The “Carpe Diem” Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Seize the Moment Podcast, where we discussed the Epicureanism essay I wrote for the book How to Live a Good Life. Only after my participation did it occur to me that the podcast is named after one of the most well-known Epicurean adages. It was the Epicurean poet Horace who coined the term “Carpe Diem” (which literally translates as Seize the Day). How appropriate! Please enjoy, comment, and share!

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Happy Twentieth! Did Epicurus Practice Intermittent Fasting?

Happy 20th to the students of philosophy everywhere. Some literary updates: an evaluation of the Epicurean doctrines on wealth has been published at Society of Epicurus. Some of the key insights are:

  • There is a natural measure of wealth (ploutou metron), and an Epicurean distinction between “natural” (physikos) and empty (kenos) wealth. The key distinguishing factor between them is that wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure (euporistos); but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity and is impossible or difficult to procure.
  • In economics, as in all else, we must run certain risks and go through certain inconveniences in order to avoid greater ruin and gain greater advantages.
  • Our ambitious efforts lead to wealth that is easily acquired if we employ our aptitude (that which we are good at), and if we enjoy doing what it takes to acquire things. In other words, the greater our aptitude, the less effort we have to put in. If we make great attempts at achieving something that we are not good at, or that we don’t like doing, the effort may not pass hedonic calculus.
  • When we are habituated to simple pleasures, we are in a better position to enjoy luxurious ones.
  • Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.

Additional insights about the economics may be drawn from Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management.

The following blog series is a series of book reviews of the works of Julien de la Mettrie, a French Enlightenment intellectual who was very influenced by Lucretius.

An Epicurean System

The Epicurean Canon in La Mettrie

Against Creationism

Anti-Seneca

La Mettrie comes off as an eloquent and well-informed philosopher who is deeply influenced by Lucretius, and who employs his wit and eloquence in defending Epicurean ideas from the Stoic attacks found in Seneca’s letters. He also takes sides with the Epicureans in the culture wars against the theologians and the clergy, and builds his own Epicurean system of philosophy focused on his defense of the idea that the soul is material. He’s interested in the natural history of the soul. He discusses the anatomy of the soul from the perspective of natural selection and evolution–even if he did not have yet access to Darwinian insights into the details of how these processes operate.

This month, the Caute blog published Facts Not fear. Clean Hands. Open Hearts. An Epicurean meditation on how to respond to the ongoing epidemic, and Thomas Nail–author of Ontology of Motion–wrote a piece for TheConversation.com titled Why a Roman philosopher’s views on the fear of death matter as coronavirus spreads, referring here to Lucretius. I also wrote a piece on Living Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus.

Speaking of Caute, Unitarian Minister Andrew J Brown has more than once hosted An Epicurean Gathering in his church. He graciously shared the Epicurean liturgy that he has used. Perhaps this may serve as a model for other Epicurean-leaning ministers of the Sunday Assembly, Unitarian and other churches.

Blogger Ryan Boissonneault wrote a somewhat critical review of How to Live a Good Life, for which I wrote the Epicureanism essay. In it, he criticized the book for treating religions as philosophies. I think Epicureanism has many features of a religious identity, but can religions be considered philosophies? I don’t yet have the answer to that, my first instinct is to say “Probably not“, but it’s an interesting question.

In recent months I had the pleasure of being commissioned to compile and write introductions for an audiobook which will include all the classical writings of Epicureanism. The publisher is Ukemi Audiobooks, which has already published audiobooks about a wide catalogue of philosophers. It was during this project that I came across this quote by Seneca, which I had not seen before:

The great hedonist teacher Epicurus used to observe certain periods during which he would be niggardly in satisfying his hunger, with the object of seeing to what extent, if at all, one thereby fell short of attaining full and complete pleasure, and whether it was worth going to much trouble to make the deficit good.  At least so he says in the letter he wrote to Polyaenus in the archonship of Charinus. He boasts in it indeed that he is managing to feed himself for less than a half-penny, whereas Metrodorus, not yet having made such good progress, needs a whole half-penny!

This is from Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, and it caught my attention because intermittent fasting is a popular trend today, and some people in my social media whom I respect have reported great benefits from it. These are not people who would typically follow the crowd, but people who think empirically, professors at universities, and so I looked into intermittent fasting and–although more research is needed–it seems like Epicurus and others who have incorporated fasting in some way into their lifestyle may have been on to something.

Clearly, Epicurus was no ascetic. His goal (as Seneca reports) in engaging in these experiments was to study the limits of pleasure in his own body. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have writings by Epicurus himself on what he learned from these experiments, but we can refer this practice to a portion of his Letter to Menoeceus.

And again independence of desire we think a great good–not that we may at all times enjoy but a few things, but that, if we do not possess many, we may enjoy the few in the genuine persuasion that those have the sweetest pleasure in luxury who least need it, and that all that is natural is easy to be obtained, but that which is superfluous is hard.

And so plain savors bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips.

To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries, disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune.

This–plus Metrodorus’ insistence to Timocrates that the stomach sets the standard to help us understand how little nature requires–makes it likely that Epicurus did engage in these experiments with fasting. Also, Epicurus says in Against Empty Words that we think empirically concerning actions based on the results observed from any course of action, so he would not have written this in his Letter to Menoeceus without first engaging in experiments in simple living, which is what Seneca reports.

We must also keep in mind that one of the Vatican Sayings teaches that “there is also a limit to simple living“, so that whatever disadvantages we endure must not impede a life of pleasure. That Epicurus authored this portion of the Letter to Menoeceus shows that he mostly succeeded in keeping a pleasant disposition during his periods of fast, and therefore was confident of his doctrine that what nature requires is not much and easy to procure.

Epicurean doctrine is based on empirical reasoning. Epicurus wasn’t just saying that our nature requires very little: he had the intellectual decency to carrying out experiments in his own body and immediate experience to test for himself the extent to which–as Seneca says–“if at all, one thereby fell short of attaining full and complete pleasure“. This is how we use the canon: by exposing our theories directly to our faculties.

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Further Reading:

Science-Based Medicine on Intermittent Fasting

Science Daily: Intermittent fasting may help those with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, study suggests

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Living Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus

The World Health Organization has officially declared coronavirus a global pandemic, and new routines are slowly creeping into workplaces and homes. Now one has to use disinfectant wipes when one presses the button in the elevator, or uses a fax machine or copier.

Coronavirus mortality rate is currently 3%. If today’s world population is estimated at 7,577,130,400 people, then the highest possible amount of deaths by coronavirus is 227,313,912. That’s almost 70 % of the US population. Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that the coronavirus was likely to infect about two-thirds of the German population, which is made up of 81.41 million people. Two thirds of that is 53,730,600, and a 3% mortality rate means that 1,611,918 Germans would die. This is a serious plague, even with its low mortality rate.

Plagues that kill a large proportion of the population happen every few generations, and became the stuff of myth and legend in many cultures. While out of the present health crisis, many religious movements will act out their end-time fantasies and some will engage in eschatological activism, actively celebrating and pursuing their demented ideas about how the world should end, those of us who do not suffer from end-time fever will seek more prudent things to do with our time.

Pleasure ethics proponents like Aristippus teach that we should be adaptable and flexible, seeing in every situation opportunities for pleasure. Thinking like an Epicurean about the changes in lifestyle posed by coronavirus should lead us to build our pleasure regimen around the restrictions imposed by a pandemic.

We have reason to be germophobic these days. One of the easiest lifestyle changes we can implement is to be mindful of our personal space. Coronavirus transmits within about six feet (according to the CDC), so this is the recommended distance with strangers, say, on the train–if possible.

We should wash our hands frequently with anti-bacterial soap, and have anti-bacterial wipes handy. We should avoid touching our faces frequently, and avoid touching surfaces that are touched by many others, and we should use disinfected wipes to handle door knobs, elevator buttons, etc.

We do not have to wear facemasks unless we are caregivers to patients. Facemasks are in short supply, and should be reserved for those in close contact with patients. However, while riding the train, I’ve noticed that some people are using their scarves as both fashion and facemask.

The Pleasures of Nesting

Since in these times we must avoid crowds (no hospitals, no cruisers, no concerts, no sports events if at all possible), we should focus on the pleasures of privacy and make of our home a refuge of tranquil pleasure. These are times to make the most of the intimate pleasures. We may read or write in our journal, or engage in other private pleasures and hobbies that we at other times find easy excuses to dismiss for being too idle.

We may watch movies at home (or binge-watch a series or our favorite shows) alone or–better yet– with loved ones or friends, and cook and eat at home.

The Pleasures of Hygiene

The Goddess Hygeia is the personification of health, and her name shares semantic roots with the word hygiene. There has always existed an association between dis-ease and impurity, and between health and purity or cleanliness. Since purity/cleanliness has acquired increased importance now that we’re experiencing a global pandemic, we should take some time to focus on activities related to hygiene.

We should daily keep all the surfaces of our homes and work environments clean with disinfectants. I like to play lively music at home when I’m mopping and cleaning so that the activity is much more enjoyable. I also enjoy my bubble baths, but we can built our lifestyles around other hygiene rituals.

The Pleasures of Ataraxia

The most important and steady pleasure we should cultivate is keeping a pleasant disposition–of which we are in control–in spite of what we see in the news. We do not need to avoid the news, although it’s frequently useful to diminish our consumption of  news media for the sake of peace of mind.

It is imprudent to panic. Death is nothing to us, so we should be concerned with the quality of our lives and the lives of those we love, for as long as we live.

Further Reading:

Learning from Lucretius in Times of Coronavirus

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The Egyptian Precursors to the Monotheistic Religions

The heresy initiated by the pharaoh Akhenaten is often cited as an early form of monotheism that emerged in Egypt, which influenced the emergence of Judaism and/or other monotheisms. However, many scholars have cast doubt on this narrative. The way that the cult of Akhenaten worked was as a worship of Akhenaten himself! The Pharaoh Akhenaten was seen as the only mediator between the people and the Aten (the Disk of the Sun, which represented Completeness), so prayers had to be presented by the people before the Pharaoh, who would present the daily prayers of the people before the Aten. This is completely different from monotheism as understood by most people today.

On the other hand, we hear that the main enemies of the Aten cult were the priests of Amon, whose theology we know some things about from the Prayer to Amon:

Hail to thee, Amun-Ra,
Lord of the thrones of the earth,
the oldest existence, ancient of heaven,
support of all things;
Chief of the gods,
lord of truth;
father of the gods,
maker of men and beasts and herbs;
maker of all things above and below;
Deliverer of the sufferer and oppressed,
judging the poor;
Lord of wisdom, lord of mercy;
most loving,
opener of every eye,
source of joy,
in whose goodness the gods rejoice,
thou whose name is hidden.
Thou art the One,
Maker of all that is,
the One;
the only One;
Maker of gods and men;
giving food to all.
Hail to thee, thou One with many heads;
sleepless when all others sleep,
adoration to thee.
Hail to thee from all creatures from every land,
from the height of heaven,
from the depth of the sea.
The spirits thou hast made extol thee, saying,
welcome to thee,
Father of the fathers of the gods;
we worship Thy Spirit which is in us.

The prayer to Amon is a fascinating insight into the theology of the cult of Amon, who was seen as “the most loving” Supreme Being. The fact that this prayer was published and has come down to us (when so much of what transpired inside the Egyptian temples was secret and only known by the priests who had access to the inner sanctum) must mean that the prayer was meant as a tool to teach their theology to common folk, and that it represents the exoteric and officially recognized expression of Amonism.

It gives us an idea as to why Amon’s priests were so powerful and their faith so appealing: Amon “delivered” the “sufferer and oppressed“, which basically meant almost everyone in the highly stratified society of Egypt. Amon, because his name meant “the Hidden One“, was able to hear the prayers of all. One did not need a statue. One did not need the mediation of a priest or of the Pharaoh, and so his cult was surprisingly democratic for Ancient Egyptian culture.

Notice particularly the portion that says “Thou art the One, Maker of all that is, the One; Hail to thee, thou One with many heads“. Here, we see a strong monotheistic tendency, if not full-blown monotheism. The description of Amon as “the One with many heads” (sometimes translated as “the One and the Million“) may refer to the idea that Amon takes on many Names and manifestations, or it may refer to the idea of pantheism–the belief that Amon is really the collection of all the sentient beings in the Universe, or that WE ARE all Amon. In fact, this monotheism is further explained as fully immanent, when the prayer says: “We worship thy Spirit, which is in us“. Amon, therefore, appears to be a personification of Father Nature, of all being.

Some versions of modern Kemeticism (revivals of the ancient religion of Kemet, or Egypt)–like Kemetic Orthodoxy–practice what they call “monolatry”, which they define as “One God, Many Names” because they feel that is the accurate understanding of the theology that prevailed in Egypt. They refer to the many Netjeru (gods of Egypt) as “Names“. This, curiously, may seem like a nod to the Islamic view that Allah has “the most beautiful names“, which is a quote from the Qur’an that is used sometimes by proselytizing Muslims to convince Hindus that many of the names of the Gods of Hinduism refer to Allah only. But among the epithets used for the Kemetic gods, we find “rich in names“. So this idea that Amon, or some other supreme God, was “the One and the Million” and that all the names referred to him, was native to Kemet (ancient Egypt) even if it also emerged elsewhere, and only later did the modern monotheists try to appropriate it in order to spread their beliefs.

While the cult of Aten was contrived in a single generation and did not succeed in gaining too many staying converts, the cult of Amon was widespread and expanded naturally in all directions, being even absorbed by other nations. Therefore, the appeal of the theology surrounding Amon is much better testified than whatever appeal the Aten heresy may have had, and Amonism is therefore much more likely to have influenced the monotheistic ideas of future generations.

Egypt, at different times during its history, was an empire. The project of empire-building frequently called for syncretistic belief systems of the kind that would favor these theological developments. The spread of monotheism has, similarly, frequently owed its success to imperial projects (the early Arab conquests after the death of Mohammed, or the late Roman Empire which cemented Catholic hegemony).

The Christ Before Jesus

In the past, I’ve written about how the cult of Antinous was a legitimate competition to early Christianity. But this cult was based on the Osirian prototype, which deserves its own focus here. Osiris was the Foremost of the Westerners who ruled the Duat, the Land of the Akhu (ancestors who were saved after their final judgment). This land was in the West because that’s where the Sun sets, and so all things progressed towards the West in the mind of ancient Egyptians. It was Osiris who judged, and then ruled over, the dead who lived in the Heavenly Kingdom–just as Christ later would.

It is hard to over-estimate the huge influence that the Osirian mysteries and imagery had on early Christianity, which spread initially among the Jews and Greeks of the Roman Empire (including in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt), and later to the rest of the empire.

Just as in the book St. Paul And Epicurus, Norman DeWitt claims that early Christians stole ideas from the Epicureans, it may also be said that they appropriated from the Greeks and Egyptians–in particular by incorporating ideas and practices from their mystery faiths into the Catholic sacrament of the eucharist and its related beliefs. Early Christianity was a Frankenstein monster made up of many ideas available in its day, just like Osiris’ many body parts which were put together by Isis magically.

When I was growing up Catholic, the litany of the Virgin Mary included many epithets that originally belonged to Isis, Osiris’ consort and the Great Goddess at the time of the spread of Christianity. For instance, Trono de la sabiduría (“Throne of Wisdom“) refers literally to the meaning of her name: Aset (Isis) meant “throne”. The imagery of Isis holding the child Horus passed, practically unchanged, into Christianity as Mary with baby Jesus.

Similarly, there are 14 Stations of the Cross in Catholic devotion. This is interesting, because the number 14 seems arbitrary until you understand that:

  1. in Christian piety, typically the numbers three (for the Trinity) and twelve (disciples, or tribes of Israel) is most often used, so that the number 14 must have been inspired in another source, and
  2. in the Osirian mysteries, which were the subject of very public passion plays that were performed every year throughout Egypt, the body of Osiris was cut into 14 pieces by Set and scattered through the world, and then Isis had to gather these parts and magically resurrect him. This is interpreted as a lunar number: 14 is the number of days that it takes for the full moon to become the new moon. The god Set, in this role, was called “the black boar who killed the moon“. The 14 Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) and the accounts it’s based on may have originated as a conscious reinvention of the Osirian mysteries by the people of the oral period of the development of Christianity (between the years 33-70 of Common Era) and later.

The Passion Plays of Osiris seem to have been a huge influence on early Christianity. While portions of the mysteries were private and only witnessed by priests or initiates, the Passion Plays themselves were public, dramatic, and appealed to the emotions of everyday people–not unlike the processions we see in many parts of Europe, Latin America and the Philippines where a man is literally crucified every year in memory of Jesus. Isis and Nephthys served as prototypes for the “three Marys” that are typically depicted as crying and lamenting the death of Jesus in the Christian Passion Plays. Nephthys was the Goddess of mourning and sister of Isis. During the Passion Plays, they (or, rather, actresses performing as them) would have gone through the lands crying and asking everyone the whereabouts of the scattered body of Osiris, and then dramatically finding them one by one in 14 “stations” or locations.

Try to imagine a large portion of the population of ancient Egypt united in the solemn observance of this spectacle, and you begin to have an idea of the importance of the Osirian mysteries in the lives of the people. Also, try to imagine what it would have taken to appeal to such a population with a new cult, and you can begin to see how the creation and enactment of a Christian version of the Osirian mysteries would have been advantageous to the early Christians who sought to promote their religion among them.

A special word must be said about the eucharist. Ancient Egyptians ate the body of Osiris (manifesting as the bread of life) during the spring festival which–like the Christian Easter–celebrated his resurrection. They would plant the wheat in the field during the death of Osiris (in the fall, less than two months before winter), and eat the bread from these specially consecrated fields of wheat during a festival of harvest in the spring. The Christian belief that Christ had to “die so that we may live” makes sense to anyone familiar with the Osirian mysteries because this is what the Egyptians believed about Osiris: the seed (the wheat berries) had to die with Osiris every year so that people would have life, would have food and abundance the following year. In the book Rebel in the Soul, one of the commentaries by author Bika Reed explains that the process of mummification was comparable to adding a husk that protects a seed: a corpse carried within it the seed that allowed for resurrection in the Duat (the West). Since Osiris is the prototype for the salvific ideas of his culture, accordingly the entire lower portion of the body of Osiris was mummified. His body was like a life-giving seed.

While in the Osirian mysteries beer and bread were given to the people, the Orphic mysteries included a eucharist of bread and wine. Orpheus was a reformer of the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine who “reigned at the right hand” of his father, Zeus. The Orphic eucharist was meant as a substitute for the goat flesh and blood that the Bacchae enjoyed, and so Orphism was a tamed or “civilized” development within the Dionysian cult. The Christian eucharist was completely familiar to both Greeks and Egyptians of the early Christian era as another version of the mystery religions which were popular in those days. In these cults, the initiates received the promise of salvation in the afterlife by ritual communion with the God-Man (Dionysus, or Osiris), who gave his life to the initiates.

Osiris returned every year, like the Nile that floods annually. This is why he’s depicted as green (vegetation) or black (fertile land, as opposed to the red land of the desert). Considering that the Egyptians believed that Osiris did not die, that he comes back every year in a new form, and that he travelled the world teaching the gifts of agriculture and wine, is it not hard to imagine that Christians were able to sell their god to the Egyptians by framing him as a new Osiris, just as the Greeks believed Dionysus was Osiris himself who had come to them under that form?

And so, for all these reasons, a few of the cults of henotheistic Egypt seem to be clear precursors to the familiar beliefs of contemporary monotheisms, and anyone who has participated in these monotheistic cults already has some idea of what participating in ancient Egyptian religion may have felt like.

Further Reading:

Lion King and the Osiris Myth

Book Review: the Epic, Complex, and Incomplete “Evolution of God”

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TBT: Jesus of Montreal

During Lent, Christians observe certain traditions: they avoid meat and eat fish, and they watch movies about the life of Jesus. There are so many of these movies, and their clichés are so well-known, that to watch one is to have watched them all … but for very few exceptions. These exceptions have historically, of course, often been considered blasphemous, or at least disrespectful. They often present alternative perspectives and theories that are at odds with the supernatural claims made by tradition. The Last Temptation of Christ was probably the most controversial one. It showed a very human Jesus falling in love and creating a family with Mary Magdalene. Not surprisingly, just as with Star Wars and other successful mythologies, a second-hand fan-fiction mythology has emerged–well, in reality, it was there all along from the onset–as attested by the success of the book and film The Da Vinci Code.

If you’re into gore, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has been the most sadistic presentation of the Gospel narrative of the torture and execution of Jesus. If you’re into musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar is the hippie-musical alternative. If you’re in the mood for a comedy, look no further than Life of Brian. There’s something for everyone.

Then there’s the artsy Jesus of Montreal–which has been called one of the best Canadian movies of all time. There’s a French-language version with English subtitles, and a version dubbed into English with Spanish subtitles on YouTube. Jesus of Montreal is a retelling of the Gospel narrative within a modern, urban setting in the city of Montreal, Canada. It’s filled with allegory, the dialogue explores philosophical questions about living a life of meaning, and it heavily criticizes the hypocrisy and two-faced morality of the Catholic Church.

Jesus of Montreal was the end result, in part, of the Quiet Revolution–a series of societal transformations that took place in Québecois society beginning in the sixties, which saw the French-based culture moving further away from its Catholic roots, and to more firmly assert its secular values.

If I was to recommend a movie version of the life of Jesus to an atheist friend, confident that he would enjoy it, it would be this one. Why not celebrate Lent with an atheist-friendly film? Christian mythology–like Greek and Norse mythology–is an important part of Western culture and tradition, and provides great source material to consider our existential and societal issues. I know atheists who grew up Catholic and who are still moved deeply by many aspects of their former religion, from the imagery, to the architecture, to the music and some of the narrative.

Jesus of Montreal–because it cleverly and artfully reimagines an ancient myth in the setting of a modern city–reminded me of Orfeu, the Brasilian re-telling of the Orpheus myth which is set in the favelas–the poor neighborhoods in Rio. This movie is itself a remake of the 1959 movie Orfeu Negro. In the Greek myth, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Orpheus fell in love with Euridice, who died, and he had to travel to the underworld to recover her. I have not seen the 1959 movie, but the more recent one was quite moving. I won’t give up too many details, but in Rio the concept of the underworld acquires a very particular meaning. Here, it relates to the counter-culture of crime, and Orfeu plays the guitar rather than the lyre.

Ancient Greek mystery religions allowed the mystes to participate in the sacred narrative by immersing themselves in them via the process of dramatic representation. They were meant to produce an insight and an experience that was ineffable–it could not be put into words, only experienced. Once exposed to the “mystery”, all the initiates “knew”, they could talk to each other with a new shared understanding of what they had experienced that only they had. Maybe a similar process happens in modern rituals like Burning Man, and maybe this is part of why I absolutely loved both Orfeu and Jesus of Montreal. These retellings of old myths are opportunities for a modern person to “witness”, relate to, and participate in these narratives via modern media and art. THAT is the point. The point is not to believe supernatural claims that insult our intelligence, but to participate in and enjoy the art of re-creation.

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Trying the Beyond Burger

After overcoming caffeine addiction in 2009, I delved into raw foods for some time and went through a mild “detox”. For a few months, I changed my relationship with food and with my body forever.

It was during that time that I discovered kava kava, the “drink of peace” of the Polynesian islands, which is still my go-to evening ritual. It’s a relaxing drink and helps with my quality of sleep. Later on I discovered yerba maté, my stimulant of choice, which replaced coffee in the mornings.

The learning curve was steep. I had grown up eating a mix of the SAD (standard American diet) and Puerto Rican food. This, plus my coffee addiction made me highly tolerant of fried foods and very anxious. The coffee industry will never admit to this, but caffeine is very harmful to the nerves.

Because of the learning curve, I decided to reinvent my diet by taking on culinary projects where every week, and every month, I would learn something new. I learned how to brew kombucha, and developed a variety of recipes to my liking. I learned how to make kichuri, aloo gobi, and other Indian foods.

On another occasion, I developed various recipes for quinoa, which is a complete source of vegetarian protein. I decided to color-code my various recipes: white quinoa was an imitation of coconut rice pudding, black quinoa was an imitation of Cuban rice with black beans, ruby or golden quinoa was mixed with corn kernels and used achiote for color, and green quinoa imitated Peruvian green rice (with cilantro and chicken). I also made quinoa with gandules.

But when it came to vegan meat, that was my greatest challenge. I was never able to create something that looked and tasted like meat, and that I would want to eat frequently and not just as an adventure or to try something different. At the time, the best effort I had to model my veggie burgers after was the BocaBurger, which is delicious. I tried everything: black bean burgers, quinoa burgers, used soybeans, tempeh (yuck! who came up with this?!). Grilled Portobello mushrooms are great (grill them with salt and pepper, and then serve with marinara sauce), but they’re not burgers.

I also made seitan, which is made from wheat gluten (the same gluten that gives bread its consistency). This turned out to be very easy and affordable. One is able to buy a bag of gluten for less than $2, which lasts several months. I used to make seitan weekly on the weekends: one has to knead the gluten mixed with water and whatever seasonings one wants to add, and then boil in water with onions, garlic, soy sauce, and whatever other flavor one wants to give the seitan. My seitan was decent, not great. I wanted to imitate the artisanal seitan used by local restaurants like Chicago Diner–where they sell a Reuben sandwich made from seitan that tastes and looks just like the real thing. But theirs is probably a highly guarded trade secret. Seitan eventually got tired, plus eating this much gluten is probably not too healthy.

So I have nothing but great respect for vegan burger makers, like the BocaBurger people, who have been able to successfully create a product that one would want to eat. It’s very difficult to create a product that will not crumble, and will look and grill just like a meat patty, and be palatable.

There are two veggie burgers that have been in the news lately: the Impossible Burger (I believe Burger King sells it) and the Beyond Burger. I finally had the opportunity to try this last one at Epic Burger. My original intention was to get their regular cheeseburger with an egg, but when I saw that they carry the Beyond Burger, I decided to try it, and I have to say I’m very impressed. It’s probably as good or better than the BocaBurger, but has no soy or gluten in it. The color is not as dark as regular meat burgers, but the flavor is similar. The patty is tender.

I asked the cashier what it’s made from, and was told it’s made with potatoes, peas, beans, brown rice, and coconut and other oils. They also use beets to give the meat color. Some of the reviews I’ve read online say that the Beyond Burger is not necessarily healthier than a regular burger, but this one is cruelty-free and tastes pretty similar to a regular burger. So in the future, I’ll continue trying both meat and veggie meat burgers (I have yet to try the “Impossible Burger”) just out of curiosity and to add variety to my diet.

I don’t know HOW they do it, but for the record, Beyond Burger: 10 out of 10.

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Happy Twentieth! Armed for Happiness

Happy Twentieth to all the students of Epicurean philosophy! We received a report on the 10th Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy, which takes place annually in the neighborhood of Pallini in Athens, which in ancient times was known as Gargettos. This is the neighborhood where Epicurus had his Garden. This year’s symposium–which focused on exoplanetary science–broke attendance records.

As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.

I recently came upon this quote by an enemy of Epicurean philosophy, which stirred curiosity about the various things that this fragment says. I enjoy a good intellectual challenge, so decided to evaluate what the controversy may have entailed.

“So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’ What concern, then, is it of yours? … Man, why do you take thought for our sake, why do you keep awake for us, why do you light your lamp, why do you rise early, why do you write such big books? … for this is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation, and snoring. What does it matter to you, what opinions others will hold on these matters, or whether they are right or wrong? … What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?” – Epictetus

We must first acknowledge that it’s entirely possible that Epicurus did not say this, as many enemies of the School have purposefully misrepresented the teachings throughout history. To make things worse, things said by contending philosophers can easily be taken out of context and misconstrued. Having said that, and even if we concede that there is some ill-will here, I’d like to give Epictetus the benefit of the doubt and assume that Epicurus DID say this.

Secondly, Epictetus claims that Epicurus “wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men“, and yet in his own critique he admits that in practice Epicurus acts in fellowship with men. I suspect that the original statement by Epicurus involved the view that universal, impersonal philanthropy is either impossible or unnatural (because it is not natural to love an abstraction or an impersonal token of beings; one only naturally loves other concrete, real, individual beings). And yet, Principal Doctrine 39 says that we should “try to make all beings into one family“, and Epicureanism is the first and only missionary humanistic philosophy that antiquity produced, and it is clear that Epicurus had devoted himself to teaching others how to be happy while studying nature, which seems to imply some level of philanthropy.

In a reality-based materialist philosophy, the idea of universal love for all beings is difficult to argue, or even imagine or justify. It’s unnatural, and no individual has the time, or the attention span, needed to attend to all beings, even if that individual is pleasantly disposed towards people in general.

From the passage we must infer that, in the context of a discussion between Stoics and Epicureans, the Stoics were arguing their cosmopolitan idea that there is “a natural fellowship of rational beings” that includes all of humankind. The cosmopolitanism of the Epicureans, however, is quite different from the Stoics’ cosmopolitanism. It has a distinct anarchic, apolitical flavor. It differentiates between doing philosophy for ourselves as individuals and doing philosophy for Greece, for the nation, or the polis, or any other political, Platonic, or imagined community. It refuses to be appropriated in the service of an impersonal entity. And it sees individuals as natural beings–not just rational animals, CERTAINLY not political animals–with the drives, feelings, and instincts of the individual as an important component of any real, natural community of friends.

That Epicurus sent missionaries to Asia proves that this community of friends WAS cosmopolitan and diverse. But it’s also true that not everyone was receptive, welcoming, or able to profit from Epicurean teachings.

We must always orient our discourse for the benefit of those who are solidly armed for happiness: our disciples. – Epicurus of Samos, On Nature 28

In investigating nature I would prefer to speak openly and like an oracle to give answers serviceable to all mankind, even though no one should understand me, rather than to conform to popular opinions and so win the praise freely scattered by the mob. – Vatican Saying 29

Therefore, it should be understood that Epicurus wrote for and taught philosophy to selected individuals. In addition, the manner of passing down of Epicurean tradition seems to have been highly personal and inter-subjective. I have often argued that Epicureanism is, among other things, (meant to be experienced as) a conversation among friends that has taken place over centuries. In his Epistle to Menoeceus, Epicurus invites the reader to study both alone and with others–friends are able to check on our development, offer frank criticism, challenge our biases, and offer perspectives that a lone student may not be able to come up with.

It must be emphasized that, rather than speaking to “the public”, Epicurus directs his attention to concrete individuals, to subjects, and avoids being impersonal. All his epistles are directed to specific individuals.

So greatly blessed were Metrodorus and I that it has been no harm to us to be unknown, and almost unheard of, in this well-known land of Greece. – Epicurus

Here is a nice expression by Epicurus, written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” – Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

This attitude likely originated in Epicurus’ negative experience at the gymnasium in Mytilene. We know that he began his career teaching philosophy there, but was expulsed from Lesbos violently by the Platonists, shipwrecked and nearly died. When he did set up a School, he avoided preaching in public and set up a private Garden, instead. Later on, one of the controversies between the School and Timocrates had to do with opinions on the public life, and as late as the Second Century, Diogenes of Oenoanda, in Fragment 112 of his Wall Inscription, was still critical of a career in public speaking. Part of the pleasure of studying philosophy appears to involve the privacy and the intimacy of a conversation among friends, the dedicated attention, and the friendship itself.

Having said this, even if loving an impersonal, universal “humanity” or some other abstraction is unnatural, the Epicurean tradition does teach that it is natural to care for our neighbors–particularly those whom we know face-to-face, and particularly those who are weaker than we are. The origin of compassion for our neighbors is discussed in On the nature of things:

And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. …
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27

It’s believed that Lucretius based DRN on Epicurus’ more than 30 books On Nature, and Book V of DRN in particular is the most fascinating and complete treatment of Epicurean anthropology that we have. Here, Lucretius says several things: he tells us that humans got softer as they got civilized (“love reduced their shaggy hardiness“), that friendship arose as a result of a shared pursuit of mutual benefit, that as a result of these friendships between neighbors mercy was urged upon the children, the women and the weak, and finally it ends with “how meet it was that all should have compassion on the weak“. It even goes as far as saying that without this compassion, “propagation never could have brought the species down the ages“. This doctrine was shockingly demonstrated by recent discovery of evidence that Neanderthals–who died out and were replaced by our own ancestors–cannibalized each other.

One final word on Epictetus’ question–“What, then, was it that roused Epicurus from his slumbers and compelled him to write what he wrote?”: The pleasure of leaving a legacy renders life meaningful and pleasant, particularly as we reach the end of our lives. Diogenes, in his Wall Inscription, mentions that at the end of his life, he wanted to leave Epicurean teachings for the benefit of the future generations of residents of Oenoanda. Epicurus, at the hour of his death, also uttered the final words “Never forget my teachings!” It’s almost like they wanted to extend to others the pleasure that they found in philosophy during their lives one final time, because they felt that philosophy was the thing of greatest value, the one thing that helped them make their own lives worth living.

There seems to be a natural philanthropic inclination in the Epicurean teaching mission, even if it’s not entirely untinged by pride. Clearly, the ruins of Diogenes’ Wall still bear his name. But a healthy sense of pride has frequently stimulated wholesome behavior, and this pride is well-earned, in my esteem, by those who are solidly armed for happiness. The question is, what worthy outlet will we find for this Epicurean philanthropy that wishes to spread happiness? Like Epicurus and his companions who grew old together in philosophy, we all have our select individuals, our friends, our chosen ones.

Further Reading:

Community vs. Polis

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The Warmth of Other Suns

I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, which is based on hundreds of interviews and documents the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to the north and west during the 20th Century. The migration reminded me of the Dust Bowl migration, and of course it reminded me about the ongoing Puerto Rican Migration of the last decade, and the multi-generational back-and-forth migrations in my own family. The Black migration redefined the United States and its culture, making its Black culture mainstream and having a huge influence in the music of the country. Many of the things we take for granted would not have happened without the Great Migration.

Unlike other dry, academic records of historical migrations, this book focuses on three migrants who fled to three different parts of the country. What it does is put a human face to the migration, weaving a beautiful and complex tapestry of stories, or oral history, of humanity. The book is long and took a few months to read, on and off, on the train on the way to and from work, but I enjoyed every moment of reading it and have a much better understanding of the effects that the Great Migration had.

Chicago’s Divide

I have lived in Chicago since 1998, and the whole time I’ve lived on the north side. When I have ventured into the south side, the cultural differences between the north and south sides of the city became very obvious. The north side-south side divide is still racial. The south side of the city is mostly black, and some neighborhoods are almost entirely black, with a few oases of diversity (like Hyde Park). The near north side is still mostly white, and the further north one goes, the more affordable housing gets, and the more diversity one finds.

I always assumed that this segregation was accidental. It never occurred to me that this divide was engineered by the overt racist practices, racial riots and hostilities that ensued during and after the Great Migration. This book taught me a huge amount about my own city. I love Chicago (although the weather could be improved), and it never occurred to me that this city had such a divisive history. I also knew of lynchings and Jim Crow, but I hadn’t stopped to really think in detail what these episodes of history would have done to the psyche of an individual, a family, or a community. For that reason alone, the book was extremely insightful.

On the Migration Before the Great Migration

Nothing comes from nothing, and the book made me look into the music of the south, and made me curious about the migration before the Great Migration. African Americans are not rootless, in spite of their history. For instance, many Black people in Cuba and Brasil to this day claim the Congos or the Yorubas as their ancestors, and communities in Colombia’s coast and around Palenque are deeply aware of their Bantu heritage. Africa has never been a single culture. It’s incredibly diverse, and these cultural differences do matter, and can be seen in the food, music, and other aspects of the local cultures. We know that most African Americans’ ancestors originated in West Africa and Northwestern Africa, and this influence is obvious to anyone familiar with the musical traditions of African Americans and North Africans.

For many years, I’ve enjoyed music from Mali and other parts of North Africa and I’m not the only one or the first one who has noticed the similarity between the blues of the desert and the blues of the Mississippi delta. This is because the Songhai empire was built on the backs of African slaves in the part of Africa that includes Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Mauritania, and selling slaves to whites would have been a profitable and normal part of the economic life of the region at the time of the conquest of the Americas. Today, Islamic enslavement still prevalent in Mauritania, where it is estimated that about 20 % of population is enslaved.

Below are a couple of songs representing the “blues of the desert” tradition and its American evolution, the modern blues. Other well-known musicians include Ismael Lo. Toumast and Tartit produce beautiful hypnotic melodies, Tinariwen are the rock stars of the desert. Although it may sound strange, there are some similarities between Berbere music and folk Scandinavian songs, like this song by Hedningarna. Many people in North Africa have blue eyes, as a result of the migration of the Vandals from Europe 2,000 years ago, who must have left some kind of legacy there.

The upcoming movie Dune features the Fremen, a future human culture living on planet Arrakis which Frank Herbert modeled after the Touareg tribes of the Sahel and Sahara. As a long-time fan of the Duniverse I’m very much looking forward to the movie, and looking forward to how the film will depict the Fremen.

Buy The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

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Happy Twentieth! Back to the Basics II

Happy 20th to all students of Epicureanism! This month marks the publication date for How to Live a Good Life, for which I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and also a book review of the rest of the book. As this book will likely attract new students to EP, I also authored the essay Advise to New Students of Epicurean Philosophy.

Our friend Nathan wrote a piece for SoFE titled On “-Isms” and Pleasure Wisdom, where he presents his case against isms. We also closed the so-called “Chinese Year of the Pig” (which actually ends on February 5th) by unveiling the 20 Tenets of the Society of Friends of Epicurus so that they may serve as guidelines in the coming years.

In the initial years of forming groups of friends and intellectual peers with the goal of studying, applying, and teaching Epicurean philosophy, we have frequently considered that it might be a good idea to have a concise, summarized set of clear Tenets to facilitate the process of teaching, to connect theory with practice, and to more clearly explain what it is that we believe in.

Speaking of which, two new philosophers formalized their membership this month: we welcome Charles (who admins the r/Epicurean_Philosophy subreddit), and Jesús, a Venezuelan professor of political philosophy who has been instrumental in revitalizing the Spanish-language page for Society of Epicurus by volunteering to translate dozens of essays. As a result of this, the Spanish-language page has grown greatly over the last couple of months. These efforts will help us to continue to reach more people in more languages via more outlets in the coming years, and we are very happy that they are adding their passion to the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens.

Michael Shermer interviewed Catherine Wilson in How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well.

***

Today I’d like to revisit the blog Back to the Basics, which discussed the importance of carrying out our choices and avoidances as per the middle portion of the Letter to Menoeceus. Particularly, I’d like to reconsider this portion:

Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win.

And so plain savors bring us a pleasure equal to a luxurious diet, when all the pain due to want is removed; and bread and water produce the highest pleasure, when one who needs them puts them to his lips. To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune.

This portion calls for a healthy measure of simple living, which is balanced by Vatican Saying 63, which says: “Frugality too has a limit, and the man who disregards it is like him who errs through excess.” This is because the goal of our choices and avoidances is a pleasant life, not a simple life.

But what if we were to focus on having “the sweetest enjoyment of luxury” from time to time, rather than on being “contented with little if we have not much”?

What I mean by this is that if we, from time to time, treat ourselves to a sumptuous feast or a luxurious pleasure, when we do have to–or find it of greater convenience to–enjoy simpler or plain versions of the same pleasure, we feel less like we are punishing or depriving ourselves, and we are better able to enjoy the simple pleasures and be content with them.

The Letter to Menoeceus does not discuss THIS other mechanism: it says that when we live simply and from time to time we enjoy luxurious pleasures, we are better able to enjoy them. But this is also true the other way around.

We see this mainly in the realm of diet. People frequently see diets as acts of restriction, and correspondingly feel as if they were punishing themselves for their previous sin of over-eating. But many critics of popular diets point out that having a day or two every week when we treat ourselves, within limits, helps us to be loyal to our dietary goals throughout the rest of the week. It helps us to be less discouraged when we have the occasional binge and keeps morale high.

There are probably many subconscious dynamics related to self-love and self-loathing, and related to how we treat and view our bodies and to our eating habits, that are involved in these mechanisms. I do not wish to delve into all that here, but I do wish to point that enjoying luxuries from time to time DOES work, that it does help people to stay true to their goals over the long term when they are striving to live a simpler life. After they have tasted the luxurious pleasure with no guilt, they go on to relish the simpler ones with a greater sense of satisfaction with themselves and their life choices.

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Book Review: How to Live a Good Life

Today is the official book release date for How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy by Penguin Random House (Amazon link here), a collection of 15 essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci, Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. In includes chapters on Epicureanism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity Progressive Islam, Existentialism, and other philosophies of life as they are lived today.

The purpose of the book is to help people living in the 21st Century to tackle the challenges related to choosing a personal philosophy of life by giving them fifteen radically different examples of how others are doing it. Most of the essays were written by members of clergy or of academia. I wrote the Epicureanism chapter, and have had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety. From the intro, we learn that these are a few of the goals of the book:

First, to appreciate the sheer variety of philosophical points of view on life and better understand other human beings who have chosen to live according to a philosophy different from your own. Understanding is the beginning of both wisdom and compassion. Second, because you may wish to know something more about your own—chosen or inherited—life philosophy; our authors are some of the best and brightest in the field, and their chapters make for enlightening reading. Last, it is possible that you, too, have been questioning your current take on life, the universe, and everything, and reading about other perspectives may reinforce your own beliefs, prompt you to experiment with another philosophy, or perhaps even cause you to arrive at a new eclectic mix of ideas.

In the past, I have published commentaries on Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, Humanist, Nietzschean and other philosophical traditions, as well as Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I have learned much from each of these traditions. I’ve learned to appreciate Muhammad’s good business sense–even if I profoundly disagree with most of the rest of Islam. I’ve learned to come to terms with and appreciate some of the good aspects of my own Christian upbringing.

I even cheerfully stumbled across a Daoist philosopher who was Epicurean in all but name! One of my favorite chapters in the book was the one on Daoism, which coincidentally is the philosophy that has the most in common with Epicureanism. It reminded me that if there are innumerable atoms in infinite space, as Epicurean cosmology says, this means that the cosmos is very complex and phenomena may have multiple valid explanations from various perspectives. This modern Epicureans call “polyvalent logic”.

From Confucianism, I was reminded that relations are part of what defines our identities. From Stoicism, I learned that it is prudent to let go of what we have no control over. From the Progressive Islam chapter, I learned that the efforts to bring Islam into the future go well beyond ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Qur’an), and capitalize on the Qur’anic message of economic justice to make the religion relevant to contemporary progressive issues. From Reform Jewish Rabbi Barbara Block, I learned:

How wise our world would become if only we would all learn from each other!

I also learned that there is a non-theistic religion called Ethical Culture (aka Religious Humanism), which is in many ways similar to Humanistic Judaism and to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Existentialist thinkers like Sartre and De Beauvoir were very interested in how people objectify each other, and asked questions about how we can best develop mature, intersubjective human relations between free individuals. The Existentialism chapter reminded me that enemies can sometimes be a source of healthy competition and–in a strange way–be at the same time good friends,

that other people are vitally important because they challenge us and open up possibilities in ways that we do not always see on our own, and the best kinds of relationships are those that are constructively critical

and that

signing up for a set of rules that someone else created is “bad faith,” meaning that we are not being authentic.

The Effective Altruism chapter reminded me that, if I’m going to be putting out efforts to help others, I may as well ensure that my efforts have the greatest impact.

It would be unfair for me to “review” the content of the Epicureanism chapter, since I myself wrote it. I will leave that to others. However, I will say that the experiment of writing this chapter was a great chance to re-evaluate my own personal philosophy and to re-visit many of the things that I’ve learned as a student of Epicurean philosophy, and that everyone should carry out this experiment as a way of assessing the ways in which we sculpt ourselves and our lives as pleasant, how we create meaning and value, how we deal with existential baggage and challenges, and how we discern truth from untruth. In fact, ancient Epicureans were known for writing Epitomes that summarized their doctrines as a learning and memorizing tool. So my exercise of writing this chapter is actually a recommended practice of the tradition.

If you read How to Live a Good Life and want to maximize the pleasure that you get from the book, my advice is that you take this project a step further and write an essay where you expound your own personal philosophy, perhaps inspired by a few of the things you read here. If you do publish your essay, please share the link below! Most importantly, remember that philosophy is not just an exercise for academia: it’s an exercise for daily living.

Further Reading:

Lucian’s Sale of Creeds: an ancient satire of the various philosophies

How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Review | 1 Comment