The Concentric Circles
Back in the days when giants and trolls roamed the Earth, the mighty Thor wielded the magical hammer Mjolnir, by which he crushed the enemies of Middle Earth and protected common men. Nowadays, trolls (like everything else) have lost their magic, few people seek such consolations and we’re more likely to see a troll during our adventures in cyberspace, rather than under a bridge.
Epicureanism being a philosophy of Philos, of friendship, encourages one to have as many good friends as one can have, but it recognizes that it’s nearly impossible to be everyone’s friend, even if we mean to be. Safety, pleasure, and philosophy require us to set healthy boundaries with others.
The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life. – Principal Doctrine 39
The advise given by the sages in these cases is separation from those that can’t be our friends, which explains how the Garden had to be a separate space where we only engaged in wholesome association.
The trolls in the lands beyond our inner circle require being handled by one who is hot-headed … sort of like Thor. Most of us do not with to bother with hot-headedness. To remain cool-headed, we must retract into progressively familiar inner circles.
The outermost circle is where the first boundary is drawn by the friends of Epicurus: enemies, those who are unfavorable toward us or who represent a danger, remain cast outside that circle. Those who are not treated as aliens but who are not quite considered family either, remain within this outer circle of friendly acquaintances. There is a second, more intimate inner circle, which includes those who are like family.
There must be rules in place as to how to best engage in philosophical discourse with people in the inner (friends and family) and outer (countrymen) circles. Wholesome interaction requires healthy rules: a basic hedonic covenant or pact of mutual benefit and non-harm.
Truthful, Serene and Free of Strife
One important teaching that every circle of Epicurean friends must internalize is that there is a proper way to engage in philosophical discourse. When we invite others into philosophy, we must always watch the tone, not just the content, of both instructed philosophers and listeners. Philodemus advises us regarding this:
The …noblest thing is to receive back thankful gifts with all reverence in return for philosophical discourses … that are truthful and free of strife and … serene … since in fact the acquisition of an income through sophistical and contentious speeches is in no way better than … through demagogical and slandering ones. – Philodemus, Art of Property Management, Column XXIII
Although he was discussing philosophy as a way to earn a living, here he mentioned the importance of the discourse being truthful, serene and free of strife. Notice that controversy, or having different views, is not the same as strife: friendly disagreement is a necessary part of intellectual life. But the proper way to disagree is by presenting one’s view and one’s arguments for those views without attachment for the ideas, and holding those teaching philosophy in very high regard.
There are people who suffer from a severe attachment or aversion to certain views, and who easily lose their peace of mind for cause of these aversions or attachments. This is a symptom of a non-Epicurean approach to knowledge. Our teachings say that we have tranquility because of our views, not in spite of them.
Abiding pleasure and ataraxia are the north in the compass of our philosophy: without setting them as one’s goal, one is not likely to benefit from the doctrine and one is likely to wander as if lost because there is either no goal, or the goal is not real or natural. One of the first things that happen when one converts sincerely to Epicureanism is that one develops a firm resolve to nurture ataraxia (imperturbability), a commitment to unconditionally cultivating and preserving one’s tranquility and equanimity. Therefore, the loss of suavity and respect in philosophical discourse might be an exhibit of insincerity, of not having done even the preliminary work of applied philosophy.
We place a high value on our characters as if they were our own possessions whether or not we are virtuous and praised by other men. So, too, we must regard the characters of those around us if they are our friends. – Vatican Saying 15
Within our inner circle there will be people with a commitment to Epicureanism and those who do not have such commitment, however because wholesome association is so important to us, there is an expectation that those within our inner circle should be virtuous and that we should be invested in their moral betterment. This, in a philosophy of friendship, is expressed as the need to hold in high regard the characters of our friends.
In other words, not only must we proactively avoid bad association: a true friend must also actively cultivate good association by helping friends to exhibit a good character and being invested in their self-betterment process. The degradation of one who has proven to be a true friend should be a source of concern to us.
In his work On Piety, Philodemus expresses that “the just person has noble expectations concerning the Gods”. However, it seems that a just person has noble expectations from his friends also. This idea exists in other wisdom traditions within humanism. In the Humanist Bible, we find it as a premise behind these verses:
Base and absurd requests he should reject, not harshly but gently, informing the askers by way of consolation that the requests are not in accord with their own excellence and reputation. – Lawmaker 21:36-37, the Humanist Bible
Lawmaker is one of my favorite books in the Humanist Bible: it constitutes a complete introductory course on the philosophy leadership. In these verses, the philosopher is advised to confer blessings and favors upon friends so long as these requests are not base and absurd, in which case the proper way to reject favors to friends is by appealing to their nobility, not to their baseness.
Here, we learn one way to train ourselves in the employment of suavity and encourage the good in others is by appealing to the best in them. If we undertake the training to do this, we may end up not only be saving friendships but also avoiding hardships for ourselves and those we care about.
This piece of advise demonstrates one of the reasons why I love the positivism of the Humanist Bible so much: like Epicureanism, it always holds as reference points the positive affirmations of our true values, rather than the negation of the evil or false views of others. It therefore never loses sight of nobility and philosophical virtue.
But friendship is not only about the other. The very act of choosing a philosophy of abiding pleasure and imperturbability represents an act of befriending the self, and if we really are our own best friends then we must hold similarly noble expectations of ourselves. This is where we must train ourselves to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk, as an Epicurean friend told me in recent days.
We must always hold ourselves to high standards and ponder what it means to be a good Epicurean. In the book Buddha’s Brain, the authors explain the role of unilateral virtue, arguing against the I’ll treat you well after you treat me well reasoning that destroys so many relationships. It’s more of a wall than an agreement. It’s not true, virtuous friendship: it’s trade.
According to the authors of Buddha’s Brain, “when you are unilaterally virtuous, you head directly toward your own enlightened self-interest whether or not the other person cooperates. It feels good to be good, enjoying the bliss of blamelessness with a mind untroubled by guilt or regret“. This description of unilateral and unconditional virtue sounds like the independence and stability of ataraxia.
The reference to the bliss of blamelessness and of having an untroubled mind places virtue within its proper context, as co-existing with abiding pleasure and being one and the same. We will naturally seek virtue if we have clear insights about the pleasure and equanimity derived from it, and for the sake of that pleasure, there will be virtue in the character.
The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side. – Vatican Sayings 27
Epicurus explained that philosophy is pleasant while we practice it, that pleasure is not the after-effect but the experience of philosophy itself. Having a clear insight into this blissful state of abiding pleasure helps us to understand how light a discipline our philosophy is, and the katastemic (abiding) pleasure itself serves as an incentive against vice and in favor of virtue.
Here, virtue is meant not as an imaginary moral superiority but as founded on real experience and real insight. This is why we are hedonists: the naturally good is experienced directly in the mind and body of the living organism as real, as bliss.
Unilateral, unconditional virtue and abiding pleasure must be considered as part of the same concept and practice: the commitment to uphold them should be, from the beginning, tied to our resolution at the time of conversion to Epicureanism, if we wish to see results. For as long as our pleasure and virtue are tied to externals, they will be rocky, unsteady, and easily broken.