Happy Twentieth of December! On Autarchy

Happy Twentieth of December and Happy HumanLight! Our friend Charles has taken the initiative of creating and managing Epicurean spaces on Reddit. If you’re on Reddit, please make sure to visit and subscribe to the new r/Epicurean_Philosophy subreddit. This is the only subreddit whose admins are all certified to be Epicurean philosophers by the Society of Epicurus. There have been issues with the content in some of the other subreddits in the past, so we hope that this will create a friendlier environment for Epicurean content on Reddit.

The upcoming book How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy will include chapters on Epicureanism (this essay was written by yours truly), Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Christianity, Progressive Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Existentalism, and more. The book’s editor, Massimo Pigliucci–who is a proponent of Stoicism–was kind enough to allow a guest post by Catherine Wilson on his blog titled Wrong Again? One more on Stoicism vs Epicureanism.

I applaud Massimo’s active engagement of the modern Epicureans like myself and Wilson in friendly, open discussion and/or debate, as well as his ecumenical efforts to promote Epicurean ideas in the public sphere presented by Epicureans. There is mutual benefit for Stoics and Epicureans in this, as it allows issues and opinions that have been obscured for centuries to be made clear by being presented and advocated in a modern voice for the benefit of sincere students of philosophy who are interested in the merits of the Epicurean-Stoic arguments and counter-arguments.

Speaking of Wilson, my book review of How to be Epicurean is live on the Society of Epicurus page.

***

This year, I focused a bit on Epicurean economics as a result of my observation that this is a much-neglected subject, appealing mainly to Philodemus’ scroll on the art of property management. However, the doctrines of autarchy go all the way back to Metrodorus–who was a “great administrator” and one of the founders of Epicureanism–and to Epicurus’ own moral example:

Epicurus’ life when compared to other men’s in respect of gentleness and self-sufficiency might be thought a mere legend. – Vatican Saying 36

The word used here for “self-sufficiency” in the original Greek was autarkeia. In English, this word artarchy mainly refers to the economics of local self-sufficiency, but in its original, philosophical context (as we see above) it referred to the individual. We have a few foundational adages on the subject:

Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance. – Principal Doctrine 15

A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs, yet it possesses all things in unfailing abundance; and if by chance it obtains many possessions, it is easy to distribute them so as to win the gratitude of neighbors. – Vatican Saying 67

Notice here that the sources reject both conservative politics (servility to monarchs) and liberal politics (servility to mobs), favoring instead an idea of personal sovereignty and personal economics.

We cannot speak of personal sovereignty if we are wage slaves. There are important problems related to economics that make personal sovereignty a life-long pursuit for most individuals. Only the most privileged are exempt from having to develop life-long autarchy plans. We find advice in the middle portion of the Letter to Menoeceus concerning the importance of being able to live self-sufficiently:

Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win.

… To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune.

Notice also that autarchy is our fortress against the highs and lows brought about by Fortune–which is worshiped by some as a Goddess, and in modern monotheistic societies it seems that people refer to God often when they really intend to speak of Fortune, to the entirety of things that are outside of our control. In the Letter to Menoeceus, it is argued that chance is an unsteady friend and that a sage should believe “that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.” An Epicurean sage should aim to be self-made insofar as possible.

Fortune but seldom interferes with the wise person; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout the course of his life. – Principal Doctrine 16

I have anticipated thee, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all thy secret attacks. And I will not give myself up as captive to thee or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for me to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who vainly cling to it, I will leave life crying aloud a glorious triumph-song that I have lived well. – Vatican Saying 47

It is vain to ask of the gods what a man is capable of supplying for himself. – Vatican Saying 65

And so the Epicurean conception of autarchy–which includes the economics of self-sufficiency, but goes far beyond it–involves a complete ethical discourse of personal sovereignty, including the concept that we should create our own destiny rather than relying on gods, oracles or accidents.

In Other Traditions

Be a lamp unto yourself. Be your own refuge. – Lord Buddha

Buddhism, in most of its varieties, encourages the development of the self as a fortress not too different from what we find in Lucretius. This is done mainly through meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Personal sovereignty is celebrated by the Satanic tradition. In Laveyan Satanism, it takes a form that is highly influenced by Ayn Rand’s doctrine of selfishness as virtuous, and I suspect the results of this are likely to be mixed or bad (as we saw in the unhappy life of Ayn Rand herself). Towards the end of his life, Anton LaVey was reportedly very paranoid. I do not think that the theatrics and ritualization of personal sovereignty are necessarily a bad idea, but I do think that this should not replace the ethical and philosophical processes of introspection and cultivation of character. We don’t need the appearance of health, but true health.

The other major tradition within Satanism is TST. In The Satanic Temple‘s Third Tenet, we find that personal sovereignty is related to the politics of bodily autonomy: “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone“. The other tenets also serve TST’s purposes of political activism, and they make sense within our particular junction of history. This, again, has utility to help the goals of that particular organization, but does not help guide the self-care of the individual in a complete and fully coherent manner.

I believe that we should discuss and study Epicurean doctrines about autarchy more broadly. I believe they are extremely relevant moral guidance for today’s world and for all generations.

Further Reading:

 On Epicurean economics

Another Book Review of “How to Be an Epicurean”, this one written by a capitalist who is critical of Wilson’s anti-capitalism: Not Quite the Playboy Life A new book makes a spirited, if flawed, defense of Epicurean philosophy

A few thoughts about the role an ontology of motion and a performative new-materialism plays in my work as minister at the Cambridge Unitarian Church

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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