Happy Twentieth! On Why Black Lives Do Indeed Matter

Happy Twentieth! The last few weeks have been very emotional for many Americans. In my own city of Chicago, I have slowly gotten used to the normalization of a form of life that could be described as post-apocalyptic. Trains and buses no longer running at certain times, and long waits for Ubers made it difficult for me to get to work at times, and I once had to walk three miles through a neighborhood filled of boarded-up businesses to get back home in 90 degree heat. We had a discussion in our GoE group that yielded a dialogue on Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest. Some issues related to hedonic calculus are addressed there.

In my essay against racism from an Epicurean perspective, I focused on three specific arguments as to why Epicureans should be advocates against racism. I should add a note here to mention that, while many Greeks in antiquity separated themselves from the “Barbarians”, the Epicureans were almost always a multicultural and cosmopolitan minority. This was a function of their missionary spirit. Many of our Scholarchs and great teachers were from Syria (Lucian, Diogenes of Sidon, Philodemus), and two of the famous ancient Epicureans mentioned by Diogenes Laertius were from Egypt–one white and one black:

There were also the two Ptolemies of Alexandria, the Black and the White

The philosophical tradition of pleasure ethics itself was born in Africa, in the city of Cyrene, which has been labeled “a philosophical Atlantis” by Michel Onfray. While this was a Greek colony, it’s not inconceivable that many of the Cyrenaics may have had Berber ancestry. In fact, the word Berber itself originated in the Greek denomination of non-Greeks as Barbaric, and attests to the fact that this group was, to a great extent, defined at one point in its history by its close interactions with the Greek world. Cyrene is in Lybia–at the epicenter of their interaction, and one must wonder to what extent Cyrenaic thought was the natural result of this Greco-African exchange. We know that at least one prominent disciple of Aristippus was known as “Ethiopian Ptolemy”, which presumably means he was from or had ancestry from Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a side note, last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar facilitated by the author of Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism, who documented the untold history of African Americans who did not succumb to religion from the times of slavery up until our day. His counter-history work explores the material and ideological roots of Black atheism / agnosticism in the experience of slavery, and in the pro-slavery Christian churches. It’s time to challenge the opinion that Black people always and only articulate their identities, narratives and philosophies within the restrictions of religiosity.

We are not isolated, but interwoven into many communities and we Epicureans have many layers of identity. I grew up in the Caribbean, and am acutely aware of some of the ways in which African wisdom traditions have moral guidance to offer regarding recent events. Our modern, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural Epicureanism would benefit greatly from exploring its intersections with these traditions. Black Lives Matter not only because the flesh of black bodies is dignified by virtue of its ability to feel pain and pleasure, but also because of the thoughts of black minds. In the past, I’ve written about the African virtue of coolness and how it relates to Epicurean ideas about the physicality of the soul. There’s also Ubuntu, a secular humanist tradition indigenous to Africa. According to Wikipedia:

Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity.

The essay later says:

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows: ” A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. …

Ubuntu is part of the philosophical heritage of several countries in Southern Africa, including places like Botswana and Zimbabwe. Madonna has linked her work with orphans in Malawi to this tradition. Recently, Botswana abolished the illegality of gay sex. It came as a surprise to me when, in the aftermath of the abolition of apartheid, South Africa became the first and only country in Africa to approve gay marriage. This is a continent whose countries are known for having very repressive attitudes towards LGBT people, and where until recently Ugandan Christians were trying to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill.

Ubuntu in post-apartheid South Africa was about more than forgiveness: it was about the re-humanization of the other, who had been dehumanized. It’s also about treating the other as a subject, not as an object. This included blacks and whites, and colored, and LGBT people. Ubuntu includes everyone, and in this it departs from African religious philosophies–which exclude and dehumanize LGBT people–and is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It also inspires traditional respect for elders, hospitality, and other African values and concrete actions that are done to help ensure that people belong and feel fully human in the presence of others. Ubuntu demonstrates the importance of societies having non-religious philosophies for moral guidance in order to avoid the monopolization of people’s moral compass by religious bigotry.

I mention coolness, the Epicurean Ptolemies, Ubuntu and Cyrenaic philosophy in order to accentuate the place of Africa in the world of philosophy, particularly as it relates to Epicureanism, but this should be framed within the larger perspective that philosophy–even if it has strong Greek roots–also has roots in other parts of the world (India and China exhibit particularly sophisticated examples of this) and will continue to evolve as a global human activity. One of my fellow contributors to the book How to Live a Good Life, Bryan Van Norden (author of the Confucianism chapter) is doing a lot of work promoting the idea that philosophy has always been multi-cultural. He’s also the author of Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (lecture here).

Some time ago, I participated in the Seize The Moment Podcast. Their latest eposide is titled Is it Time for a 4-Day Work Week and to Work From Home?, and in it they read a passage from the my chapter in the book How to Live a Good Life, which discusses Epicurean economics.

The following essay series is a book review of The Ethics of Philodemus:

Philodemus’ Method of Studying and Cultivating the Virtues

On Frankness and On Conversation

Moral Portraiture and Seeing Before the Eyes

Against Maximalism

Philodeman Economics

The video Epicurus: The Polyatheist argues (wrongly) that Epicurus was an early atheist. However, it has some good points, among them what some today call the polyvalent logic, which in the video is called “theory of multiple explanations”.

Aeon magazine has published an essay On the physics of free will.

There’s a new blog in town: The Modern Epicurean. The author, Jordan, is a member of Society of Friends of Epicurus, and these essays represent his own voice and his own effort to revitalize the Epicurean tradition for our day.

Epicureanism as an alternative to religion

What is Epicureanism? (and a longer summary)

How to be an Epicurean: Summary

His testimonial piece What does it mean to be an Epicurean? reminds me of La Mettrie’s addition of “unwarranted religious guilt” to the ethical problems that impede our ataraxia. He also has posted a series of essays addressing various objections to classical Epicureanism:

Friendship

Politics

Asceticism

Needless to say, while his views are his own, I have written in the past about why we need more Epicurean content creators and am stoked to see that he is adding his voice to modern Epicureanism. Please subscribe to him, comment, and share his content!

Further Reading:

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

Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Critical Insurgencies)

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Happy Twentieth: The Epicurean Dude

Happy Twentieth to everyone! This month, my essay An Epicurean Guide to Living More Pleasantly in Times of Coronavirus was featured in May-June issue of The Humanist magazine, a publication of the American Humanist Association. The May-June issue is titled Philosophy in a Time of Pandemic, and it includes five essays–four by contributors to the book How to Live a Good Life–applying Stoicism, Ethical Culture, Epicureanism, and secular humanism to life in the time of a deadly pandemic. Please read, enjoy, comment, and share the essay!

Also I had the pleasure of participating in the limited edition video discussions How to Live a Good a life, Episode 3: Stoicism and Epicureanism with Massimo Pigliucci, who authored the Stoicism chapter.

The audiobook Epicurus of Samos: His Philosophy and Life – All the Principal Source Texts compiled and introduced by Hiram Crespo is available for pre-order through Audible. Working on this project for Ukemi Audiobooks was an absolute pleasure! I became re-acquainted with many details in Laertius’ biography of Epicurus that are frequently ignored and Seneca’s numerous reports about what life was like in the early Garden, and gained a deeper familiarity with the most important passages in De Rerum Natura. My introductions to the portions serve as study guides and are informed by my over six years of focused study of Epicurean philosophy. However, because this is an audiobook, the narrative is linear. My challenge and invitation to anyone who listens to the audiobook is to pause and take notes from time to time if you find unexplored aspects of Epicurean philosophy, so that you can later go back to the sources (or to our Garden of Epicurus FB group) and explore them in depth.

Aeon Magazine has published This granular life in celebration of the idea of the atom, calling it humanity’s greatest idea.

In late April, the Church of the Latter Day Dude’s Dudeism.com page (a parody religion based on the film The Big Lebowski) published The Dude’s Letter to Menoeceus, a translation of one of our writings into the language of The Dude–the main character and “hero” of the cult film. The translation was furnished by a fellow member of Society of Epicurus, Nathan, who is also a musician and goes on twitter by the handle @ShazdarTheBard. Check out his music here. My favorite song by him is I Hate My Job–which pretty much depicts my life many years ago before 2008 when I was a telephone banker.

I can’t think of a better person to write a Dudeist Gospel of Epicurus than Nathan. He is a knowledgeable Epicurean, and also a creative soul whose content (judging from I Hate My Job) is funny, yet (judging from his Epistle of the Dude) also insightful. He clearly fits the profile of a laughing philosopher. I’ve written about the lineage of the laughing philosophers in the past, and about parody religions specifically as they fit into this tradition, in my piece for the classics journal Eidolon titled Swinish Herds and Pastafarians: Comedy as an Ideological Weapon. In that piece, I argued that

modern practitioners of Pastafarianism are engaging in the kind of disruptive and insightful satire that ancient Epicureans were known for.

The same could be true for the Dudeists, and in fact there tends to be intersectionality between Epicureanism and many parody religions. With Pastafarians, it hinges on the importance of having an evidence-based worldview. With the Dudeists, the act of sacralizing what is essentially an art piece–a cult film whose hero might qualify as a “loser” by conventional standards–and having fun with it, says something about levity and the willingness to not take ourselves too seriously in our process of weaving happiness, meaning and value into our lives. Combine that with the frequent mini-sermons against nihilists that the Dude pronounces … and, didn’t Nietzsche say that he could not worship a god that didn’t dance? The Dude slew the Nietzschean spirit of gravity in a peculiarly artful manner, through bowling and drinking White Russians and, well, just abiding.

The character of the Dude is actually based on a real Dude, a film marketer known as Jeff Dowd, whose last name originally was Duda in one of the Celtic languages, and so he goes by The Dude. He is a character, and worthy of having a film character based on him.

Modern Dudeists consider Epicurus of Samos to be one of the great Dudes in history, which makes The Dude a modern American prototype of a kind of Epicurean that one may find, a person who models his life to some extent on Epicurean ideas. Here are some from the quotes of the Dude’s Letter to Menoeceus:

So learn to enjoy life in the lanes, because once the tournament is over, you don’t get to go back and play again.

Now, if you really want to live the good life, man, all you have to do is learn to abide.

Happiness isn’t just some fucking advertisement that passes you on the side of a bus, man – it’s seeing through all the bullshit. Like we did as kids!

One of the biggest things people get hung up on is death. But you know what, man? There’s no reason to fear the reaper. No one goes to their own funeral, right? You can’t be and be dead at the same time, man. You can’t be anything if you don’t exist. Think about that, man. Far fucking out!

Equally moronic are the nihilists who say: “Fuck this. Bowling sucks. I wish I weren’t even born.” If they really believe that life isn’t worth living, then why don’t they just kill themselves? But they won’t, man, because nihilism is just a pose. It’s not a real philosophy.

You feel good when you get what you need. And that’s what it’s all about, man. It’s how we make choices. Feelings are how you make sense of all this shit. It’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi said: “Trust your feelings, man, you know them to be true.”

Once you figure all this out, it will really tie everything together.

This last passage refers to the Dude’s rug, which “ties the room together“. Very hygge!

The Dude’s Letter mentions abiding several times. One of the koans of Dudeism is “The Dude Abides“, which basically means that we should take it easy and enjoy life. Here’s an interesting story about abiding: When I wrote my book Tending the Epicurean Garden, my editor told me that he did not want me to use Greek words that no one was familiar with, to make the book and the doctrines of Epicurus relatable to modern people. So I chose the more familiar English term abiding pleasure to refer to katastematic pleasures (these are the pleasures in state, rather than the kinetic pleasures in motion). Later on, I even brought the term to the Urban Dictionary editors, and they accepted it and added the entry to Urban Dictionary. At the time I was unfamiliar with Dudeism, but later on was happy to learn that The Dude Abides has inspired numerous memes, and has become a mantra to remind us to chill and enjoy the moment.

The Dude’s Letter to Meno was a fun project and a chance to study the Epistle to Menoeceus by re-stating its teachings in the voice of the Dude, and I’m glad Nathan enjoyed the project (he told me that needed things to occupy him during the quarantine). My hope is that the Dudes (and Dudettes) who read it will investigate the original Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus. It’s much easier to abide after we take a little time to study the Hegemon’s ataraxia-inducing words.

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My Experience Doing the Master Cleanse and Intermittent Fasting

Since my hours at work were cut, and I have more time in my hands, and I enjoy learning something new every day, I decided to take some time to reinvent my dietary lifestyle and practice a whole foods, plants-based diet. I’ve been learning how to make vegan meats. So far, lentil sausage has been my favorite home-made vegan meat.

I also studied the science behind, and practiced, the master cleanse on three days. I took a break between the first two days: I cleansed a Monday, took a break Tuesday and ate collard greens, quinoa with jackfruit (marinated mojito-style), and sauerkraut, then on Wednesday again did the master cleanse, and again Tuesday of the following week. This is a hyped diet/cleanse where (usually for ten days) you do a salt-water flush in the morning, then spend the day drinking lemonade flavored with maple syrup and cayenne pepper, and end the day with a detoxifying tea. Cayenne pepper helps to curb hunger and quickens the metabolic rate.

Needless to say, I took a few liberties. Since I’m a huge fan of yerba maté and drink it daily, I incorporated my lemonade into a tereré–a popular South American drink that blends lemonade into yerba maté. The maté also delivers nutrients and helps with satiety. And I blended kava into my tea in the evening to turn it into a sleepy-time tea. The incorporation of teas and water into the master cleanse is not controversial, so I figured these changes would be harmless.

The most important take-away from the master cleanse concerns my moods. Monday was an amazing day for me! I felt focused, clear-headed, and just happy all day. A friend of mine, Jarvis, practices fasting annually or twice a year, and had reported these effects to me years ago. Like Epicurus, who practiced fasting in order to evaluate how little one needs while keeping a pleasant disposition, I was curious to see if it was true that fasting helps us to cultivate a steady, happy disposition. I was in a great mood all day Monday, and now I’m curious to study the mechanisms by which this works. I will definitely incorporate fasts into my lifestyle in the future.

My main suspicion is that, while we fast, our bodies use the energy that would otherwise be spent digesting our food, for fixing itself. Nutritionists speak of this in terms of “cell repair”. I suppose that the neurons also benefit greatly from this process, which is why it helps our moods.

Salad bowl (kale, brussel sprouts, homemade vegan meat, cherry Tomatoes, pepitas, walnuts, asparagus, red wine and dried cranberries) with homemade kombucha

Vanity is not the only reason to reinvent my dietary lifestyle (I’ve lost almost ten pounds over the last month). I wanted to avoid the “brain fog” that I used to get frequently at around 2 p.m., particularly if I had a big lunch. I also wanted to explore the connection between moods and diet. And I wasn’t looking for a “diet” that would act as a temporary change. I was looking for a healthier lifestyle to adopt going forward. This is why the whole food plant-based lifestyle was interesting to me: it’s flexible (one may still eat meat or dairy on rare occasions), and there’s a considerable amount of educational efforts and science behind it–and I love learning new things. WFPB is based on the findings of the now-famous China study, which was mentioned in the documentary Forks Over Knives. If you watch that documentary, you will understand the philosophical and empirical underpinnings of my recent experiments.

Plus, I had forgotten how good it is to eat ripe cherry tomatoes, or that a salad could be a delicacy. For a week, I cooked brussel sprouts and dried cranberries together with cooking wine (a technique I learned during a visit to a Spanish tapas restaurant years ago) by stir-frying them for a bit in olive oil (together with kale), and used this as the foundation for my salads, adding vegan meats, nuts, and vegetables to it. The tartness of the cranberries and the fruitiness of the cooking wine are more than enough to flavor the kale and the rest of the salad.

I will continue to experiment with vegan meats and meats that incorporate cricket flour. Once I’ve perfected one or two recipes, I will post a blog.

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We Mourn Our Friends by Pleasant Recollection

We show our feeling for [deceased] friends, not by wailing, but by pleasant recollection.- Epicurus

I have officially lost a loved one to coronavirus.

Ramón was one of my dad’s best friends for over 50 years, since before I was born. He was in his late 80’s, recently widowed, and living in a home for the elderly in New York which was hit especially hard by the coronavirus. I just learned of his death from my brother, who received a call from Ramon’s daughter in New York.

Ramón died on March 31st, and due to the health crisis he did not get a proper burial, but must’ve been laid to rest in a mass burial by the city of New York.

I didn’t know it at the time but he may have been among the dead for whom these mass graves were dug that I saw in the news. But, as Philodemus advises, what matters is not the manner of death and burial. What matters is the manner of life he lived.

My memories are of a kind old man who had a big smile and who used to play dominoes with my dad and joke about their age. Their friendship has always served as a model for me of what a great friendship should be. It was very easy for them to laugh together over almost anything. As they aged together, they made fun of each other’s bodies: can you count how many hairs you have left on top of your head? Could you light up an avenue in New York with your gold tooth?

Their friendship spanned decades and involved migrations and visits. He travelled for my parents’ 25-year wedding anniversary … and then their 50-year anniversary. He was with us during Hurricane Hugo. I came to see Ramon as part of my family. He had a deep hoary black-old-man voice and his laughter was like thunder.

I am writing this in his memory because he will never be just another coronavirus statistic. As long as he is remembered and his laughter remains contagious, his friendship is, in a way, immortal.

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Happy Twentieth: The Ethics of a Quarantine

Happy Twentieth of April! Please enjoy our educational videos on YouTube, and please subscribe, comment, and share. Some media updates:

In the past, I’ve written about the sense of smell as it relates to the Epicurean canon, and this last Aeon essay does a great job of accentuating the importance of this faculty. It explains how, compared to vision which is vulnerable to optical illusion, it’s much more difficult to trick the nose, and that it’s a much more reliable connection with reality than most people realize.

The essay also reminds me of the nexus between cuisine and Epicurean philosophy. It discusses how the aroma of coffee, for instance, has dozens of ingredients, some of which on their own are not appetizing or would be repulsive, but when these combine in the right proportion and in the right manner, they produce a synergy that is unique to the coffee experience, and is by far greater than the sum of the ingredients. These emergent properties are what Epicurus in his Letter to Herodotus (and, later, Polystratus and others) called secondary, or relational, properties of bodies.

In addition to learning how to use cricket flour (and discovering its synergy with cassava), I have in the past discovered similar synergies between ingredients like raw cacao (chocolate in its natural form) and maca and coconut water, and as I am writing this I am enjoying a millet porridge that was blah until I added sugar and peanut butter, which turned it into a yummy experience. All ingredients require that the culinary artist learn how to employ them, otherwise they will not be useful or appetizing in the kitchen. We could say the same about philosophy: in order to produce a happy life, we need friendship, self-sufficiency, the study of philosophy, self-discipline, and many other concrete ingredients, without which pleasure can not “grow together with the virtues” as Epicurus says in his Letter to Menoeceus.

*

Since we are going through a period of health crisis and most of us are to some extent or another under quarantine, I thought I’d discuss some of Epicurus’ doctrines on justice as it relates to these times. The most important thing to know is that, in nature, we observe no absolute justice. Justice exists by convention and by culture: it’s an artifact of human genius that is meant to serve the needs of human societies.

And so justice must be related to concrete circumstances, which change with time. Since these circumstances change, what is just must change also. The Principal Doctrines give mutual advantage as the criterion by which we judge what is just.

Quarantines afford us a unique opportunity to see what is just is relative and changes according to circumstances. Let’s look at PD’s 37-38:

Among things that are thought to be just, that which has been witnessed to bring mutual advantage among companions has the nature of justice, whether or not it is the same for everyone. But if someone legislates something whose results are not in accord with what brings mutual advantage among companions, then it does not have the nature of justice. And if what brings advantage according to justice changes, but for some time fits our basic grasp of justice, then for that time it is just, at least to the person who is not confused by empty prattle but instead looks to the facts.

Notice here the portion “whether or not it is the same for everyone”. Quarantines are an instance where only select individuals must respect particular taboos regarding free movement and association. They were originally imposed during the Black Plague to merchants who docked in the pier in Venice after a long trip abroad. In other circumstances, quarantines are applied to residents of a certain village, or a certain city (Wuhan), to people just coming into one country or region from another region, or to colonies of lepers. The spread of a plague or disease is the particular disadvantage that justifies (that is, “makes just”) the quarantine. But additional disadvantages may arise from societal and political disorder if the people feel that their government has mismanaged the health crisis, social ostracism for patients, economic difficulties for large numbers of individuals, and other issues.

We also find in PD 37 the assertion that the word of the law is not always in line with justice. Sometimes failing to abide by laws carries great disadvantages, but if the law was originally unfair to begin with, we may say that these added disadvantages were not only unfair but also unnecessary.

We also find the assertion that temporary measures (like a 15-day quarantine) can sometimes be just only for a time–that is, during the time for which they produce mutual advantage. Isolating particular groups of people for arbitrary reasons not related to mutual advantage, outside of the circumstances we have today, is seen as unjust.

When circumstances have not changed and things that were thought to be just are shown to not be in accord with our basic grasp of justice, then those things were not just. But when circumstances do change and things that were just are no longer useful, then those things were just while they brought mutual advantage among companions sharing the same community; but when later they did not bring advantage, then they were not just.

We should defer to health experts before we decide when the current stay-at-home orders and quarantines must end, but for the time being, measures of social distancing bear the stamp of being just because they bring mutual advantage. These measures protect our health and protect us from the many disadvantages tied to the worsening of the current health crisis.

If you’d like to further discuss the intricacies of the Epicurean doctrine of justice based on mutual advantage, and other aspects of Epicureanism, please join us at the Garden of Epicurus FB group!

Please support me on Patreon!

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Books for Jefferson / Hitchens Day

Today is Thomas Jefferson / Christopher Hitchens Day. Some atheists / humanists have called for this day to be about sharing / giving books to our friends, to stimulate their intellectual life.

People develop their character through association. Good association tends to produce a wholesome character. But there are ways in which we can sculpt our characters in the absence of the best association, and books are one of those ways. We are able to participate in timeless quasi-conversations with thinkers from the past and from the present about subjects that both the author and reader are passionate about, meet thinkers from other cultures and blend our minds with theirs, and we can temporarily transcend generational boundaries and rise above whatever cultural limitations or mediocrity we may be surrounded by. We learn new things, we gain new skills, and develop our own personal culture, way of life, and philosophy–and we are empowered to steer our individuality in new directions.

I’ve in recent months written book reviews celebrating the legacy of French Epicurean philosopher La Mettrie: An Epicurean SystemThe CanonAgainst CreationismAnti-Seneca, and another one on Wilson’s How to Be Epicurean. You may also choose to read or gift classics, like A Few Days in Athens, which was written by Frances Wright. She was a fascinating figure. A feminist abolitionist who defended critical thinking and the right to hold atheistic ideas. For years, she had close intellectual exchanges Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello, and her work (like La Mettrie’s) is a window into the profound influence of Epicurean ideas on the humanism of the Enlightenment.

Of course, you may enjoy the book How to Live a Good Life, which has 15 essays on different life philosophies to help people navigate their way through choosing their own personal philosophy–or Tending the Epicurean Garden … or if you really want to travel back in time and LAUGH, try Lucian‘s works. Whatever you choose to read, I hope your book unfolds like a magic carpet under you and I wish you a happy reading adventure!

Further Reading:
Something Good to Read: Highly Recommended #Humanist Books

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In Memory of Kurt Cobain (February 20, 1967-April 5, 1994)

Three days after Kurt Cobain committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, his body was found and the news shook the world. It was my first year of college in Aguadilla (Puerto Rico) and I still remember the day. One of my roommates and her boyfriend–who was from the town of Isabela, and himself part of a rock band–were huge Nirvana fans. I came home from school, and she immediately pulled me aside and told me. It felt and sounded like she had just lost a family member. She was in shock. At 27, Kurt Cobain had been identified as one of the icons of his generation and had millions of adoring fans.

The shock comes naturally when someone dies young, because no one expects it. Also, back in the nineties, very little was known about depression. There weren’t many educational campaigns–at least that I was aware of–or 800 numbers to call. So people just asked themselves: why would someone who was so young, gorgeous, incredibly talented, successful, and wealthy hate his life so much?

Pleasure Starts in the Belly – Metrodorus

We know a bit more today about depression, but not enough. Studies show that gut flora has an effect on moods, and we know that many of the feel-good chemicals are synthesized in the gut. Vanilla yoghurt, durian, dark chocolate, and several other foods are known to have a significant effect on moods. In an interview shortly before his death, Kurt had revealed that he had struggled with life-long stomach pain for years. He said it was not an ulcer, and he attributed the pain to psycho-somatic symptoms as a result of psychological distress from an early age. This tells us that he was, on some level, aware of the relation between his gut and his psyche. At one point his stomach pain was so intense that he was suicidal and unable to swallow his meals. Might he have suffered from an undiagnosed eating disorder? Due to his titling one of his songs Lithium (the name of a pill for manic depression, aka bipolar disorder), and due to some of his manic behavior on stage, there is wide speculation that this was his diagnosis.

In his suicide note, he also mentioned that for years he had been completely unable to enjoy anything he did, even his fame and music, and the process of creating it. He said he had no passion. Passion–often used as a translation for pathe (feelings), and a word that is often associated with being pathetic, and vilified by some of the philosophers of virtue and men of religion–is one of the things that makes life worth living, and lack of it leads people to want to abandon life.

There is much we’ll never know about Kurt, and much more we need to learn about depression. One way to honor his memory is by raising awareness about depression, suicide, and bipolar disorder, and by reaching out to friends and loved ones who might be suffering from them. In the meantime, here is one of Nirvana’s best songs:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTWKbfoikeg

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My Experiment Making Cricket Banana Bread

There are at least dozens of reasons why insect-eating (a culinary tradition known formally as entomophagy) is slowly becoming mainstream in the West like sushi did a few decades ago. Many insects are more sustainable, more nutritious, and even more bio-available nutritionally to humans than beef or chicken. We are depleting the seas of fish, and it’s estimated that the vast majority of the population will not be able to afford seafood or beef by 2050 because of over-fishing, and the environmental problems tied to how we source these foods, as well as the pressures of over-population. Many vegan imitations of meat are starting to fill the niche that beef filled for our generation, and maybe someday soon in a couple of generations people will be appalled at the savagery of the daily torture and holocaust of animals that we today consider a normal way of producing food.

My review of the Beyond Burger

With me being a foodie and all, after watching many videos on insect-eating, and documentaries like this one, it was inevitable that I was going to have insect-eating adventures. I got my insect-eating cherry popped at an AMAZING Mexican restaurant on the north side of Chicago that serves chapulines. The restaurant is known as Kie-Gol-Lanee, which must be an Aztec or other indigenous term, and it’s possibly the BEST Mexican restaurant in the city both in terms of flavor and quality of ingredients, and service. The chapulines are tiny grasshoppers that appear to be marinated in lime and chili, and taste like a crunchy version of what they’re marinated in. I had them in salads and on deviled eggs.

I hear meal worms are popular (particular in meatballs, where their appearance can easily be masked) and that some ant species taste lemony. But crickets, in particular, are gaining popularity at a pace that surprises me. This is because they contain about 60 % protein, plus many vitamins and minerals, Omega 3s, and fiber so that there are studies that link them to better gut health. A surprisingly huge proportion of the world eats them, and many other insects. According to this National Geographic essay:

The ancient Romans and Greeks dined on insects. Pliny, the first-century Roman scholar and author of Historia Naturalis, wrote that Roman aristocrats loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine.

Aristotle described in his writings the ideal time to harvest cicadas: “The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.”

Which begs the question: Did Epicurus and his associates eat bugs? Either way, Pumbaa did in the Lion King. What’s good enough for Pumbaa is good enough for me.

If even the West has a history with entomophagy, why not give it a try? I was adventurous enough to go to an Asian store in my neighborhood and buy frozen crickets to use in my kitchen. I was encouraged by my neighbor and partner-in-crime Brian. I had no idea what to do with them, and the ones I got at the Asian store were much bigger than the tiny and un-intimidating chapulines I had eaten at the Mexican restaurant with my other neighbor. Like three times as big, at least. I admit I was a bit more squeamish this time, but yet I’ve seen lobster much bigger than that and, if you REALLY look at it, a lobster is just a giant bug that happens to live in the ocean. Crabs, spiders, lobsters, roaches: all cousins! (Don’t believe me? Look it up!)

Our initial culinary effort was blah: my neighbor roasted four or five into a stir-fry. They were visually very interesting on the plate. We each ate one. The other ones went to waste. They didn’t taste bad, but we needed to learn to work with the ingredient and we had no idea what to do with them. We hadn’t seasoned them enough, but the visual exposure to crickets on our plates made the experience fun and different.

I had many more frozen crickets and was determined to learn how to use the ingredient: I saw that many people in Thailand would deep fry them for five minutes and claimed they tasted like pop-corn, so I made a salty treat of them after deep-frying a few for five minutes in very hot oil. I’m not used to eating food so oily, but I have to admit the aroma of the crickets was very appetizing and they did taste a bit like pop corn. I did not have the spices used in Thailand to add fragrance to them, but I had sofrito and ají–Latin American spices. I enjoyed this dish, but it’s not something I would make frequently, and deep-frying is not a practice I engage in frequently in my kitchen. Too much oil. I would try other ways.

By this time, I had heard about cricket flour and seen videos where it was used to make bread, and it occurred to me that this would be a much safer way to turn breads into a complete protein and to remove the appearance of insect from the ingredient. I say “cricket flour” but it’s fair to call it cricket protein powder (it’s sold as such on amazon) because it’s nutritionally dense and, in breads, one may replace about a fourth of the regular flour with it. It doesn’t work like a flour, but more like a protein powder. I’ve found that this is the BEST way to use crickets in the kitchen. I first made my own cricket powder by putting the remaining crickets in the blender with water, and adding the cricket ground meat to grated cassava. Cassava (or yuca) is a tuber (like yams and potatoes). It’s starchy and makes a yummy bread that can be made garlicky. I’ve written blogs about it before.

Cassava cricket bread is, thus far and BY FAR, the tastiest (and healthiest) dish I’ve created with crickets. The aroma, the flavor, were all on point. The mixture is simply mixed with garlic powder and salt (and any other spices we wish to add) and roasted on a skillet for about three minutes on each side with butter or olive oil.

The next best dish I’ve created (and the most recent one) is cricket banana bread. Just adapt any banana bread recipe you find online and add about one part cricket flour to four parts or so regular flour. I didn’t use nuts because I didn’t have them, but I remember adding coconut flour and oil, a little sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. Oh, and I used einkorn flour, which is an ancient variety of wheat. Can you tell there are insects in this delicious banana cake from looking at it? It tasted like any other banana bread, except that each loaf had a good amount of protein and fiber. So I ate with no guilt. I like to use very little sugar (since ripe bananas are naturally sweet) so it was not too sweet. As far as I’m concerned, this is a healthier version of your typical banana bread.

I will continue experimenting with this new (for me) ingredient. I encourage you to learn about and consider the benefits of entomophagy not just for the environment and for the planet, but for the PLEASURE of learning how to use an ingredient that is nutritionally dense as well as healthy and (if used properly) tasty.

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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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