I have been browsing the teachings of our tradition to see what they may have to say about the Orlando attack. Principal Doctrine 39, among other things, recognizes that we can not be everyone’s friend, and that there are people that we are better off avoiding. It seems to call for ostracizing dangerous psychopaths, but the perpetrator of yesterday’s massacre is already dead. A video surfaced of an imam in Orlando teaching that gays should be killed, so perhaps there are other related evils that this doctrine may apply to, but I am here mainly concerned with how I can apply Epicurean teachings in my personal life, not in public policy.
The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life. – PD 39
It’s true that we will be disappointed if we believe that we can be everyone’s friend, or if we misplace our trust.
Also, a note must be said here about the idea of being “on the wrong side of history”, a term frequently used, but which denotes a very real problem we have in our culture. When Plato had initially seeded his revolt against nature in the culture and intellect of Westerners, Epicurus came to reconcile us with nature, but the damage was done. As a result, we have been forced to frame the true, natural history of reality and our intellect’s apprehension of it as a counter-history.
We all share the same planet, but some people are living in an entirely other alternative reality because of the false, Platonic, mythical cosmology they have adopted. Like ants and elephants who share the jungle, but experience it in different dimensions and are entirely alien to each other’s worlds, it is nearly impossible to engage in productive communication with certain people. Some cases of alienation from nature and reality are more severe than others. PD 39 reminds us that it may not even be worth our time and energy.
Anyone looking to understand what the Epicurean tradition teaches about ways to deal with religious terror and its effects should also consider Lucian’s Alexander the Oracle Monger. More specifically, they should read the work all the way to the end and consider why Lucian wrote it.
On the one hand, Lucian was using free speech as a weapon in intellectual warfare, to avenge the betrayal and attempted murder that the false prophet carried out. On the other hand, the work is a token of solidarity with all the Epicureans, and of friendship between Lucian and his friend Celsus, who together must have spent many hours sharing jokes and exchanging stories. Lucian was obviously an entertaining narrator who wove intricate, funny details into his stories, and must have been the kind of clown-like friend who brings so much joy to our day, that we always look forward to seeing him and consider it a festive occasion when we do.
When we experience tragedy, we long for what is familiar and close to us. We miss the presence of friends like Lucian. I have two degrees of separation with some of the victims of the Orlando attack, but I had such a visceral reaction to yesterday that I feel like the attack also affected my own flesh. I felt indignation and anger swell up in the pit of my stomach, and then I learned that two other attackers were being held in Los Angeles who were also targeting Pride celebrations. We can’t let them take away our ability to enjoy Pride festivities from now on. We will not stop honoring the memory of Stonewall, but we have to be careful, safe, and vigilant now.
One of the other sources in our tradition that can provide moral guidance specifically addresses the issue of anger. The scroll by Philodemus On Anger says that anger may be natural or not, rational or not, and also useful (or productive) or not. Unlike other systems of ethics, where anger and many other natural human emotions are banned, we see them as sources of insight about our own nature and its needs. An assessment of my anger tells me that it is natural, rational, and that insofar as I use it to write content that helps others to deal with this horrible event, I am also redeeming it by making it productive. Specifically, it is natural because the guarantee of one of the kyriotatai, or chief goods, is being denied to us–that is, safety and security needed to preserve our lives.
Finally, Philodemus also teaches that we must apply frank criticism (parrhesia) in the private and public spheres, criticizing the things that society needs to fix in order to become morally better, to facilitate a more pleasant life and produce less suffering to the individual members of society. This parrhesia is naturally acidic to religion, and today we are faced with dangerous insinuations that any and all attacks on Islam or its tenets constitute hate or a kind of phobia.
I grew up Catholic, and consider the doctrines of the Catholic Church as evil, harmful, anti-life and anti-happiness. In fact, Catholicism is in many observable ways a cult of agony and suffering. If saying these things constitutes hate, then I must hate the vast majority of the members of my family. Anyone arguing that frank criticism of this or that religious doctrine constitutes hate, or presenting any other such dishonest, dangerous, and naïve insinuation, must be confronted with the fact that almost all of us have family members, friends, and loved ones who carry in their minds false and harmful beliefs. Pointing these out can sometimes be a heavy and uncomfortable moral responsibility insofar as it reduces things like, I don’t know, say, a massive human sacrifice of over fifty innocent youth to an invisible god happening not in the times of the Aztecs, but in our times and in our own country … or the perpetuation of the indoctrination of children into harmful and violent beliefs that lead to such events. Because the other thing that Philodemus makes clear is that when people engage in evil, there are false and evil beliefs underlying human behavior that must be challenged in order to achieve the reform of moral character. Terrorist acts do not happen in a vacuum.
The false and violent beliefs of others affect our safety and our lives. We have to learn to have the maturity to have healthy, open, honest, transparent debate about the role of religion in all of our lives.