the white coats of conformity that would bleach all color and contrast and discomfort from life, in a land where it no longer even snows or projects that nice humid experience of your Hawaiian shirt sticking to your back.
Epicurus reportedly wrote some 300 books or pamphlets during his 70 years of life straddling the fourth and third centuries BC, but only a few remnants and letters survived the crackdown and suppression of his works by early Christianity. He had a more or less Deist conception of gods who were too busy and distant to take any interest in human affairs, and his emphasis on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain in this life was and remains at odds with Christian notions of suffering for Christ and fearing the wrath of a personal God.
Since he feared neither the gods nor the death that he viewed as simply cessation rather than absence or loss, Epicurus was one of the earliest proponents of the “Be here now” ethos that pervades Eastern philosophy and has made such inroads in the West over the past half-century. Indeed, he sounds positively Buddhist in this excerpt from one of his few surviving works, the “Letter to Menoeceus”:
Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win.
Epicurus, joined by multiple other voices over the centuries ranging from Buddha to Jesus to Thoreau, wants us to be content with little and cease our striving for much beyond the simple pleasures of food, shelter and copious amounts of companionship. All well and good for a certain time, a certain mindset.
On the other hand, contentment wasn’t the fuel for getting us to the moon, painting the Sistine Chapel or even for our continuing efforts to build better societies via better, more involved and effective human beings.
Another way of saying this: the world needs its Thoreaus and Epicuruses, but thank God for inventors and planners and engineers.
Those sounds you hear amidst the clatter and chatter of humanity represent a kind of restlessness, a slight dis-ease with the current condition of things, however well-fed or rich in companionship we may be.
Sure, many of us are fortunate to be happy. But if that’s all we’ve accomplished and we and a few friends are the only ones we accomplished it for, will it be enough? Or is there some deeper and wider dimension of happiness still to be explored, there waiting for our fervent reach, our daring to risk hope and failure?
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Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Hamlin, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of Epicurus sculpture from the National Museum of Rome by Ian Scott, Toronto, Canada, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ian-w-scott/
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