To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf. ― Epicurus
In Epicurean discourse we often get into discussions of minimalism from the perspective of natural and necessary desires: minimalism not for the sake of frugality and simplicity, but for the sake of having a deep conviction of what is and what isn’t necessary.
The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires.
Thus, in our discussions of autarchy we talk about the natural measure of wealth, and during Pride month I discussed the natural measure of Pride (many people are forced into a healthy re-assessment of their self-worth as a result of bigotry and mistreatment). In a naturalist evaluation of equality, which is a term so misused and confusing, I argued that our shared, natural limitations and needs provide the basis for a REAL, experienced equality and that, because all mortals have a universal need to feed, when we gather around the tables we can experience true communal equality.
The contributors of the Las Indias blog, a bilingual virtual community dedicated to cooperative ethics which proclaims itself proudly Epicurean, has been steadily making the case for natural community. In a recent piece, David the Ugarte makes the case for the Epicurean communal model:
Indianos takes part in an Epicurean communitarian tradition: the community is a «society» of friends. From the Epicurean point of view friendship (fraternity) and knowledge are the central goals of community itself. So, you will accept and look for people you can become friend of. But you also will put (an)other condition to them: to share basic common contexts in order to be able (to) learn together. Consequently, community is something that happens (within) a cultural and philosophical common ground, not just a set of rules open to everybody.
The link to Epicurean communitarian tradition leads to another blog entry on community and happiness. At the core of Las Indias’ communitarian doctrine we find Adlerian theories on natural community (which is smaller in scale and based on REAL interpersonal relations), as opposed to non-natural or Platonic community: artificial ideological constructs and narratives that people use to weave their identities but that do not constitute real communities or translate into real interpersonal relations. Nation-building is the prime example. There are many other imagined communities based on political strategy and ideology that also fit the Platonic definition of being artificial communities.
Notice, also, how communities of friends evolve naturally and organically. It is easier to become friends with our friends’ friends because there is already some familiarity. A recent 20-year-long study proves that happiness (and sadness) spread like a contagion, which means that even at very subtle levels we mirror behavioral and psychological patterns in our social environment. Herd instincts exist in all social entities, whether we’re aware, whether we accept this or not. The fact that the term “contagious” is used in the study, places social relations within the framework of nature, not culture.
The idea of Epicurean friendship and intimacy is that we should be invested in the happiness, self-overcoming and moral betterment of our friends (and they in ours). In light of recent research, it makes perfect sense why this is so important: unlike with patriotic narratives and imaginary communities, in natural communities the happiness of our friends has a direct, tangible, measurable effect on our own long-term wellbeing.
Recent research on isolation demonstrates how it feels cold in the body, and how it’s a health risk factor that shortens one’s life span on par with obesity and smoking. People need to feel both productive and loved. If and when they don’t, their bodies and minds begin decaying. In other words, community is both natural and necessary, and (as with wealth, pride, etc.) people need at least a natural measure of community in their lives.
What to do? The wisdom tradition of the Scandinavians says it well in stanzas 43-44 of the Havamal. Call up your good and true friends and see them frequently, blend your mind with theirs, befriend their friends, never betray them, and honor them with gifts:
To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
to him and a friend of his;
but let him beware that he be not the friend
of one who is friend to his foe.
Do you have a friend whom you trust well,
from whom you crave good?
Share your mind with him, exchange gifts with him,
make efforts to find him often.
And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. For ’twas now that fire
Rendered their shivering frames less staunch to bear,
Under the canopy of the sky, the cold;
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.
Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27
Lucretius’ account of how friendship emerged in the human race as a result of its softening and civilizing reminds me of comparative behavioral studies concerning the two species of chimpanzee. The better known species of chimpanzee is aggressive and its tribes and clans are governed by strong, feared alpha males who compete and fight over resources, over the right to mate, and over domination. The other species, the affable bonobos, like to make love instead of war. They solve all their conflicts through sexual exchanges, prefer to cooperate and share resources (again, always using sex as the social lubricant), and their societies are more egalitarian. It has been noted that the bonobos evolved in parts of the African forests where there were plenty of resources to share, whereas the evolution of the traditional chimp saw more scarcity, ergo their more violent nature.
Some of the most violent species of baboons, by way of contrast, experience so much stress during their short lifetimes that they’re in constant state of alert and their health suffers greatly as a result. Humans in overpopulated cities, and those in areas with high levels of poverty, tend also to exhibit higher rates of violent crime whereas wealthier societies exhibit lower rates of violence.
Because examples of both war and cooperation exist among our closest relatives, it’s difficult to discern whether our instances of war and cooperation are the result of nurture or nature. But it can not be denied that similar behavioral patters are found among humans and chimpanzees. We also have our authoritarian alpha males with their docile clans, and elsewhere our open and egalitarian bonobo-like societies.
It should perhaps be asked whether the fact that Abrahamic religions emerged from the desert (no doubt one of the most inhospitable and unfruitful places on Earth) may help to explain the authoritarian and patriarchal alpha-male tendencies in Abrahamic religions. But then, what are we to make of our philosophy of the Garden, a place of fruitfulness and greenery, particularly in contrast with spiritualities of the desert? It’s interesting to note that our Garden tradition emerged in glorification of the pleasures of friendship, the most egalitarian model of human interaction and that its most outstanding cultural expression, the gathering on the 20th, is an exuberant display of plenty, of abundance.
In light of this, we can understand why a Garden philosophy must be a philosophy of autarchy (self-sufficiency), and how self-sufficiency produces friendly humans just as plenty in the African bush produces affectionate bonobos. Without autarchy, we must either depend on others (and build hierarchies based on production and exploitation) or steal from them (engage in pillaging, plunder and violence). With self-sufficiency, we are free from the anxieties that arise when we can’t provide our natural needs and we can easily relate to others affectionately and as trusting equals.
Lucretius said it well: Philos reduced our shaggy hardiness and neighbors began to league as friends eager to wrong no more or be wronged.
The above article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Happy 20th!
In philosophical and ethical parlance, a good is that which should be sought for its own sake, a thing of intrinsic value. Virtues, such as honesty, justice, liberty, are goods. In Epicurean teaching, there are three main goods out of which all other virtues flow.
Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends. – Epicurus
Epicurus saw friendship as the most important ingredient for happiness and as a type of insurance against life’s difficulties.
It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us – Sayings, 34
It’s clear that there is mutual benefit in friendship. But association is more than I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine. We become who we are, develop an identity, through socializing. Association is one of the most fundamental experiences for humans: we acquire even the most subtle of influences from our associations. From our accent and our patterns of speech and the things that we pay importance to, to our values and our attitudes in life: association is the forge in which our personalities evolve.
Discerning between wholesome and bad associations is a basic task of every philosopher. No person of wisdom wishes to waste time with fools who are frivolous, except perhaps in the case of souls who are awakening to more mature ways of thinking and living.
It’s impossible to replicate ancient Epicureanism without engaging our friends in philosophical discourse: by blending the analysed life with the ideal of friendship, we are properly practicing Epicureanism. While writing about ancient Epicureans, Norman Dewitt mentioned that they employed a system of mutual correction by which they were able to apply the teachings.
The Society of Friends of Epicurus was founded with the vision of becoming an ongoing attempt at experimenting with recreating Epicurean friendships and communities. It’s not difficult to imagine that the teaching on Death is nothing to us would have been experienced as a warm consolation when imparted within the context of a loving community of friends. This is a quite different experience from the cold, calculated doctrine that one would encounter in academia. The embrace of a friend transforms a doctrine into an experience of human empathy, love, phylia, which Dewitt in fact identified as the fuel on which the Epicurean tradition runs. For this reason, I believe that it’s impossible to truly replicate the practice of Epicureanism, as it was lived in antiquity, without a Society of Friends.
But even beyond the context of practicing philosophy, there are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effects that good friends have on well-being, happiness, safety and security. We’re able to be ourselves, we gain confidence, we’re better able to laugh at life and at ourselves, we laugh more, we feel stronger, our enjoyment of pleasures is increased and our ability to tackle difficulties is enhanced with the help of friends.
An Epicurean is a pragmatist who doesn’t practice philosophy for its own sake, regardless of how valuable, noble, and esteemed wisdom may inherently be, but as a means in the pursuit of happiness, and ergo must develop a firm resolution to be happy and discipline his own mind.
Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Sayings, 46
Happiness is an art and a science. Today, we know how the brain works when happy or stressed, what foods contain the tryptophan that synthesizes into serotonin, the chemical of happiness. There is a burgeoning science of happiness. There are specific and useful methodologies, both philosophical and empirical, that can make one a happier person, some of which require consistency and discipline. We can apply a scientific approach to them and figure out which ones work for us.
There is no expectation of happiness without an analysed life. Certainly, an Epicurean must be at least introspective enough to study his or her desires, dismissing many of them as incompatible with happiness and imperturbability.
We’re never called on to do what hurts. We just do what hurts out of ignorance and habit. Once we see what we’re doing, we can stop.
– Steve Hagen
All this inner work requires a firm resolution and conviction. So does the cultivation of wholesome friends, the attainment of autonomy, and many of the other psychological and social tasks assigned by Epicurus, which together constitute a complete program for well-being.
A person who has not made the resolution to be happy will be dragged like a pebble in the river by wasteful distractions, hatreds, capricious and mindless desires, and a general lack of discipline. He may encounter moments of joy here and there, but many of these joys will be mindless, gone before he can relish them, and without the conviction and the means he may lack the tools to deal with life’s baggage. If it’s hard for even many mindful people to be happy, for mindless and thankless people it’s entirely unexpected.
The mindless will sometimes drown in even the vainest of unnecessary suffering whereas the mindful will avoid unnecessary suffering, and otherwise accept with humility and wisdom the limitations imposed by nature.
Self-government, independence, and autonomy, and the liberty that comes with them, are the third good. This autarchy is not just fiscal and monetary, but also emotional and mental. Emancipating ourselves from the misery of unnecessary and capricious wants is a form of autarchy.
In antiquity, Epicurus devised the method of living in a commune known as the Garden. In it, they enjoyed cultivating the Garden not just for pleasure, but also for food. The scribes that worked in the Garden lived off of the fees from their work replicating the scrolls and educational material they produced, and from fees paid from lecturing and teaching. Any business in which we find pleasure and affords us with sustainability would constitute a modern Garden. Epicurus favored self-sufficiency and self-employment over wage slavery.
Something must be said here about Epicurean politics. Although Epicurus advised his followers to avoid politics, clearly the act of not participating in the dominant culture’s schemes is a political, even a subversive, act.
One thread that is noticed throughout the tradition of philosophical materialism is the concern with human relations between equals. We see it in Marx, who wrote his dissertation on Epicurus’ materialism, and we see it in Sartre whose existentialist theory evolved into a Marxist theory of inter-subjective (rather than subject-object) relations not based on domination.
The ideal model for human interaction for Epicurus is friendship, which again is an inter-subjective, egalitarian model. It’s interpersonal rather than a subject-object model. His Garden was known to be a place where women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse with men as equals, a tradition so progressive in its day that it was deemed scandalous. Here, we can see how liberated, how removed from cultural consensus Epicurus was, and we can see the fruits of this emancipation.
A free person is unable to acquire great wealth because that is not easily achieved without enslavement to the masses or to the powers that be. Instead, he already has everything he needs, and in abundance. But if by chance he should have great wealth, he could easily share it with his fellows to win their goodwill. – Sayings, 65
Epicureanism is apolitical in order to preserve ataraxia, but it’s also profoundly subversive and political when we consider the implications of autarchy, which is often contrasted to anarchy as a more analysed and balanced alternative. Self-sufficiency and autonomy of the individual can only lead to liberty and an ethical system that places full responsibility on each person and promotes cooperation among fully sovereign individuals rather than dependence or domination.