I had the great pleasure of discussing Epicurean ethics with a group of about twenty students from the Philosophy Club at Jones High School in Chicago yesterday. After introducing myself and explaining what led me to write Tending the Epicurean Garden, I read Principal Doctrines 26, 29 and 30, as well as the portion of the Letter to Menoeceus that talks about how–although pleasure is choice-worthy for its own sake and pain is avoidance-worthy for its own sake–not every pleasure is to be sought and not every pain to be avoided. I also discussed the differences between the natural and necessary desires, those that are natural but unnecessary, and those that are empty, and the importance of having some kind of standard for our choices and avoidances, and explained hedonic calculus.
We considered real-life scenarios to apply hedonic calculus, and mentioned questions about access to information, as many of the Herculaneum scrolls are not available to everyday people due to the high cost of academic translations available. I also discussed some of the contemporary research on the science of happiness, went over some of the findings, and talked about how much of this research is actually taking place in universities here in Chi-Town.
But one thing that struck me was how easily they understand issues of power and how power affects narratives. When asked why Epicurean philosophy hadn’t been more widely taught, I simply mentioned: “Plato. And Christianity“. And it seemed immediately like they understood. I shared a bit of the counter-history of philosophy angle when I explained that Epicurus was reacting mainly to Plato when he offered a materialist philosophy, as Plato had de-contextualized and de-naturalized philosophy. On contrast, Epicurus wanted to reconcile us with nature.
The modern efforts to bring creationism and superstition into the classroom are nothing new, in fact they are an ancient cultural war: it has take the form of science versus theology, materialism versus idealism, and other forms. But the Jones students fill me with hope: the high school philosophy club was initiated by students, who get no extracurricular credit for it. They are genuinely interested in the philosophical questions and in critical thinking. Jones is a college prep school and is one of the best in the city of Chicago. My overall impression is that the youth were super smart, organized, curious, respectful and attentive, and my visit there, their hospitality, and their passion for philosophical questions will be quite memorable to me for some time.
Yes, there’s a cult of ignorance taking over America. But there’s still MUCH reason to hope!!!!