My Review of the film Ragamuffin

If you want a religion that makes sense, I suggest something other than Christianity. – Rich Mullen

Originally, I thought Ragamuffin was a reference to reggae or to Bob Marley. According to the film, a ragamuffin is a soul that is broken, knows its brokenness, and does nothing but beg God for mercy. The word does set the tone for the biographical film about the life of Rich Mullen, a Christian singer and artist who oftentimes went onstage barefoot, just like he figured Jesus would. His barefoot, plain stage appearance reveals a quality of naturalness, lack of front, authenticity, and uncultured simplicity. In this way he was free. He withdrew from the pressures of being a Christian rock star and retreated to just being a ragamuffin.

The above quote also tells us something about the man’s humility. Mullen was not a man of reason, or of logic, or of philosophy. He was far from being the self-righteous or boastful Christian of infamy. He was an artist, the kind of artist that craved darkness, pain, brokenness, for inspiration. And he had plenty of it.

Rejected by a father who was emotionally illiterate, who never told him he loved him, who was distant and frequently abusive, Mullen sought refuge in Christ … in whom he found the perfect role model for his brokenness. The paternity of Joseph, presumably, was in question. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that Jesus sublimated his longing for daddy-love by channeling it towards God, whom he called Abba, the Aramaic word for Daddy. A Father in the Sky had no power to break him, to abandon him, to reject him. A Father in the Sky could be fashioned to love a broken soul and never hurt it. It was safe, even if infinitely more distant than a real father. This fundamental vulnerability characterizes both Jesus and Rich Mullen and gives us a glimpse into the psychological features of Christianity from its inception: a cry from a vulnerable mortal who seeks safety in the retrieval of lost affections.

Admittedly, there is a huge lack of love in this world and there is a place in the souls of most mortals where these longings could easily find a home.

Like many other artists, Mullen was also the quintessential introvert: he was subjective and thirsty for passion and for life, and apparently suffered from chronic depression. It’s unclear if his faith and his heart-felt music made it worse. It’s more likely it made it easier to bear, and to express his feelings.

Mullen didn’t seek or want to be perfect. He thought it hypocritical to say one was born again. He fully embraced his brokenness, his pain, which he felt powerless to escape. I found the film quite moving because of this. Anyone can understand the very human emotions that play out in Mullen’s life.

Although the film is not a musical, there are few instances where his songs are an important part of the Ragamuffin movie experience. The most ecstatic piece he sang was This World Is Not My Home, a performance which takes place right after a key point in the narrative. His was a beautiful rendition of the song and, in the film, was accentuated by Old World bagpipes. This one scene made the entire movie worth watching. The version I share below is from a 1992 live performance with raw voice only.

While listening to this, immediately I felt the contrast between Christianity, with its embrace of pain and sorrow and brokenness, and Epicureanism with its embrace of this life and this material reality. To us, this world IS our home and there is no point in crying to be delivered from it. But it does touch the heartstrings to hear this song performed by a soul that concealed as much pain as Rich Mullen did, particularly when so many insights into his painful life are shared in the film.

Ragamuffin is a tender movie that shows the humanity and vulnerability of an unadorned, broken, sincere, faithful Christian.

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E-book sale at Humanist Press

My e-book, Tending the Epicurean Garden, is part of the Humanist Press holiday sale. It can be purchased as an e-book through the holidays for $ 4.99.
Once a reader gets the e-book directly from HP, s/he is able to leave comments on its chapters which, once approved, become forever part of the work. Please share the gift of wisdom and share your love of philosophy with your friends!
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The ‘Abiding Pleasure’ Discussion

If you look at the ‪#‎new‬ page in Urban Dictionary today, you will find that the Epicurean term “abiding pleasure”, which was submitted by myself, has been accepted and incorporated formally into Urban Dictionary. Here’s the entry, and the example, which is paraphrased from my recent Humanist Life article:

abiding pleasure

The pleasure experienced independently of having achieved one’s desires. English term for the katastematic pleasure of Epicurean philosophers.

ex. What positive psychologists like Dan Gilbert call synthetic happiness, Epicureans call abiding pleasure.

Cassius Amicus questions whether this is in “the texts”. The original, founding Epicurean texts were written in Greek, however.

Here is the history of the term: while I was writing “Tending the Epicurean Garden”, my editor required that I use easy-to-understand English verbiage, which generated the need for a term equal in value to katastematikos and inspired the addition of a “New Verbiage” section at the end of each chapter. Hence I coined abiding pleasure, which I perceive as the closest thing in English. What do others think of the term?

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DamNation and the Tao of Epicurus

Negotiating a Truce With Nature

My original intention was to write a review on a very interesting documentary titled Damnation on dam-building in the US and how dozens of dams that were built in previous centuries are now being dismantled due to environmental concerns. It’s presented from the nature activist and Native American perspectives. The near-extinction of several salmon species, and the huge expenses and efforts that are required to stop their extinction are accentuated. Overall, I think this was an important perspective and enjoyed learning this part of our history.

Right after this documentary, I watched another one titled Leave it to Beavers, on how beavers have changed their environment … for the good. How they create oases of life even in the desert and preserve habitats for other creatures, how they coexist with other rodents within their dens peacefully and share food sources during the winter, and how they’re fluffy and adorable smart creatures who form life-long bonds with their families.

I thought: how interesting that when beavers follow their instinct, they build good dams and when humans follow theirs they build bad dams. Is it the profit motive, or perhaps the need for hydroelectricity that corrupts our dam-building projects and turns them against nature?

The Spanish word for a dam is represa. One of the themes that stand out in both documentaries is the way in which our relationship with our rivers reflects our relationship with nature as a whole: our environmental awareness and how we see our place in nature finds expression in our construction of dams, in this idea of repressing the waters, repressing nature, keeping nature under control because we know better than nature. This, when taken to extremes, can result in great environmental devastation, but we must admit it can also provide civilization with great advantages at times.

We must not force Nature but persuade her. – Vatican Saying 21

One of the researchers from Canada conducted an experiment, which reminded me of how Epicureanism teaches that nature leads us to what’s best for us and accentuates the importance of heeding our faculties: he left a recording of running water near the site where one of the beavers lived, as part of efforts to manipulate beaver behavior so that their building projects won’t interfere with Canada’s roads and other man-made infrastructure. The noise of running water produced an instinctive drive in the beaver to build a dam exactly in the location where the researcher wanted the dam built.

The moral of the story is that, whereas in the past we hunted beavers down and considered them as threats to our architectural projects, we are now learning that it’s not only possible to live with them, but also good for nature and for other species. We are learning that we can gently persuade their natural faculties and achieve an effect such that no mutual harm will come between us.

Naturalness as a Virtue

The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8

Water and its yielding properties often awaken our reactions to Mother Nature. Many river Goddesses are revered in India, most notably the Ganges and Saraswati rivers which bear the names of important deities. Ganges is believed to be a great purifier of karma. The African Venus, Oshun, gives her name to a river in West Africa and is believed to have come into creation “to refresh and sweeten” the lives of living creatures. Aphrodite was also born of the ocean and is adorned with the most pleasing attributes. Why nature is often personified as female is an interesting question. Maybe it’s because of the shared root of the words mother (Latin “mater“) and matter? Maybe this is because life originated in the waters of our early planet, or because the womb is moist? Even the Roman poet Lucretius started his exposé of materialist philosophy with an invocation of Venus.

We are told in the Tao Te Ching that part of water’s virtuous quality lies in the way in which it does not strive. Other elements have yang  (masculine, active) attributes and are virtuous and effective when they strive with aggression, but not water. It is yin (feminine, passive) and works best by yielding.

This Epicurean idea that nature is best persuaded gently rather than by force is mirrored in Taoist philosophy, which teaches that the will must be in harmony with the nature of things and even makes ziran one of its central virtues, which most often translates into naturalness (zìrán; literally, “self-such“). In Taoism, naturalness is seen as the original state of all things, perhaps in the same way that Epicureans discern between cultural corruption and (uncorrupt) good-seeking, pleasure-seeking nature. Naturalness is associated with spontaneity and creativity, and with simply being oneself without deception or calculation.

Naturalness is cultivated by spending time in nature, living a healthy lifestyle, and by Zen (mindfulness) meditation. Ancestor reverence is also practiced by many religious Taoists, since it is the path of least resistance in the development of piety. Filial piety is one of the most natural expressions of virtue because of the familiarity of our loved ones. Also, in the martial arts, naturalness has to do with yielding movements used during battle to allow the offender to hurt himself and get tired: there are specific fighting techniques attached to this virtue.

Many other things which are perceived as achieving their perfection through non-resistance are seen as good and pleasant. You may have noticed the imagery of incompleteness and natural beauty which is prevalent in Eastern art: a bonsai tree dancing with the wind. A running current of water. Uncut wood. An uncarved block. There’s a natural, relaxed beauty and perfection in these things just as they are, without resistance, without manipulation.

Taoists are naturalist philosophers who believe that a human being, as a natural being and as a singular expression of nature, can also achieve this virtue of authenticity and simplicity, this naturalness or ziran, with little effort. To paraphrase Philodemus, “the good is easy to attain” if we go with the flow. Naturalness accentuates the ease with which virtue can be acquired if we gently persuade nature instead of forcing her.

Taoism emerged within the context, and in contrast to, Confucianism. This other school of Chinese philosophy places emphasis on ritual and etiquette, and is therefore perceived by Taoists as quite repressive of nature, sacrificing naturalness in the altar of formality, ritual, and deference. It represents culture whereas Taoism celebrates nature.

Although Epicurus’ instructions to follow the laws and customs of the state and of larger society resonates with Confucian formality and conformity to some extent, ultimately his lathe biosas (live unknown) teaching resonates more with Taoist belief in wu-wei (non-action, or non-resistence).

And so, this virtue of naturalness seems completely at home in Epicureanism, where virtue is defined as the means to pleasure and happiness. Can a man be at ease and achieve ataraxia while alienated from his natural self? It is clear that our teachers appeal to the natural state of things and to the nature of things as an ultimate authority, and even cite the newborn baby’s natural state as an example of why the pleasure and pain principles are irresistible.

I must also note that this naturalness that Taoists refer to is different from naturalism–an “-ism” most often understood as opposed to the belief in the supernatural. Naturalness is a positive human value, a real value and quality that leads to authenticity, creativity and efficiency.

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The Doublet as a Technique for Making Philosophy Tangible

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.

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Mormon “Prophet” Had Over 40 Wives

Joseph Smith, the convicted con-man who wrote the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormon Church) … had nothing but love to give!

The New York Times finally broke the spell of political correctness that has been keeping mainstream media from openly discussing some of the more embarrassing facts about the founder of the Mormon cult, Joseph Smith, and the culture of sexual exploitation that he built around himself in It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives. The confession is a triumph of the information era, as the article says:

The church’s disclosures, in a series of essays online, are part of an effort to be transparent about its history at a time when church members are increasingly encountering disturbing claims about the faith on the Internet.

Some of the details that are finally being confessed by Mormon Church leadership include how at least one of his wives was 14 years old, and how some of his other wives were already married to other men (his own church-members) when he took them up as wives. These scandalous claims were already known in online secularist circles. However, like the recent media-savvy campaigns that the Catholic Church has been carrying out to clean up its image after its own recent sexual scandals, the Mormon Church has not changed its evil, immoral, baseless doctrine regarding how wives are “sealed” for eternity and will have to serve their husbands forever in the afterlife. The NYT article explains that this still represents real spiritual and emotional abuse, not just for women in polygamous arrangements but also, and particularly, for women who consider remarrying after becoming widows:

Kristine Haglund, the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, said that while she found the church’s new transparency “really hopeful,” she and other women she had talked with were disturbed that the essays do not address the painful teaching about polygamy in eternity.

“These are real issues for Mormon women,” Ms. Haglund said. “And because the church has never said definitively that polygamy won’t be practiced in heaven, even very devout and quite conservative women are really troubled by it.”

This is because men are not “sealed” to their wives in the same way as women are to their husbands. In the Mormon afterlife, devout Mormon men are taught that they will get their own planets with multiple wives (well, sexually available servants, really) to rule over.

But Ex-Mormons have recently been gaining visibility and are covering all their bases, helping to correct the harm that their former church has inflicted. They have foundations and recovery groups and webpages. Emboldened by campaigns to normalize the image of Mormonism which include The Learning Channel’s Sister Wives series and the I’m A Mormon video testimonial series on youtube, Ex-Mormons have initiated their own friendly I’m An Ex-Mormon video series.

Emboldened by the so-called scholars who attempt to interpret the lack of scientific, archaeological and genetic evidence for Mormon claims in a distorted manner, there’s also an Ex-Mormon Scholars Testify webpage. The verifiably-false claims that the Mormon prophet made include that the Native Americans are descended from lost Jewish tribes. Aboriginals in our hemisphere carry genetic markers in their DNA from East Asia, and are related to the Chukchi people of Siberia. The Mormon prophet also claimed that Jesus visited the Americas.

The Mormons have always carried out PR campaigns and have an admirable missionary zeal, but recent scandals concerning their persistent political involvement, for which churches risk losing their 501(c)3 non-profit status, produce uncomfortable questions and suspicions–particularly among those of us who are concerned about inappropriate religious intrusion in the public and even in the private lives of citizens. The recent film 8: The Mormon Proposition, for instance, covers the Mormon fight against gay marriage in California in 2008 (where big Mormon money talked, although Mormons in California make up less than 2% of the population), its history of physical and mental abuse–and even torture–of gays under the guise of reparative therapy, and the way in which LDS Church has never, not once, ever opened its financial books for audit … add to that Mitt Romney’s 2012 attempt at ruling the country on the heels of that.

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Sita Sings the Blues

I was caught by surprise recently when I bumped into a secularist, perhaps a bit blasphemous, animated film titled Sita Sings the Blues. It is a re-telling of the story of Sita from a critical and non-devotional perspective. The film is based on the Hindu holy epic of the Ramayana, which concerns the supposedly virtuous avatar (incarnation of God) Rama, a King who incarnated in Ayodhya thousands of years ago. According to the epic, Rama was banished by his father into the forest with his wife, Sita, and (being a man-God and non-different from Jesus and Sri Krishna, who also expelled demons) there he decided to start killing demons.

During these adventures, Sita was abducted by Ravana and later had to be rescued; however the tale is full of instances of abuse and mistreatment by Rama, where the place of women in Hindu society was inculcated via the re-telling of the Ramayana narrative. There are several instances where Sita had to prove her purity, including a trial by fire which is reminiscent of the old Hindu tradition of “widow-burning”, one of the most heinous aspects of the Ramayana which has been criticized by secularists and feminists for many generations.

I’ve been a big fan of the Ramayana for many years and was a bit shocked at the portrayal of the characters in this manner, having been exposed to the legend in a devotional setting many years ago. However, it is no doubt that the criticism of both Sita and Rama, the choices they make, and the ways in which the Ramayana itself has been used to model abusive relations in Indian society throughout the centuries, is well deserved.

This animated film tackles a very touchy and controversial subject in traditional Hindu society, but it was a long time coming. I fast-forwarded through some of the jazzy musical portions of it, but I’m familiar with the narrative. Others may find it useful to gain a better understanding of the nuances and issues. Please enjoy Sita Sings the Blues.

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