27 June 2009

Epicurus at the Painted Porch

I am a student of Greek philosophy in two ways -- I both study the schools of thought academically and practice them in my life, especially with regard to Epicureanism and Stoicism. The two philosophies have been in my experience pitted against once another, painted as competing philosophies. My academic study of the two philosophies is very shallow: I have read from both philosophies’ texts, but I have never emerged myself in an in-depth study of how they were received in the Greek world at the time, so I don’t know how accurate such a portrayal is. On the surface, it would seem to make sense. The Stoics believed that virtue was the only “Good”, and the Epicureans believed that happiness was the only “Good”.

Do they contradict one another? Both begin from absolute statements that on the surface differ from the other, and one philosophy is grounded in divinity while the other is not. Epicurus had little regard for the metaphysical: he believed that happiness in the here and now was what people should focus their attention on. The ancient Stoics believed in cosmic order and saw this Order as the source for all that is good -- like beauty, truth, and virtue. To live in compliance with this Order is to live with virtue and thus be happy. The chief Stoic doctrine is to “live according to Nature”: living within our limits. Epictetus, whose work I enjoy immensely, began his Handbook by stating that happiness can be achieved through the knowledge that there are some things we can control and some things we cannot .[1] To act on this knowledge is to live with virtue. But notice what Epictetus is focusing on: happiness. This is the same then Epicurus was focused on.

This is why I do not think that Stoicism and Epicureanism are actually contradictory. Each seem to begin with the object of human happiness as their goal, they just attempt to reach it through different (but not necessarily opposing) practices. Epicurus advocated the simple life and abstaining from insatiable pleasures: Stoics believed in mental discipline, the cultivation of mindfulness. But what would stop Epicures from using Stoic mindfulness, and what would stop Epictetus from living the simple life? The two philosophies differ only in theoretical beginnings, I think, and for the modern Stoic or Epicurean, that simply doesn’t matter.

I count myself a Stoic, but I do not believe in a living Cosmic Order the way Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus did. Erik Wiegardt commented in his The Stoic Handbook that the difference between an atheistic Stoic and a pantheistic Stoic is that one believes cosmic order is unconscious and the other believes it is conscious. I believe laws govern the universe, but I do not think they are divine. I believe in gravitation and friction and inertia and thermodynamics and all manner of universal laws, but I think they are natural. What lies beyond them -- what caused them -- is not my concern. I can no more be aware of supposed metaphysical realms and gods than can a microbe be aware of a soda can.

If I take Epicurus’ approach that supposed metaphysical worlds are meaningless when it comes to human happiness, on what basis do I call myself a Stoic? I do so because there are certain patterns of behavior that lend themselves toward happiness and unhappiness. If I become addicted to a drug, for instance, I will be on the whole unhappy. This is not divine punishment being meted out by Athena: this is chemistry. If I fret about what someone is thinking of me, I will be unhappy. Again, there are no punitive deities involved: this is psychology. If, however, I becoming addicted to substances and adopt the Stoic practice of giving no attention to things I cannot control, I will find contentment -- and the joy I have for living will not be tainted. “Virtue” is the practice of living sensibly, by following patterns of behavior that create long-term happiness. For me, Epicureanism and Stoicism go well together, because the virtuous life is -- in Epicurus’ own words -- the happy life. [2]


[1] My immediate source for this is Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living, but the same sentiment is expressed in the same basic way in more conservative translations of Epictetus' works.
[2] “The Principle Doctrines”, Epicurus

12 June 2009

God's Problem: Book Response

While perusing library shelves, my eyes happened to see God's Problem. The title struck me as strange, interesting, and perhaps promising. The full title is God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer. Author Bart Ehrman was is a New Testament scholar and was previously a minister before the problem of suffering/evil forced him to evaluate his claims and arrive at agnosticism. In his introduction, he says that the book was the result of a class he taught on Biblical attitudes toward suffering -- why it is, why God allows it -- and indeed the book is on that theme.

To the end of examining Biblical attitudes toward suffering, he goes through the Christian bible and identifies a few basic trends: suffering as punishment for sin, suffering as redemptive ("God works in mysterious ways"), and apocalypticism. His research appears to be fairly thorough: while he identifies suffering-as-punishment as originating with the Hebrew "prophets" -- men like Elijah and Amos, who spoke on God's behalf and typically threatened Israel with all sorts of unpleasantness if they didn't start following God's law -- Ehrman also notes that this classical view dominates the Hebrew scriptures, including its historical narrative -- and he shows why. The first two trends probably do not bear further explanation on my part: I imagine most people have heard them before.

It is in the third explanation that Ehrman really comes through for me: for many years, aspects of the New Testament have confused me -- until this moment. Ehrman believes that they are examples of apocalyptic thinking and his explanation does answer my questions: for instance, why Jews suddenly went from not being aware of a Resurrection in the earlier scriptures to claiming belief in a grand Resurrection of souls at the end of time in the New Testament. To explain what is meant by "apocalyptic thinking", Ehrman goes over four traits of it: dualism, with a Good Being and an Evil Being and that at present, Evil is winning; Pessimism, that humans cannot do anything to change fate; Vindication, that one day God will prove triumphant over evil; and fourth, that this will happen (from the view of Jesus and contemporaries) very soon. Using this view, suffering is seen as a result of evil currently winning the battle between it and good -- between what the Zoroastrians would call the battle between the Lie and the Truth. This view probably became popular after the Babylonian "imprisonment", and Ehrman tries to make the case that the whole of the New Testament is apocalyptic thinking.

Adding to his explanations of what these attempts to explain away evil are are his critiques of them -- his examination of what makes them seem to work, but what ultimately makes them fail. Ehrman ultimately returns to what he sees as a theme in both Job and Ecclesiastes: that suffering can't be explained. He ends on this note:

"I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot that we can't know about this world. A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. Things don't go as planned or as they should. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over. We won't live forever -- in fact, we won't live long. And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes says, and I agree. "

I will share more from that particular section a little later on. Ehrman is not dull, and his material is insightful.I'd give it a go if the subject is one you are interest in.

06 June 2009

Tending the Natural: Humanist Spirituality II

"Remember that philosophy requires of you only that which your nature recquires." - Marcus Aurelius

"We're different, and yet all the same -- we all want to be happy." - Anne Frank

"I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life." - the Dalai Lama

Almost two years ago, I posted an essay that I called "All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality". I took the title from the third Humanist Manifesto, which declares that the natural world is "all and enough". There, I tried to explore what spirituality meant to me. Beginning with my center of reason and empathy and a joy for living, I wrote that I thought spirituality consisted of enjoying life and living it well by cultivating our inner essence. This inner essence has been called a soul or a spirit, but if I did so it would only be as a metaphor. My perception of my own essence is wholly naturalistic: For me, "I" am made up of biological drives and the psychological drives that a lifetime of living have given me. I do not pretend to understand the "stuff" of consciousness, but on precedent I accept that it is probably completely natural or based on the natural.

It is on this foundation of naturalism that I build, and this is part of the reason I call myself a Humanist. My joy for living comes from accepting life on its own terms -- not on the terms of the supernatural. I enjoy life -- I revel in it. I cozy under trees, reading good books and letting the grass caress my fingers while I listen to the wind blow through the trees and the birds sing, and the sheer enjoyment of it all can stop my heart and bring tears to my eyes. I believe in just being happy, in "letting the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves."* This means for me living in accordance with nature: nature is both a beginning and a direction. My natural "center" is reason and empathy -- or more broadly, reason and emotion. I think these two attributes are the essence of human nature. We are intelligent creatures who can use reason to ponder philosophical questions and do things with purpose, and we are emotional creatures, evolved to live in social groups. We experience emotions while living life in our communities, and ideally we would use those emotions reasonable to create ways of living that make us happy (or at least help us survive). This is the beginning of law -- indeed, of most every aspect of civilization.

I labor to live according to my nature: I practice freethought or skepticism, and I try to connect to other people in whatever ways I can -- in spending time with friends, or reading literature and connecting to people who have been dead for centuries. "Cultivation" is a word I like to use in reference to spirituality: I see my life as a flower, a bird of paradise perhaps, that must have good soil and a reliable source of sunlight and water if it is to flourish. I need to stimulate my mind and emotions to grow -- and I need to live within their bounds. A flower only needs so much heat or water: too much will scorch it or drown it respectively. This is what I was trying to get at in my first essay: a life lived with empathy and reason, with sunlight and water, leads inevitably to human flourishing, to eudaimonia, to "invincible happiness".

However I might appreciate the need for living as naturally as possible, this approach has a problem: just because something is natural does not mean it is good for me. Anger is natural, for instance, but if I try to revel in anger, I will find myself visiting the pharmacist with a doctor's prescription for blood-pressure pills. My body's chemistry can be modified through my behavior so that it develops a dependency on alcohol: is it then "good" for me to drink all the more? How do I advocate living a natural life when doing what comes natural is not necessarily the best thing for me to do? For a year or so I've pondered this question every so often, but then just a couple of weeks ago the issue resolved itself with a single word: tending. If you have experience working in a garden, you will know that you have to fight weeds and pests to protect your plants. Weeds and destructive insects are a natural part of a garden, but they are not good for my purposes. I must tend the plants -- pull the weeds and get rid of the insects. Feeding and watering the plants is not enough -- I must continually destroy natural but destructive forces that would render my watering pointless.

So it is, I think, with human nature. I first became interested in the idea of humanist spirituality -- natural spirituality -- when I read Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment". One of the topics he discusses is mindfulness among the Stoics: being aware of our thoughts and feelings and asking ourselves if these thoughts and feelings are doing us any good. I found this practice to be intriguing, and I took it up. I have found this practice of mindfulness to be quite helpful -- I no longer fixate on the things I used to, and a year of practice has molded me to possess a near-constant sense of peace. I'm not just interested in peace, though -- I want something active, something forceful: I want to keep the fountain of joy inside me that Marcus Aurelius wrote of bubbling up. What I mean by "tending the natural" is mental practices that bring this bubbling about. I'm not the only person who has noted a need for tending, or disciplined attention: I note that many philosophical and religious teachers have advocated mental discipline of some form or another, the Stoics and Buddhists being the most devoted examples. A few modern teachers advocating mental discipline are the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (an Orthox rabbi, interestingly enough), and the late M. Scott Peck. The point of mental discipline is twofold: being mindful helps us "weed" ourselves, allowing us to grow, while active forms of discipline attempt to manipulate growth in the direction of our choice. Both forms have the end of human happiness in mind.

I have noted through the course of my reading a potential common theme in the philosophical, religious, spiritual, and psychological teachings of the past and present -- that of human happiness. Sometimes this is approached from the angle of the divine, using the idea of a deity as source. I used to use ideals for the same purpose, although I seem to be growing less concerned with reaching some outside ideal and more interested in what will develop from my life if I just enjoy it.

Recommended Reading:
  • The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell. A modern translation of Epictetus' Handbook and Discourses.
  • The Art of Happness and Ethnics for a New Millenium, Tenjin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama).
  • Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality"

* "Wild Geese", Mary Oliver