Happy Twentieth! The last few weeks have been very emotional for many Americans. In my own city of Chicago, I have slowly gotten used to the normalization of a form of life that could be described as post-apocalyptic. Trains and buses no longer running at certain times, and long waits for Ubers made it difficult for me to get to work at times, and I once had to walk three miles through a neighborhood filled of boarded-up businesses to get back home in 90 degree heat. We had a discussion in our GoE group that yielded a dialogue on Some Epicurean Thoughts on the Riots and Peaceful Protest. Some issues related to hedonic calculus are addressed there.
In my essay against racism from an Epicurean perspective, I focused on three specific arguments as to why Epicureans should be advocates against racism. I should add a note here to mention that, while many Greeks in antiquity separated themselves from the “Barbarians”, the Epicureans were almost always a multicultural and cosmopolitan minority. This was a function of their missionary spirit. Many of our Scholarchs and great teachers were from Syria (Lucian, Diogenes of Sidon, Philodemus), and two of the famous ancient Epicureans mentioned by Diogenes Laertius were from Egypt–one white and one black:
There were also the two Ptolemies of Alexandria, the Black and the White
The philosophical tradition of pleasure ethics itself was born in Africa, in the city of Cyrene, which has been labeled “a philosophical Atlantis” by Michel Onfray. While this was a Greek colony, it’s not inconceivable that many of the Cyrenaics may have had Berber ancestry. In fact, the word Berber itself originated in the Greek denomination of non-Greeks as Barbaric, and attests to the fact that this group was, to a great extent, defined at one point in its history by its close interactions with the Greek world. Cyrene is in Lybia–at the epicenter of their interaction, and one must wonder to what extent Cyrenaic thought was the natural result of this Greco-African exchange. We know that at least one prominent disciple of Aristippus was known as “Ethiopian Ptolemy”, which presumably means he was from or had ancestry from Sub-Saharan Africa.
As a side note, last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar facilitated by the author of Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism, who documented the untold history of African Americans who did not succumb to religion from the times of slavery up until our day. His counter-history work explores the material and ideological roots of Black atheism / agnosticism in the experience of slavery, and in the pro-slavery Christian churches. It’s time to challenge the opinion that Black people always and only articulate their identities, narratives and philosophies within the restrictions of religiosity.
We are not isolated, but interwoven into many communities and we Epicureans have many layers of identity. I grew up in the Caribbean, and am acutely aware of some of the ways in which African wisdom traditions have moral guidance to offer regarding recent events. Our modern, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural Epicureanism would benefit greatly from exploring its intersections with these traditions. Black Lives Matter not only because the flesh of black bodies is dignified by virtue of its ability to feel pain and pleasure, but also because of the thoughts of black minds. In the past, I’ve written about the African virtue of coolness and how it relates to Epicurean ideas about the physicality of the soul. There’s also Ubuntu, a secular humanist tradition indigenous to Africa. According to Wikipedia:
Ubuntu asserts that society, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity.
The essay later says:
According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarized as follows: ” A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. …
Ubuntu is part of the philosophical heritage of several countries in Southern Africa, including places like Botswana and Zimbabwe. Madonna has linked her work with orphans in Malawi to this tradition. Recently, Botswana abolished the illegality of gay sex. It came as a surprise to me when, in the aftermath of the abolition of apartheid, South Africa became the first and only country in Africa to approve gay marriage. This is a continent whose countries are known for having very repressive attitudes towards LGBT people, and where until recently Ugandan Christians were trying to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill.
Ubuntu in post-apartheid South Africa was about more than forgiveness: it was about the re-humanization of the other, who had been dehumanized. It’s also about treating the other as a subject, not as an object. This included blacks and whites, and colored, and LGBT people. Ubuntu includes everyone, and in this it departs from African religious philosophies–which exclude and dehumanize LGBT people–and is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It also inspires traditional respect for elders, hospitality, and other African values and concrete actions that are done to help ensure that people belong and feel fully human in the presence of others. Ubuntu demonstrates the importance of societies having non-religious philosophies for moral guidance in order to avoid the monopolization of people’s moral compass by religious bigotry.
I mention coolness, the Epicurean Ptolemies, Ubuntu and Cyrenaic philosophy in order to accentuate the place of Africa in the world of philosophy, particularly as it relates to Epicureanism, but this should be framed within the larger perspective that philosophy–even if it has strong Greek roots–also has roots in other parts of the world (India and China exhibit particularly sophisticated examples of this) and will continue to evolve as a global human activity. One of my fellow contributors to the book How to Live a Good Life, Bryan Van Norden (author of the Confucianism chapter) is doing a lot of work promoting the idea that philosophy has always been multi-cultural. He’s also the author of Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (lecture here).
Some time ago, I participated in the Seize The Moment Podcast. Their latest eposide is titled Is it Time for a 4-Day Work Week and to Work From Home?, and in it they read a passage from the my chapter in the book How to Live a Good Life, which discusses Epicurean economics.
The following essay series is a book review of The Ethics of Philodemus:
The video Epicurus: The Polyatheist argues (wrongly) that Epicurus was an early atheist. However, it has some good points, among them what some today call the polyvalent logic, which in the video is called “theory of multiple explanations”.
Aeon magazine has published an essay On the physics of free will.
There’s a new blog in town: The Modern Epicurean. The author, Jordan, is a member of Society of Friends of Epicurus, and these essays represent his own voice and his own effort to revitalize the Epicurean tradition for our day.
His testimonial piece What does it mean to be an Epicurean? reminds me of La Mettrie’s addition of “unwarranted religious guilt” to the ethical problems that impede our ataraxia. He also has posted a series of essays addressing various objections to classical Epicureanism:
Needless to say, while his views are his own, I have written in the past about why we need more Epicurean content creators and am stoked to see that he is adding his voice to modern Epicureanism. Please subscribe to him, comment, and share his content!