The following is the English-language translation of the Spanish-language review of the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, in its first Spanish edition, which was originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog (the link of which is no longer live, unfortunately).
Following the publication of the English translation of David’ post on Epicurus (“Fraternity, subversion, pigs and asparagus“), we contacted Hiram Crespo, with whom we have since maintained an enriching conversation about the role that Epicurean philosophy can play in the revival of the ancient therapeutic function of philosophy, a role that is becoming increasingly necessary in a world in accelerated decomposition.
Hiram is the founder of the Society of Friends of Epicurus and has just published a book that I had the pleasure of reading over the past two weeks.
The book is a condensed but comprehensive introduction to the basic principles and practice of Epicurean philosophy. But it also provides an interesting interpretation of the teachings of Epicurus from the point of view of positive psychology, neuroscience and other scientific disciplines that today corroborate much of the legacy of the master. Given the prominence of Epicurus as one of the first philosophers to defend the need to study science to get rid of our irrational fears, this aspect of the book is itself a tribute to his memory. One can not help thinking that, were he alive today, he would have expanded the focus of his teachings to address these issues.
The Road to Ataraxia
Throughout the book, Hiram breaks down the elements that Epicurus regarded as indispensable to achieve ataraxia, that state of imperturbability and serenity that would allow his disciples to live a genuinely pleasant life.
The road to ataraxia that Epicurus invites us to tread is fundamentally minimalist: although we are not called to give up the “kinetic” pleasures–those pleasures we enjoy as a result of achieving a more or less structured plan of action, like playing, engaging in sports, eating, drinking, or having sex–, those are considered secondary and potentially dangerous for their ability to cause restlessness, addictions, and generally to divert us away from ataraxia, particularly if they degenerate into a pursuit of the more destructive unnatural and unnecessary desires, like the lust for power, fame, glory and other delusions.
By contrast, Epicurus considers the “katastematic” or stable (abiding) pleasures to be essential. These are defined as those that nurture a state of inner harmony through the absence of pain of body and soul–a “soul” that is defined here in a strictly naturalistic sense, understood as the and neurological or nervous system, as everything that today we refer to as the psyche of an individual. And to eliminate the pain of the soul, Epicurus proposed several basic remedies, among which are philosophical reflection and cultivation of friendship, of true community.
The Analyzed Life
For Epicurus, philosophical reflection was primarily aimed at freeing us from prejudices and irrational beliefs that become a source of anxiety and fears of all kinds. Perhaps the best known example is his argument against the fear of death, but the general idea is that irrational passions–from excessive appetite for food and sex to irascibility and arrogance–generally are based on irrational beliefs, and that if we clarify the contradictions inherent in these beliefs, we will be liberated from the tyranny of the passions which support them.
Hiram also reminds us that much of this capacity to analyze our lives has to do with the simple–but not always easy–task of learning to focus our attention and direct it so that we may become aware of our habits and automatic forms of behavior: the analysed life is not necessarily only based on an advanced development of the faculties of reflection beyond the proper control of attention. This is perhaps one of the reasons why contemporary movements, like existential minimalism, are largely dedicated to the cultivation of mindfulness in a hyper-connected world that is increasingly full of banal distractions. But while in the blogosphere of existential minimalism, metaphors and meditation exercises inspired by Zen Buddhism abound, Hiram’s book reminds us that there is no need to go beyond our own very rich tradition of Western thought to find inspiration in this regard.
Attention is the tool used by our minds to give us a model of reality: if we misuse it and let our minds dissipate in every direction like a running river, we’ll get lost in the cracks of inertia and habit. By living according to our firm resolve to create pleasant lives and by paying attention, we make sure that is it we who captain the boat of the mind, and not the pirates of our unconscious tendencies.
The purest happiness requires full attention and is a way of being, not a way of thinking or seeking. At the moment that we make the observation that we are happy, we are moving away … from our experience through the act of observing it, and if we were, for example, entranced dancing and listening to music … now the experience is less ecstatic. The bubble breaks.
The calculated and rational hedonistic theory of philosophy is vehemently opposed to the hedonism of instant gratification commonly practiced today, which is not Epicurean at all. It requires a preliminary process of introspection, to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires.
David (de Ugarte) reminded us in his post that, above all else, what made Epicurus truly subversive was his strong sense of communal fraternity:
Like the Mithraics, who seem to have been influenced (by Epicurus) to a lesser extent than the Stoics, the Epicureans seem to intuit Dunbar‘s number. Not only are they preaching the apolitical stance, but they divide their communities so as to not be so many that fraternity can not be enjoyed, which in practice seems to be as important as freedom for the pursuit of happiness.
The fact that Hiram is committed to the growth of the Society of Friends of Epicurus already speaks for itself, but also in his book he makes it clear that he could not agree more with David regarding the prominence of fraternity as a fundamental value of Epicurean philosophy:
It is one thing to read and learn these lessons from a book, but quite another to learn them from close friends who wish us well, who express this affection, and remind us that death is nothing to us. This wholesome friendship makes all the difference. The experience of the teachings of philosophy is much more comforting when it’s acquired in the context of affiliation.
That is why Epicurean therapy only can be lived fully and concisely within a community of like-minded friends, and the task of building and nurturing a network of such friends should be seen as one of the most important long-term projects for every Epicurean philosopher.
One of the reflections that I like the most about Hiram’s book is the way in which he rescues the concept of “synthetic happiness” as posed by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, in light of Epicurean philosophy.
In his book, Gilbert demonstrates an enormous amount of empirical evidence–experimental and otherwise–according to which the human being has a kind of psychological immune system that allows us to maintain a stable level of psychic well-being regardless of external circumstances. For example, Gilbert refers to a study that analyzed data measuring the levels of psychological well-being of people who have won millions in the lottery and comparing them with those of people left paraplegic.
Surprisingly, the study concludes that differences in welfare levels of both groups are not significant after a year of winning the lottery or losing a limb. That’s why Gilbert tells us that happiness is synthetic: our psyche has the ability to manufacture it regardless of external events, and the quality of that manufactured happiness is as genuine as that obtained when one stumbles upon a lucky event in life. Happiness is not something we have to strive to find: it is the natural state of a truly healthy psyche.
This TED talk transmits a clearer picture of what Gilbert wants to convey in his book, and illustrates other interesting experiments that support his theory.
One of the fundamental conclusions that Gilbert arrives at in his book, is that the fact that we are surprised to learn that paraplegics are as happy as the lucky winners of a million dollar lottery, says a lot about how likely we are to have a strong irrational bias that prevents us from predicting the factors that contribute genuinely to our happiness.
As a corollary of this conclusion, one might then ask about the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this irrational bias which, ultimately, prevent us from seeing what Epicurus has been telling us for centuries, and which is right under our noses: that pleasure is easy to obtain and suffering is easy to bear.
And it almost irresistibly evident that among the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this bias are the artificially inflated production scales which are predominant in crony capitalism. Or as Gilbert puts it in his TED talk:
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want, and synthetic happiness is what we manufacture when we do not get what we want. And in our society, we have a strong bias to believe that synthetic happiness is of an inferior quality. And why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would work if we believed that not getting what you want can make us as happy as getting it?
It is an extremely interesting question. And our attempts to answer it will surely continue to generate discussions that will enrich the discourse on what it means to live an interesting life: a pleasant life like the one that Epicurus invites us to live.
Originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog.
Further Reading from the Las Indias collective: