Seek always the good that abides. – The Good 9:1
Of all the books in The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, The Good is the last one and brings the entire work to a close, interestingly, by making several references to core Epicurean doctrines. One familiar with Epicurus really gets the sense that the author closes this collection of Humanist wisdom traditions with Epicurus’ teachings and with an elaboration and celebration of abiding pleasure. I’d like to think that the author, in doing this, treats the conclusions of Epicurus as the crown of all wisdom. But let’s start from the beginning.
It is impossible to discuss the Good without discussing abiding pleasure. In Epicurus’ doctrine, there are two types of pleasure: dynamic (kinetic) and abiding (katastemic), which is that pleasure of being (not of doing or thinking) that is natural to us. The teaching says that those who cultivate abiding pleasure have a steadier, more stable happiness because they do not rely on externals for their pleasure, and ergo (insofar as that’s the case) they are liberated beings.
Sometimes we recapture the joy of savouring our being, not the material pleasure merely of eating and drinking, of seeing beautiful things or hearing beautiful sounds, of talking or resting; but the different, delicate, larger happiness of being part of the great whole, of being oneself with one’s life, one’s own impressions and thoughts. It is a wonderful and grand thing to be oneself and part of all, and to have the dignity of the capacity for thought. – The Good 3:6-10
The Good begins by discussing how it’s natural for child to abide in a state of pure safety, pleasure and well-being which is our natural, original state. It then goes on to speak against fears, which leads us to think that fears are the first signs of cultural corruption which interrupt this initial blessedness.
The first step of the good life is to seek wisdom and give up fear. – The Good 1:14
Contrast this with the Proverbs 1:7 passage in the Jewish Bible, according to which The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It is clear that the wisdom tradition of the Jews and Christians is quite distinct from that of the Hellenic Humanism from its very foundations.
The first two of Philodemus’ cures in our own tradition make of fear a taboo, particularly religious fear. There is, in The Good, an elaboration of katastemic pleasure, the pleasure of being, based first of all on absence of fear.
When we have driven away all that troubles or frightens us, there is tranquility and freedom. – The Good 1:7
Other Teachings on the Good
It then goes on to say that we must learn to endure difficulties and tackles fear of death specifically, explaining (in verses 17-22) the naturalist/atomist account of death. Because life is so precious and short, we are invited to “be worthy of this body”, and later (in a chapter reminiscent of Epicurean considerations on time and the limits of pleasure) we are told there is no time for superfluities (5:14-15).
Freedom is counted among the goods, but a distinction is made between the two freedoms: one from hindrances and pains, and another to choose and to act. Hedonic calculus will require us to consider toiling and going through difficulties in order to attain higher and/or necessary pleasures (stability, food, protection, etc.), so that we should consider the ways in which toil seasons delight.
As for further elucidation of the good, the author believes that it lies within our talents for good, so that there are many goods as there are talents. To each person, it will mean something different.
The Humanist Ten Commitments
There have been several secular attempts to reevaluate the Ten Commandments and purge them of superstition. The Good Book recognizes the need for rules for living together, and offers its own version of them. Prior to closing it ends up articulating these as part of a covenant where people stand together as free individuals to “help one another” and “build the city together”.
Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous; at lease, sincerely try. – The Good 8:11
These humanist commandments translate, to a hedonist, into a fairly balanced code of ethics.
- Love well, is a call to friendship (philos)
- Seek the good (pleasure) in all things accentuates the importance of setting a goal (telos), without which we are lost as if without a compass in the world
- Harm no others, the golden rule, sets the foundation not only for the social pact as it was taught by Epicurus, but also for a culture of what the East calls ahimsa (non-violence). It calls for civilized, non-violent conflict resolution
- Think for yourself invites us to live the analyzed life
- Take responsibility invites us to autarchy
- Respect nature, rather than control it, articulates environmental sensibilities
- Do your utmost accentuates the importance of effort and persistence
- Be informed accentuates the importance of an education
- Be kind accentuates the importance of good manners, which complete our education
- Be courageous accentuates the importance of fearlessness