By celebrating World Philosophy Day each year, on the third Thursday of November, UNESCO underlines the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual.
On this Day of collective exercise in free, reasoned and informed thinking on the major challenges of our time, all of UNESCO’s partners … are encouraged to organize various types of activities – philosophical dialogues, debates, conferences, workshops, cultural events and presentations around the general theme of the Day, with the participation of philosophers and scientists from all branches of natural and social sciences, educators, teachers, students, press journalists and other mass media representatives, and the general public.
Aeon published a piece recently on how the Western Philosophical Canon is Xenophobic, which I found interesting and wanted to weigh in with my own experiences learning and teaching Epicurean philosophy.
Upon getting a book contract from Humanist Press to write Tending the Epicurean Garden, one of the initial reactions I got when I first told about the book contract to a fellow writer for the student paper at Northeastern Illinois University was: “A Puerto Rican philosopher?! You’ll make a great Latino role model!“. I never really had thought about it that way, and it never occurred to me that upon hearing about my book or stumbling upon my content, some people would instantly consider my ethnicity as a defining feature of my writing, my intellectual life, or my content. I was instantly made aware of how non-diverse the world of philosophy is perceived to be.
Later, as I’ve written about the similarities and differences between Epicurean philosophy and Taoism and Buddhism, from time to time I’ve come across reactions to the content that show a high tendency from some people to use the label “Orientalism” or “Eastern thought / mysticism” to denote some things as foreign, useless, unscientific, or otherwise not worthy of being considered philosophical. I’ve come across triumphalist, nationalist Epicureans from Greece who sneer or bark at any indication that Epicurean philosophy could possibly be associated with anything non-Greek, but I’ve also come across others–like Christos Yapijakis, who graciously agreed to write the blurb that ended up in the back cover of my book–who expressed both surprise and gratitude at how I managed to coherently admit elements from so many global wisdom traditions into my own Epicurean wisdom tradition (following, of course, the instructions on innovation that were laid down by Epicurus himself).
One case that stands out among the wisdom traditions of the Native Americans for me, and which I mention in my book, is the sumac kawsay wisdom tradition of the Inca people of South America. Sumac kawsay translates as “the good life”, the details of which are codified in the constitutions of several South American countries with large aboriginal populations. Sumac kawsay is the product of the minds of a collective known simply as “the Inca elders”, and it appears to vindicate almost point-by-point the teachings of Epicurean ethics to such an extent that I was compelled to mention sumac kawsay when I wrote Tending the Epicurean Garden as a parallel ancient wisdom tradition, and I discussed it in a bit more detail in a Spanish-language interview I gave some years back to a Peruvian host.
The fact that sumac kawsay was preserved in oral form for centuries before being codified in order to be abducted into modern state constitutions demonstrates that–just as life in other planets may not appear “as we know it” here–similarly, philosophy in other cultures may take distinct (non-literary) forms. Philosophy also sometimes can be distilled not from single big-name thinkers like Nietzsche or Sartre, but by collectives of unidentified intellectuals reasoning together over generations, as in the Inca case. I find this to be a liberating insight, as it is easier to remain tied to Platonic forms of philosophy when philosophy is only understood as abiding in literature and in the head, in pure theory, in the clouds. Sumac kawsay, instead, is as vibrant and real as the culture it inspires and interacts with.
As for African wisdom traditions and shared memory, in my book I mention how they’re not just oral: they are completely embodied. They take the form of songs, of dances and other movement and forms when passed down. In my book, I mention the practice of “washing the head” as a therapeutic technique to facilitate the embodiment of the cool-headedness that is expected of a philosopher–coolness itself being a quintessentially African virtue that strongly resonates with Epicurean philosophy. Contemporary research shows the anti-depressant and calming effects that a splash of water can have on the neurological system.
I found that I had rightly intuited the importance of this concept of embodied philosophy that we find in Africa when I read about, and later wrote about Michel Onfray, and found him accentuating its importance, and the importance of connecting practice with theory. He used the example of Aristippus wearing perfume in the agora. In Counter-history of Aromas, I discuss Onfray’s (and Aristippus’) way of philosophizing, and conclude:
Smell is included in the Epicurean Canon: this means that nature has established that it is one of our connections with reality that can not be replaced by any other faculty, and furthermore that the sense of smell has sole jurisdiction over an aspect of reality that no other faculty may invade. No other philosophical system confers this kind of authority on an instinct as “base”.
One thing we find in African wisdom traditions is a full embodiment of how they relate to their creation of meaning and how they philosophize. Key metaphysical concepts are tied to specific points within the body, with a progression from the feet to the head. The feet in Yoruba cosmology are associated with the root of the tree, with each foot being associated with one parent’s lineage (because we are branches of our ancestors and because, as the Yoruba proverb says: “We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us“). Offerings to ancestors are therefore made to the feet of the devotee. The head, on the other hand, is associated with fate, destiny, and the future, because it’s where choices are made. It’s also tied to the gods, or higher self: one’s highest aspiration. And so we see the progression from past (roots, ancestors) to future (aspiration to become) that is anchored entirely in the body.
African wisdom traditions are immanent and give us ideas as to how we can fully embody and make fully tangible our own wisdom tradition, how we can be fully present in all of our instincts and faculties, and train ourselves to be better able to enjoy the immediacy of experience of all the simple pleasures that nature makes available and all the things that make life worth living.
There are other culturally-specific forms: the Lokayata school–aka Carvaka–of hedonist materialism emerged independently as an Indian parallel to Epicureans and Cyrenaics, and Yang Chu, the Taoist sage gifted us a treasure trove of literary wisdom that is Epicurean in all but name. One most pragmatic example of a locality-specific type of Epicurean lifestyle that is beginning to internationalize comes from Scandinavia and the hygge way of life, which involves comfort, friendship, conversation, food, textiles, and many other architectural and lifestyle details that give color to how we can imagine and make tangible a life of pure pleasure.
Epicureans were always a cosmopolitan bunch of friends. Today, Society of Epicurus has members in Spain, Finland, Greece, and the USA, and if we haven’t grown beyond the West it’s not for lack of trying. Epicurus says a lot of relevant things for the benefit of the world we live in. It is our intention to bring the wisdom of Epicurus to the entire world, and also to weave his kind words of encouragement and liberation into the various embodied, oral, and written wisdom traditions and ways of philosophizing that exist.