This blog follows up on a recent online dialogue on meaning versus pleasure which took place in the Epicurean Philosophy Group. The most important conclusion, as far as using Epicurean tools to weave meaning into our lives, was shared by both myself and Cassius (of NewEpicurean.com):
Cassius. Maybe as important as any other aspect of this discussion is that “living in accord with the guidance of Nature” in the Epicurean framework … ought to be considered MORE meaningful than any of these false abstractions. As I quoted the website above, the writer finds it more satisfying to “become close to god!” Not only is this absurd, but because it is absurd, it is offensive to assert that we can’t value and defend Nature (our true “mother” and “father” too) every bit as intensely as any fake religion ever valued its icon or its false abstraction.
Hiram. As I’ve gained depth in understanding Epicurus over the years, it’s become clear that he saw himself as coming to this world with the mission of reconciling us with nature … Our tradition is meant to supplant religion, in part, by giving people a scientific alternative based on the study of nature. And the authority of the canon (and of our faculties) is REALLY the authority of nature, which is the same as reality. In many important ways, nature has replaced God in our tradition–it is our source of meaning, our ultimate reality, our ultimate authority, and we must seek alignment with her.
This can be seen in the Epicurean prayer in the fragment that says: “Praise be to blessed Nature: she has made what is necessary easy to get, and what is not easy to get unnecessary.”
We also discussed the importance of legacy and mission (in particular the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens). To be fair, the original poster had not adopted an Epicurean identity entirely and was merely consecrating one month of his life to it. In the past, we have discussed how Epicurean philosophy is complete and cogent, and therefore confers an identity upon the follower. Delving into it for one month, particularly without Epicurean friends with whom one can blend one’s mind, does not produce the kind of benefit that the tradition gives.
In a way, Epicurean philosophy is more of a distinct type of meaning-endowing “consecration” than pure monotheism because we are smashing one further idol and fully consecrating ourselves to the study of nature, and refusing to replace her with religious fantasies. Many people have difficulty with this, but that is the challenge than an Epicurean has accepted: we are trying to be both happy and authentic, to be happy in reality and not by trying to escape reality.
I want to discuss ways in which one acquires meaning by being part of one’s own sacred narrative.
There is a scene in the Lotus Sutra (a Mahayana Buddhist scripture) that mentions millions of boddhisattvas (beings in the process of awakening) who were present and witnessed a part of the sutra narrative known as the “Treasure Tower scene”. In the Nichiren tradition, the devotees are taught that those awakening beings are the millions of souls who chant the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo mantra daily. Similarly the Torah mentions (as if present) the Jews of the future who were not physically there at the time when all of Israel stood at Mount Sinai receiving God’s laws. Converts to Judaism are told that, according to the Torah, “all of the Jewish people” were there in front of Mount Sinai, including them. This idea of participating in the sacred narrative enshrined in the scripture of these traditions gives adherents a sense of transcendence, of participating in the sacred narrative in a very real way by being mentioned in scripture and abducted into it.
Similarly, speaking for myself and how Epicurean philosophy gives me meaning, I take great pride in standing on the shoulders of the Epicurean intellectuals that came before me and continuing their legacy. There is a kind of historical transcendence that one gains from being fully committed to the Epicurean teaching mission. This is not too different from the kinds of historical transcendence that people in some religions experience.
In the past, I’ve blogged about the stages of development in hedonistic spirituality, drawing from the three kinds of pupils that Epicurus recognized. The followers of Epicurus asserted that his life had taken on the appearance of a legend to them, and if we consider the stages of Epicurus’ own biography, we can glean how this is so and we can also evaluate our philosophical evolution in light of his own. Here are five stages whereby we become Epicurus-like:
- Youthful Rebellion. As a child in his grammar school, Epicurus confronted his Platonic teacher, exhibiting youthful rebellion, when his teacher could not empirically explain the creationist myth of the Greeks and the “chaos” that existed at the beginning of creation. He then developed a resolution to establish a natural cosmology to counter-act the myths.
- Seeker Who Is Morally Responsible. Later, under his teacher Nausiphanes, Epicurus discovered that there was an atomist school that satisfied his need for a natural cosmology. But it taught a mechanistic view of nature, which he rejected by postulating a swerve in order to justify freedom of choice. In this way, Epicurus became a moral reformer, as the mechanistic view did not allow for personal responsibility.
- Truth Sayer. Epicurus’ independence of spirit got him into trouble in the city of Mitiline, where he confronted the Platonists with parrhesia (frank criticism), but this was not welcomed. He was exiled, and nearly lost his life. It was here that Epicurus learned that it is best to remain out of politics and to seek a life without controversy, employing parrhesia only with those close to him whom he trusted. Every Epicurean must master balancing militancy (and our natural desire to better the world) and ataraxia.
- Formation and Social Maturity. Having developed a quite complete teaching, Epicurus after his exile turned to Colophon where he and his friends first became a community and together elaborated the right teaching. This is the stage where one’s insights are shared within the context of community, of circles of friends, and philos (the sacred friendship idealized in this philosophy) is born here.
- Refuge. The philosophy had a clear identity by the time the Garden settled in Athens, the city that was consecrated to the Goddess of philosophy. In this ripened stage, the Epicurean (like Epicurus) has gained the wisdom that matters on what makes life worth living and is living according to the teaching with missionary zeal.
I hope these discussions have helped Epicureans and non-Epicureans to consider how meaning is a means to pleasure, and how meaning can be positively acquired within our tradition.