H. Hiram, Founder
A. Alex, Member
P. Pilar (interviewer, for Rey Yacolca Producciones)
H. Epicurus is one of the philosophers of the atomist tradition who studied under a teacher, Nausiphanes, who himself studied under Democritus, who along with Leucippus is the founder of the atomist school and father of materialist philosophy and is considered the first of the laughing philosophers. We talk about there being a tradition of laughing philosophers today thanks to Democritus. Basically it’s a series of philosophers who have studied the nature of things and believe in a natural, scientific explanation for reality. Because of that they have strong minds and aren’t easily convinced of superstitions, the common people’s beliefs, and they laugh at that and so that is part of their role. Many of them have been comedians. One of them died recently, George Carlin. I didn’t know he had studied philosophy, I thought he had studied acting. But no, he studied philosophy and was a great comedian who mocked everything, politics, corruption, religion, children, marriage, all the social conventions. That’s extremely important because we should learn to laugh at ourselves and look at society from the outside, which is also the role of philosophers. this is why the school Epicurus founded was at the boundaries of the polis. They looked at the polis from outside. I’ve always thought it interesting. So Epicurus was a pupil of the school of atomism that Democritus started. He took insights from science and physics and applied them to the realm of ethics. The art of living. Taking this knowledge about the true nature of things and to live happily and at ease.
A. It’s important, if we’re going to dedicate our time and our minds and our lives, that we not waste them in thoughts that are not of benefit, that will harm us and are only founded on fancy. It’s best to wait for problem to actually arrive before our eyes, our ears, and manifest physically. Problems usually generate less anxiety that we expect and are resolved, well, using the faculties that nature has given us ….
H. Well, I see Epicureanism as a vehement affirmation of life, joy, pleasure, and in general all the things that make life worth living. Many people, even in academia, it’s unfortunate, many teach philosophy and mix Stoicism and Epicureanism and much confusion is generated, people start to interpret Epicurus as an analgesic (pain reliever, to alleviate pain only) but it includes that and yet goes far beyond, and affirms the things that make life worth living. Tells you the things you must seek, the “principal things”, needful things that nature gives you no choice but to have in order to be happy and healthy. Friends, protection, shelter, wholesome association, home, food, clothes, but Epicurus takes you to enjoy those things to the max, and to also have an attitude of gratitude. To take notice of them and appreciate them because today people have attention deficit with the internet, instant gratification … people go through life and don’t notice the little things that make life worth living. They call their friends, talk to them, but don’t stop to appreciate the time they have (until they’re gone). And so Epicurean philo. accentuates always those things that make life worth living.
P. Yes, Hiram. When we were talking about this conversation between us three you were saying that if you could entitle this, it would be the science of happiness. So based on this and what Alex was saying that this has helped him to be more present, as you said more attentive, I was reading in this Las Indias review, they mention a researcher that talks about synthetic happiness as superior to natural happiness and says something very interesting. He says that we all think that natural happiness is real and good and other happiness sort of has less value. How have you experienced this and you, Alex? Have you put this in practice?
H. You’re talking about Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness” and we’ve exchanged emails, he’s a fan of Epicurus. He’s basically teaching Epicurean philosophy by another name, as is what’s being taught today as positive psychology, which focuses on the mind in its natural state, in its healthy state instead of focusing on pathology. It focuses on the mind when one is happy, healthy. This is positive psychology. It contains the science of happiness that he elaborates and now, people like Sam Harris and other neuroscientists are researching how the brain operates when one is happy. They’re scanning the brains of lamas and other people, looking at their brains when they meditate to see what is going on there, how it changes long term when people engage in meditation, or gratitude, and the other things that we also teach in Epicureanism. There’s a science of happiness, a theory of things observed, research on neuroplasticity which shows how the neural system and brain change over the years when people are involved in certain activities. These are scientific techniques towards what we call katastematic pleasure, Gilbert calls synthetic happiness, but it’s not that it’s any less real: in life, it’s experienced as real. I translated it (into English) as abiding pleasure (in the book). There is research being done now on how to increase the levels of steady, abiding pleasure that are normal for each person. It’s quite interesting, and it all vindicates Epicurus’ teaching. What Gilbert teaches is Epicureanism by another name.
A. What Stoics and ascetics teach is that we should reject certain pleasures and not try to find happiness like children, like when children are playing in joy, that we should just seek tranquility and only avoid pains. But Epicurus teaches that we should not reject joy, it’s not necessary to eat luxurious food daily, we should eat only what is necessary, but if we are invited to a banquet or a dance there is no need to reject it. One should accept it.
P. Hiram, when we were talking on facebook you were saying that a comparison could be made between the sumac kawsay (Incan “good living” philosophy) and Epicurean philo. I was researching this indigenous tradition. How would you contrast.
H. Sumak kawsay, the main differences are that this tradition comes from the elders from South America. First of all there is an ecological sensibility among indigenous values, a collectivist sensibility whereas in Epicurus life is celebrated and in fact Epicurean gardens were communities where things were shared, they were growing crops for food, writing scrolls, got fees from teaching philosophy. Living in self-sufficient context within a cooperativist context at a small level. Another parallel is the emphasis on ecology: one of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus says that nature must not be forced, that we can gently influence her through soft and sweet persuasion, using natural tendencies to be happier and more efficient. Not going against nature. Another one is respect for elders, sages, the people teaching the wisdom tradition because they help to nurture wholesome character, so the importance of healthy association. The importance of leisure. Having time to love, as President Mujica of Uruguay says often: this idea that we are not wage slaves, that we need time for production and time to love, to be with friends, for joy, for sports, whatever, that is necessary for the mental health of people, for balance. These days things look like in Japan, where people work at times 16 hours a day, and that is seen as part of the culture. Much corporate culture is like that: we’re an antidote against that.
P. Makes sense, of course! Alex, I have a doubt. What’s your profession.
A. I’m electrical engineer.
P. With regards to what Hiram said, before you came to Epicurean philo. did you have time for quality leisure? Did you value your friends well?
A. Well, I think I sought to better my life so I have to say that I’m still learning. I didn’t value my friend as much as now, I’m now realizing I should. Also I’m making better use of my time of leisure, vacation, and time with friends which I sometimes didn’t before. Sometimes it’s best to seek what we have in common instead of our differences. But yes, I think it has helped but I still have work to do, am still experimenting and it’ll be some years, I don’t know, maybe less than that but I hope to better my life. (laugh)
P. We all do! Epicurus says “Good is easy to procure, Evil is easy to suffer”. I think that when we are not here and now, present, we accept things that are bad for us as something normal. In Eastern traditions, monks have to sit, etc. so they awaken. In this tradition, what is done? Are there exercises, ways to be more present?
H. Ancient Epicureans had their own exercises which incorporated a type of cognitive therapy. Epicurus was one of the precursors of psychotherapy. He acknowledged the existence of the subconscious and he taught that when people have bad habits usually there are underlying tendencies or opinions sustaining them, called dispositions. For instance, people who are consumerists, who like to squander money and be ostentatious about things that they don’t have, usually have beliefs, they think this will make them happy, that happiness can be experienced by showing off riches or measured against neighbors, based on other people’s standards and on comparisons with others. One can’t ever be happy that way. Happiness research shows that people who show off riches are usually in debt and people who are truly wealthy are like you and I, like any other normal person with a normal house and a normal car, just that they care more about their financial independence than showing off. So it’s all a fantasy, and when you are in the process of Epicurean therapy you’re challenging yourself in self-betterment using all this research to challenge yourself and your false beliefs that are the product of cultural corruption, beliefs without base, what society teaches common people and isn’t necessarily true in your nature. In therapy, we use reasonings, we use arguments: you argue against your own dispositions, your tendencies, your own beliefs, and you challenge yourself showing them legitimate information re: what does take you to happiness so that you slowly get rid of those bad habits of belief which produce the bad habits of your lived experience. So it’s a cognitive therapy process.
P. Hiram, I also read in that review that today science in many branches is proving what Epicurus said is still valid. As I hear what you say, I think Epicurus can be incorporated into our lives because what it does is show us what we can be with simple practices, so I’d like you to encourage people to investigate more about him. Because everyone knows about Plato, Aristotle but not about Epicurus, in college I never learned about him. So if it wasn’t for you, who have been slowly exposing me to this, I would have remained ignorant. My personal opinion now is that it’s important for everyone to incorporate this knowledge. Encourage the viewers to read your book and to approach this!
H. Actually I want to mention something as to what you said, that they didn’t teach you this at the University, and precisely there are misinterpretations in academia influenced by other schools many of which have been very opposed to Epicurus. A philo. professor from Univ. of Oklahoma, Dara Fogel, wrote the Epicurean Manifesto where she talks about this problem and how the academic world, what it teaches as philo. is in a fossilized state, a study of the history of itself, a repetition of historical events sometimes irrelevant, logical formulas often also irrelevant, that have nothing of the medicinal that Epicurus teaches and say nothing about how to live a healthy, happy life. I’ve also gotten feedback from one of my readers, he loved my book, but he talked about how when he was at the university he lost the desire to study philo. because the classes were so boring that he never thought philosophy could be THIS. It’s not what he expected: a system of applying logic. It’s not about that. We say that philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body, to us. So I think people need a system to deal with their baggage, with their difficulties, not just that but also to plan a happy and healthy life. So Epicureanism equips you to do that for the long term with empirical, scientific knowledge so you can create a beautiful life and keep your feet firm, on the ground. I also like that it respects your intelligence. It doesn’t make any type of supernatural claim and such, it’s very scientific, naturalistic, and helps you to see reality, to see nature as shown before your natural faculties and take it as the starting point, so you have no risk of believing in things that aren’t evident to you. I really respect that. There is so much New Age stuff, many philosophies that don’t do that.
P. Great. Well, thank you so much Hiram. I think you’ve encouraged us with everything you’ve shared to be able to dig deeper into this. And you, Alex, thank you because I think that if I was an author and a friend accepted to get involved in a conversation about this it would be a huge joy. So I thank you both. Blessings!
H. I want to thank Alex also, and say he spoke very good Spanish, we’ve always talked in English and hadn’t heard his Spanish but he did well. And thank you, I’ve known you for many years, we’ve shared blogs, we’ve written about food!
A. And thanks to you all also.
Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press Review, 2014)