Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month, I published a series of Reasonings on Michel Onfray’s Hedonist Manifesto–Please make sure to read, share, and comment!–and comedian Andy Zaltzman hosted the podcast “My Life as an Epicurean“, where he spent a week following several of the teachings of our philosophy.
Aeon recently published an article mentioning Epicureans on the philosophical repercussions that finding extraterrestrial life might have. Also a couple of papers on Epicurean philosophy have been recently uploaded to Academia.edu: Epicurean education and the rhetoric of concern, and Nietzsche and Kant on Epicurus and Self-Cultivation.
It’s that season again! No, I’m not talking about Humanlight, or Kwanzaa, or Christmas. As many of our readers know, HumanLight is the humanist Festival of Lights that serves as an alternative to religious and cultural solstice celebrations like Christmas and Kwanzaa, celebrating instead the Enlightenment and the reawakening of wisdom, of science, of knowledge and of human potential. As anyone who has read The Swerve knows, the Epicurean tradition had much to do with instigating the Renaissance, and a festival that celebrates the rebirth of light in this world is an ideal metaphor for our philosophy. But that’s not even the season I’m writing about today: it’s Star Wars season. A new Star Wars film is upon us, and the title The Last Jedi has many fans asking themselves: Who exactly were the First Jedi, anyway?
It turns out the Jedi and Sith philosophies that we’ve come to know from what we’ve seen of the saga so far–as well as Jediism, the new religious movement it sparked–are actually heretical offshoots of the original conception of the Force, which had a decidedly Taoist bent. According to the Dawn of the Jedi comic series, the Force was initially posited in planet Tython by priests, philosophers and sages from many planets all over the unnamed “galaxy far away” who came together to study and evaluate their universally shared philosophies and religions, and to find the common core of a universal spirituality and philosophy: the original Jedi upheld the Esperanto of religions.
The planet Tython had two moons: the light moon Ashla and the dark moon Bogan. These were linked to two fundamental forces of nature that the original Je’daii Order was able to manipulate and keep in balance (a third element of their art was bendu, or “balance”). Notice that Je’daii is spelled differently from Jedi. It means “mystic center“. The precursors of the Jedi Order were not aligned with Ashla, the light side of the Force. Eventually, there was a battle between the disciples and Ashla (the Jedi) and those of Bogan (the Sith). This caused an imbalance between the light and dark sides of the Force which led to a cataclysm that destroyed Tython.
When we hear about the “selflessness” that Jedi attribute to themselves, it seems like we can associate Ashla (light side) with the (frequently unhealthy) extreme of selflessness, and when we find the thirst for unbridled power in the Sith, we can say that being heavy on Bogan (the dark side) leads them to the unhealthy extremes of selfishness. In Dawn of the Jedi, Ashla and Bogan were forces of nature. But, like with the Tao, this balance in the Force extends into almost every field of endeavor and even has ties to checks and balances needed in society and government. Notice that the Jedi, in rising against the Empire, were–as is typical of populist revolutions–rising against the Sith (greed for power) and in favor of “the many”.
This contrast between the Jedi and the early Je’daii, therefore, has **political** implications. The original Je’daii had to strive to remain always, in every way, and in all circumstances, more or less politically neutral–except to fix imbalances between Ashla and Bogan. They were born from the neutral space that allowed for the meeting between many species in the galaxy in a spirit of good will, and politics would have easily eroded their conversations and coalitions.
Rather than (self-less and collectivist) socialism and (self-ish and individualist) capitalism as two forces that must forever be mutually exclusive, in reality and in practice we always find in history that a balance must be kept between both forces.
There are legitimate reasons why both impulses are required: we may argue for a natural measure of individualism based on the need and fundamental human right for people to stand up and air their grievances when an injustice has occurred, and for the preservation of our freedom, happiness, health, etc. In balance, well-known abuses and excesses of highly-selfish exploiters–like the privatization of water and the enslavement of entire societies through debt–argue against unbridled individualism in politics and economics. There’s also a need for some level of collectivism and mutual aid (hedonic contract) in every society, for the sake of safety, protection, securing food sources and access to other basic needs, help in emergencies, etc.
For all of history, these two forces that today we may generically associate with capitalism and socialism must forever be in tension and in balance, producing many varieties and combinations of agreements that may (or may not), at different times and in different situations, serve the interests of both the majority and the minorities. At times it may be advantageous to support (aspects of) capitalism, at other times (aspects of) socialism, in order to keep a healthy balance between them.
Seen in this light, the Epicurean attitudes against -isms are pragmatic and necessary. The Jedi of the Star Wars saga claim to be (like neo-Stoics and many traditional religions) aligned with Ashla against Bogan. To their credit, they may have been acting in the spirit of the original Je’daii, attempting to set right the imbalance that resulted from the rise of the Sith / Bogan. The Epicureans are most like the original Je’daii who kept the two in ecological, Tao-like balance (“bendu“), always rejecting ideologies and keeping their mind on the ultimate goal, a vitality and ataraxia which is experienced as healthy pleasure.
According to Wookiepedia, one of the four roles that a graduate from the Jedi Academy may enter is diplomat. This mediator role is intimately related to Epicurean doctrines on justice (that is, mutual advantage), and can also be related to the Epicurean attitude of cosmopolitanism, one where identity and community are de-coupled from the state (the polis) and allegiances are free to be as universal as is advised by mutual advantage. This libertarian spirit, like all politics, requires some diplomacy. In this role, the Jedi’s precursors were seeking to uphold Epicurean justice, the maximization of mutual advantage and the reduction of mutual hostilities.
A diplomat must be highly trustworthy and able to relate to the self-interest of all. A very careful balance between individual and collective interests and needs must be kept in mind at all times. So in the thought experiment we are engaging in with the Force, a Jedi diplomat must balance Ashla and Bogan in the social and political sphere. To sacrifice one for the other is incoherent and very likely unattainable in diplomacy. To put it in the simplest and most plain terms: no sheep will want to negotiate their fate with a majority of wolves, if the mediator’s priority is only placed on the collective and the majority with no input from the selfish and individual interests of sheep. But what if the sheep are the majority: must the wolves go hungry? Some sacrifice is needed, one that recognizes the natural needs of all. Epicureans do not believe in absolute justice, opting instead for a relational, contextual, pragmatic, and ever-shifting evaluation of mutual benefit in all judgment which must take into consideration the many variables and circumstances involved (see Principal Doctrines 37-38). This, coupled with the tradition that says ancient Epicureans often used “suavity” in their speech, leads me to think of our philosophy as having left a particular–and rich, even if unmined–legacy in the realm of diplomacy.
The post-modern collapse of traditional religion–with its naïve and decontextualized ideas about absolute justice–has created a void that many have filled with what’s available in pop culture: according to their tendencies and whims, people have flocked to anything from Harry Potter as Sacred Text to Jedi Churches. Unlike these alternatives to myth-based and fear-based religion, Society of Epicurus is rooted in the intellectual and humanistic traditions of Hellenism which form the foundation of Western civilization. But that doesn’t mean we must ignore the huge utility of pop culture as a force that brings together intellects and helps us weave meaning into our lives.
Enjoy the new Star Wars! May the Force be With You and may you abide in pleasure this Twentieth!
Last Year’s 20th Message: Epicurus on Gratitude