Time for a little ancient Greek philosophy…
I have been thinking about the things that motivate us to live fuller, deeper lives- the sorts of things that might encourage us to reach beyond the narrow things of our busy lives, and long for something better. It is kind of the theme of most of the stuff on this blog. For me this is a mingling of faith, family, community, art- poetry and music- and connection with the needs of others.
But a lot of the time, I find myself drawn into a different way of living, dominated by a desire to gather to myself stuff that gives life a degree of comfort and pleasure. It becomes about ME and MINE. Life becomes divorced from the way of Jesus, and the laughter of the Spirit.
Back to the Greeks, as there is nothing new under the sun (with the possible exception of velcro.)
Epicurus lived in a time when heroism was idealised- self sacrifice in the name of honour, public service, in service of the Gods. His culture was overshadowed by the whims and wishes of divine beings, as they looked down from Olympus and interfered with the ways of men. Epicurus and his followers suggested a different path- one that could be seen as similiar in many ways to our hopes for life in the West…
It propounded an ethic of individual pleasure as the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure.
The greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form.
Lawbreaking was counseled against because of both the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. Living in fear of being found out or punished would take away from pleasure, and this made even secret wrongdoing inadvisable. To the Epicureans, virtue in itself had no value and was beneficial only when it served as a means to gain happiness.
Friendship was encouraged because it was personally beneficial.
Death should not be feared- it is merely the end of all things- on their tombstones, Epicureans were known to have inscribed- I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.
The universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.
I have to say that something about Epicureanism depresses the hell out of me. This is perhaps because it is so empty- so self seeking. Is this it? Is this all that we are about- the carving out of a life of modest pleasure, and avoidance of pain?
Perhaps for many of us, this is enough.
Many of us spend half a life time trying to achieve this ideal, then the rest trying to defend it.
Jesus was less interested in happiness, but talked about JOY. For him Joy is born in us- we do not make it or earn it or capture it. Joy rises up in the most unlikely of places, in spite of pain, discomfort, and loss. It is related to living a life that is connected to the deeper purposes of God- the ways of love. The ways of service. The walk of the humble.
C S Lewis said this- “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”
Life is here- then gone.
And in the midst of the thing is such great joy. Let us not miss it.