Happy Twentieth! – “Each One Teach One”

jHappy Twentieth of January to all the Epicureans everywhere! The month of January draws its name from the Roman God Janus, of two faces, who stands at the threshold as the Old Year / New Year personified, holding a key to mark new beginnings and new doors that must be opened. It’s a season to look back and reassess the past, and to look forward and plan for the future. It’s a new year with new challenges, and we need more Epicureans and more public and private intellectuals capable and willing to reason empirically!

In solidarity with the clarion call that is being made by people who defend science from the religious attacks by creationists and climate-deniers that will become more frequent in the next four years, I would like to first of all share this video by Clearly Stated titled Make America Think Again. Clearly Stated is a free media initiative that seeks to educate people about science, in particular about biology and Darwinism. Their videos are very professional and engaging, in addition to providing interesting information against the backdrop of disinformation that we unfortunately are swimming in. Please support and share their videos!

One must rely on sharpness of perception to separate the notions of nature from those that are designed with difficulty or obscurity … Pay full attention to the power of empirical reasoning. – Epicurus, On Nature, Book 18

We Epicureans have always done our part to encourage critical thinking based on empirical reasoning. From the onset, our tradition was the only missionary doctrine of secular humanism that the Greeks produced during the Hellenic Era, as narrated by Norman DeWitt in his Organization and Procedure in Epicurean Groups, and in other sources. The general guideline was that, even if one could not become a teacher or missionary in the traditional sense, if we all adopted the attitude of “each one teach one” and studied together, being mentors to those with less experience, we could help build strong-minded intellectuals able to profit from this noble philosophy of human happiness and self-sufficiency, while building bonds of blessed friendship in the process.

For instance, ancient Epicureans sent humanist missionaries to the Middle East to teach atomist physics and hedonist ethics: Philonides of Laodicea was an Epicurean missionary to Syria, a country today besieged by the most vulgar expressions of religious fanaticism and violence.

Today in the age of information, we have instead bloggers and content creators engaged in projects like Society of Epicurus, the Epicurus Blog, Elemental Epicureanism, and New Epicurean.

Some of our comrades are fallen. A few years ago we lost Jaako, from Finland, in honor of whose memory Ilkka created the Menoeceus Blog. He had cancer and knew he was dying, and days before his death he wrote a departing blog entry–titled Is it finally time to say goodbye?–where he shared with us details about his life that were much more personal and intimate than the philosophical content that he was used to writing. I recently realized that his amazing blog–titled Being Human: Secular sermons for free minds–had gone offline, and scrambled to figure out whether there was a back-up somewhere. Ilkka provided me with this web.archive.org link. We are happy to have preserved a bit of his memory for the benefit of future generations.

There has been increased renewed interest among content creators in Epicurus. New blogs like The Epicurus Project were recently inaugurated–this last one’s author Mark Walker has also created two other Epicurean-themed blogs: one that explores the links with positive psychology, and another one that tells a fictional story. Here he defends Epicurean moral realism. There’s also Peter St Andre’s Letters on Happiness, which contains a collection of the teachings in the form of an exchange of letters between friends. Hopefully more thinkers will share their interest in philosophy in the coming months and years so that we can continue to carry the each-one-teach-one tradition forward for the benefit of countless future generations.

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Nietzsche’s Will to Power: Overview

In the coming weeks The Autarkist will feature a series of essays evaluating aspects of the collections of notes taken by Nietzsche as his philosophy matured over the years, which were later compiled by his sister and published posthumously. Throughout the blog series I will cite from the compilation of notes Nietzsche took which were collected after his death into Will to Power. Because it is a compilation of sometimes unedited thoughts, and because Nietzsche’s thought evolved through the years, there is no over-arching theme in this literary project. It is mainly used to help students of his philosophy to understand the progression from one set of opinions to another, and to help illuminate how Nietzsche thought, how his political and philosophical ideas evolved, and some of the ruminations that helped to form his worldview.

One of my main impressions that one gets from reading the work was that N seemed obsessed with social status. Perhaps this is more a feature of European society than of American society, but I suspect there is also a historical reason for this. N lived shortly after Darwinian evolution via natural selection had been expounded publicly and had begun to generate huge controversy, discrediting the Christian mythical origin story and being frequently misinterpreted by people with a feeble grasp on biology. Nietzsche was no biologist. Evolution via natural selection does not favor “the superior”, or necessarily the most intelligent. It favors the best adapted members of a species, who are then better able and more likely to survive, and to pass on their genes.

For instance, a naked mole rat may live underground and be blind. Its ancestors may have enjoyed greater ability of sight and other (seemingly) desirable or “superior” traits, but a burrowing creature does not need those traits. Blindness makes sense in a world where all is dark and where an encounter with light might be more a source of discomfort and confusion than anything else. In this sense, the mole is “superior” in its adaptability and its ability to live in its environment, and any other use of the word “superior” can be confusing.

While the conception of an Overman, and the encouragement to think of our human identity not as set in stone, but in terms of evolving from ape to post-human, can be useful tools that can inspire and inform our long-term existential projects, Nietzsche sometimes seems to confuse adaptability with (not clearly defined) superiority, and even aristocracy. Furthermore, there are many contradictions and much incoherence in what he writes, in part because nature and humans are complex and full of contradictions, and in part because he seems comfortable writing in obscure language. Needless to say, he has been shockingly misunderstood and misinterpreted time and again by many.

As the notes in Will to Power are organized numerically, in the upcoming blog series the cites will look like “WtP 15”, etc.

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Raif Badawi, on Saudi Arabia’s Notorious Intolerance

We should not hide that fact that Muslims in Saudi Arabia not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity.

Raif Badawi, imprisoned Saudi secular blogger

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Happy 2017: The Year of Zamenhof

zam2017 marks the 100 year anniversary of the death of the creator of the international language, Esperanto, and has been therefore declared by UNESCO to be the Year of Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. The book Bridge of Words was recently published on the history of the Esperanto language, cosmopolitan culture and movement.

But there are many other stories related to the ideals of Esperanto: linguistic democracy is a concern of many linguists who warn that, by the end of this century, about half of the currently living 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will be extinct with little to no hope of being resurrected. This is a result of expansion and national identity projects, as well as migration patterns, and issues of prestige of imperial languages.

Each dying language takes with it recipes, ancestral stories, myths, and artforms, knowledge about medicinal uses of certain plants, information about ancient history and migrations, and other forms of folklore. Once dead, it is very difficult to revive languages, with Hebrew being the only known exception in history of fully functional language revival. Several projects are underway to preserve what we know of the dying languages as much as possible for the benefit of linguists of the future, using mainly digital technology.

Although many today enjoy Esperanto for its own sake and for its own culture, the original goal of Esperanto was to serve as an easy-to-learn auxiliary language, a second language for everyone that would allow the emergence of a global culture–and while that cosmopolitan culture does exist in Esperanto, it is not exactly mainstream or universal. The language is of interest mainly for linguists, world travelers, diplomats, idealists, Bahá’ís, leftists and communists (although also some conservatives), and a wide (and ever growing) assortment of geeks. It has even had its own currencies and been used by international scientific agencies. Here’s a song in the language:

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Adios 2016, Year of the Fallen Icons

This year we lost many legendary figures: Carrie Fisher / Princess Leia (May the Force be With Her!), Pete Burns, Prince (Nothing Compares to Him!), David Bowie, Spock, and Juan Gabriel, who was the most beloved, prolific, and talented songwriter, singer and composer in Latin America.

We also lost George Michael’s silky voice, which beautifully caressed our souls in the jazzy Kissing a Fool, the erotic nuances of Father Figure, and the melancholy of Careless Whisper. Michael Buble has done a cover of Kissing a Fool, but–while he’s quite talented–his voice does not get even close to the original. He also opened up his soul in his art when he dedicated Jesus to a Child to his lover, who died from AIDS-related complications, and was never scared to open up about the vulnerabilities, apprehensions, and fears that gay men experience when seeking more than sex–as he did in One More Try.

But to me, as an Epicurean, and to millions more, George Michael is more than a pop phenomenon of the 80’s and 90’s. The Guardian most clearly celebrated his legacy as an icon of hedonism in these two pieces, which argue that he was a defiant gay icon who must not be sanitized and that his songs were more than simple tales of lust and longing. In the deeply homophobic and hypocritical Reagan / Thatcher era, he rescued the carnal, the sexual, and reminded us that sexuality is entirely normal, natural, and human. In his song Outside, which the Guardian’s Owen Jones described as “the biggest fuck you in musical history” against societal hypocrisy and prudishness, he sings:

“There’s nothing here but flesh and bone.”

Very few pop culture icons have done so much to fight the invisibility of gays and to redeem the flesh when so much of our culture is dedicated to blaspheming the body, the libido, the enjoyment of pleasure, and the other things that make life worth living. Thank you, George Michael, for reminding us to be authentic and to live as long as we’re alive. I will miss you and will always enjoy your celebrated musical legacy.


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Happy Kwanzaa!

kwanzaThe role of ceremony in preserving and strengthening communities and bringing friends together increasingly becomes a source of research and curiosity for me. I’ve written about this before. Earlier this year, the School of Life published a video on the history and importance of rituals. The Book of Community also explains the importance of rituals for small communities and their roles in preserving their narratives, which got me thinking about Confucian teachings and the Epicurean tradition of celebrating the Twentieth.

African Americans were stripped of their sense of history, of their native religions, of their native languages, and brought to another continent to work without pay for generations. This traumatic experience affected many generations and eventually led to struggles that culminated in the civil rights movement in the sixties and continue to this day. It was during that time that the solstice festival of Kwanzaa was invented in order to propose a non-consumerist, secular alternative to Christmas.

According to the inventor of the festival, Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is about ancestry. We really are, as natural beings, literally, branches of our ancestors. We emerge from the fertilized seeds of those who came before. It is entirely natural for us to yearn for connection with the people and things which are familiar to us and to our part of the tree of life. Ancestry is one of the few things that make up our real, irresistible, natural identity. It makes sense for African Americans to frame Kwanzaa as a celebration of ancestry so that ancestral narratives get reinforced and celebrated. It’s the most natural starting point to build community.

Some people call Kwanzaa the African American Hannukah because the kinara (lights) resembles the Jewish menorah. But the kinara is only one of many cultural symbols that define the festival. The seven-day festival dedicates each day to one of the seven principles that are enshrined in the Kwanzaa narratives, which is another reason why I’ve taken an interest in it. It produces a wisdom tradition, an organized educational curriculum that is renewed and nurtured every year in the new generations. The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, are.

  1. Umoja / Unity: Kwanzaa celebrates non-violent conflict resolution and encourages reconciliation.
  2. Kujichagulia / Self-determination: This is the closest thing to autarchy in Kwanzaa. It is described as: “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”
  3. Ujima / Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima helps to build future professionals by teaching them about building and maintaining community, learning team-work and collective problem solving.
  4. Ujamaa / Cooperative Economics: Kwanzaa participants are encouraged to engage in entrepreneurial projects, to support each other’s businesses, and to profit together. Communal business connections are strengthened via Kwanzaa.
  5. Nia / Purpose: Children are encouraged to plan for the future and set goals.
  6. Kuumba / Creativity: This is one of the coolest components of Kwanzaa for me. In seeking to compete against the more commercialized tradition of Christmas, the proponents of Kwanzaa decided that it is best to create the gifts we give each other during the solstice, or to at least acquire them within our communities from artists and keepers of traditional crafts. Children may get drums, or traditional sculptures. Books are frequently given. This encourages local and communal creation of cultural artifacts, and re-focuses the commercial activity that takes place during the holiday within the local communities. We live in an age where most toys and gifts we buy are made in China, or in sweatshops in Indonesia and other lands with little to no labor laws. Purchasing goods from big-business outlets perpetuates exploitation, in addition to draining capital from smaller communities.
  7. Imani / Faith: Kwanzaa is secular but religious communities are welcomed to adapt it. In its original spirit, imani is about at least having faith in one’s parents, teachers, leaders, and each other.

I love Kwanzaa. I’ve attended a couple of Kwanzaa celebrations, and greatly enjoyed them. They generally incorporate theater, music, and food. I think many good things come from it for the communities that celebrate Kwanzaa, and judging from the initial set of reasonings that I’ve already shared on this blog, I think that this is an absolutely necessary (and beautiful) feature of contemporary African American culture and that the people who criticize its celebration either have an agenda or a bias, or simply lack vision.

The idea for Kwanzaa is that communities need, from time to time, to mark a point in the year when family gatherings can happen, when enemies reconcile, when people exchange gifts as tokens of friendship, where the achievements of the previous year are revisited and new goals are set for the coming year, when intergenerational lore and knowledge is passed down, etc. Kwanzaa helps communities to have such useful milestones periodically. Also, African ancestors were tribal and collectivism was important for them: and this is a chance for Afro-diasporic people to experience some form of the continuity of their tribalness.

The following is my Kwanzaa gift to my readers: a sad, patriotic song about the ancestors from the island known in pre-colonial times as Borinquen. Campo (the title of the song) means “countryside” and refers to the rural parts of the island, but also may refer to a cemetery and to the place where we mourn our ancestors. It is a traditional bomba song, an Afro-Latin genre from the Caribbean.

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Merry Yuletide!

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