Happy Twentieth! Anticipating Fortune

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! Today is International Day of Happiness, and the Epicurean Garden in Athens has been busy promoting today with an event called Happiness is a Human Right, which is part of their Declaration of Pallini initiative to establish the right to happiness for every citizen of the European Union.

In my message of the last twentieth, I opened up a conversation about Epicurean economics. Since then, Scientific American published a very intelligently-argued piece titled Revolt against the Rich: Nobel laureates, a new congresswoman and others urge raising taxes on the ultrawealthy to counter surging inequality with numerous links whose content is as interesting as the essay itself. One of the questions posed in our discussions of labor and leisure deals with what will we do when automation replaces the majority of our jobs, and there is a growing movement that proposes a common-sense solution: abolish billionaires (via taxation of excess wealth). I believe that the advance of automation will inevitably bring to light the urgency of this.

The essay Adam Smith, Loneliness, and the Limits of Mainstream Economics argues that many factors are difficult or impossible to quantify in the field of economics. The essay raises important questions:

What happens to people who no one pays attention to, people who struggle to find respect, honor, love? What happens to people who feel as if they do not matter?

Mass shootings in America are almost always done by a lonely man with a gun.

The policy debate focuses on the gun…

The essay also discusses the opium crisis, and reminds me of Eastern countries that use a Gross Domestic Happiness index to measure the well-being of their citizens, rather than the strictly-mathematical models used in the West, which many claim to be more scientific but are in many ways deficient. Clearly, when the banking cartel is making money, this will likely show up as a sign of economic strength in a country, but in reality it means that more people may be in debt. The measured gain does not represent well-being for the majority. And so many things that are quantifiable mathematically do not correlate in any way with the well-being of the members of society. It seems to me, then, that mainstream economists are distorting or confusing our values–perhaps through no fault of their own, because so many things related to our well-being are hard to quantify.

I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47

I have been considering the above Epicurean Saying in light of Epicurean economics. Most commentary on the saying focuses on the attitude one is to have at the time of death, and on how we should show disdain towards Fortune. But Norman DeWitt once said that, to Epicureans, “the unplanned life is not worth living“, and another way of reading this saying would ask the questions:

How do we anticipate Fortune? How do we arm ourselves, or entrench ourselves against her attacks?

I can not imagine answering this without discussing important, long-term self-sufficiency projects, and without delving deeply into important economic issues. In other words, how do we make ourselves worthy of this saying, so that we live our lives with the confident expectation that we will be able to provide our natural and necessary pleasures? This requires–among other virtues–autarchy!

On the subject of autarchy and reinvention of labor and retirement, the TED Speech Why you should think about financial independence and mini-retirements by Lacey Filipich, discusses the freedom and happiness one is able to enjoy when one has what former Uruguay president famously called “time to love“. Speaking of time, here is a great review of the book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund (book here); and the essay Epicureans on Squandering Life, by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, was published this month. It included the following Lucretius quote:

You, even while you still have life, are as good as dead. You squander the greater part of your time in sleep, you snore when awake . . . you are buffeted with countless cares on every side and drift aimlessly in utter bewilderment of mind. (DRN 3.1050)

I found an interesting essay that discusses what might seem like Epicurean interior design titled Marie Kondo’s deceptively simple ‘Tidying Up’ tips are spreading the gospel of joy when Americans need it most, with the subtitle “Kondo’s show is popularizing an array of un-American philosophies: be thankful for what you already have, practice humility, seek peace“. I initially read about Kondo in a book about Hygge, of which I wrote a book review. Also read:

Man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings. – Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus

Further Learning:

TED Speech: Why you should think about financial independence and mini-retirements by Lacey Filipich

 This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

Trickle-Down Economics Must Die, Long Live Grow-Up Economics

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Hygge and the Landscape of Pleasure

I recently finished (slowly) reading How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life. Hygge (pronounced “huga”) is a Scandinavian lifestyle based on conviviality, on making life easy, and spending time with friends and in nature. One may find hygge recipes, hygge design ideas, mugs, clothing, fabrics, social events, and many other cultural memes.

Like sumak kawsay–the “good life” culture of the Incas and their modern heirs in South America–hygge is to the Scandinavians a localized type of Epicurean practice, a philosophy of life that is rooted in the landscape and in the culture. Wisdom traditions like hygge and sumak kawsay make philosophy and ethics both tangible and culturally specific.

Fika

Image result for danish hyggeOne component of hygge is fika, the Scandinavian tradition of enjoying coffee with friends. By coffee we don’t just mean the drink, but also long, intimate, friendly conversation for hours. Fika reminds me of the culture of philosopher cafés, which is quite popular in France and became the breeding ground for many intellectual movements. The existentialists (particularly Sartre and De Beauvoir), for instance, were known for their conversations in Parisian cafés. Fika also reminds me of the (quasi-)ceremonial drinks of other cultures: South American yerba mate (the drink of friendship), Polynesian kava (the drink of peace), and others.

The book mentions the Spanish tradition of la sobremesa as an Iberian version of the fika tradition. I hadn’t heard the word. This appears to be a tradition in Spain where people enjoy conversation over tapas. Here are some of the Real Academia Española‘s definitions of sobremesa:

sobremesa

2. f. Tiempo que se está a la mesa después de haber comido.

2. loc. adv. Inmediatamente después de comer, y sin levantarse de la mesa.

(=the time that one is at the table after having eaten … immediately after eating, and without leaving the table)

In Spanish, we also have the word tertulias, which are informal gatherings to discuss current affairs, or the arts, or to hold other intellectual conversations. Fika reminds me of the Epicurean feasts on the 20th. The author invites us to honor fika, to treat our daily social act with friends over dinner like a sabbat, where everything stops and one allows for a collective restoration.

The author cites a program for immigrants to Sweden which helps them to connect to locals, make new friends, begin to assimilate and feel part of the local community over food. It’s true that food (and music) are two of the few things that bring people together (… just as much as religion and politics tear people apart).

Image result for danish hygge

Miscellaneous Points

Concerning exercise and the outdoors lifestyle, the book says:

“It’s never about looking good, it’s about feeling great all year round.” – p. 7

“You can’t be healthy if you’re always anxious about food, body, and about life in general.” – p. 19

In pages 39-40, the author says that while cultivating a good body image and confidence, we should focus more on what our body can do versus how it looks. Concerning expense:

“Don’t go crazy buying something fancy that costs an arm and a leg. You want something durable and sensible. Nature doesn’t care if you own the latest fashion brand accessory. The main thing is to invest carefully in a few useful items that will stand the test of time.” – p. 21

Epicurean Scenes

Image result for danish hyggeA large part of the book is dedicated to the Scandinavian theory and practice of creating an ambience (typically around the house) that is defined culturally as hygge. This type of décor is characterized by being natural and simple. The book (page 25) gives ideas for the best house plants (bamboo, aloe vera, etc.), and gives design ideas related to Scandinavian furniture and design.

I took great interest in this, in part, because about a year ago I was hired to translate two books from French into English and from Spanish into English for UIC architect Terry Nichols Clark. The final product is titled Latin Scenes: Streetlife and Local Place in France, Spain, and the World. It discusses the creation of “scenes” in different neighborhoods of European cities form the perspectives of policy, economics, migration, and culture.

Not only was I able to practice my languages, which I love, but I also learned to think differently about architecture, and to think in terms of the scenes that people create in order to live the way that they desire. It got me thinking about whether we may be able to create Epicurean urban (or rural) scenes to elicit pleasant experiences. Was “the Garden” not such a type of scene? Can there be an Epicurean theory of space and of architecture?

Particularly when it’s cold out (like it was here in Chicago a few weeks ago), the idea of nesting–the home-centered lifestyle–becomes appealing. In Chicago, for about 2-3 weeks every winter, we experience a phenomenon known informally as Chiberia. This is when I enjoy the pleasures of privacy the most. But hygge is also about friluftsliv–the English literal translation of which is “free air life”: life in the outdoors, no matter the season.

It is noteworthy that there are several other wisdom traditions that pay special attention to scenes. In LaVeyan Satanism, the creation of “total environments” fully dedicated to the pursuit of a particular set of pleasures is one of the doctrinal points. I believe this has to do with LaVeyan ritual theories, which aim at the creation of a sort of psychological “decompression chamber”.

Mahayana Buddhism also has doctrines related to the Buddhalands, the modern interpretations of which teach that each Buddha (or each awakening being) creates, with his or her merit and thoughts and actions, a Buddhaland around him or her, his own type of Buddha-scene which is a reflection of his accomplishment, awakening, kindness, and other qualities. In the Nichiren tradition, emphasis is placed on how there is unity between self and space. This makes sense if we consider that all experience requires not just a subject but also an object and a context: if the experience of a sentient being is to be pleasant, then the context into which that being is embedded–like a thread in a mat–must also be pleasant. All of this brings me to a fascinating figure: the Japanese guru of tidiness, Marie Kondo.

Our Fetishes of Gratitude

Kondo is only mentioned in passing in the book. In page 24, we are invited to use Kondo’s methods of tidying up to create hygge ambiance: ask yourself if an item sparks joy, and if not, ditch the item. She does not just focus on getting rid of clutter, but on keeping only items that spark joy. This means that we should have a positive or pleasant feeling that connects us to the items that we do keep.

So I decided to dig deeper and watched a few Marie Kondo videos on YouTube. Like the hygge lifestyle, Kondo’s concept of design is very similar to the simplicity, calm, and clarity of Japanese design and reminiscent of Shinto spirituality. Shintoism is the aboriginal religion of Japan. She was trained as a Shinto temple maiden, a role which taught her the ethical value of cleanliness and organization. Unlike the superstitious Feng Shui tradition–which focuses on furniture and item placement to attract luck and avert evil–Kondo focuses on personal space to maximize contentment (and also–as in hygge–utility).

Kondo incorporates ritual propriety into her tidiness practice, something she no doubt acquired from Shinto spirituality. Her teachings seem to aim at greater harmony between the inner and the outer worlds, and she considers the home to be one’s shrine, or power spot. Before she begins the process of de-cluttering a home, she will sit in the space and ritually greet the home.

Kondo is deeply aware of the emotional attachments and reactions people have to things, and teaches us to have mindfulness about the items we keep in our space, to dust them often, and display them with dignity and care. When an item no longer serves us and we decide to get rid of it, she teaches her clients “to thank their belongings” for their service before binning them. She uses this form of playful animism (again, inspired in the Shinto tradition) as a form of therapy. It helps people to feel less guilty about throwing away things that once may have held value or had utility.

Kondo is so mainstream that her name has come to signify “tidying up”. For example, if I say “today I am kondo-ing my desk“, this means I am applying Kondo’s techniques for tidying up.

Epicurus says of the knowledge we possess that it must lead to pleasure. Marie Kondo says the same thing of the **things** we possess and choose to keep in our space, and of the space we inhabit: they should give us a pleasant feeling. Her theories (as well as hygge notions of design and style) have a general connection with materialist philosophy. They help to connect theory and practice, to make philosophy tangible, concrete, and specific. We are invited to be grateful for the things we have (even if they have served their purpose and we no longer need them and decide to get rid of them), until each item in our space becomes a “fetish of gratitude”, a concrete, clear materialization of one of our grateful thoughts.

The ungrateful nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69

Further Reading:

How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life

New research shows why it’s better to live a cleaner and less cluttered life

Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations: Clutter problems led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults

Extreme KonMari Method Decluttering – Before and After

On the Architecture of Pleasure

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Happy Birthday India, Queen of Salsa AND Freestyle

See the source imageToday is Linda Caballero’s (aka India‘s) birthday, and this blog is my homage to her musical legacy. Most Latin people will remember her for her long, bilingual musical trajectory.

India is Nuyorican through and through. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, she was from the onset fully bilingual and in every way bicultural, and started her career very young with Freestyle hits like Dancing On The Fire and Lover Who Rocks You. She also later put out the song Love and Happiness, which is an Afro-Latin-House dance song in celebration of the two main Orishas–Goddesses of the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santeria. India has always been devoted to the orishas and to her ancestors, and has always believed in spirits. Her work with Eddie Palmieri included beautiful Santeria chants, and she once claimed that she felt the spirit of Selena while on stage at a concert in her memory.

And so she was already well known in the dance scene before making her entry into the world of salsa under the auspices of Eddie Palmieri–singing Mi Primera Rumba (which roughly translates as “my first Latin jam“) while flashing imagery that included her smoking a Cuban cigar.

Most people who know her today, know her as the Queen of Salsa. This title was conferred upon her by the former Queen of Salsa herself Celia Cruz before she died–naming her the Princess of Salsa in the lyrics of a song they sang together (which, presumably, indicates that Celia saw her as continuing her legacy), and later reaffirmed by Juan Gabriel, who in one interview called her the Goddess of Salsa. And THAT she is … but first, she was the Queen of Freestyle towards the final years of the very prolific era of Latin Freestyle. This era included pop songs that had a Latin beat like Move Out, Clave Rocks, Come Into My ArmsSincerely Yours, Summertime, Come Go With Me, and You Should Know By Now–which featured a very young Marc Anthony in the very early stages of his career. (I’m listing these as a shout-out to all my readers from my generation who want to reminisce!)

(By the way, I’d like to note that the influence of Latin rhythms in American pop music is still there but often very subtle, something of which I was made aware while listening to Robi Rosa’s pop rock song Lie Without a Lover and noticing the underlying Cuban beat–which can be noticed perhaps if one listens to Buena Vista Social Club’s Buenos Hermanos right after or before listening to Lie Without a Lover. Similar Cuban influences in American rock can be found in Santana and others.)

India exploded into the salsa scene twice: first, with Llegó la India vía Eddie Palmieri. Palmieri is a legendary veteran salsa musician from the early stages of the evolution of the genre, when salsa was still emerging out of Latin jazz in New York. I’d describe India’s sound as Latin, urban, fierce, young, soulful, and jazzy, all at once. Palmieri saw India’s inevitable future rise in the 90’s and wanted to bring her energy into the salsa genre. Solitude is from this CD.

She later exploded again–this time, REALLY exploded as an international salsa sensation–with the romantic salsa duet with Marc Anthony Vivir lo Nuestro. Worthy of special mention is her instant classic Jazzin’, which was a collaboration with legendary Tito Puente, and included her cover of Fever and this:

It is rare to find such versatility and fierceness in an artist. It has been rumored that in recent years India has been going through depression and other difficulties, and she had become somewhat of a protégé of Mexican singer Juan Gabriel–the greatest Latin American composer of our generation–before he died. His death greatly affected her. I’m sharing this blog with my followers because I love India, for years she has given me joy with her music, and I love sharing it with others.

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Unification Church (the Moonies): the Bizarre Mail-Order-Brides Cult from Korea

On this date, Sun Myung Moon was born in Korea. He’s considered a messiah figure by the so-called “Unification Church” (aka the Moonies), a bizarre cult that incorporates radical heterosexist ideology, conservative Christian politics, and Asian mail-order-brides. Well, not exactly, but sort of. People would fill out paperwork to “apply” for a spouse and, for a small fee, their messiah would choose their future spouses for them. And the members had so much faith in their leader that they would marry complete strangers from other parts of the world, ignoring the language barrier and other potential problems, and fully trusting the most important choice of their lives to a man from Korea who claims to have personally spoken with Jesus Christ when he was 16.

In 2012, Steve Hassan–who has dedicated years of his life to raising awareness about cults and their mind-control tactics–wrote a piece for The Guardian titled “I was a Moonie cult leader“. Upon being segregated from his family and community by the cult in the ’70’s, he says:

Little did I know, within a few weeks I would be told to drop out of school, donate my bank account, look at Moon as my true parent, and believe my parents were Satan.

Back around the year 2000-ish, I had a Moonie church almost next door to me in a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. They had either Korean or Japanese ladies walking up and down the neighborhood, very friendly and sociable all of them, aggressively proselytizing and amicably encouraging people to visit their church. The church had a banquet hall and offered delicious Asian food, which I imagine attracted many homeless or poor residents of the neighborhood. I visited the church three or four times–usually at the friendly but firm insistence of the missionaries–, enjoyed the food and had a chance to read some of their religious literature, which is how I realized how crazy their doctrine was.

The last time I was there, one French lady who had befriended me insisted that I should apply for a bride. I found the idea nauseating, not only because I’m gay, but also because no one (not even a Korean messiah) should have this asphyxiating level over control of someone else’s life. I don’t even think parents should have the right to choose their sons’ and daughters’ spouses. This is a such an intimate, private matter, that it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would put this in the hands of Sun Myung Moon. Upon my refusal to purchase a mail-order bride from their messiah, she insisted I had to show more dedication to the study of the Divine Principle–this is the name for their scripture, which basically postulates salvation through heterosexual marriage.

The friendliness and warmth of cult members quickly makes one ashamed of non-compliance. After this awkward exchange, I never went back. I later learned that the Moonies have given generous contributions to far-right causes in American politics, which is probably why they haven’t yet invited a greater degree of public attention as a bizarre cult. Homophobic ideology buys clout in certain political circles! As it is, leaders of a cult that is seeking normalization have plenty of reasons to buy influence from career politicians whose moral compass points to the far-right.

During my visits to the Moonie temple, I remember that one of the applicants who applied for a wife was an immigrant from Morocco–a country where more than half the women suffer domestic violence. This was before September 11, so everyone back then was much more innocent and uneducated about the many dysfunctions of Islamic societies. The wives available from the Moonies’ catalogue were almost always east Asian. I can not imagine that their messiah had the means to carry out background checks, or investigate the criminal records or mental health of the applicants. How would he have done that from Korea, with applications from all over the planet?

Moon died in 2012. I’m pretty sure his followers will build a mythology around him now that he’s dead. It’s possible that some of them found spouses through him that ended up being alright or even great spouses or parents, but I suspect that many of them–especially the women–will have many stories of disillusionment to tell in the coming years.

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Happy Twentieth! On Epicurean Economics

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month we celebrated 10 years of the GARDEN OF ATHENS: Celebration of a Decade of Pleasure, and the PEL podcast published their follow-up to the Lucretius episode (which focused on the physics), titled Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure. This one focuses on the ethics.

Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part One)
Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part Two)

This month, we discovered a piece published in thesimpledollar.com–a webpage that seeks to simplify financial education–titled How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life, by Trent Hamm. The piece relates the Epicurean curriculum of control of desires and the mathematics of hedonic calculus to simple yet pleasant living, and financial independence. It’s also a great introduction and starting point for delving into Epicurean economics. The founders of EP specifically gave instructions to philosophize around economics, as autarchy (self-sufficiency) facilitates the confident expectation that we will be able to easily secure the natural and necessary goods, which confers tranquility and pleasure.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

See the source imageSome of our precursors have begun to approach and flesh out the subject from various perspectives. Philodemus of Gadara, in the First Century, compiled the Epicurean wisdom tradition up to his day concerning economics into a scroll titled On the art of property Management. Both Trent Hamm and Philodemus wrote mainly on personal finances. Later on, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the excesses of wealth and poverty, and on his concept of the social contract. An NY Mag piece cites his initial introspections:

[T]he solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands … I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.

Even in his early day, Jefferson had begun to worry about and problematize the gap between the rich and the poor and the moral problems related to the over-abundance and unequal distribution of wealth that characterize American capitalism. He was no socialist, but he did exhibit social-democratic tendencies in his ideas about progressive taxation. Here is how Jefferson proposes to address the obscene coexistence of concentrated wealth and underemployed workers:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one.

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.

The main point I wish to accentuate here is this: “to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise“–as this reminds me of Philodemus’ doctrine of the natural measure of wealth, and there seems to be the beginnings of an Epicurean theory of taxation here, one that never got fully articulated until Jefferson’s day. The quickest explanation of the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth is from my commentary on Philodemus’ scroll:

One fundamental concept in the Epicurean understanding of economics is the concept of natural wealth.  In our assessment of desires, we classify them as either natural or unnatural and as necessary or unnecessary.  Those that are neither natural nor necessary, are said to be vain and empty.  The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires, as opposed to empty desires.

Elsewhere in his scroll On Choices and Avoidances, Philodemus elaborates natural wealth in his doctrine of the principal things, or the chief goods (kyriotatai). These chief goods are things that lead to life, health, and happiness and include specifics like shelter, safety, food, clothing, health, and wholesome association. Here, Philodemus is echoing and elaborating on Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where the Master says:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live.

Philodemus–in On Choices and Avoidances–further criticizes people who do not discern clearly between the chief goods and empty desires. This preoccupation is one of the central concerns of Epicurean ethics, and it’s framed here by asking what it is that our own nature needs, and inviting us to separate natural pleasures form the vain desires instilled into our minds by cultural convention.

Column V. For men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires which they take to be most necessary–I mean desires for sovereignty and … reputation and great wealth and suchlike luxuries … they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature.

And so Jefferson’s ideas on taxation are consistent with both the first elements of Epicurean ethics and with Philodemus’ elaboration of them, and they further flesh out both. He proposes that only income beyond what is needed to secure the natural and necessary desires should be taxed. This, of course, must be measured for each community (and even for some individuals who may, for instance, suffer from certain health risks or conditions) separately, based on particulars–for example, where housing or food is expensive, a greater allowance must be provided. Notice that access to health services is advocated here.

An Epicurean model of taxation based on Jefferson’s ideas would require that the basic measure of these chief goods be quantified, so as to only tax citizens beyond this point.

I have sought to present some of the basic ideas in Epicurean economics. My hope is that they will be further elaborated and discussed. Autarchy (self-sufficiency) involves some of the most important existential tasks that we have to undertake, as well as many of the most important instances of hedonic calculus that require long-term planning and deferral of gratification. The subject of autarchy should not be neglected: it should be one of the foundations upon which we build lives of easy pleasure.

Further Reading:

Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management (Part I, Part II)

How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform your Financial Life

Universal Basic Income, Its Pros and Cons With Examples

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“No Redeemer Liveth”: Comparing Christianity, Islam and Satanism

No burdened soul can carry the burden of another. – Qur’an 35:18

On the issue of personal responsibility, the Qur’an seems at least on one account superior to the New Testament: there is no atonement by the blood of Jesus. No one must sacrifice himself for another, and there is no need for a redeemer in the Christian sense. No innocent person may pay for the crimes of the guilty. In the Qur’an, each soul bears its own sin (6:164, 39:7). A very meticulous math of justice is instead attempted.

We wrote for them in it: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and an equal wound for a wound; but whoever forgoes it in charity, it will serve as atonement for him. – Qur’an 5:45

The Qur’an calls for a law of vengeance, as described in both the Jewish and the Satanic Bible (an eye for eye), but forgiveness gives a soul credit or atonement so that if we have wronged someone, we may do charity to get karmic credit.

As a result, the Qur’an teaches a punitive morality that, in order to function, relies on people believing in and fearing this cosmic penal code. Without the persistent threats of punishment, Islam has no moral foundation, and so its scripture is filled with constant threats. This is the case at least in theory–prison statistics related to Islam, as well as the amount of domestic and societal violence in the Muslim world, seem to contradict the utility of punitive, authoritarian morality. Diogenes of Oenoanda argued in his Wall Inscription that it was self-evident that morality based on fear of divine punishment didn’t work.

Another result of this punitive morality is that the Islamic cosmos is, in part, a huge prison. Because Muhammad decided to attribute to God the powers that properly belong to the state (of keeping the law), the state’s monopoly on violence is projected against God, and even the angels are reimagined by Muhammad as thugs who commit brutality against human souls, “beating their faces and backs” (47:27). In the Qur’an, the cruel keepers of hell are angels who work for Allah (40:49) and God himself functions as a prison-keeper (see Qur’an 50:27-30). A totalitarian cosmic police state is described, complete with the practice of “detain-and-question” (37:24). Why someone should be interrogated–if God already knows everything, and has written it all down–is unclear.

Humans live in the universe that they are capable of imagining. It should therefore not surprise us that there are only three Arab countries with partly free press, and that of all the Arab countries only one is considered “free” (Tunisia), and that is only relative because its president must be a Muslim.

But this idea of the cosmos as a penal regime gains an interesting perspective when considered in light of the Satanic Bible, which is where we find the “no redeemer liveth” quote.

No Redeemer Liveth

There is no heaven of glory bright, and no hell where sinners roast. Here and now is our day of torment! Here and now is our day of joy! Here and now is our opportunity! Choose ye this day, this hour, for no redeemer liveth!

Say unto thine own heart, “I am mine own redeemer.”

Book of Satan IV.2-3, The Satanic Bible (plagiarized from Might is Right)

Both major branches of modern Satanism reject the idea of Satan as a person, viewing him instead as a mythical creature and a literary invention that serves as a good metaphor for their narrative. They also, naturally, reject the idea–popularized in hysterical Christian propaganda–that one is able to “sell one’s soul” to the devil. They explain that this idea belongs in Christianity, and that people who believe this are holding on to vestigial Christian beliefs according to which both the devil and God are slave-owning capitalists.

Let’s deconstruct this concept of “redemption”: Christians say that Jesus was executed on the cross for the sins of mortals, and that with his death and sacrifice he “paid the price” for our souls–which implies that our souls have a price. “Redeem” means to gain or regain possession of (something) in exchange for payment. The math here is not clear: Church fathers invented a doctrine that we are born in sin, so that even newly born babies need redemption to be flawless enough to “enter heaven”–where they’ll presumably encounter rapists, mass-murderers, thieves, and other criminals who repented and believed in Christ at the last minute. The word “redeem”, in the dictionary, also has to do with atoning for a crime–in the case of Jesus, an innocent Jewish rabbi supposedly atoned for the crimes of the millions of souls who worship him. Christian doctrine teaches that the innocent atoning for the guilty is moral and just.

There is a strong connection between the belief in Christ as redeemer and the belief that one has an eternal soul that one can sell to the devil. Behind both ideas lies the premise of the soul as merchandise that can be sold, purchased, put on lay away, redeemed in exchange for payment, used as collateral … and renders the individual either a slave–the property of deities or of demons–or a prisoner, if we are to follow the penal logic inherent in atoning for one’s crimes. In all cases, the suggestion presented by this theology is dehumanizing. There is no personal sovereignty, no possibility of autarchy or self-rule. (And, according to Raoul Vaneigem, “the Warden” of this cosmic penal colony also enforces labor in it!).

(By way of contrast, the soul to an Epicurean is the psyche, the neurological system that is embedded into our bodies, and it’s made of particles just like everything else. I can’t think of a way in which it could possibly be “sold” to anyone. It is inalienable and fully ours. Our “soul” must first be Platonized and denaturalized, and we must first be alienated from it, in order to then become merchandise in the cosmic prison scheme.)

Both ideas–that we need redemption and that we have a soul we can sell–are sand castles built on the premise that we are un-free. Slavery (or prison) is much more tempting than many realize: it takes away the burdens of our responsibilities and is a huge relief to many weary (and lazy) souls. Add to this the slave-holding mercantile logic we see in the above paragraph, and you’ll see how these ideas became cemented in the psyche of entire generations who were programmed to see themselves as merchandise, and unthinkingly acquiesced. When–as a child who has yet to acquire critical thinking skills–you are told to go to church weekly so that you can be persistently lied to, or else you’ll face ostracism or be deemed a pariah, this can serve as a huge incentive to imbibe the lies and forget the price one must pay to be part of the herd. A subconscious convenience fee for living in conventional society?

Man is condemned to be free. – Jean Paul Sartre

Fear-mongering preachers have always found utility in easily making superstitious people turn away from their own self-interest and self-sufficiency by attributing such virtues as self-interest and self-sufficiency to the devil. As long as these virtues are otherized and demoralized, the sheep will remain dependent and obedient, scared to go astray into the realms of the prodigal son.

The truth is that, indeed, “no redeemer liveth“. We are not merchandise. We do not have souls to “sell” to demons, and we do not need our “souls” redeemed, paid for, by gods or saviors. We are masters of our own lives, and responsible for ourselves and our actions–however much it may frighten us or bother us. It is our choice whether we want to be reluctant masters who lack self-awareness and responsibility, or eager and able masters.

Some final thoughts on bias: Satanism is not the only religion that teaches us that we are to be our own redeemers. Buddha said that we should be a lamp unto our own selves and be our own refuge. This is really not different from the “No redeemer liveth” passage in the Satanic Bible. The main difference is the source: most people who believe in the supernatural are scared of the devil and likely to reject the message only based on the source. What if this passage had been found in the Dhammapada, or some other sutra, instead of the Satanic Bible? Does the source make it true, or is truth independent of where we hear of it?

Most people think
a Great God will come from the sky,
take away everything
and make everybody feel high
but if you know what life is worth
you will look for yours on earth,
and now you see the light.
Stand up for your rights!

Bob Marley

Related reading:

On the Inhumanity of Religion (Book Review)

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Enemy Mine: Still a Sci-Fi Classic!

To most people who are living and watching media in the 21st Century–particularly the CGI we often find in sci-fi–a movie from the mid ’80s will seem, well, old and low-budget.

But there are classics that are timeless, like the first Planet of the Apes movie, or the original Mad Max films, or the first Star Wars trilogy. They never go out of fashion and should be experienced by everyone at least once in a lifetime. I consider Enemy Mine to be among such movies.

Featuring Louis Gossett Jr.–who was nominated for an Academy Award for this role–and a very young and handsome Dennis Quaid, the movie (and novel) tells the story of a human and a Drac (reptilian alien) who crash on an isolated planet as a result of the war between their two species. They initially hate each other, but lacking no one else to socialize or to help them survive, slowly become friends.

The race of the Dracs is shown as noble, and comparable in many ways to humans–who have enslaved them in illegal mining operations in various worlds. The genderless Dracs honor their ancestors and recite from memory the teachings of a sacred book known as the Talman–which must be sung in their gurgling language. The author has published follow-up works, including the Enemy Papers, which includes portions of the Talman.

Upon reaching adulthood, they must be presented before the Council of their Elders, and the parent must recite their ancestral lineage. This inspires the iconic final scene of the movie in their beautiful home planet Dracon.

I won’t give away too much else from the plot in the hopes that my readers will watch and enjoy the film, except to say that (even non-human) people need other people, and that we become truly civilized by learning to cooperate and pursue mutual benefit.

Further Reading:

Enemy Mine on Goodreads

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