Epicurus, and a life lived for simple pleasures…

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.

Curry, community and a bit of Rousseau…

Had a nice night out with some friends last night eating curry and drinking beer. Mmmmm.

There were six of there, all men- David for the first time- and as well as the usual man-talk subjects (mostly involving some kind of bodily function) we talked about our local community.

We are all ‘incomers’ to our town- one from England, one from Ireland, and the rest from other parts of Scotland. And like most incomers, our relationship to place requires a degree of negotiation- and it also inevitably means asking lots of questions about the nature and characteristics of the community we are part of.

It is a regular pre-occupation of mine, as regular readers of this blog will know well. The quality of our lives depends so much on the depth and degree of our relationships with others. This seems a lesson that we desperately need to re-learn.

Modernity taught us individualism- Post modernity hit us with its fluidity and disconnection. The internet added distance and diversity, and we were left with… what?

Empty village halls, clubs and churches that no-one belongs to any more. Family units who pass each other in the school yard.

Of course, I exaggerate. There are many thriving clubs and churches- including in our lovely little town. But the direction of travel towards social disconnectedness is well documented- as is the potential cost.

We Christians were shown a different way to live by Jesus. A way of life lived for the other. Forming Ecclesia’s who practice a form of radical community and out of this gathering seek to be a blessing to the towns they are part of.

I was half remembering a little bit of philosophy today as I drove around Argyll. It was that old rogue Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his own struggle to distinguish between the individual self, and the collective self.

Rousseau believed us all driven by two opposites- the Moi (me, or I) and the Moi Commun (the communal I.)

The first of these- the Moi fits well with modern enlightenment thinking- this from here.

The utopia of the independant, fulfilled moi is Rousseau’s most popular message to the modern world. It’s existence is so pervasive an assumption in western society that any educator who challenged it as an ideal would be forwith banished.

The Roussean ‘I’ is alive in the present day rhetoric of the search for identity, in a whole series of theses about self actuation from Marx through Maslow.

But Rousseau’s thinking did not end there- he remained convinced that our ideal as humans was discovered in collective with other humans- the collective I, or Moi Commun.

This collective experience is so much more than the subjugation of the individual will to the numerical superiority of the collective. It is the place where the Moi finds absolute fulfillment and identity.

These ideas became the seeds for ideological and actual revolution- as many ideas do.

Perhaps they are appealing because they are familiar ideas, to followers of Jesus at least.

Another one of what CS Lewis called ‘Christian heresies’ perhaps…

The curry was nice by the way- and indeed led to it’s own internal revolution.