The Epicurean school of Hellenistic philosophy was the only missionary secular humanist tradition to come out of Greece. It set the foundation for Western civilization by teaching a theory and science of happiness, the social contract as the foundation for law and justice, atomist physics and naturalism as the ultimate reality, an early version of the theory of natural selection, a 2400-year-old doctrine of innumerable worlds that is now being vindicated by exoplanetary research, science as a means to overcome superstition and to formulate wholesome ethical standards and a stress on self-sufficiency as a requirement for the good life.
Autarchy (from αὐταρχία, “state of self rule”), understood as self-sufficiency, self-control, personal sovereignty and independence, is one of the ideals of ancient philosophy which we value highly in Epicureanism. The importance of self-sufficiency must be understood against the backdrop of a hedonistic view that life should be pleasant and that leisure is a requirement of the good life. Yet, this life of pleasure must balance productivity and leisure. If a man is to live a life of seeking pleasure for its own sake without balancing the pursuit of pleasure by prudence, he will become lazy, selfish, unreliable, and probably dependent on others.
Robert LeFevre, a self-proclaimed autarchist, has created a libertarian political theory which he has labeled autarchy and which is influenced by ancient philosophy. He frequently contrasts this autarchy with anarchy, which by comparison he sees as an impractical expression of immature rebelliousness. However, Epicurus advised his followers to “live unknown” and his teaching was apolitical. Political involvement, he believed, breeds intrigue, has a corrupting effect on the character and is detrimental to our serenity. Because his philosophy stressed tranquility, politics were generally shunned.
What this did throughout the centuries was protect Epicureanism from the corruption of the polis and from being misused by both the ruling classes (unlike Platonic philosophy, which was of great use to politicians) and by the mobs (unlike Marxism, which was manufactured specifically for the masses).
Epicurean discourse does not speak to power. It is a philosophy of the people and the discourse is horizontal; in fact one of the maxims found within our cultural memes is Occupy Your Soul. It falls within the tradition of the laughing philosophers like Democritus, who mock traditional authority. Because Epicureans believe in evidence before the senses as the first of the criteria for truth, this emancipates philosophers from the views of the majority and of tradition and makes each person an independent agent fully equipped with the tools and faculties to discern reality. Autarchy is not just a fiscal ideal: it’s also a spiritual one.
Money: A Natural and Necessary Desire
Our tradition categorizes desires as necessary or unnecessary, as well as natural or not natural. When we apply to money the same criteria that we apply to all desires, we must conclude that money is a natural and necessary desire within our culture. It provides safety and security, and the fear of not having money is a legitimate one.
A Princeton University study of Gallup data on wealth versus happiness concluded that the emotional benefits of having wealth peak at $75,000, and then may deteriorate from there based on several factors, among them isolation and health. This means that any wealth that one may wish to acquire beyond that threshold is to be considered a vain desire that can be easily dismissed, and perhaps even constitute more of a burden than a boon. For instance, people who are extremely wealthy oftentimes can not know with certainty whether the loyalties of certain friends depend on the material benefits gained from the friendship.
Yet, in our society, the vain desire for excessive amounts of money and displays of wealth have created high levels of debt, as well as petty and violent crime. In addition to this, many people who live in poverty have to subject themselves to abusive and exploitative bosses, bad working conditions, and a general lifestyle of stress all week only to conclude the social Friday by inebriating the stress to oblivion, and then spend the weekend recovering and dreading the following Monday.
The problem of debt (and the consumerism it feeds on) leads to the problem of slavery. These two used to be one and the same. In ancient societies, a person who was unable to pay his debt had to work as a slave for the person to whom he was indebted until his debt was paid in full. There has always been a blurry boundary between debt and slavery. High levels of debt today translate into indented slavery where people work to pay the banks. It is for this reason that debt is a primary concern if we are to apply Epicurean teachings in our lives. There can be no autarchy, no self-sufficiency and freedom, until one is free from debt.
If we are wage slaves and must have two or three jobs and never have time to spend with friends, to engage in the analyzed life, and to do the things that give us pleasure, it’s unlikely that philosophy, the arts, and the most refined civilization will flourish in our midst. Wage slavery is not compatible with a dignified life of philosophy, which requires leisure.
Autarchy requires an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as an accurate understanding of the measure of our true needs versus wants so that we can live free from money worries. It requires both the autonomy to be ourselves and the ability to make a comfortable living. Walking daily into a work environment that kills our souls, or where we do not earn sufficiently, is depressing. Authenticity and affluence are part of the balancing act of the Autarch.
Epicurean Ethics of Labor
Philosophers and sages have always discussed the acceptable ways of making a living as a natural extension of conversations about virtue, duty and the good. Different schools offered various criteria for discerning between wholesome and unwholesome professions, and wove these concerns into their wisdom traditions.
Philodemus was one of the main Epicurean philosophers of the first century of Common Era. When we consider Philodemus’ choices of wholesome ways to make a living, several criteria emerge by which we may judge our contemporary paradigm of labor and our available options.
In his screed On Property Management, Philodemus discussed various ways in which it was acceptable for a philosopher to earn a living, to be productive while having time for leisure. His autarchy teachings can be distilled into seven generalizations.
Among the acceptable ways to be a self-sufficient philosopher and have a life of pleasure and leisure we find that we are encouraged to create jobs and to employ others in our enterprises. We can gain self-sufficiency through joint ventures, such as worker coops. We’re also encouraged to own means of production, to cultivate multiple streams of income, and to own real estate and accept rent from tenants, which seems to be a tried-and-true way to facilitate a life of leisure and self-sufficiency as feasible two millenia ago as it is today.
Another thing we notice in Philodemus is that physical exploitation and cruelty are deemed unpleasant and that we should not participate in any work environment that is harsh or hellish. Like military service, work in a slaughterhouse, for instance, is the type of work where one may be perturbed by constant day-to-day killing of sentient beings.
If we don’t love what we do, we should establish a strategy to shift careers. If we’re interested in self employment, we may want to minimize the risk of our entrepreneurial ventures by initially doing the work on a part time basis. We should know the right people and seek successful mentors who can show us the ropes.
On the Need to Reinvent Labor and Retirement
We are living in times where there is a severe need to reinvent labor. Not only are jobs going to other countries: machines are replacing humans. They are becoming the cashiers in our supermarkets, they are the cash dispensers at our banks, they are answering our phones when we call most major companies (if we are not using online self-service). Each one of the 24-hour automated machines that corporations employ replaces three full-time around-the-clock jobs. Can this be an opportunity? How can we use automation in our favor in a sustainable people’s economy?
Curiously, the original meaning of the word robot was slave. Automated machines were meant to perform slave labor and the original, altruistic idea of robotics was to emancipate humans and other animals from exploitative or monotonous labor.
When we employed cars, trucks and cranes to replace the oxen, horses and other animals that we had enslaved, this was seen as a major advancement in terms of ending cruelty against the other species. But now that machines are replacing people and the population is growing, and with it poverty and unemployment, this generates a serious problem of shortage of labor that affects our ability to live with dignity. As a society, we are not extending the same courtesy of emancipation from labor to other humans that we extended to animals.
The mechanization of labor, in an ideal world, should increase ordinary people’s ability and opportunities to become self-sufficient and to own multiple means of production. It should create the opportunity to reimagine an economy where traditional labor takes up less of our time, where less money is needed, and where ordinary people can easily procure what they need in order to survive. Mechanization should not be seen as a sign of instability but as a remedy against the tediousness of the old model of nine-to-five labor.
Louis Kelso, in his books “The Capitalist Manifesto” and “Two-Factor Theory,” presented a practical economic vision of a world where the physical means of production are broadly owned by ordinary people rather than being owned by either the government or the wealthy few, thus freeing millions for a life of constructive leisure.
Futurists, like Jacques Fresco, have already begun to imagine a future world economy of this sort. But one need not be a dreamer: there are practical reasons to reinvent labor. The failure to pragmatically address the shortage of labor in an increasingly mechanized world will inevitably produce social unrest.
Autarchy and Discipline
Epicureanism gives philosophers existential tasks to complete. Some are introspective, others social; some are short-term, others are long-term. The implementation of self-sufficiency is perhaps the most important long-term task that a good Epicurean must revisit frequently and it requires planning, hard work, and creativity.
As a spiritual ideal, autarchy requires a deep respect for our own authority and our own decrees. As part of our autarchy strategies, we may incorporate various schemes of self-employment or freelancing; we may be part of a worker coop; we may invest or own, buy or sell real estate; we may also save a portion of our income in order to plan for early semi-retirement cycles, which may also serve as insurance in case we lose our jobs unexpectedly.
Planning for early semi-retirement cycles serves an additional, pragmatic purpose: as a rehearsal for the real thing, and this is far more important than most people realize. We must know how we wish to retire so we can plan for it and enjoy it. If we build our entire identity and social life around our job and don’t know what we’ll do when we retire, like many unsuccessful retirees we will be depressed when we find ourselves without it. We will feel unproductive and useless rather than experience retirement as a time to reap the fruits of our labor.
We have to build an identity of leisure, an identity outside of our jobs: learn our likes, our hobbies, our passions, get better at doing the things that we are passionate about, and perhaps even learn to make money on the side while doing them. If we find pleasure in our streams of income, then leisure and productivity are one and the same.
Semi-retirement is a chance to be productive by earning a part-time wage doing what we love as part of our retirement. In other words, just as we should reinvent labor, so should we reinvent retirement.
Most philosophers say the unanalyzed life is not worth living, but we Epicureans add a second part to this adage: the unplanned life is not worth living. This is especially true in these times. Also, freedom requires self-sufficiency. A philosophy of freedom can not make sense without a firm insistence on autarchy. By weaving the autarchy discourse into our wisdom traditions, we keep long-term goals in sight and remain diligent with regards to them.
The above piece was originally written for Occupy.org under the title The Epicurean Way: Rediscovering The Good and Meaningful Life Through Work.