Author Archives: Hiram

About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.

On Isms

“We’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game…” – Bob Marley

Our friend Alex recently brought up the issue of the intolerance of the word “Epicureanism” (and all isms) by some Epicureans, which has for a few years permeated our conversations. He says:

Some folks here insist that other folks say “Epicurean Philosophy” instead of saying “Epicureanism”. They say that “-isms” are closed systems, that “-isms” are ideologies. The dictionary does not seem to agree about the meaning of “-ism”. So why the intolerance? The whole world says Epicureanism, but the folks here should not? Meanwhile the dictionary has as a synonym for “philosophy” the word “ideology”, so a philosophy is an ideology.

The image furnished by Alex indicates that –ism is merely a suffix that is used to convert a verb into a noun, sort of like the ending -o in the Esperanto language. Dictionary.com gives the meaning of an ism as: “a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice“–a definition which Epicurean philosophy certainly fulfills.

According to our friend Yiannis, the criticism of -isms appears to be based on a particular interpretation of a sentence found in Liantinis’ Stoa and Rome, where he poetically seems to accuse isms in general of a number of ills that befell humanity. He is referring here to Dimitris Liantinis–a philosophy professor and author of Gemma whose message included a jeremiad about the end of Western civilization, outdated anti-Semitic rhetoric, and a call for the return of Hellenistic values … but Liantinis himself was not even an Epicurean, he was more influenced by Nietzsche, and he committed suicide which is a most un-Epicurean thing to do–literally saying NO to life!

Visceral reactions against things are sometimes the function of projection, and it’s ironic that ism-phobia itself is becoming an ideology, and a reactionary one at that. While it’s important to understand and appreciate some of the arguments of the ism-phobic faction–at the core of which is the argument that Epicurus fought against idealisms of all kinds–, our friend Eileen reminds us:

I’ve seen this sort of thing in several unrelated forums. In my opinion, our culture is going through a cycle of authoritarian thinking and behavior at all levels of society and most aspects of life. Those with their hands on levers of power use them in anti-democratic ways and those who don’t content themselves with attempting to control the language and social behavior of others. This seems to be true of folks all across various political, religious, and philosophical spectrums.

But let’s go back to the first Epicureans, who advised that we should speak clearly and concisely, and to employ words as they conventionally used, with their conventional meaning attached to them–even as they acknowledged the many problems tied to conventional speech.

One should use ordinary expressions appropriately, and not express oneself inaccurately, nor vaguely, nor use expressions with double meaning. – Philodemus, in Rhetorica

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Herodotus

That should suffice to help us recover and make use of the original sense of the suffix -ism, while being cognizant of its problems.

Further Reading:

Against the Use of Empty Words

Philodemus of Gadara’s Rhetorica

Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus

Seven Reasons Why We Need More Epicurean Content Creators

From time to time, members of the Epicurean groups online ask questions like: “Wonder why Stoicism has such a wide appeal to moderns, where Epicureanism has languished somewhat?” … which often elicits some Epicureans citing this quote to justify their unwillingness to market the philosophy as it deserves:

I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know. – Epicurus

It’s a fair argument, I suppose, but I always wonder to what extent this device is meant as a way to mask a sense of defeat, or a refusal to admit that we have failed, in some important way, to promote a philosophy that would greatly benefit modern society.

Recently, a friend and contributor to The Epicurus Blog decided that he will create an Epicurus-friendly podcast. I will announce more on this as more information becomes available. In the meantime, here are seven reasons why I strongly feel that we need more Epicurean content creators:

1. Many of the old bloggers hardly create any content, and some have died. If you look at SoFE’s links page, you’ll find that Mark Walker’s The Epicurus Project posts an average of one blog per year, and the Menoeceus blog posted nothing last year. Worse yet, Jakko posted his good-bye blog in 2013 shortly before his death, and fortunately someone kept a copy of epicurus.info online in memory of Eric Anderson upon his death (when his page went offline for some time) … which made some of us concerned about who will continue our work when we’re gone. I can only conclude that a stronger network of collaborating Epicurean content creators is needed.

2. There are only two specifically-Epicurean YouTube channels that I’m aware of, and no Epicurean podcasts as of today. This would give us greater access to commuters and other audiences we have yet to reach.

3. There are some incentives for content creation available. It may produce a bit of income, may be treated as a business or a side hustle, and may even be a worthwhile experiment in autarchy. I will delve more into this in a future blog about affiliate marketing.

4. Many of the academic sources and interpreters of Epicurean philosophy are either indirect or hostile, and some online platforms have niches with similar attitudes. The subreddits /atheism and /philosophy have at times removed Epicurean content arbitrarily, rather than allow for an open market of ideas–sometimes relenting only after some level of activism on our part. Martha Nussbaum–one of the main contemporary interpreters of Epicurean sources in academia–has been notorious in her anti-Epicurean bias. She has said that Stoics and Aristotelians are superior to the Epicureans–whom she described as “parasitic” on the rest of the world–, that Seneca was “an advance of major proportions” over the Epicureans, and has even claimed that Epicureanism is not a philosophy. This all points to a need to have more people presenting EP on its own terms, both in our own niches and elsewhere.

5. Most Epicureans today exist in the non-academic world, and we must therefore rely on publishing platforms that have no academic or institutional support. There is almost no financial support available for the spread of Epicurean ideas (I have only one Patreon subscriber), and no non-profit organizations doing the educational work in the English-speaking world. Michel Onfray started the Université de Caen (and single-handedly published hundreds of books) to address this very problem in the French speaking world, but similar movements do not exist in the English- or Spanish-speaking worlds. As a result of this, one can hardly speak of there being an Epicurean intellectual movement in the world today.

6. Many of the noble initiatives that Epicureans have gotten involved in–like the Declaration of Pallini, which seeks to have the “right to happiness” recognized for all European citizens–would benefit from a greater audience and support.

7. The world needs Epicurean teachings. While there is much critique and pontificating around the problem of consumerism and limitless desires, and this has created alternatives like the minimalism/frugality and the tiny house movements, few intellectual traditions are positioned to provide people with the methods and theories to help them do the introspective work needed to become conscious consumers. Epicurean ethics’ curriculum of control of desires does this without falling into ascetic errors. In fact, our ethics have the potential to really help members of contemporary society to deal pragmatically with existential and economic problems like debt, anxiety, consumerism, isolation, lack of meaning, etc.

Even if you have little to no money to invest, you can start vlogging for free on YouTube, or create a free blog on WordPress, which is the most user-friendly blogging platform and easiest to learn. For more professional “dot com” websites, you may use GoDaddy or Bluehost. There is no shortage of YouTube videos and online educational sources that teach how easy it is to create professional websites with these services.

If we love philosophy, we should confer upon philosophy the kind of dignity that it confers upon us. If you love Epicurean teachings, please consider getting involved in content creation projects!

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Cacao Bliss: the Food of the Gods


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The Food of the Gods

Did you know that money grows on trees? No kidding!  It’s not just a cynical retort used by misers. Ancient Aztecs used cacao beans as currency and even had a deity, Ek Chuah, who presided over both cacao and trade.  These are the same beans from which today chocolate, in all its varieties, is made.

Aztecs considered cacao the food of the Gods, hence its scientific name theobroma cacao. As for the Maya, they believed that the Gods discovered the cacao plant in a sacred mountain where other food items were also found, and later the Feathered Serpent gave it to humankind to cultivate. Numerous ancient tablets contain medicinal, ceremonial and culinary references to it. It was also made into a powder that was smoked.

Cacao consumption has always been favored by the most refined, being enjoyed by both ancient Aztec kings and high-society Europeans during the 1800’s. Today it’s synonimous with Valentines’ Day and is often used by lovers who wish to express their adoration.

Serotonin, Dopamine, Anandamide: the Bliss Cocktail

The brain on cacao secretes the same chemicals and feel-good hormones that are produced when we make love, or when an athlete experiences the runner’s high. Prominent among them is serotonin, the chemical of wellbeing, which is known to helps regulate sleep and moods. It contains anandamide, which translates literally as the chemical of bliss. It also has so many minerals that it’s nature’s own mineral supplement. Many of these minerals are often lacking in the standard American diet.

In its raw form, cacao has anti-depressant properties, increases pleasure and alleviates stress. There are very few foods this highly auspicious. Cacao has been used successfully as a mood-booster by the authorities in London with youth leaving the club scene late at night, where it was proven to reduce the rates of violent crimes and unruly behavior.

Cacao keeps the heart healthy. It’s a brain food that supports memory and learning, relaxes the muscles and alleviates menstrual pain. This is why women naturally crave chocolate when pregnant or during menstruation. The human body has the wisdom to recognize that super-foods like cacao and maca help to regulate the hormonal system.

I should warn my readers that all these benefits are optimized when we consume cacao in its unprocessed form, the way nature intended. Most commercial chocolate not only has lost much of the nutritional value of cacao, but also has been adulterated with caffeine and processed sugars. In its raw form, cacao has more than twenty times the antioxidants that processed chocolate has, and has little to no caffeine.

Cacao Powder Recipes

Use raw cacao in powdered form on smoothies or drinks. My favorite recipe is what I call the ‘raw cacao elixir’. This is a very easy-to-make drink. It uses very cold baby coconut water, cacao and maca powders, and a sweetener: blend and serve. Sometimes during the summer I also add crushed ice to make it even more refreshing.

Make and serve all-natural homemade dairy-free chocolate ice cream in two minutes by blending cacao powder, a sweetener and a couple of frozen bananas. Maca powder is optional and adds a malty flavor to it. There’s a beautiful synergy between cacao and maca, as well as between cacao and coconut water.

Alternatively, if you don’t have two minutes, just eat a handful of raw cacao nibs in the morning, sweetened with honey, agave nectar or stevia, as an easy way to keep the spirits high all day.


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Catholic Apologist Attempts to Paint Epicureans as Flat-Earthers!

Aeon typically publishes very good quality essays, like the one I cited in the essay A Concrete Self titled Self-Evident. But from time to time, Aeon also posts essays that are not thoroughly researched, like Atoms and flat-earth ethics. The piece was written by James Hannam, who has written a book in defense of “God’s philosophers” where he praises the wisdom of the medieval period.

By the fourth paragraph, Hannam is claiming that Lucretius claimed that the Earth was flat in “On the Nature of Things” (and relates this to the idea of “up” and “down”), but then two paragraphs later he says: “Lucretius then explains that it’s an error to think that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe because, as the Universe is infinite, it can’t have a centre“. But if there is no center, than what this means is that in the Epicurean cosmos all things are relative (and there can be no up and down, except in relation to something). This is elaborated much more intuitively in Ontology of Motion, which I also reviewed.

Later, he says that Lucretius “also tries to convince us that the heavenly bodies are not very big or far away, and that they can even be buffeted about by the winds. He proposes that the world is rather like a snow globe. We are all living on a flat surface covered by a rounded vault, within which the stars and planets move around like the flakes of white when the snow globe is shaken” … But this is impossible to reconcile with the Epicurean doctrine of the innumerable worlds, which says:

First, an infinite number of worlds exists in the universe, some of which worlds are like and some of which are unlike our own. – Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus

It is more than clear that an infinity of other worlds, both similar and different from ours, could not possibly “move around like flakes of white” around the Earth (millions of them being of similar or bigger size)–which, again, is not believed to be in the center of the Epicurean cosmos, which is infinite and has no center.

The author also questions the sincerity of the first Epicureans and how one goes from the physics to the ethics, and tries to argue that Epicurus does not hold truth in high regard, that he instead builds his physics in service of his ethics … by which he intends to divorce ethics from the physics. This would lead to a Platonized ethics that is not informed by the study of nature. This, of course, was of great utility for Christian apologists and monks in his idealized medieval era. But it is absolutely unacceptable for us moderns. Ethics can and must be informed by the study of nature as a sure foundation, and must not be denaturalized and decontextualized, made sterile and useless.

In order to follow the line of discussion that demonstrates the sincerity with which Epicurus held his views about the physics, one need only read his Epistle to Herodotus, where each component is linked to the next beautifully and cogently like a chain of molecules. Indeed, in their going from physics to ethics, the Epicureans were following the guidance of nature. One does not see gods intervening in human affairs. One does observe the agency of sentient beings. One also observes that babies, puppies, and kittens shun pain and seek pleasure as soon as they come into this world, etc. And so, while the author says:

In short, Epicurus did not derive his ethics from his atomism. He believed in atoms because they provided a theory of nature that supported his ethics.

The truth is that Epicurus does not do this. He can never be quoted as saying: “Life should be pleasant therefore the gods don’t intervene“. In the Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus explains that bodies have inherent properties exhibited by the atoms and void in their many combinations, but that they also have relational properties when they interact with each other. The third Scholarch Polystratus later explains pleasure-pain as among the relational properties of nature which are exhibited by sentient beings in their interaction with their environment. There can be no pleasure-pain without sentience, and there can be no sentience without bodies. The physics must, by necessity, precede the ethics.

Furthermore, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus makes specific mention of astronomical phenomena as one area where they were forced to reason by analogy with things that are observed on Earth because they lacked direct empirical insight. They did not have spaceships or telescopes as we do today. This means that any errors–like the one concerning the size of the moon and others–would eventually be settled, but only upon the availability of evidence, as the canon requires. This means that the canon both yields a pedestal to, and embeds itself into, the historical process of amassing knowledge via empirical means, which is a process that includes all the sciences.

The author–who in 2009 wrote a piece arguing that the Catholic Church has been a net force of good in history–is aligned with Aristotelianism, which is in turn a tool of Christian apologetics. All his accusations stem from his lack of familiarity with the Epicurean canon and with how, in all things, Epicureans always refer their investigations to the study of nature. But one of the key problems with Hannam’s essay was articulated by our friend Jason:

Why do critics always think that Epicurean theories weren’t open to revision upon further evidence? They’ll take Epicurus’ written word as dogmatic truth but ignore where he said that we must be open to incorporating new sensory perceptions and testimonies of trusted friends examining the same phenomena. Epicurean dogmatism was always open to revision upon presentation of clear evidence to the contrary.

As to this, the Letter to Herodotus both opens and closes with exhortations to appeal in all things always to empirical evidence and to the (scientific) “study of nature”, and establishes that we must “keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have clearly grasped through our senses”. Keep in mind that the senses are in the canon (the standard of truth), and are therefore among the toolkit that serves as the ultimate authority in Epicurean philosophy. It is this canon–NOT Epicurus–that serves as the ultimate authority for the Epicureans. This means that any error, when measured against new empirical evidence and shown to be an error, must be declared an error and empirical evidence must be admitted in favor of innovation. Here is Epicurus in the Letter to Herodotus:

(at the opening)

… since I myself urge others to study Nature constantly, and I find my own peace of mind chiefly in a life devoted to that study, I have composed for you a shorter summary of the principles of the whole doctrine, which I will relate to you now.

… Most of all, we must keep our investigations strictly in accord with the evidence of the senses. We must ensure that we keep our conclusions consistent with those things we have already clearly grasped through our sensations, and through our feelings of pain and pleasure, and through those mental apprehensions that we receive through anticipations. We must always take as true those things that have already been clearly established, and refer back to them as foundations for our new judgments. This is the method we employ in investigating all new questions, regardless of whether the object of the question can be perceived directly by the senses, or whether it can only be understood by reasoning from that which has already been perceived. …

(at the closing, fourth paragraph prior to the ending)

We must always pay close attention to our perceptions from the senses, to our feelings of pain and pleasure, and to our mental apprehensions from the anticipations, both those we receive ourselves, and those received by other men. For we must conform our judgments to the clear evidence that is available to us through each of the standards of truth.

In Epicurus’ Instructions on Innovation, I quoted from the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition:

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

Here, Epicurus clearly establishes that the teachings of Epicurean philosophy must continue to evolve (by the use of the canon), and sets consistency and coherence as guidelines for this. In academia, there has always been a tendency to imagine that Epicureanism was a closed, fossilized system incapable of evolution, but there would be no Epicureans today if that were the case.

In closing, I wish to accentuate vehemently–as I did with Ontology of Motion–that those writing about the Epicurean tradition must first acquaint themselves with the Letter to Herodotus in order to avoid embarrassing and redundant mistakes that can easily be checked. This epistle served as the “Little Epitome” that all beginner students had to master prior to moving on to more advanced material, and so we can imagine that the teachers frequently referred back to these first principles. Therefore, we strongly encourage students of Epicurus, as well as those who are interested in discussing Epicurus in any manner, to delve into an in-depth study of the Epistle to Herodotus, and to outline it and re-read it so as to internalize its contents.

Further Reading:

Letter to Herodotus

Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition

Porphyry’s Epistle to Marcella

At this year’s Epicurean Symposium in Athens, the recent rediscovery of a new, indirect Epicurean source was a main point of attention. The source is not Epicurean itself, but is by a philosopher who cites Epicurean sources elaborating on Principal Doctrine 15 (in bold, below) in one of its passages (paragraphs 27-31).

Like many of our sources, the work is written in epistolary style for educational purposes, and judging from some elements (like the reference to “divine law” as distinct from the law of nature, and the reference to abstinence being prescribed by the gods), its Epicurean core ideas are somewhat contaminated by non-Epicurean concepts that Porphyry drew from other philosophies. Here is a link to the English introduction and translation of the passage which was sent by our friends from Greece in pdf format. Below is the passage translation.

27. So then, first you must grasp the law of Nature and from it ascend to the divine law which also established the law of Nature. With these laws as your point of reference, you need never be concerned about the written law. “For the written laws are laid down for the sake of temperate men, not to keep them from doing wrong but from being wronged.” “The wealth of Nature, being truly philosophic, is well-defined and easily obtained, but the wealth of empty false opinions is ill-defined and hard to obtain (a). So then, the person who follows Nature and not empty false opinions is self-sufficient in everything. For satisfying Nature any possession is wealth, but for satisfying unlimited yearnings even the greatest wealth is nothing. It is <not> rare to find a man poor in the attainment of Nature but rich in empty false opinions. For no ignorant man is satisfied with what he has; instead he pines for what he does not have. So then, just as those who have a fever are always thirsty because of the serious nature of their disease and eagerly desire what is most detrimental, so also those who have the soul which manages it in distress are always in need of everything and fall prey to fickle desires under the influence of their excessive greed.”

28. Consequently, even the gods have prescribed remaining pure by abstinence from food and sex. This leads those who are pursuing piety toward Nature’s intent, which the gods themselves constituted, as though any excess, by being contrary to Nature’s intent, is defiled and deadly. “For the ordinary man who fears the simple way of life is driven by fear into actions which are most likely to produce it. And many who have become wealthy have not found relief from evils but rather an exchange for greater ones.” Therefore, the philosophers say that “nothing is as necessary as perceiving clearly what is not necessary,” and that “the greatest wealth of all is self-sufficiency,” and they take “the need of nothing as worthy of respect.” Therefore they exhort us to “practice not how we must provide for some necessity but how we will remain confident when it is not provided.

29. Let us neither censure the flesh as cause of great evils nor attribute our distress to external circumstances. Rather let us seek their causes in the soul, and, by breaking away from every vain yearning and hope for fleeting fancies, let us become totally in control of ourselves. For it is either through fear that a person becomes unhappy or through unlimited and empty desire (b). By bridling these feelings a person can gain possession of blessed reason for himself. To the extent that you are troubled, it is because you forget Nature, for you inflict upon yourself unlimited fears and desires. But it is better for you to have confidence as you lie on a bed of straw than to be in turmoil while you possess a gold couch and a costly table (c). As a result of lamentable labor, property is amassed but life becomes bestial.

30. Consider it in no way contrary to Nature for the soul to cry out when the flesh cries out. The flesh cries not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold (d). And so it is difficult for the soul to repress these cries, but it is dangerous for it to disregard nature’s exhortations to it because of the self-sufficiency which grows in it from day to day. Nature also teaches us to regard the outcomes of fortune of little account and to know how to be unfortunate when we are favored by fortune, but not to consider the favors of fortune important when we experience misfortune. And Nature teaches us to accept unperturbed the good outcomes of fortune, but to stand prepared in the face of the seeming evils which come from it. For all that the masses regard as good is a fleeting fancy, but wisdom and knowledge have nothing in common with fortune.

31. Pain does not consist in lacking the goods of the masses but rather in enduring the unprofitable suffering that comes from empty false opinions. For the love of true philosophy causes every disturbing and painful desire to subside. Empty is the discourse of that philosopher by which no human passion is healed. For just as there is no benefit from medicine if it does not heal the bodies’ diseases, neither is there from philosophy if it does not purge the passion of the soul.” So then, the law of Nature prescribes these things and others like them.

Notes:

a. Principal Doctrine 15 paraphrased.

b. A similar passage in Diogenes’ Wall describes fears and unlimited desires as “the roots of all evils“, and so this portion is reliably Epicurean.

Well, what are the disturbing emotions? [They are] fears —of the gods, of death, and of [pains]— and, besides [these], desires that [outrun] the limits fixed by nature. These are the roots of all evils, and, [unless] we cut them off, [a multitude] of evils will grow [upon] us.

c. Epicurean Fragment 207.

d. Paraphrases Vatican Saying 33.

 

Epicureanism – Busts

The wise man will set up votive images. – Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, chapter on Epicurus

In the book Epicurus and His Philosophy, Norman DeWitt mentions that Epicurus’ image was celebrated in rings, in portraits displayed in living rooms, and was even venerated in marble sculpture.

According to the book The Sculpted Word, Epicureans were a missionary philosophy that did not preach in the public eye and had a passive model of recruitment that relied on strategically placed imagery and sculptures (although, in later times, Diogenes of Oenoanda built a Wall Inscription to recruit new Epicureans). An image speaks a thousand words. This resulted in an Epicurean style that sought to convey the desirable traits of a philosopher, a sage, and a healer through the media of sculpture, in the hopes that people would feel compelled by the presence of the sculpture to visit the Garden and inquire about the philosophy.

The central thesis in The Sculpted Word is that Epicurean busts sought to invite those inspired by the image to look into the philosophy. Sculptures were a passive method of recruitment. The book also includes a detailed evaluation of the different types of busts of Epicurus, Metrodorus, and other Scholarchs modeled after divine archetypes.

We can imagine that the busts of the classical deities were also meant to draw in the pious. Ancients frequently imagined that Athena was by the side of their heroes. If you were headed into an intellectual or personal battle, would you not want to emulate Athena’s strength, confidence and demeanor right by your side? And would these sculptures not be a useful aid in helping to assimilate her attributes? In this way, art has the potential to contribute to our moral development.

The Epicurus Busts

Athena, Goddess of Philosophy


Venus, Goddess of Pleasure

Both Norman DeWitt (likely the the best source to help us understand how ancient Epicureans organized themselves) and Frances Wright (who wrote a fictional account of the ancient Gardens titled A Few Days in Athens) mention that the patroness of the Epicurean Garden in Athens was Aphrodite / Venus Urania, who embodied heavenly love.

Design Toscano features beautiful Venus sculptures, including the Callipygian Venus (Item#KY1389), the Contessa Venus (Item#EU9278), Venus of Arles (Item#NG32788), and a Venus Italica (Item#NE160065). DT also features a canvas painting of The Birth of Venus 1485 (Item#DA1681) and a bronze statue of the same (Item#SU424).

The following are instead available from Amazon:

Oshún, the African Venus


SocietyofEpicurus.com is an affiliate site. We thank you for your support!

Hygge and the Landscape of Pleasure

Image result for danish hyggeI recently finished (slowly) reading How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life. Hygge (pronounced “huga”) is a Scandinavian lifestyle based on conviviality, on making life easy, and spending time with friends and in nature. One may find hygge recipes, hygge design ideas, mugs, clothing, fabrics, social events, and many other cultural memes.

Like sumak kawsay–the “good life” culture of the Incas and their modern heirs in South America–hygge is to the Scandinavians a localized type of Epicurean practice, a philosophy of life that is rooted in the landscape and in the culture. Wisdom traditions like hygge and sumak kawsay make philosophy and ethics both tangible and culturally specific.

Fika

One component of hygge is fika, the Scandinavian tradition of enjoying coffee with friends. By coffee we don’t just mean the drink, but also long, intimate, friendly conversation for hours. Fika reminds me of the culture of philosopher cafés, which is quite popular in France and became the breeding ground for many intellectual movements. The existentialists (particularly Sartre and De Beauvoir), for instance, were known for their conversations in Parisian cafés. Fika also reminds me of the (quasi-)ceremonial drinks of other cultures: South American yerba mate (the drink of friendship), Polynesian kava (the drink of peace), and others.

The book mentions the Spanish tradition of la sobremesa as an Iberian version of the fika tradition. I hadn’t heard the word. This appears to be a tradition in Spain where people enjoy conversation over tapas. Here are some of the Real Academia Española‘s definitions of sobremesa:

sobremesa

2. f. Tiempo que se está a la mesa después de haber comido.

2. loc. adv. Inmediatamente después de comer, y sin levantarse de la mesa.

(=the time that one is at the table after having eaten … immediately after eating, and without leaving the table)

In Spanish, we also have the word tertulias, which are informal gatherings to discuss current affairs, or the arts, or to hold other intellectual conversations. Fika reminds me of the Epicurean feasts on the 20th. The author invites us to honor fika, to treat our daily social act with friends over dinner like a sabbat, where everything stops and one allows for a collective restoration.

The author cites a program for immigrants to Sweden which helps them to connect to locals, make new friends, begin to assimilate and feel part of the local community over food. It’s true that food (and music) are two of the few things that bring people together (… just as much as religion and politics tear people apart).

Image result for danish hygge

Miscellaneous Points

Concerning exercise and the outdoors lifestyle, the book says:

“It’s never about looking good, it’s about feeling great all year round.” – p. 7

“You can’t be healthy if you’re always anxious about food, body, and about life in general.” – p. 19

In pages 39-40, the author says that while cultivating a good body image and confidence, we should focus more on what our body can do versus how it looks. Concerning expense:

“Don’t go crazy buying something fancy that costs an arm and a leg. You want something durable and sensible. Nature doesn’t care if you own the latest fashion brand accessory. The main thing is to invest carefully in a few useful items that will stand the test of time.” – p. 21

Epicurean Scenes

Image result for danish hyggeA large part of the book is dedicated to the Scandinavian theory and practice of creating an ambience (typically around the house) that is defined culturally as hygge. This type of décor is characterized by being natural and simple. The book (page 25) gives ideas for the best house plants (bamboo, aloe vera, etc.), and gives design ideas related to Scandinavian furniture and design.

I took great interest in this, in part, because about a year ago I was hired to translate two books from French into English and from Spanish into English for UIC architect Terry Nichols Clark. The final product is titled Latin Scenes: Streetlife and Local Place in France, Spain, and the World. It discusses the creation of “scenes” in different neighborhoods of European cities form the perspectives of policy, economics, migration, and culture.

Not only was I able to practice my languages, which I love, but I also learned to think differently about architecture, and to think in terms of the scenes that people create in order to live the way that they desire. It got me thinking about whether we may be able to create Epicurean urban (or rural) scenes to elicit pleasant experiences. Was “the Garden” not such a type of scene? Can there be an Epicurean theory of space and of architecture?

Particularly when it’s cold out (like it was here in Chicago a few weeks ago), the idea of nesting–the home-centered lifestyle–becomes appealing. In Chicago, for about 2-3 weeks every winter, we experience a phenomenon known informally as Chiberia. This is when I enjoy the pleasures of privacy the most. But hygge is also about friluftsliv–the English literal translation of which is “free air life”: life in the outdoors, no matter the season.

It is noteworthy that there are several other wisdom traditions that pay special attention to scenes. In LaVeyan Satanism, the creation of “total environments” fully dedicated to the pursuit of a particular set of pleasures is one of the doctrinal points. I believe this has to do with LaVeyan ritual theories, which aim at the creation of a sort of psychological “decompression chamber”.

Mahayana Buddhism also has doctrines related to the Buddhalands, the modern interpretations of which teach that each Buddha (or each awakening being) creates, with his or her merit and thoughts and actions, a Buddhaland around him or her, his own type of Buddha-scene which is a reflection of his accomplishment, awakening, kindness, and other qualities. In the Nichiren tradition, emphasis is placed on how there is unity between self and space. This makes sense if we consider that all experience requires not just a subject but also an object and a context: if the experience of a sentient being is to be pleasant, then the context into which that being is embedded–like a thread in a mat–must also be pleasant. All of this brings me to a fascinating figure: the Japanese guru of tidiness, Marie Kondo.

Our Fetishes of Gratitude

Kondo is only mentioned in passing in the book. In page 24, we are invited to use Kondo’s methods of tidying up to create hygge ambiance: ask yourself if an item sparks joy, and if not, ditch the item. She does not just focus on getting rid of clutter, but on keeping only items that spark joy. This means that we should have a positive or pleasant feeling that connects us to the items that we do keep.

So I decided to dig deeper and watched a few Marie Kondo videos on YouTube. Like the hygge lifestyle, Kondo’s concept of design is very similar to the simplicity, calm, and clarity of Japanese design and reminiscent of Shinto spirituality. Shintoism is the aboriginal religion of Japan. She was trained as a Shinto temple maiden, a role which taught her the ethical value of cleanliness and organization. Unlike the superstitious Feng Shui tradition–which focuses on furniture and item placement to attract luck and avert evil–Kondo focuses on personal space to maximize contentment (and also–as in hygge–utility).

Kondo incorporates ritual propriety into her tidiness practice, something she no doubt acquired from Shinto spirituality. Her teachings seem to aim at greater harmony between the inner and the outer worlds, and she considers the home to be one’s shrine, or power spot. Before she begins the process of de-cluttering a home, she will sit in the space and ritually greet the home.

Kondo is deeply aware of the emotional attachments and reactions people have to things, and teaches us to have mindfulness about the items we keep in our space, to dust them often, and display them with dignity and care. When an item no longer serves us and we decide to get rid of it, she teaches her clients “to thank their belongings” for their service before binning them. She uses this form of playful animism (again, inspired in the Shinto tradition) as a form of therapy. It helps people to feel less guilty about throwing away things that once may have held value or had utility.

Kondo is so mainstream that her name has come to signify “tidying up”. For example, if I say “today I am kondo-ing my desk“, this means I am applying Kondo’s techniques for tidying up.

Epicurus says of the knowledge we possess that it must lead to pleasure. Marie Kondo says the same thing of the **things** we possess and choose to keep in our space, and of the space we inhabit: they should give us a pleasant feeling. Her theories (as well as hygge notions of design and style) have a general connection with materialist philosophy. They help to connect theory and practice, to make philosophy tangible, concrete, and specific. We are invited to be grateful for the things we have (even if they have served their purpose and we no longer need them and decide to get rid of them), until each item in our space becomes a “fetish of gratitude”, a concrete, clear materialization of one of our grateful thoughts.

The ungrateful nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69

Further Reading:

How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life

New research shows why it’s better to live a cleaner and less cluttered life

Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations: Clutter problems led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults

On the Architecture of Pleasure

Happy Twentieth! On Epicurean Economics

Happy 20th to Epicureans everywhere! This month we celebrated 10 years of the GARDEN OF ATHENS: Celebration of a Decade of Pleasure, and the PEL podcast published their follow-up to the Lucretius episode (which focused on the physics), titled Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure. This one focuses on the ethics.

Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part One)
Episode 208: Epicurus on Seeking Pleasure (Part Two)

This month, we discovered a piece published in thesimpledollar.com–a webpage that seeks to simplify financial education–titled How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life, by Trent Hamm. The piece relates the Epicurean curriculum of control of desires and the mathematics of hedonic calculus to simple yet pleasant living, and financial independence. It’s also a great introduction and starting point for delving into Epicurean economics. The founders of EP specifically gave instructions to philosophize around economics, as autarchy (self-sufficiency) facilitates the confident expectation that we will be able to easily secure the natural and necessary goods, which confers tranquility and pleasure.

At one and the same time we must philosophize, laugh, and manage our household and other business, while never ceasing to proclaim the words of true philosophy. – Vatican Saying 41

Some of our precursors have begun to approach and flesh out the subject from various perspectives. Philodemus of Gadara, in the First Century, compiled the Epicurean wisdom tradition up to his day concerning economics into a scroll titled On the art of property Management. Both Trent Hamm and Philodemus wrote mainly on personal finances. Later on, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the excesses of wealth and poverty, and on his concept of the social contract. An NY Mag piece cites his initial introspections:

[T]he solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands … I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.

Even in his early day, Jefferson had begun to worry about and problematize the gap between the rich and the poor and the moral problems related to the over-abundance and unequal distribution of wealth that characterize American capitalism. He was no socialist, but he did exhibit social-democratic tendencies in his ideas about progressive taxation. Here is how Jefferson proposes to address the obscene coexistence of concentrated wealth and underemployed workers:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one.

Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.

The main point I wish to accentuate here is this: “to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise“–as this reminds me of Philodemus’ doctrine of the natural measure of wealth, and there seems to be the beginnings of an Epicurean theory of taxation here, one that never got fully articulated until Jefferson’s day. The quickest explanation of the doctrine of the natural measure of wealth is from my commentary on Philodemus’ scroll:

One fundamental concept in the Epicurean understanding of economics is the concept of natural wealth.  In our assessment of desires, we classify them as either natural or unnatural and as necessary or unnecessary.  Those that are neither natural nor necessary, are said to be vain and empty.  The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires, as opposed to empty desires.

Elsewhere in his scroll On Choices and Avoidances, Philodemus elaborates natural wealth in his doctrine of the principal things, or the chief goods (kyriotatai). These chief goods are things that lead to life, health, and happiness and include specifics like shelter, safety, food, clothing, health, and wholesome association. Here, Philodemus is echoing and elaborating on Epicurus’ Epistle to Menoeceus, where the Master says:

We must also reflect that of desires some are natural, others are groundless; and that of the natural some are necessary as well as natural, and some natural only. And of the necessary desires some are necessary if we are to be happy, some if the body is to be rid of uneasiness, some if we are even to live.

Philodemus–in On Choices and Avoidances–further criticizes people who do not discern clearly between the chief goods and empty desires. This preoccupation is one of the central concerns of Epicurean ethics, and it’s framed here by asking what it is that our own nature needs, and inviting us to separate natural pleasures form the vain desires instilled into our minds by cultural convention.

Column V. For men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires which they take to be most necessary–I mean desires for sovereignty and … reputation and great wealth and suchlike luxuries … they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature.

And so Jefferson’s ideas on taxation are consistent with both the first elements of Epicurean ethics and with Philodemus’ elaboration of them, and they further flesh out both. He proposes that only income beyond what is needed to secure the natural and necessary desires should be taxed. This, of course, must be measured for each community (and even for some individuals who may, for instance, suffer from certain health risks or conditions) separately, based on particulars–for example, where housing or food is expensive, a greater allowance must be provided. Notice that access to health services is advocated here.

An Epicurean model of taxation based on Jefferson’s ideas would require that the basic measure of these chief goods be quantified, so as to only tax citizens beyond this point.

I have sought to present some of the basic ideas in Epicurean economics. My hope is that they will be further elaborated and discussed. Autarchy (self-sufficiency) involves some of the most important existential tasks that we have to undertake, as well as many of the most important instances of hedonic calculus that require long-term planning and deferral of gratification. The subject of autarchy should not be neglected: it should be one of the foundations upon which we build lives of easy pleasure.

Further Reading:

Philodemus, On Property Management (Writings from the Greco-Roman World)

Commentary on Philodemus’ scroll On the art of property management (Part I, Part II)

How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform your Financial Life