I recently had the pleasure of reading Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which raised many interesting philosophical questions. The author proposes that non-religious people can develop a coherent, rational spirituality based on a science of contemplation and wellbeing, and on experimenting with psychedelics, but mostly based on a secular appropriation of Buddhist doctrine.
I found myself agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others. One aspect of spirituality for secular people that caught my attention is the distinction between instant enlightenment, as promoted by Advaita and some schools of Buddhism, versus awakening by stages as favored by some Mahayana schools of Buddhism.
Many spiritual traditions, like the Sufis, have historically developed quite elaborate guidebooks and initiatory systems, with a kind of map guiding them through stages of spiritual development based on the declared goals of the system in case. The relevant passage made me ask myself whether a similar conception exists in the teachings of Epicurus.
My first thought was teaching on the three kinds of pupils, which seems to indicate a kind of evolution towards being a scholar who needs no guidance, and with autarchy/self-sufficiency being the goal of a philosophical education.
A fellow Epicurean then pointed out Norman DeWitt’s three levels of experience in the fifth chapter of Epicurus and his Philosophy, titled The New School in Athens. DeWitt mentions the following three stages: somatic, social, and emotional.
- the somatic level is the stage of awareness of the body, because bodily sensation are of paramount importance. Feelings concern themselves with physical pains and pleasures. DeWitt says, “the innate ideas/anticipations are still latent or barely emergent”.
- the social level is one of development, where the child is becoming an active member of the family, the neighborhood, and society. Feelings operate in the sphere of justice and injustice. Anticipations begin to operate, and religion usually emerges.
- in the emotional stage, the possibility of maturity emerges and physical pains and pleasures have been “superseded in importance by fears, hopes, suspicions, hatreds, envies, ambitions, etc.” It is at this stage that feelings (the hedonic tone, the pleasure/aversion principles) reach their peak of importance as criteria.
It is at this third stage that the telos (the goal of life, which is pleasure) attains importance and functions as a criterion. A person who does not understand that pleasure is the end, and assumes another artificial or arbitrary goal instead of the one that nature imposes, will likely produce unnecessary suffering, perplexity, and confusion through his misguided choices and avoidances.
This includes not only the actions and words one chooses, but also the opiniones one holds and for which one is also responsible. For instance, if an individual is haunted by fear of death and of the gods, he will need to evaluate his false opinions to treat these fears. Not doing so will bar him from maximizing the pleasures available in this life. The purpose of the third stage appears to be tied to ataraxia, to the development of a healthy character that is stable and self-sufficient in its pleasure and equanimity.
On the level of infancy pleasure was pursued by instinct and without thought. On the third level the intelligence has at length identified pleasure as the goal of living and the telos is purposively pursued (and) becomes an incentive.
Epicurus used to utilize the example of a newborn child to demonstrate that humans and other sentient beings naturally seek pleasure and shun pain if left to their own devices. Some have criticized this example by saying that man, in his adult life, must be different from an infant child. DeWitt’s three levels of development take into account the important distinctions between infantile and mature hedonism.