As the markets tumble - meet Epicurus

"Do you want to be happy? Of course you do! Then what’s standing in your way? Your happiness is entirely up to you. This has been revealed to us by a man of divine serenity and wisdom who spent his life among us, and showed us, by his personal example and by his teaching, the path to redemption from unhappiness. His name was . . ."

Well, what was this chap's name? I’ll get to that in a moment but Western European societies have certainly heard this kind of thing before from countless street preachers over two thousand years and the man's name on their lips was Jesus Christ.

Now, importantly, I need to distinguish at this point between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Personally, I still think of myself as an apprentice in Jesus' school as long as it is understood that I mean by this that I try to follow the spirit of the man Jesus, the very human first-century rabbi, insightful in so many ways but never, no never, a perfect and infallible God-man. His life and character as a whole is what continues to capture my imagination and loyalty rather than any specific set of metaphysical beliefs he may, personally, have held - beliefs which, it is almost certain, I do not share. I take very seriously the covenant of the church to whom I minister when it says we meet in the same "spirit of Jesus" rather than in the same "beliefs of, or about, Jesus." This is an absolutely vital distinction to grasp.

It seems to me that, so understood, the "spirit of Jesus" speaks consistently of the need to find meaning in this world - through all the things we commonly call good and bad up to, and including, the violent loss of his own life. The moments when he fails to live up to this high ideal - his moments of imperfection and his subsequent attempts to change form are, for me at least, essential elements in the basic teaching of this school - we learn by observing his mistakes and the way he improves and deepens his own insights and behaviour. But, key to my point today, is this spirit knows there is no future pay-off to be had and that the true value and leaning of life is always present: "The Kingdom of God comes not at some future time - you cannot point out the sign of its coming. The Kingdom of God comes not at some special site - you cannot point out the place of its coming. The Kingdom of God is already here, among you, now" (John Dominic Crossan: The Essential Jesus, Castle Books, New Jersey 1994, Saying 12).

Yet many forms of Christianity continue to trade in what I called a few weeks earlier 'dodgy religious derivatives' which they have sold at great profit to themselves and very little profit - if any - to the buyers. One of the most pernicious dodgy derivatives has been the promise that the Christ of faith - that is the perfect God-man - will return in a blaze of glory (which includes, don't forget, conflict and a particularly problematic form of moral judgement) which, in turn, will signal the beginning of God's perfect kingdom. However, one can see faith in the likelihood that this was true was being lost even during St Paul's own lifetime - and we see him begin radically to adjust his claims over the course of his extant letters. After two-thousand years of failure to mature the true value of this investment must by now surely be nil. In short - if we seek happiness it has to be found here and now amid the complexities and contingencies of life - no matter how happy or grim.

Now the trouble with the records we have of Jesus is that, although we are left with a powerful general impression of a man who successfully lived such a life - an enduringly inspirational and good model (the 'spirit of Jesus') - alas, we were not left what we might call a clear practical method of how we might achieve this life ourselves.

Consequently, it has always be essential to look around at the many various practical methods for achieving happiness - eudaimonia - that exist in our world. Many of them, it should be added, in no way run against the "spirit of Jesus" and may, in fact, help us reveal that same spirit more powerfully and relevantly in our own lives and culture. In passing, but importantly, I point to the many forms of meditation that exist such as Zen sitting and the common use of mantras within Hinduism and Buddhism as well as some forms of Orthodox Christianity.

All this brings me back to our opening statement:

"Do you want to be happy? Of course you do! Then what’s standing in your way? Your happiness is entirely up to you. This has been revealed to us by a man of divine serenity and wisdom who spent his life among us, and showed us, by his personal example and by his teaching, the path to redemption from unhappiness. His name was . . ." (Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson: The Epicurus Reader, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1994 p. vii).

His name was Epicurus of Sámos (341-270 BCE). D. S. Hutchinson, an authority on Epicurus, notes that:

This is the sort of thing you might have heard an Epicurean preaching in the market square of an ancient city. If it sounds like a religious message, that is no coincidence; Epicurus was revered by his followers as though divine, a sage who had answers to all the important questions of life. What attracted converts was the prospect of personal happiness, for which Epicurus offered clear philosophical advice (ibid p. vii).

Hutchinson continues:

The fundamental obstacle to happiness, says Epicurus, is anxiety. No matter how rich or famous you are, you won't be happy if you're anxious to be richer or more famous. No matter how good your health is, you won't be happy if you're anxious about getting sick. You can't be happy in this life if you're worried about the next life. You can't be happy as a human being if you're worried about being punished or victimized by powerful divine beings. But you can be happy if you believe in the four basic truths of Epicureanism: there are no divine beings which threaten us; there is no next life; what we actually need is easy to get; what makes us suffer is easy to put up with. This is the so-called 'four-part cure', the Epicurean remedy for the epidemic sickness of human anxiety; as a later Epicurean puts it, "Don't fear god, don't worry about death; what's good is easy to get, and what's terrible is easy to endure" (ibid, p. vii).

In addition to these four truths Epicurus - which I'll look at another time he thought that there were three goods, friendship, self-sufficiency (i.e. freedom) and an analysed life.

With regards to friendship Epicurus picked up on an obvious point which is that friendships help happiness. But to this basic point he added the need for the constant presence of one's friends and, to achieve this he set up his Garden Academy where his friends lived together in close proximity though in their own private quarters. My suggestion to that we become a Garden Community is a version of this.

With regards to freedom, or self-sufficiency, in founding his Academy he desired that its members should be financially independent, economically self-sufficient and not answerable to dreadful bosses for one's income. What precisely this means in today's context is, naturally, going to be different from what it was in 3rd century BCE Greek culture but it is surely going to be wrapped up in freedom and independence from the oppressive and obsessive materialist fantasies of our culture. If achieved it give us a certain freedom which can help us better to achieve the third of Epicurus' goods - the analysed life.

Alain de Botton sums up the analysed life as: "A life in which we take time off to reflect on our worries, to analyse what is troubling us. Our anxieties quickly diminish if we give ourselves time to think things through and to do that we need to take a step back from the noisy distractions of the commercial world and find time and space for quiet thinking about our lives."

I'm pretty much convinced of the truth of Epicurus' basic position concerning human happiness and I think it sits perfectly with the kind of naturalised spirituality I'm suggesting that we, as rational liberal religious people coming out of the liberal Christian tradition, should be exploring at this difficult time. I'll be dipping in and out of Epicurus' thought in the coming months and years but today, given the current universal upsurge of fear over the state of the financial markets and the global economy, I want to conclude by offering you just one of Epicurus' teachings concerning wealth and money.

What Epicurus showed - and here I am paraphrasing Alain de Botton's excellent summary in his TV programme on Epicurus - was that, if you are denied money, for whatever reason, but you still have those three goods, namely, friends, freedom and an analysed life, then you will never be denied happiness. Conversely, if you have loads of money, but you're lacking those three goods then you will never be happy.

Botton draws a simple diagram to illustrate this (at the top of this blog). The vertical axis shows levels of happiness and the horizontal axis shows levels of income. The top line drawn on the graph - the one the goes steeply up and then levels off - illustrates that, as long as you have the three goods you can begin to be happy with very little money and, and this is really important, you won't get any happier the more money you accumulate (in fact in some circumstances you may get unhappier). If, however, you have loads of money but don't have the three goods then your level of happiness is going to stay very flat indeed. (This is illustrated by the bottom curve drawn on the graph.)

Botton concludes, and I agree with him, that this "is a lovely consoling idea for anyone whose either worried about the fact that they may lose their money or is denied the chance to make any."

It seems clear that we are sliding into a major global recession and some are reading this as a very bad thing. If, however, this causes us in any way to restore Epicurus' three goods of friends, freedom, and an analysed life to the forefront of our culture and encourages us to live ever more in accordance with the spirit of Jesus then, you know, the next few weeks may see humankind take a very shaky first step towards a more reasonable and achievable kind of happiness. But whether or not the world takes that step you can . . .