Happy Twentieth! “Antiquity has never felt so alive”

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month Quartz published Hedonism holds the secret to a happier life, but not for the reasons you think. Unfortunately, rather than defending pleasure as an ethical ideal, the piece falls into the “absence of pain” narrative. This month, we also learned that goats prefer to interact with humans who look happy, IAI News published Alternative Hedonism: Environmentalism can aim for both a ‘simpler’ and more pleasurable post-consumerist life, and we also shared on our pages the UK’s Ludwig von Mises Center piece–which we hadn’t noticed before–titled Epicurus: Father of the Enlightenment, by Sean Gabb.

We celebrated Herculaneum Day by sharing sources and links to essays that help to deepen our studies of the scrolls on property management and on piety. We also shared a Lucretian portion on death, and Unitarian minister Andrew James Brown (@caute) shared a review of Ontology of Motion, the first three of five “reflections on the philosophy of Epicurus for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire” on losing fear of the gods and losing fear of the afterlife and of death, and cited Epicurus in his critique of compassion while arguing that people should share pleasure rather than merely share pain.

Speaking of Ontology of Motion–of which the glowing review by Andrew James Brown inspired the title of today’s Twentieth message, “Antiquity has never felt so alive“–expect to read more on this book from me in the future. For now, I will say that his review, and the initial chapters that I’ve read thus far, have re-ignited in me a love of Epicurean philosophy and physics. Who says that science and poetry can not dance together and create beautiful harmony? In the meantime, academia.edu has both the introductory chapter, as well as a defense of its ideas by the author, Thomas Nail. It’s worth reading if you’d like to decide whether to delve into the book.

Norman DeWitt is one of the most highly respected scholars among Epicureans, and one of the few who have championed the understanding of Epicurean philosophy on its own terms. His books have helped many people to gain a clearer understanding of Epicurean doctrines and why they matter, and to put them in historical context. There are several reviews of Epicurus & his Philosophy in goodreads and Presto Post, New Epicurean has a page dedicated to it, and the Epicurean Friends forum has a discussion plan, as well as regular live discussions via chat every few weeks on the chapters of the book. DeWitt’s books and tracts really have made a huge difference in our understanding of EP and, while the book is costly, we encourage every sincere student to find it in (or request it from) a public library.

We also highly recommend the youtube channel of Physics Girl, who creates engaging educational scientific content.

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Marked by Oshun

See the source imageEveryone has their own tribal or ancestral religious or philosophical traditions that have nurtured them at one time or another. The Catholic faith of my upbringing attempted to swallow and assimilate numerous Pagan faiths in its historically monstrous imperial project. In the Caribbean, Catholic expansionism produced–among other faiths–Santeria: a blend of it with the religion of the Yoruba people of what is today Nigeria, in West Africa.

In Puerto Rico, many of my college friends practiced it: the first boyfriend I ever had, my best friend who lived not far from Loíza–the town with the most African heritage there–and our shared friend, Chachi, who was an initiated babalocha (priest of the Orishas, or deities), as well as many others in our circle.

As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora, I was bound to come across it at some point or another. The faith gives consolation to many diaspora communities not dissimilar from the kind of consolation it furnished people living in slavery, many of whom still had memories of life in the Black continent.

I learned to love African music and aesthetics through Santeria. I learned that respect of elders is one of the most basic and primitive human values by which humans became domesticated and, later, civilized. This respect or reverence does not mean acquiescence, or agreement even, with people older than we are. By allowing myself to be happily counted as a branch of those that came before me (both intellectually and physically), I understood that filial piety was love, compassion, connection, that it was both a clearer understanding and a transcendence of our place in history, because every branch–once rooted–must go in a different direction in search of sunlight. This is not merely a metaphor. We are literally born of the seeds of our ancestors. Ponder that.

There’s a serious existential crisis in our society, with more and more people feeling isolated and disconnected from community and their own identities, and suffering from depression and high rates of suicide as a result. Santeria is, like African cultures, communal and tribal. It reconnects people. Having been torn from their families back in Africa, the Yorubas in Cuba began initiating people into their ilés–their “orisha house”, or “casa de santo” in Spanish, where the Orishas are called saints. Using African models of ceremony and ancestral religion, they copied the godfather-godson relationship that exists in Catholicism, and created alternative families that, to initiates, were as important and sacred as their blood ancestors. This padrinazgo (godparenthood) persists into our day, and contemporary American Santeros can trace their Santeria lineage back to 1800’s Cuba. My own lineage goes back to the Pimienta house.

See the source image

A Santeria religious vessel containing the “inner sanctum” of the Orisha Oshun

Almost fifteen years ago, if I remember correctly, I received two initiations in the Lukumi tradition. I received my elekes (by which I was received into a new religious lineage or family, and acquired adoptive ancestors) and my warriors (the physical reception of three Orishas, or deities, who would help me fight my battles in life). The next step would have been the full initiation as a priest of Oshun, but I did not go forward with this, as I deemed it unnecessary, and it required huge sacrifices on my part–including a full year as an iyawó, dressed in white, carefully following a series of taboos related to Oshun, who had been marked (in a reading with three high priests, or babalaos) as my patron deity. Oshun (sometimes spelled Ochún) is the African Venus. She is the Goddess of rivers, of sweet waters, of honey, of love, of sex, and of women/femininity.

Years went by after my adventures in Santeria. I eventually became an atheist, and later on an Epicurean, and my warriors are today in storage–but I still philosophize about what I learned in my Santeria experiences. Recently, the idea of choice came to mind. When one is marked to be initiated, some believers feel that they do not have a choice, that–like Jews, who are “marked” for their religion–they have been chosen. This is an idea that I have great difficulty with, and so I never went into the igbodu (the initiation room).

BUT–and this is why I somehow feel closure and like I’ve come full circle in my Santeria learning adventure–in the end, I did **choose** “some” way of honoring Oshun, my own way. Epicurean philosophy is, in many ways, an homage to Venus. Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things begins with a heart-felt invocation to Her. She **is** the mytho-poetic, artistic, and religious embodiment of all the things that make life worth living according to Epicurean doctrine, and She’s the embodiment of Pleasure–“the end that our own nature seeks“, according to Epicurean doctrine. I’ve realized that, although I did not become her priest in the Lucumí tradition, I’ve still “served” Oshun by the years I’ve spent promoting Epicurean philosophy, teaching people to create lives filled with pleasure, to philosophize from the body and their instincts, and to reconcile their conscience with their flesh.

Related Reading:

Yemayá y Ochún, a most beautiful and magical Santeria chant

 Venus as a Spiritual Guide: the Value and Use of Mythography in Wisdom Traditions

The Virtue of Coolness

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My Ancestral Storylines

“The grandson wants to remember what the father wished to forget.” – Spanish proverb

“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.” – Chinese proverb

In this blog, I will share my ancestral storylines. This is the word used by Australian aboriginals for the legends and tales that they tell from one generation to the next in order to preserve their collective memory. Since I’m a big believer in Joseph Campbell’s adage that “man is a storytelling animal“, and since my mother is proud that I’m a writer and has encouraged me to write about my family’s history, I’ve gathered my own family storylines and am sharing them here.

I hail from rivers and mountains

When I was about ten years old, my aunt Lydia (RIP)–who was like a second mother to me–told me the story of my family’s lineage going all the way back to the 1800’s, back when Puerto Rico was still under the Spanish crown and was not yet an American territory.

She painted a romantic picture of the women in those days washing clothes in the river, and even giving birth in the river in the town of Quebradillas, which interestingly means “little springs“. Lake Guajataca is there. This is why I’ve always associated my mother’s side of the family with springs and bodies of water.

My dad’s family comes from Utuado, a mountainous town whose name means “great mountain” in the Taino language and is in the very center of Puerto Rico. So I’ve always come to associate my father’s lineage with mountains.

From my aunt’s lap to a DNA lab

Some time ago I went on a learning adventure by taking a DNA test. I did it years ago by participating in the Genographic Project–the result of whose research was the (now a bit outdated, but still fascinating) documentary Journey of Man. Later, I tried ancestry.com, as new data is constantly updating how much detail we can glean from a DNA test. I am not promoting either of those services. In fact, there are dozens of such services, all of which are good in some way. But I WILL say that the journey of discovery of my ancestry, which began when my aunt abducted me in my imagination into the Caribbean of the 1800’s, has produced huge amounts of pleasure and insight.

When I logged into my ancestry account a couple of weeks ago, the website had new insights for me to “approve”. Apparently one is supposed to check in every few months. It had found–through the census registry–names of my grandfather’s uncles and aunts, and of my grandfather’s grandmother’s father. Prior to approving these suggested ancestors / relatives, I called my mother and gave her the names, and to my astonishment she remembered aunt Toña, uncle Isidro (who used to celebrate “Three Kings Day” the traditional way), the Jaca side of the family (who come from Catalonia in Spain, and we now have the name of our earliest ancestor from this lineage going back to 1847), and a few of the other names I gave her.

However, upon sharing this in our family page on Facebook, one cousin claims that the Jaca grandfather was adoptive, not a blood relative. My mother still has an uncle who is in his nineties and says that, next time I visit the island, we will pay him a visit and clarify all the questions we have about the family–that is, if he’s still alive! I plan to visit in November. Fingers crossed!

Mom referred to these ancestors as jíbaros. Jíbaros were the Puerto Rican peasants from the 1700’s and 1800’s who lived off the land, were very self-sufficient (and mostly poor), and very Catholic. Their food was tied to the land and forms the basis of our modern cuisine, and their music (“jíbaro music“) used güiro, maraca, and a four-string guitar known as the cuatro. Few people today continue this tradition. My dad’s brothers all knew how to play the cuatro, but no one that I know in my generation and after does.

“John Is His Name”

The Latin words on the shield of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico translate as “John Is His Name”. Well, I now have a storyline in my family about this.

When presented with my DNA results, my brother brought up a controversy regarding our mother’s side family name. Due to Catholic taboos, back in the day illegitimate children were not recognized formally and could not be given their father’s name. It turns out that my grandfather’s father had been born out of wedlock. He inherited his mother’s last name, not his father’s. Years ago, my brother had investigated a legend about a friend that (grandfather) Juan used to always hang out with in his younger years who looked like him, had cinnamon skin and light eyes like him, and whose father was known as Juan Hernandez. They looked alike and were rumored to be half-brothers. A cousin gives the nickname for his friend as Siko Hernández, son of Juan Hernández. And so, the story is that his father was unable to give him his last name due to his illegitimacy, and instead gave him his first name, Juan.

My mother’s cousin heard about this and corroborated the story, insinuating that Juan’s mother had been raped. He said: “Back in the days, in the haciendas, particularly in the faraway sugarcane fields, there are many stories that women were abused by the mayoral“. The mayoral is an old Spanish word for whoever supervised work in the sugarcane plantation. This adds nuance to the cinnamon skin and light eyes: the mayoral would have been white, whereas Juan’s mother–known to all in our family as grandma Lala–was half-black, had thin lips but dark skin.

Singing in the rain

My mother lost her mother when she was seven years old to tuberculosis. Back in the day, this was like having cancer. She was raised by Papá Susano, who sold vegetables and produce in a little kiosk in town. Papá Susano used to sing loudly and gleefully when he took a shower. It seemed like his most free and happiest moments came when he was taking a shower. I strongly recommend happy singing in the shower for its therapeutic benefits!

I’ve always remembered his songs. They made no sense: he wasn’t singing “songs” with lyrics but melodies, a blend of jíbaro music with what today–now that I’ve been exposed to a great deal of world music–reminds me of music from northwest Africa, from places like Mali. By the way, Heygana is an amazing song. The singer is from Mali. It will remind you of bluegrass music!

The results of my DNA test confirm that I have an estimated 3% ancestry from the Mali region, and an estimated 1% from North Africa (perhaps from Berbers who settled in Spain during the Muslim conquest?). Approximately 5% comes from Benin–this is a kingdom that held Yoruba peoples, who inspired the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santeria. Most of these parts of Africa speak French today, and my mother’s lineage has a French family name which–due to the aforementioned illegitimate son of Juan Hernandez–was passed down the matrilineal lineage to us. Hence, we are the Lasalle family. Back in the day, due to Catholic indoctrination, there was no family planning and families were huge: mom had over ten siblings; her cousins numbered 17 in one uncle’s family, etc. There’s an entire neighborhood in Quebradillas known as “el sector Lasalle”, and streets named after Juan, Susano and other ancestors.

Also, remember grandmother Lala? Her name is a title that means “Lady” in North Africa. Maybe her mother came from Mali and nicknamed her in remembrance of her native language?

One possible theory on this is that Haitian independence was extremely violent, as a result of which many French people and their slaves left Haiti and settled in surrounding areas, with Louisiana and Puerto Rico being particularly attractive for reasons of cultural similarity (New Orleans) and incentives given by the Spanish crown (in the form of land) for Catholics who settled in Puerto Rico during the 1800’s in order to keep the island loyal. These incentives were enshrined in the royal decree known as Cédula de Gracias. If Papá Susano’s great-grandmother (who was pure black) came from Haiti in this manner, that would explain how so much of my African ancestry (as per the ancestry.com results) originated in former French colonies.

The Lost City of Caparra

In the 1520’s, the walled city of Old San Juan was founded in an island connected to the main island of Puerto Rico by three bridges. This was done to ward off the Taino Indians who were waging war on the conquistadors-settlers from Europe. Today, Old San Juan is the oldest European settlement under the U.S. flag.

Old San Juan

Old San Juan

But there was a city that was built prior to Old San Juan that few people have heard about: it was known as Caparra, and the archaeological site of its ruins can still be visited today. Only the foundations remain. In a western suburb of San Juan, the uppity neighborhood of Caparra Heights was built over the ruins. I’ve know from my childhood that this was the site of the very first European settlement on the island, but when I decided to investigate the origin of the name of the settlement, I realized that there was another Caparra in central Spain that many of the first settlers most likely originated from and which gave it its name.

It turns out that Caparra was a city in the Roman province of Lusitania, which was the ancient name for Portugal, but was found in what is today Spain, close to the Portuguese border. According to Wikipedia:

The name of the city is not originally Latin, but pre-Roman, probably Veton, just as the origin of the settlement … Possibly its significance derives from those roots which could indicate a center for exchange, barter, and trade, inasmuch as the position of Cáparra is at the meeting of two roads …

The Vettones were a cattle-herding Celtic tribe from central Iberia known for its sculptures of wild boars, pigs, and bulls.

The Celts of Iberia

According to ancestry.com, I have a very high percentage of Portuguese ancestry (27%, the highest of any national group), but I don’t know of any Portuguese family names in my family tree. While doing research on the populations that existed in the Iberian peninsula prior to the Roman conquest–after which it became known as Hispania–it became clear that there was never a fully assimilated “Celtiberian” people, which is what we were told in history class. Instead, in the East of the Iberian peninsula, there were mostly Iberian tribes and in the West, there were Celtic tribes, with most of the inter-mixing happening in the central region. There were also Greek communities, Phoenicians (including the entire city of Gad for many generations, which later became Cádiz), Jews, and other groups. The prevalence of Portuguese ancestry in my DNA test tells me that most of my Iberian ancestors had Celtic genetic markers found in Western Iberia.

Celtic ruins in Galicia

Celtic ruins in Galicia

These Phoenicians intermarried heavily with the Celts, as attested by the many Celtic Gods of Middle Eastern origin: Belenos (Baal), Cernunnos (Baal Qarnayn), Ostara (Ishtar), etc. Loreena McKennitt has explored through her music much of the back-and-forth influence between Celts and Phoenicians in Europe. The Middle Eastern flavor of flamenco and other Southern Spanish musical genres is often attributed to the centuries under Muslim rule (and I don’t deny this is partially true), but I suspect that this Middle Eastern flavor in Spanish music existed from primitive antiquity, from before the Punic Wars, and attests to the Phoenician-Celtic mélange.

Spain has never been fully unified, to this day. Different regions speak their own dialects, and some–like the Basque nation–speak a language entirely unrelated to any of the surrounding Romance languages. Maybe this is the only living relative of the Iberian tongues that were spoken in the East?

In the northwest of Spain, in Galicia, they speak Gallego–the name might remind you of the Gauls, of Wales, of Gaelic language, of Galatians, and other Celtic tribes that spread through different parts of Europe. This appears to have come from a name that many Celtic tribes used for themselves. As part of my ancestral learning adventure, I’ve spent some time listening to the beautiful folkloric gaita (bagpipes) music from Galicia, which is extremely emotional and evocative. Here’s a beautiful example of Celtic Galician music.

Galician dialect is a cross between Spanish and Portuguese, which is in essence a more nasal version of Spanish. I’ve noticed the tendency to nasalize vowels and to avoid rolling the R’s in many of the regions where Celts lived, like France, Portugal, and Galicia. I think this influence persists in Puerto Rican Spanish, although it’s less pronounced.

Once I talk to my mother’s uncle, I’ll have more insights into the ancestral investigations I’ve begun. In the meantime, learning about the ancestors has greatly enhanced my sense of identity and connection with many cultures that now seem a bit less foreign, and has spiced up my curiosity about many things. Everyone has a tribal / familial mythology to discover, and I have a feeling that my journey to learn about my roots has only begun …

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Props to Gloria Estefan!

You look like the Miami Sound Machine just EXPLODED all over you! – Noxema Jackson, speaking to ChiChi Rodriguez in campy classic To Wong Foo

Gloria is such a fundamental piece of pop culture that the mere mention of her legacy serves as a milestone in terms of Latin artists going mainstream, a point of reference in time. There are two eras: Before Gloria and After Gloria.

While watching a play in Chicago about her life–titled On Your Feet!, which received glowing reviews–in the middle of the play I realized that my friend (who had invited me to watch the play) had left the theater. After the play ended, I received a text saying that he had left because the scene where Gloria’s father dies had made him very emotional, reminding him of his own dad’s passing. Gloria’s life story and songs do have this cathartic power. She can extract emotion–whether she’s singing about taking pride in her roots, or about romance.

Gloria broke into the mainstream in the 1985 with Conga. While singing in English, her rhythm was credibly Latin, authentic, and contagious, and the sound was fresh in those days. Now, we have gotten used to a fair amount of Latin music in mainstream American audiences. Gloria has also been versatile, singing in both Spanish and English, and genres ranging from bolero, to dance music, to disco, to pop-salsa, to inspirational songs about overcoming odds. Happy Birthday, Gloria!

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Lucretius, on Death

“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour?

For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”-
What were our answer, but that Nature here
Urges just suit and in her words lays down
True cause of action? Yet should one complain,
Riper in years and elder, and lament,
Poor devil, his death more sorely than is fit,

Then would she not, with greater right, on him
Cry out, inveighing with a voice more shrill:
“Off with thy tears, and choke thy whines, buffoon!
Thou wrinklest- after thou hast had the sum
Of the guerdons of life; yet, since thou cravest ever
What’s not at hand, contemning present good,
That life has slipped away, unperfected
And unavailing unto thee. And now,
Or ere thou guessed it, death beside thy head
Stands- and before thou canst be going home
Sated and laden with the goodly feast.
But now yield all that’s alien to thine age,-
Up, with good grace! make room for sons: thou must.”

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura

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Sinead Was Right All Along!

Remember that time in 1992 when Sinead O’Connor was criticized and booed globally for tearing off a picture of old pope John Paul II in live TV? Well … today there are calls in Irish media for a public apology to her, and she has also requested from the pope (like I did many years ago and many others have) formal excommunication from the Catholic Church.

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Happy Twentieth: What’s Wrong with Pleasure?

Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere! We recently stumbled across a piece in The Agonist: a Nietzsche Circle Journal titled On Nietzsche’s Search for Happiness and Joy: Thinking with Epicurus–speaking of which, here’s Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30.

We also stumbled across the What’s Wrong with Pleasure? video, which reminds us of the importance of understanding the natural limits of pleasure and of desires in Epicurean doctrine in order to avoid the confusion generated by non-Epicureans when they discuss pleasure ethics. Here are a few Principal Doctrines on this:

9. If every pleasure had been capable of accumulation, not only over time but also over the entire body or at least over the principal parts of our nature, then pleasures would never differ from one another.

15. The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.

18. Bodily pleasure does not increase when the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation. The limit of mental pleasure, however, is reached when we reflect on these bodily pleasures and their related emotions, which used to cause the mind the greatest alarms.

19. Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.

20. The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.

21. He who understands the limits of life knows that it is easy to obtain that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete and perfect. Thus he has no longer any need of things which involve struggle.

Here are some Torquatus quotes on the matter:

“But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of reprobating pleasure and extolling pain arose. To do so, I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful”

“Those who place the Chief Good in virtue alone are beguiled by the glamour of a name, and do not understand the true demands of nature. If they will consent to listen to Epicurus, they will be delivered from the grossest error. Your school dilates on the transcendent beauty of the virtues; but were they not productive of pleasure, who would deem them either praiseworthy or desirable? We esteem the art of medicine not for its interest as a science, but for its conduciveness to health; the art of navigation is commended for its practical and not its scientific value, because it conveys the rules for sailing a ship with success. So also Wisdom, which must be considered as the art of living, if it effected no result would not be desired; but as it is, it is desired, because it is the artificer that procures and produces pleasure.”

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