On Epicurus’s philosophy of life

The following are some noteworthy quotes from Epicurus (341 – 270 BC), an ancient philosopher who insisted that a noble life consisted of philosophical inquiry, intimate friendship, and the affirmation of moderate pleasure. Epicurus founded a small commune just outside of Athens; it was here that he and his friends sought to become lovers of wisdom.

Of a life governed by moderate pleasures,

So when we say that pleasure is the goal [the ultimate aim of life] we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption, as some believe, either from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation, but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul [i.e., tranquillity or freedom from mental disturbance]. For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men’s souls.

Of the mood of philosophy,

One must philosophize and at the same time laugh and take care of one’s household and use the rest of our personal goods, and never stop proclaiming the utterances of correct philosophy.

Of the need for a “room of one’s own,”

The purest security is that which comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many, although a certain degree of security from other men does come by means of the power to repel [attacks] and by means of prosperity.

Of the importance of friendship in a truly blessed life,

Let us share our friends’ suffering not with laments but with thoughtful concern.

Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.

Friendships dance around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness.

On Woody Allen’s modern philosophy

The other day I read an interview with Woody Allen. The interviewer’s penultimate question struck me as especially apt. (In the excerpt below, bold = interviewer’s question and regular text = Allen’s reply.)

Machado de Assis is credited with inspiring magical realist writers. Judging from the previews, the protagonist of your latest film experiences some magic in Paris, as did characters in Purple Rose of CairoAlice, and Scoop. Why do you so frequently bend the rules of reality in your films?

As I said before, I do think we live in a nightmare and I feel the same way that Blanche Dubois feels: I want magic; I don’t want reality. I want the paper lanterns hung over the bare light bulbs, like she did. And if there is any way to escape reality, I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way. You can distract yourself. You can go to baseball games and concerts and plays and have sex and get involved in all kinds of endeavours that obsess you, and you can even create problems for yourself, where they don’t exist, to avoid thinking about the bad problems. But, in the end, you’re caught. And reality inevitably disappoints you.

[End of interview]

And now what strikes me as especially apt is Allen’s set of philosophical assumptions.

  1. His Metaphysical First Principle: Life is suffering.
  2. His Principle of Human Nature: We desires objects that will bring either frustration or boredom.

Take a look at the trailers for two of his films, Manhattan (1979) and Husbands and Wives (1992).

And what are Allen’s solutions? We’ve heard him allude briefly to Blanche Dubois.

  1. Cosmic Blindness: We clutter our lives with routines that blind us to these metaphysical realities.
  2. Clear-eyed Pessimism: We gaze at tragedy head-on and have the courage to acknowledge these metaphysical realities.
  3. Literary Escapism: We either become Blanche Dubois, transforming reality into fantasy, or Allen himself, lightening reality through humor.

It’s worth considering Allen’s literary escapism further. For Dubois, taking the real and sublimating it into the ideal beautifies reality, thereby justifying its existence. In fantasy, we breathe in perfume. Comedy works a little differently. It changes reality into an object separate from our laughing existence. Smart laughter is self-reflexive inasmuch as it puts us beyond our experiencing selves: the humorist achieves a certain lightness and a sense of community by laughing at his experiencing self.

Allen’s solutions, even his third one, are nothing more than consolation prizes for a rainy-day existence. First, I’m willing to grant that life is transience, but I don’t think that life is (just) suffering. Second, Allen’s theory of human nature, which sounds a lot like Schopenhauer, won’t permit desires that can be satisfied, love that can be fulfilling, or godliness that can a form of peacefulness. If we don’t take on board Allen’s metaphysics, then we don’t have to follow the paths of Cosmic Blindness, Clear-eyed Pessimism, and Literary Escapism. That is, if we don’t see life in Allen’s terms, don’t see reality in terms of these problems, then we won’t go in search of these kinds of solutions. The result is a much kinder philosophy of consolation.

Allen sounds like the precocious child whose parents got divorced and then didn’t make a fuss: insecure, witty, imaginative, jaded, lost. In order for us to live well, we’ll have to overcome Allen’s modern philosophy. Dear reader, let’s age more wisely than Allen.

On the cut-and-thrust of discourse

The cut-and-thrust of discourse: your man, flesh-wounded, on the floor — boys tussling in the basement — dogs growling and gnawing — that fearful symmetry — manliness ferocious, harmful, refined — anger awoken — the ease of mastication — lopping heads clean off — the love of man expressed as war.

Oh, Brother, bleed with me.


Spiritual exercise: On giving pleasures their due

Perhaps you’d care to join me as I read a few a lines from Montaigne?

I who am always down-to-earth in my handling of anything loathe that inhuman wisdom which seeks to render us disdainful and hostile towards the care of our bodies. I reckon it is as injudicious to set our minds against natural pleasures as to allow them to dwell on them. Xerxes was an idiot to offer a reward to anyone who could invent some new pleasure for him when he was already surrounded by every pleasure known to Man: but hardly less idiotic is the man who lops back such pleasures as Nature has found for him. We should neither hunt them nor run from them: we should accept them. I do so with a little more zest and gratitude than that, and more readily follow the slope of Nature’s own inclining.

I was reading this yesterday as boys were playing baseball in the park. The boys didn’t know much about the game and didn’t seem to care. A few of them split off and played tag, Cops and Robbers, and You’re It. Others jumped around in place. The child swinging the bat had no idea what he was doing and, to his credit, had no idea that he had no idea what he was doing.

The boys, dressed in blue shirts and black pants, were Hasidim, and with this thought came an uneasy allusion to sadness. I’d seen the older boys almost always in a hurry; I’d seen the older men with their sterns hats and heads down; I’d been asked, despite my long hair and blue eyes, whether I was a Jew and felt the man pass on after I’d said no. I’d sensed the stiffness in their movements and the lack of grace that came with following their Jewish God, and I’d preferred, as I sat watching the boys in spring, Montaigne’s far gentler god of nature.

Much preferred Montaigne’s nature as well to that of unchastened college students bungling their way through Hookup Culture. They don’t explore the passions so much as fill them up with the Coca-Cola of sex: beer nights, tacit consent, and a few hapless turns before all dissolves in idiocy. The reductio ad absurdum of Hookup Culture is neon pleasure, cheaply dispatched, easily had, soon forgotten: pleasure turned into tedium.

There is a sense of sadness in our culture, a soft, low grieving for pleasure repressed by Law or made vulgar through ease. I’d love to sit and dwell for a while in that quiet space in a child’s life when pleasure is ripe for cultivation into art and philosophy; when virtue can still be coaxed into love; and when, on a spring afternoon, one is still able to “follow the slope of Nature’s own inclining.”

New public bios

Here’s my near-daily experience: I read an article I like, I search for the author to learn more about her, I read her five-sentence bio, and I’m resoundingly disappointed. Evidently, she was once a great hunter and now she sits on a throne.

Are all public bios, those one to two paragraph haikus, true but misleading?

There’s a joke I like from Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. The joke, I’m going to tell you in advance, has to do with statistics, and here’s one more thing about it: It’s not very funny. But I can be a boor, so:

It’s often said that new gamblers are unaccountably lucky. How can that be? After they’ve learned something about Black Jack or poker or whatever, their luck goes away. This is true, says Taleb the statistician, but misleading. Oh? Yes, well, think of the set consisting of new gamblers on day 1. Most will start out, lose money, and then leave the casino. At various stages, losers will bow out, leaving–yes, you’ve got it, the lucky few who’ve managed to seduce Lady Luck. So, yeah, it’s true that new gamblers are lucky: they’re lucky in virtue of having been survivors. However, they’re the only ones we see hanging around.

And that’s the thing, really. It’s a kind of Gestalt problem. We’re looking at the outliers, not at the corpses which, like good Greek tragedies, are lying somewhere off stage. Unseen, unrecorded, all that.

Oh, and the joke? We’re pretty stupid. Haha.

Stupid, yeah. But then so are all these highly stylized public bios of writers, professors, architects, politicians–that is to say, all these unrevealing portraits of throne dwellers. What we get in these five sentences is a story of accomplishments coupled with a tally of the number of seats this guy’s sat in. His ass was once at Cambridge but now–mark this, pay attention–it’s now at MIT. Thank God I’ve got a topos of the migratory patterns of his past lovers. And now, we read, he’s fat and contented. Oh, blessedness.

In these stories, there may be no lying but there’s a hell of a lot of deception. Here’s a place to begin. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiates 1.14: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Good stuff. Yummy sober. In Sermon 12, Samuel Johnson lists all the “miscarriages” of human action: all the pursuits unfulfilled, the desires unsatisfied, the hopes crushed, the ambitions scorned, the inquiries unanswered and, um, the sucky loves lost. If you get the point, then there’s no need to watch any Woody Allen movie since (Johnson here) “The history of mankind is little else than a narrative of designs which have failed, and hopes that have been disappointed.” Also: you can now cross Schopenhauer off your summer reading list.

Life, this my fair lady, is feted with disappointments and ennui. Well, never mind Johnson’s hyperbole, just listen to the undertone. All our successes (of which there are few) are “outliers”; meanwhile, all the failures–all those clever projects unfinished and crackpot ideas that never surfaced–these go unrecorded and unlisted.

That’s my first gripe anyway. Just to let you know most of my days are spent running around like a bull in the China something. So my plea for candor: Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other; let’s somehow or other get into the genre of the five-sentence public bio some account of our failures. Could be a beautiful account. I leave that up to you–I mean, to us.

And now my second disappointment. Where’s the place in this little bio for the idea of living well? How does my hero sleep at night–peacefully or anxiously? How has he brooked the disappointments he’s failed to mention? Is he old and sated with life, resilient in the face of disaster, made of good hard shit, or is he a pathetic, fidgety old fart whom you can’t stand to be around? It always sucks to meet someone you saw on paper and then learn that, in person, he’s a real life fuck-up.

To sum up: I’m inviting us to retrain ourselves in the art of sketching these little self-portraits with an eye to living well. I’d like to know whether this guy on the throne has his life in order, or whether he’s a mess that no obituary can truthfully cover up.

You probably think I’m hunting for some juicy private bits. No, just the opposite. I”m disheartened that we’ve resigned this question to some private realm that then once in a while gets exposed through gotcha journalism. Scandal: Senator has sex with–his wife! Horror: The poet laureate of Nantucket loves–boat shoes!

So, we’ve got a problem. This huge swath of life either gets chunked into the private bin and there neglected, or it gets dredged up into the public where it’s then sensationalized and greedily consumed.

Ah, but the memoir, you say, the memoir–now that’s the thing that will make up for this huge deficit! Maybe, but I’m not looking for sentimentalizing or psychoanalyzing childhood. I’d like to see a dignified public portrait wrought in those five sentences.

Here’s our assignment, yours and mine: Let’s get out the successes and the failures. Not all of them, just the important ones. Also, let’s give some sense of how we’ve handled those failures as well as those successes. Tell me, in measured public prose, not in mode of confession, how you’ve got on with life, how you’ve managed it all. Give me that portrait that’s not heroically epic and not stupidly tragic, but a nice blend of the moderately epic and the moderately comic. Now, don’t be trashy, but also don’t be demure. Let me see dignity and integrity in your demeanor. Allow me feel the nobility, the humble nobility?, of your brow. When I read about you, I’d like to find out whether we’re kindred spirits.

In short, I’d like to hear whether you’re all right standing on your own on your own two feet.