Epicurean Self-analysis - dealing with the economic downturn - part 3

So far we have looked a little at two of Epicurus' three goods - friendship and self sufficiency (or freedom and the simple life). Today I'll introduce the third - the analysed life.

(In passing I note that what follows has been born out of my realisation that in many religious contexts the kind of analysis Epicurus calls for is deliberately avoided. One is simply told what to believe. But I have always been struck by Jesus' concern to get folk looking and thinking themselves. After all did he not teach us to 'Consider the lilies of the filed' and the 'birds of the air' and, even more memorably in Luke (12:54-57) to think for ourselves:

[Jesus] also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? "And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?")

Anyway . . .

Epicurus' aim in his teaching was to help us achieve a certain kind of happiness or pleasure in life which he named 'ataraxia' - that is to say a certain state of equanimity or 'untroubledness'.

Friends obviously help in achieving this state as does living a simple life free from the seductive lure of what he thought were unnecessary if, sometimes, natural desires. The third 'good' is the analysed life. Such a life is one in which we make the time and space to think about the things that worry us and reflect deeply on their real status. In other words to discover whether we should be worrying about them or not. Here, in this place and in these conversations, we are trying to do something similar.

Now, a consideration of the 'analysed life' can take us in at least two directions. One encourages us to an ongoing observation of Nature and, from that observation, to see the truth of what Epicurus was led to express in his famous "Four-part" cure (tetrapharmakos) which has been found written on innumerable artefacts across Greece and the Roman Empire. Philodemus summed it up as follows (PHerc. 1005, 4.9-14):

Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;

What is good is easy to get,
and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

However, we'll come to this in the coming weeks starting, in a round-about way, with next week's service celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin.

The other direction is one directly relevant to the current theme of surviving the current economic downturn and it is that which I address here. I have shamelessly half-inched the basic drift of this from both Alain de Botton's excellent Channel 4 programme on Epicurus (click on the image immediately below) and his chapter on Epicurus in "The Consolations of Philosophy". There is nothing original in my presentation today nor, actually, in de Botton's - this is old and once, much better-known, stuff.



de Botton observes that as human beings we are easily seduced by the claims of advertisers who wish to persuade us that the products they are trying to sell will provide us with the real happiness we all seek. They can do this because 'objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one' (Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London 2007 p. 65). Living an anlaysed life can help reveal this to us.

de Botton goes on to note:

We are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the 'idle opinions' of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasising luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. The prevalence of idle opinion is no coincidence. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one. And the way we are enticed is through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten need (ibid. p. 67).

He illustrates this in his TV programme by first considering friendship and he showing us a Barcardi advert. The background is of a tropical island with an azure blue sky, palm trees and a beautiful beach white in the sun. In the foreground we see four smiling friends in swimming costumes in a boat with a bottle set in their midst and all holding glasses. The caption reads "Barcardi . . . and friends." We want and need friends, we know that, but we are seduced into buying Barcardi which we think will give us something of that friendship.

Botton then turns to Freedom - that is to say self-sufficiency. He shows us an advert selling a perfume by Tommy Hilfiger called "Freedom - a new fragrance for her for him." Again it blurs our ability to understand that what we want is freedom not perfume.

Lastly he shows an advert in which a man with a glass tumbler in his hand is sitting in study in the early evening, looking relaxed and thoughtful and with the caption "After the tussle". It is selling us whisky by, as Botton observes, "promising the calm resolution of our problems that only an analysed life can bring".

When de Botton first published his book in 2000 he concluded his chapter on Epicurus with this note:

. . . it is possible to imagine that a well mounted Epicurean advertising campaign would have the power to precipitate global economic collapse. Because, for Epicurus, most businesses stimulate unnecessary desires in people who fail to understand their true needs, levels of consumption would be destroyed by greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity. Epicurus would not have been perturbed: 'When measured by the natural purpose of life, poverty is great wealth; limitless wealth, great poverty' (ibid pp. 69-70 - last quote: Vatican Sayings 25)

He closed his TV programme with his own splendid idea for an Epicurean advert. It showed an enormous new country house with extensive gardens and, parked in front of it, an expensive limousine. At the top right was printed a large, bright red asterisk - the kind that alerts you to some small print elsewhere. At the bottom right was that small print. It simply said "Happiness not included." As the shot pulled back we saw hordes of shoppers walking in front of it without a glance intent on their shopping. I'm not sure that de Botton's advertising campaign would have had, at the time, the effect he hoped it might. But then he hadn't reckoned on the events of the last year.

The economic collapse we are currently witnessing has, it seems to me, prepared our culture perfectly for the launch of a modern Epicurean campaign. The situation is such that almost everybody is being forced to look at their lives and analyse them to see wherein their true happiness lies.

Here is where a community like this suddenly can find real traction in the world again. We are a place where our lives can be examined - remember Socrates' injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living - and this is attempted in the context of a community which seeks supportive friendships coupled with a desire to encourage in ourselves a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual self-sufficiency, that is to say genuine freedom.

The hyper-capitalism of the last twenty years was truly a kind of madness and the consequences of its failure are going to be tough for all of us whether we bought into it or not. But, in our hands - if we choose follow in general outline Epicurus' philosophy that is (and it is a philosophy which, as Jefferson realised, is not antithetical to Jesus' teaching and example) - we have a healing cure both for ourselves and the wider world. And that cure begins with encouraging the leading of an analysed life. It means having the discipline to take the time to stop and look at every aspect of our former lives and begin again. The promise is that though, materially we will all be the poorer, we will discover the true richness of life once again.

As a concluding remark I think it is important to note that the life Epicurus is trying to get us to lead is not, in the end, solely analytical - by which I mean a life lived on the outside only ever observing. Rather Epicurean analysis helps us see that, in truth, we are intimately woven into the very fabric of Nature - we commingle with her and are made of the same stuff (and also, therefore, that we commingle with God). This is very much a philosophy which seeks to help us to a way of being in the world. Whenever it becomes purely a theory about the world it has failed.
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