Having explored the third leg of the Canon, and established some premises–most important among them the connection between the Canon and Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection–I’d like to explore another misunderstood aspect of the Canon.
We teach that pleasure is the end that our own nature has established for us, and that this is evident in infants, and in “kittens and puppies”, to use a term borrowed from Cassius. But pleasure is not just the natural end for living beings: like the five senses, pleasure and aversion are faculties, defined in the dictionary as “inherent mental or physical powers”.
Many haters of the body and haters of this world (people who preach an afterlife and teach cults of death, as well as idealist philosophers) like to argue that we Epicureans are hedonists in the vulgar sense, that we’re about instant gratification of the senses and consumerism. Our tradition’s curriculum for control of desires and their subjection to hedonic calculus contradicts these claims, but they are nonetheless still parroted by the uninitiated.
Others–like certain neo-Aristotelians sects–argue that pleasures, as criteria, are “subjective” and “illogical” and that other, supposedly “objective” criteria are needed for ethical decisions. But humans are not logical or rational: we are natural beings whose brains have two sets of faculties: one rational or linear, the other irrational or non-linear, and we could not possibly meet our natural needs via purely rational methods without paying attention to our irrational faculties. This is self-evident. We must apply reason to the problems of needing food, shelter, and other basic needs. Nature does not give us a choice: we know we have to solve these problems because our own nature tells us through the faculties included in the Canon. Therefore, without the Canon, without this essential connection to reality as it concerns us, we can not survive or function.
And so, we are hedonists not because we’re whimsical or irrational, not because we seek constant gratification, but because our naturalist philosophy is based on the observation that nature itself has established pleasure and aversion as guides to identify the needful and the harmful things.
In Tending the Epicurean Garden, I cite the example of the relation between bees and plants. Millions of years ago, the plants decided to embellish their genitalia by producing flowers with nectar to attract certain insects, whom they found were particulary attracted and attuned to the scent and flavor of certain highly-nutritious substances that the plants knew how to produce. The plants benefited by spreading their pollen through the land and gaining diversity, which is one of the benefits of sexual reproduction. Over time, their mutual attunement is such that, without certain species of bees, there are hundreds of species of plants that would have no way to reproduce.
The plants and insects that were best at maximizing the mutual benefit of this relation were able to more successfully pass on their genes, until all the members of their groups that survived had mastered these new skills and adapted into their constitution new faculties: the plants learned to produce nectar that was sweeter and more nutritious, and bees grew better able to identify these sources of food. Speciation (the process of becoming a new species) has frequently been triggered by specialization.
Later on, a relation based on mutual pleasure and mutual benefit emerged among plants and the first primates, who were small descendants of rodent-like mammals that had decided to live in the trees for protection from land predators. The plants adapted the same technique they used with the insects, and turned their flowers into fruits. When these primates ate the fruits, they either ate the seeds whole, which were later fertilized in the excrement, or threw the seeds to the ground to be fertilized.
The plants and primates that were best at maximizing the mutual benefit of this relation were able to more successfully pass on their genes, until again all the members of their groups that survived had mastered these new skills and perfected new faculties. Plants began to place their seeds into delicious pockets of sweet food (that the primates found pleasure in) and to use colorful, attention-grabbing marketing when their seed-bearing fruits had ripened to maturity, and so monkeys became the first mammals to clearly identify the color red.
Even today, studies on the effects of color on humans still appear to show that red and orange (which is red, mixed in with yellow) stimulate the apetite. This is a primate reflex, an anticipation to use a term from the Epicurean Canon.
Also, notice that living beings do not choose fruits or flowers because we’re whimsical, or irrational, but because we are natural beings being led by nature via the hedonic tone, via the pleasure and aversion faculties.
If we go even further back in time, we will notice that a symbiotic relation developed between all animals and plants in the planet from its early history so that we inhale the oxygen that plants exhale, and plants inhale our carbon.
As a result of this, humans generally feel an increased sense of wellbeing when in nature surrounded by plants and greenery, or when in the presence of the ocean and when breathing its fresh air. One of the simplest, yet potentially intense, pleasures available to man comes from inhaling the fresh air from the ocean. We must bear in mind that the algae in the ocean produce 90% of the oxygen on Earth. The most needful thing, from the get-go, became the simplest form of pleasure.
Again, let’s take the example of the effect of the colors green (plants) and blue (ocean) to consider how pleasure relates to visual cues. Studies on the effect of different colors on the human mind and body demonstrate that human eyes take the most pleasure in, and derive the most well-being from, blue and green hues:
“green relaxes the body and alleviates stress … people working in green offices have proven to be more satisfied with their jobs”
Not only does ataraxia frequently look green, blue and white, but our eyes are particularly apt to perceive these particular colors, and we are most attuned to them, presumably because they are the most needful and important.
The same study that I cited previously on the anticipations article says that our eyes are uniquely receptive to blue light, and that white light has anti-depressant properties.
Another example I use in my book is the pleasure we take in our pets, and I even speculate that in the future, some of the humans and dolphins who have learned to fish together in parts of Brasil could evolve similar mutual-benefit covenants, to more easily access each other’s evolutionary triggers
Dogs and cats trigger anticipations that we evolved to feel when in the presence of vulnerable human infants: they have infant-like faces and evoke our parental instincts. Enjoying the company of a pet has been shown to decrease depression, to aid autistic children, and to encourage the secretion of serotonin, oxytocin, and other feel-good hormones. The pleasant nature of our relationships with our pets may also be explained by the mutual benefit: obviously they are fed by us and enjoy comfort and safety and love in our homes, but they also keep rodents out of our pantries, help with hunting and shepherding, and can be employed as guardians, protectors of family and property, and even as guides to the blind, to help save drowning victims and for many other things.
Thanks be to blessed Nature because she has made what is necessary easy to supply, and what is not easy unnecessary. – Epicurean Fragment
Epicurean masters teach that necessary things are both easy to attain and pleasant, and that things that are difficult to attain, are not necessary. Therefore, we should be grateful to nature and abide in this state of existential gratitude and pleasure, enjoying life with ease. This is our attitude towards reality as natural beings, our place in our natural cosmology.
What I’ve shared here are just a few of the most basic, evident and universal examples of why the pleasure faculty is so important to us, and an essential part of the Canon, in the Epicurean tradition.
Pleasure is the suavity in nature’s voice. Our hedonism is not about us being subjective, or whimsical, it’s what we mean what we say that nature is our guide: if we ignore our faculties, it’s only to our detriment and to our harm. If we heed them, it’s to our advantage.
Our natural goods are all pleasant, and pleasure is always good. The key is hedonic calculus: to pursue pleasure in a way that is rational and takes into account the calculus of long-term benefit versus loss so that we ensure that we don’t generate greater aversion in the process of seeking pleasure.