Thanks, Cassius! It is relieving to hear that you agree.
Episode 215 of the Lucretius Today Podcast is now available. In this episode we take up the Epicurean view of Happiness.
I recently decided to go back to the beginning of this book and read it more carefully. So this post is about a few things that caught my attention while reading the Preface.
1) At the bottom of page 6 she makes this comment about Epicureans: “Their moral philosophy is relational rather than individualistic.” I would provide more of the paragraph for context, but when I read it, I feel like this sentence really stands alone. The way that I would interpret this sentence is that the Epicurean morality is dependent on the overall social implications rather than on individual pleasure, and I don’t agree with that. Do you think I am misinterpreting this sentence? If so, what do you take it to mean? If not, do you agree with Catherine Wilson on the Epicurean morality? Then again, perhaps this is a silly question because I don't think that Epicurean philosophy has any sort of absolute morality, does it?
2) At the bottom of page 7, she says “My perceptions don’t have any special claim to objectivity, and my preferences – indeed, human desires in general – don’t deserve automatic priority over the preferences of other people and animals.” I do not disagree with this sentence, but I think that my reason for agreeing is very different from what her lack of explanation suggests. My reason for agreeing with the sentence is that I feel the hedonic calculus needs to be considered and giving automatic priority to our own preferences may have consequences that could net out as more pain than pleasure. However, I feel like her lack of explanation suggests that Epicureans question their own preferences and deny them on the basis of some greater good, which I don’t think would be very Epicurean. Again, I don’t hate the sentence, just the lack of explanation around it, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.
3) Starting at the bottom of page 10 and going on to page 11, she has a block of sentences that I am uncomfortable with. “Although it might seem surprising in light of the many attacks from medieval and early-modern Western theologians on Epicureanism for its atheistic framework, the Epicurean conception of the good and meaningful life can even be found in the Jewish and Christian bibles. Ecclesiastes 8:15 says, ’Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ Isaiah 22:13 says, ‘Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.’” This may seem nitpicky, but I don’t like the term meaningful life. Is there an Epicurean conception of the meaningful life? Or is meaningful life synonymous with pleasurable life? This is an important question to me, because I don’t believe that life has some absolute meaning and, up to this point, I didn’t think that Epicurus necessarily disagreed. Am I wrong? I’m also curious what you think of the quotes from the bible. Is that a fair synopsis of the Epicurean conception of the good life – to eat, drink, and be merry? It seems too simplistic to me and suggests a hedonism that is more in line with the Cyrenaics than the Epicureans.
I once read a book titled Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television. One of the arguments was that there are very few people who control what you see on TV. That is probably less true today than it was back in the 60s or 70s when the book was written, but Facebook does enjoy a bit of a monopoly on social congregation. I didn't realize that there was a group for the Banting Diet, but that makes sense. I think only the South Africans typically call low carb diets Banting anymore, but I think just about anybody active in the LCHF community has heard of it. I am also a member of a couple of Carnivore Diet groups on FB. So far I haven't noticed any similar actions towards those groups, but we are only in the tens of thousands, not millions of members (I think the CrossFit page said that the Banting FB group had something like 1.6M members).
Honestly, the only reason I am still on FB is to participate in the groups - mostly the EP groups. If you want to brainstorm ways to better utilize different platforms for building a community I'm happy to help in any way I can.
Ok, I have a lot of things that I could say about that, but let me focus on what I think is the most interesting question. The question about the cage as well as the question about whether every ordinary man stands in danger of losing his wife to a more exciting man like the composer bring to my mind the link between money, love and a person’s happiness. All three themes are strong in this movie. The husband clearly exhibits that he feels that making money and his professional success is key to his happiness. The composer seems to be more carefree, but that might only be because he already has the wealth and the professional success. So we can’t separate his character from the wealth aspect entirely either. What is clear is that he feels a relationship with this woman is necessary to his happiness. He says he can’t live without her once he has met her and at the end of the movie he exacts his revenge on the banker by killing him. Perhaps you disagree with me, but I think that Epicurean ethics teaches me that I need neither wealth nor romantic love in order to experience complete pleasure. If I fall in love, but it is unrequited I am not doomed to a life of misery. For those reasons, I wouldn’t call the composer anymore Epicurean than the husband. In fact, his action of killing a man might be more anti-Epicurean than anything the husband did.
I’m having a really hard time coming up with a character from a movie or literature who I think would be a decent depiction of Epicurean ethics, though. Can you?
I just watched the movie and caught up on the commentary. Not sure that I have much to add except a second female opinion.
I agree with Elli that the husband was the worst character. He may have "loved" his wife, but for the totally wrong reasons. At the beginning his chatter suggested that what he really loved about her was how pretty she was and that all of his friends envied him because of her beauty. Trust me, no woman wants to be loved for her beauty alone. I put "loved" in quotations, because I found this character to be completely dispassionate and I question how deeply he is capable of loving. When he stayed home with her I didn't feel like he did so because he loved her and wanted to stay but rather because he knew it was the "right thing to do." It was obvious that it was painful for him to be there when he would rather be playing cards.
As for the woman, they clearly didn't spend enough time on character development with her, because I couldn't understand what was so captivating about her. The only quality that the story really gave her was her beauty and beauty alone is not enough to enchant so many. There are too many pretty faces in the world. OK, I guess she did exhibit a quality of melancholy when suggesting the minor over the major key, but that should only influence the composer - and not everybody would find that captivating anyway. The woman seemed dispassionate to me too, and I was not able to understand or relate to her choices.
I don't have much to say about the banker. He was an opportunist who obviously wants what he wants and doesn't care who he hurts to get it. I cannot think of any method of pursuing happiness that is more displaced.
Of the main characters, the composer's character was the one I sympathized with the most, but I would not have made the same decisions he did. Like the woman, I too questioned whether his passion would last. It did through the movie, but I think there was plenty of reason to be suspicious of its longevity. I don't mean to suggest that he was being dishonest, I think he really believed that he would always feel that way. But it was contrary to his nature. He's being honest about what he feels and believes at that moment, but there is a big question of whether it would really have lasted. In that respect, I understand the woman's decision to stay with her husband. On the other hand, part of me thinks that whatever time she could have had with the composer would be much more pleasurable than the long safe life she could have with her husband.
I would like to point out that I also liked the singer. Yes, she was hurt and jealous that her affair with the composer was over as she had been replaced with another woman, but at the end of the movie she was able to give a great performance and congratulate the composer in a genuinely friendly manner. She still had friendly feelings towards her past lover who broke her heart. Bravo, singer!
Framing a question is important because the frame limits the conclusions that one can reach. I read the original post and I realized that the way the question is framed does not fit with how I think about happiness. So I’d like to offer my frame as an alternative.
“But what if in striving solely for happiness as the ultimate goal, we end up not truly achieving it?” This frames happiness as the peak of some mountain that we are climbing and if the ultimate goal is to reach the top, then any means by which we can get there is fair game. A helicopter would be more efficient than climbing.
When we view happiness as the peak of a mountain we set ourselves up for failure. There is no such summit that can be reached that would mean lasting happiness simply because we got to the top, imho.
If instead, climbing is the goal, because we enjoy the climb, then our lives are complete even as we are climbing. In this frame, it doesn’t matter whether one reaches the top or not, the pleasure of the journey is what we are after. Our friends etc. are not means to an end, but part of what makes the climb enjoyable. The Epicurean would argue that not only do friends make the climb enjoyable, but that they are necessary for us to be able to enjoy the climb at all.
I think the second way of thinking about it also prevents us from thinking that happiness is something that we can achieve and then not move away from once it has been achieved – just sitting on top of that mountain for the rest of our lives. It removes the idea that just a little more money, or the next big achievement at work or something is going to be enough to get us to that peak and bring us lasting happiness. It won’t.
The way I approach happiness is not to find a goal or something that I think will make me happy if I achieve it/acquire it, but rather to ask myself what makes the everyday enjoyable.
My analogy is not perfect, and I’m sure you can poke holes in it, but it is sufficient for my happiness. I also do not have any reason to think this is an Epicurean stance, it is just my opinion.
In the example of Elon Musk, I would argue that anyone who works so hard for the sake of the end goal is not a happy person. Achieving the end goal rarely, if ever, provides lasting happiness. BUT, if Elon Musk does what he does because he loves the challenge of figuring out how to make these things happen and enjoys the process, then he is focused on the climbing and not the end goal and is likely a very happy person.
This was great to read! Thanks for posting.
I'm curious if you had anything specific in mind for the following statement:Quote
8. It is best to be cautious about assuming any widely present human characteristic is vestigial or a “spandrel”, something left-over from or incidental to our evolutionary past with no current function.
These are all excellent! Thank you!
How do you “practice” Epicureanism on a daily basis? I ask because I recently got really busy and haven’t spent any time reading Epicurus. It feels refreshing to finally have some time to get back to it, but I would like ideas for things I can do so that in the future I can keep it in the front of my mind even if I don’t have time to spend with it.
Sorry for my abrupt exit from the discussion today. My husband was getting impatient to walk the dogs and go to supper.
I also wanted to give a heads up for May. Certainly don't plan around me, but I will not be able to join you if we meet between the 16th and the 30th. We are going to Africa for two weeks and I will be without internet access most of the time.
It might be a while before we get to the chapter in DeWitt regarding sensations, anticipations, and feelings, so let me post my question here so I don't have to wait for a discussion. DeWitt talks about justice being an anticipation. What other anticipations are there?
In thinking through it myself, the only suggestion that I have come up with so far is honor. I think even young children have an innate sense of honor. If you say something they remember it and expect you to honor what you said. That's why I thought perhaps it would qualify.
Any other suggestions that you all might have?