The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach. – Epicurus
I’m in the process of reading Les Epicuriens, a French-language Epicurean Bible which includes pretty much all the ancient writings in one volume with commentaries, and introduces the reader to Francophone commentators and researchers of the tradition that I was unfamiliar with. This is why I love knowing many languages: each is a window to a whole new world. This book will open up years of learning for me.
In the commentary to the “beginning and the root” fragment, there is mention of how ancient Epicurean thinkers were trained to relate the abstract to the concrete. Materialist philosophy tries to avoid framing thought in abstract, irrelevant terms. This is not always easy, particularly if one has to argue philosophical questions with people of other schools who confuse ideas and words for the things that are meant and who use word-play to muddle the meaning of things.
Epicurean philosophical training included stating things in two ways: one abstract, one concrete. It was never enough to use an abstraction: the corresponding, tangible, REAL value had to be juxtaposed so that pupils could understand clearly what was meant because the abstract didn’t always refer to something specific or clear. Sometimes it referred to nothing real or existent at all. Sometimes many concrete and diverse examples could be provided.
The technique that the masters in our tradition used was reiteration: the re-stating of something in abstract, then in concrete terms, as in the case of “the beginning and the root”. The Les Epicuriens commentators call this a “doublet”, or a doubling of the expression.
In this way, we can speak of the the good (an abstraction) and pleasure or comfort (concrete); of evil (an abstraction) and pain or discomfort (concrete). We can speak of the beginning (an abstraction) and the root (tangible) of all pleasure being specifically in the stomach, which is one of the most basic survival kits a creature has. Notice how specific this gets. When a babe is born and culture has not corrupted him and he knows nothing but pleasure and pain, it is the stomach that guides him to cry in order to be fed, or to seek the nipple that will feed him. Epicurus was on to something. The brain within the stomach has recently become a research subject for neuroscientists seeking to understand its intelligence and how it is involved in the body’s defenses against foreign bodies. It both secures survival, and fights dis-ease.
Of all the thousands of people who have paid homage to virtue, scarcely one has thought of inspecting the pedestal on which it stands. - Frances Wright
Virtue-worship is another instance where the abstract oftentimes leads us to ignore the tangible. Duty-based and state-sponsored systems of philosophy which make of man a means for supposedly higher causes oftentimes insist that virtue is an end. Our tradition teaches that virtue can only be virtue if it serves as a means to pleasure, which is the real and tangible experience of happiness and satisfaction for living beings. If it does not lead to pleasure, it’s not a virtue. This matter was covered in a recent blog entry, and was explained eloquently by one of the luminaries of our tradition, Frances Wright, in A Few Days in Athens (3rd chapter).
By understanding this, we understand that having pleasure as the end is the same as having life and living beings as ends in themselves. This does not mean that abstractions are useless, unnecessary, or evil. No: it just means that they can be used as means to maximize the pleasure and minimize the suffering of the living entities for whose sake they exist.
The issue of labels and naming has recently gained visibility in our forums, where the need to clarify the distinction between Epicureanism and hedonism has become clear. This is, in part, because centuries of usage have made hedonism synonym with instant gratification and decadence, lack of control over our senses and desires, all of which are the exact opposite of our discipline. I proposed we use calculated hedonism, or rational hedonism. Tom Merle, of the Epicureanism for Modern Times group, proposed prudent hedonism or enlighted hedonism. French Epicurean philosopher Michel Onfray has called for utilitarian hedonism. Cassius (of newepicurean.com) says he prefers getting rid of the term hedonism altogether (by itself or hyphenated), saying that the term was applied by outsiders and that the founders of Epicureanism did not use it and that it’s not found in any of the legitimate sources.
Equating Epicureanism and hedonism, even in its hyphenated variations, produces great confusion. We favor a calculated form of hedonism, a series of techniques that help to control our experience and lead to constant pleasure and satisfaction. To speak of unqualified hedonism only, understood as instant gratification, misses altogether the category of existential hedonism we know as katastemic (abiding) pleasures, as well as the deferral of gratification for the sake of greater long-term pleasure.
For a contemporary evaluation of these techniques by positive psychology, please watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Speech on the science of happiness. He calls abiding pleasure “synthetic happiness” and dynamic pleasure he calls “natural happiness”.
Let’s apply the doublet: Epicureans seek a life of happiness (the abstract), of satisfaction (the concrete art of “making satiation”, if we deconstruct the term). We seek a life of ataraxia or imperturbability (somewhat abstract), of tranquility in the mind and health in the body (concrete).
As for gratification, we only believe that natural and necessary desires require immediate attention and gratification: nature gives us no choice. But unnecessary desires can either be dismissed or only occasionally engaged, so long as they generate no losses or negative aftereffects. Very often, prudence and hedonic calculus lead to deferred gratification for the sake of greater long-term stability and pleasure.
To use a doublet: Epicurus taught that philosophy is the medicine that leads to happiness, to constant gratification (concrete). Here, we may think of gratitude, that quintessential katastemic discipline, as a state of abiding in gratification so that even when prudence leads us to defer dynamic gratification, we can still experience abiding gratification (gratitude). A hard-working father may, during his long work day, think about how he is providing for his loved ones or be happy that he has a good, stable job. A university student in the middle of a difficult semester may consider the odds of earning a good salary once she graduates, or of doing what she loves for a living.
This should give us insight into the importance of living the planned life and having clear values and ends. If a man does not know what he is struggling for, what he hopes to gain at the end of his toil, he may not feel the pull that will gain him evolution and progress in life and help him to engage in his productive projects imperturbable, with a gratified, satisfied mind.
By using the doublet to reiterate, qualify and clarify what we mean, we make philosophy tangible, pragmatic, and useful. We can apply its ideas to reality.