Happy Twentieth to all the Epicureans and Humanists everywhere! In my Six Things I Learned After Writing “Tending the Epicurean Garden” post, one of the points mentioned was this:
Neuroscience was a field of great interest to Epicurean philosophy from the onset. Epicurus, in his speech on Moral Development, discussed how the “atomic structure” of the brain can be changed through certain practices (like repetition of certain teachings), and how as part of our moral development, we must take ownership of the content of our brains and our characters. Later on, Lucretius discussed neural pathways in his On the Nature of Things. It is clear that, as Epicureans, we are responsible for the steady and diligent cultivation of our brains in the same way that athletes are responsible for the cultivation of their bodies.
I wanted to follow up on this point, as I would hate to lose momentum with this. It seems like an important part of the Epicurean project had to do with giving people a non-superstitious, scientific alternative to religious practice, a naturalist spiritual discipline of some sort exemplified by the practice of repetition, which the Epicureans were known for, and other practices that they probably engaged in.
The just person has noble expectations concerning the Gods, and at the same time exceedingly enjoys pleasures that are unalloyed and effortless.
When I wrote my reasonings based on the scroll On Piety by Philodemus of Gadara, I should have expanded the definition of piety, or used another word, to imply all spiritual discipline and all spiritual practice. There’s a chapter on the science of meditation in my book which discusses the merits recognized by science in the practices of zen, metta meditation, and chanting. But since these practices require no religious belief and can be enjoyed by entirely secular people, do they qualify as piety?
Piety is an antiquated word with lots of cultural baggage. Many examples of piety that we may be familiar with are so vulgar that they can hardly be considered examples of true spirituality, falling rather in the superstition–or worse, sadism–category.
Sam Harris in his essay Killing the Buddha makes a call for the development of a science of contemplation and of a purely secular, empirical, scientific, and therefore transcultural, way of looking at morality. I keep going back to this essay because it is so pivotal to the work that I think Epicureans of our generation should be doing. Naturalist philosophers should take back spiritual practice, and more specifically assign to said practice the goal that our own nature seeks: the avoidance of pain and the cultivation of steady pleasure. Many Buddhist, Stoic, and other disciples stop at avoidance of pain and refuse to acknowledge pleasant abiding as the real goal. The argument for naturalizing spirituality has been articulated before, but not in terms that were as clear as Epicurean discourse demands.
Many contemporary atheists are attracted by the message of Epicurus, but (understandably, perhaps) are not willing to give up their anti-religion bias. I realize that the word piety will recall this bias, as it did for me. I want to stress every word in this insight from the Herculaneum scroll on piety, from a secular standpoint, so that we can evaluate the possibility of a fully scientific spiritual practice for modern humanists: The goal of true spiritual practice is unalloyed, effortless pleasure.
- The Goal: This is one of the main issues of contention that Buddhists, Stoics, and others have with the Epicureans, and it’s non-negotiable: the end that our own nature seeks is Pleasure.
- True Spiritual Practice: rather than piety, which often evokes the need for a deity, deities, or ancestors, we should consider as “true spiritual practices” those disciplines that produce existential wellbeing which are validated by empirical evidence and research (which would make them “true”, useful, scientific). There’s research that shows the benefits of chanting (lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, produces tranquility and increases self-control), metta meditation (which encourages the release of oxytocin, a mood-booster that makes people feel safer, more trusting, sociable, and happier), and zazen (produces a clearer, more attentive mind in addition to an increased sense of wellbeing). To the extent that we can argue that these practices lead to a pleasant life, they would be recommended by Epicurean philosophy.
- Unalloyed: pure, unmixed, with no perturbations or other side effects that might cancel the benefits. Another way to think of this in terms of hedonic calculus, is as “net pleasure”. Practices that come with fear of gods or fear of hell/afterlife, for instance, are not of this kind.
- Effortless: the easiest pleasure is that which is gained from fulfilling our natural and necessary desires, because our nature has a strong inclination for it. The choice of this word (probably by Epicurus, who may have been the original source of this quote by Philodemus) may have been intended to shoo away the temptation to engage in ascetic forms of religiosity, which idealizes agony and austerity instead of pleasure. Effortlessness then becomes a guarantor against anti-hedonistic forms of spirituality.
- Pleasure: that is, not “painlessness”, or “avoidance of pain”, but positively pleasant abiding, which is a symptom of true wellbeing.
I will continue to explore practices that foster wellbeing and promote pleasure along these lines, and will continue writing about them. I invite others to do the same. Perhaps modern Epicureans can learn from each other, and eventually gather a wisdom tradition with many concrete and useful things to teach about naturalist spiritual discipline.