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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Parables: the Joys of Being Carried

Carry Me or I Will Carry You

Much more magical than any book in the Christian or Jewish Bible, the book of Parables in the Humanist Bible reads at times like the Humanist 1,001 Nights … stories within stories within stories, fables within fables with moral teachings smartly woven into them, and precious nuggets of wisdom thrown in every now and then for the philosophy-loving soul to ponder.

The book doesn’t just bestow entertaining parables. There’s also a celebration of the art of storytelling, where we learn the therapeutic value of narratives in themselves. The maxim “Carry me or I will carry you” is repeated from time to time. It signifies that we should tell stories to make  our life journey bearable, that without meaning and without sense, life becomes unbearable and that these narratives contribute to the manufacturing of meaning.

There are several portions with advise for people who travel, and speak of how travel relates to the search for wisdom. These portions are reminiscent of the Havamal‘s runes for griots or stray-singers. We learn that hunger ends friendships, that the rich are oftentimes mean whereas the poor are oftentimes kind, and that a crime is mitigated if you confess but is greater if you bring others to commit it.

Some of the most memorable fables are the tale of the monkey and the hiena, and the tales of the king of the fabled City of Stones.

Education as a Quintessential Human Value

Your book was leading you, not you it. – Parables 22:7

There is a portion in praise of books and learning, and we are encouraged to read a good book with a friend (15:1-5).

A word in celebration of Humanist values must be added here, particularly in light of recent events in various parts of the Muslim world.

It was recently announced that the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who nearly lost her life for her advocacy of girls’ right to an education in her Islam-ridden country. Elsewhere in the Muslim parts of Nigeria, the West-hating terrorist organization Boko Haram abducted young girls whose only crime was attending a school. The speculation is that they’re being kept as sexual slaves. They have not been found. In contrast, we find a celebration of the education of girls in the secular humanist Bible.

The entire book of Parables ends with an entertaining legend about legendary sisters from a poor, isolated village who want to see the world and get an education. Eventually the girls end up founding a school under a tree.

And the past and future gather round you when you and your teacher are sitting there. – Parables 23:27

 Further Reading:

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

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Two Kinds of Philosophers

There are two kinds of philosophers. One is a person who seeks his own answers to philosophical questions. The other is someone who is an expert on the history of philosophy but does not necessarily construct his own philosophy.

Jostein Gaarder, in Sophie’s World

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A Review of Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a history of philosophy written in the format of a mystery novel by Jostein Gaarder. It had been recommended to me many years ago.

The novel concerns a little girl, Sophia, who gets a correspondence course in philosophy from a mysterious character … further details into the plot would require spilling the beans, which I won’t do, except to point out that this is also a coming-of-age story which revolves around the 15th birthday of the main character.

The book is a great introductory work for adults and even for children of all ages. It explains the main questions of philosophy in a manner that is easy to understand even for a young audience. In addition to weaving a witty and entertaining narrative, the author utilizes surprising didactic methods, like comparing philosophical concepts to games that children play. Democritus’ atomism, for instance, is compared to the construction game Lego. At the end of the novel, there is an index where important terms are cross-referenced (which is rare for a work of fiction) and even a study guide for students of philosophy wanting to gain the most from the book.

Gaarder does a fine job at presenting even complicated moral and philosophical matters through the mouthpiece of his philosophy instructor. For instance, we find this quote:

… We cannot use reason as a yardstick for how we ought to act … You know that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews. Would you say that there was something wrong with the Nazis’ reason, or with their emotional life?
… Many of them were exceedingly clear-headed. It is not unusual to find ice-cold calculation behind the most callous decisions. Many of the Nazis were convicted after the war, but they were not convicted for being ‘unreasonable’. They were convicted for being gruesome murderers.

- Jostein Gaarder, in the book Sophie’s World

There are also instances where important insights into certain philosophers are shared, perhaps as a warning ….

According to Aristotle, Plato was trapped in a mythical world picture in which the human imagination was confused with the real world.

Another musing I encountered as I read the book from the lens of my own tradition is how the idea of reminiscing as a therapeutic practice, which the Epicurean Masters instructed their pupils to do, was incorporated and expanded upon in the days of Hegel.

Hegel taught that human thought goes through an evolutionary cycle via a process of thesis–antithesis-synthesis that he called dialectic, and that history was about this human process. He was concerned with the idea of the collective unconscious and the collective psyche, an idea which gained visibility thanks to Freud. The author brought up the notion of how national identities form through the recreation of national and ethnic myths and narratives, which brought about this idea of collective reminiscing and its therapeutic possibilities.

Any transpersonal experience is likely to have therapeutic properties, since humans are social creatures that exhibit a natural need to belong, a strong territorial instinct, and a need to interact with others, to transform isolation into organic, natural community. But do nations, tribes, ethnic groups also collectively have a need to gather themselves in this manner periodically?

It seems that Epicurus would have recognized this need, and the therapeutic usefulness of this, for the collective. Epicurus may have been an individualist, but he was also an advocate of intimate circles of friends and even created a monthly gathering on the 20th of every month to bring his friends together to remember him and Metrodorus.

My only criticism of the book is an instance where the author seems to indicate that radical skepticism is a healthy attribute of a good philosopher, even suggesting that we should accept the possibility of the existence of trolls, faeries, etc.

“There it is! We’ve found it!
“I do believe you’re right, but don’t shout so loud.”
“Why? There’s no one to hear us.”
“My dear Sophie–after a whole course in philosophy, I’m very disappointed to find you still jumping to conclusions.”
“Yes, but …”
“Surely you don’t believe this place is entirely devoid of trolls, pixies, wood nymphs, and good fairies?”

A young reader reading this might consider this type of laughable radical skepticism a legitimate view, and abandon all reliance on the senses as a measuring stick for reality, forever becoming disconnected from nature. This is a potential temptation, particularly for young souls in the age of Harry Potter.

Overall, Sophie’s World is a great novel, easy to follow, and a very enjoyable literary adventure. However, it’s long and has huge didactic value. Expect to take your time.

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