Sunday Sermon: Asceticism


When someone says “Epicurean” what comes to mind? Usually, it’s hedonism – life spent in the pursuit of pleasure. If we were raised in a christian tradition, we might even hear “Epicurean” as slightly louche or sexually promiscuous. Epicureans, many of us think, are the sort who wear velvet smoking jackets and snort cocaine off the upturned buttocks of prostitutes.

I’ve always wanted to try that, but I’m afraid I’d like the cocaine too much; it’s one of the pleasures in life I am afraid of, because everyone I know who’s done it gives rave reviews. If I grabbed the straw and said “gimme!” I would be a hedonist – someone who believes that pleasure and happiness are the main purpose of life. Philosophically, hedonists would be categorized as a form of consequentialist, since they are grounding their ethics on an understanding of the results of their actions. (*snort*! YESSSS!) There are many varieties of consequentialists, including Jeremy Bentham, who would argue that the reduction of suffering is the paramount objective, and John Stewart Mill, who would say it’s the greatest good for the greatest number. Those sound pretty abstract and high-minded, so it seems to me that a lot of people accept the placement of Epicureans around a sumptuous dinner table with, perhaps, a few discreetly-placed hetairas and plenty of wine.

Stereotypical Epicureans in action

Stereotypical Epicureans in action (extra credit: name the movie)

Sadly, Epicurus is getting calumnied – or, he was. It’s probably not fair to point to a particular neoplatonist/early christian and lay the blame, but christians have always had a problem in the form of Epicurus’ famous:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

But Epicurus fired multiple shots below the water-line of christianity: he pointed out that the gods, being all-powerful and imperturbable, certainly wouldn’t care about the actions of mere humans, and we don’t have to worry about them, or their opinions, anyway. This, for the early christian philosophers, was an unbearable chestnut: without the eternal fear of god, there’s no point in doing anything christian, which means there is no point donating to the church, or rendering to Caesar, or feeling insecure and apologetic, or obedient. The whole scam that is christianity falls apart, and that’s unacceptable. This is an extremely abbreviated gloss, but the early christians needed to deal with the various skeptics, sophists, and stoics – all of the various philosophical schools of antiquity – and it was easier to just demonize the old philosophies, pick and choose a few bits of Plato and Aristotle to argue with, then declare intellectual victory over the pagans, and move on. I’m doing the same – you can’t really talk honestly about one school of ancient philosophy without putting it in its all-important context, but you have to because there’s too much of it and proper context would be a small library.

There was another ancient skeptical school, the Cyrenaics (from Cyrene! [wik]) and they were somewhat in agreement with the Epicureans – ultimately the difference in their views was pretty minor; it was similar to how Bentham and Mill pretty much said the same thing, but disagreed slightly on priority and how to get there. The Epicureans said that an absence of pain was good, and allowed one to lead a life that was free from worry. The Cyrenaics said that pleasure was the highest good and everything else fell from that. It’s subtle how these agendas are layered, for example: “pleasure” may be defined as “absent pain, you can feel good sensations” so suddenly you’ve got an Epicurean precedence. Mill, for example, would include absence of pain in “the greater good” for the greater number. The Cyrenaics and the Epicureans did differ: Epicureans thought the pleasure of good company was really important, whereas the Cyrenaics would say that the pleasure of a foot massage while snorting coke off a hetaira was more important. Cyrenaics were a bit more dismissive of the supreme pleasures of intellectual pursuits than the Epicureans. The early christian intellectuals, more or less stereotyped them all as Cyrenaics but they got tagged with the label of “Epicureans.”

holier than thou

holier than thou

Epicurus was at least a borderline ascetic:

Again, we regard independence of outward things as a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much, being honestly persuaded that they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it, and that whatever is natural is easily procured and only the vain and worthless hard to win. Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, when once the pain of want has been removed, while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health, and enables a man to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune. [Letter to Menoeceous]

Voltaire hosts dinner at Les Delices

Voltaire hosts dinner at Les Delices

He’s still giving the christians a cramp, though: “renders us fearless of fortune.” Remember: we are supposed to be fearing god and kowtowing to his earthly messengers – and now this old Greek has just said that bread and water are going to make you happier than god can.

Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.

Hardly a ringing call for a booze-up. Socrates was more of a party animal than Epicurus, who comes off as a bit dry and very serious. He was probably a great guy, but it sounds like when you went over to hang out at Epicurus’ place you were more likely to wind up working in the garden while talking philosophy, then enjoying a quiet dinner of olives, bread, and a bit of cheese.

I like that Epicurus tries to make a case for asceticism: it’s to prevent you from depending on external things. If you don’t snort cocaine, you won’t ever run out. It also neatly gets you around the question “did you bring enough to share?”

Still, I don’t have a lot of respect for ascetics. Often, I feel that ascetics are just aping the supposed behaviors of legendary enlightened ones. The buddha supposedly sat under a tree and didn’t eat and became very thin, so: do likewise and, what, you’ll be closer to enlightenment, too? Years ago, when I started digging into buddhism, I was disappointed to learn that the reason some schools sit in a specific pose to meditate is because by sitting like the buddha, you were closer to buddhahood. That’s just magical thinking: I want to know why a particular uncomfortable posture is going to help me think.

It’s ironic that a teacher that was supposedly trying to help his students break their mold, became a mold. I dread learning that Epicureans, for generations after the death of the master, ate olives and bread and a bit of cheese because of magical thinking.

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Some of the early christians really thrashed around embarrassingly trying to attack Epicurus. St Ambrose, for example, claimed the Epicureans were inconsistent because they claim that sensation depends entirely on the body but the body does not decompose instantly upon death, therefore something remains that divine grace can restore to life, therefore Epicureans are wrong. I went through a period where I tried to make sense of some of the early christians, specifically Augustine, and my brain just kept trying to shut down because a lot of it was of the unbearable caliber of Ambrose, above. Remember: lengthy blog-arguments are nothing new, it’s just that literacy is more prevalent and the cost of publishing has gone way down.

This is some good back-fill on what happened to Epicureanism through history, after Epicurus.

Comments

  1. polishsalami says

    One aspect of “context” that should be remembered is the Epicureans’ rivalry with the Stoics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the stereotype of the high-living Epicurean is largely a creation of their philosophical rivals.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yabbut what happened to Cyrenaicism after Cyrene?

    I can’t help but wonder if the Cyrenes got their reputation for hedonia from the cultural effects of silphium, an herb harvested to extinction in the Roman era, which grew only along the central coast of north Africa and gained a reputation as a highly effective form of birth control.

  3. says

    polishsalami@#1:
    One aspect of “context” that should be remembered is the Epicureans’ rivalry with the Stoics. I wouldn’t be surprised if the stereotype of the high-living Epicurean is largely a creation of their philosophical rivals.

    That’s true. One more reason I put a lot of waffles around my quick drive-by on the history.

    The various ancient schools spent a lot of time squabbling (I don’t think they resorted to slaughtering eachother, at least) and it seems to me that they did such a good job of muddying the waters that a simple message “make philosophy great again!” coming from the christians (along with judicious slaughterings) left the field ripe for a takeover.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    Yabbut what happened to Cyrenaicism after Cyrene?

    It sounds like a bunch of rich people having a party and pretending to play at philosophy. So, my guess would be that the money and cocaine ran out, and the hetairas left, and the candles burned down, and that was the end of their philosophy.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 4 – But did they leave exquisite corpses?

    Dibs on “Cyrenaics” for a band name!

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#5:
    Dibs on “Cyrenaics” for a band name!

    It does sound better than “The Stoics”

    Edit: I did like their debut album: The Stoics Of Swing

  7. cartomancer says

    A lot of people think that Epicureanism and Buddhism are rather similar. In some ways they are, but in their basic approach to the psychic disquiet caused by desire they differ considerably. Epicureans believed that it was a good thing to remove or eliminate superfluous desires where possible, but some desires were impossible to remove and those should be indulged as much as necessary to achieve happiness (desire for food, health, companionship etc). Buddhist thought tends not to make this distinction, and recommends reducing or eliminating the pains of all desires as much as possible.

    On the other hand it too falls short of asceticism for its own sake, and those statues of the starving Buddha were intended more as warnings against thinking denial is a good in and of itself. In this the Buddhist tradition was consciously rebelling against older traditions of Hindu asceticism – Gautama tried that and found it inadequate for achieving enlightenment, stressing unobtrusive moderation rather than dramatic self-denial. A lot of early Christian monastic thought dealt with the same issues, the inspiration for Christian monasticism coming in a significant part from contact with India in the later Roman Empire.

  8. cartomancer says

    The link also makes a slight error in suggesting that Epicureanism was somewhat unpopular among the Roman elite under the Empire. Not true – it just didn’t make as big a splash in the literature as Stoicism did. Roman aristocrats fed up with being denied access to real political power found all kinds of Greek philosophical doctrines a comfort in dealing with their reduced situation. But whereas the Stoics tended flamboyantly to resist Imperial edicts and commit ostentatious suicide (Caecina Paetus, Seneca), the Epicureans just got on with a life of leisured otium. The Epicurean emphasis on frugality and moderation was a good fit for traditional Roman values, particularly in the Imperial period when the luxury and corruption of money and Empire were universally despised. If it had not retained its popularity among the Roman elites then Ambrose would not have felt the need to confront it so determinedly in the 4th century.

  9. says

    I find pleasure seeking (a.k.a. hedonism) the only rational purpose for my life.

    From a biological point of view the purpose is procreation and continuation of the species. I find this idea problematic, because science already tells us that one day sun will burn out, so our descendants cannot live forever. Now, one could say that just because something cannot be eternal does not make it less valuable. I sort of agree. I believe it’s worth making artworks even if we know that someday the beautiful painting will crumble to dust.

    But the fact that our descendants cannot life forever does prove that surviving cannot be the end purpose (we cannot survive forever anyway). Then what about surviving as long as possible? Imagine countless generations of humans living in utter pain and misery just to make descendants. And what for? For the last human generation who will be so hungry, sick and miserable that they will fail to reproduce? Survival of human species is valuable only if we are enjoying ourselves while we are living. Except for those people who are indoctrinated by religions that suffering has a value, most people agree that nonexistence is preferable to living in pain and suffering.

    So the meaning of life is enjoying ourselves. Next question – what is it that should matter for me, my pleasure or somebody else’s pleasure? The interests of “God and country” cannot matter, because those are imaginary concepts. The pleasure of priests and oligarchs who are standing behind those concepts cannot matter for me, because they are generally bad people. What’s left is either my pleasure or the pleasure of sentient beings I like (family, friends, other humans, animals). I find those are the only things I can rationally choose to live for.

    I find that whenever humans care for other sentient beings, it is in order to increase our own happiness. We can feel empathy. When we see a malnourished African child, we feel empathy, the sight makes us feel pain, therefore we care, and we donate some money to charity to feed the kid. Also, knowing that our family members suffer, makes us feel bad, so we care for them. The result is that we care for our own pleasure and to some extent also the pleasure of other sentient beings. What else can matter in life besides pleasure (lack of suffering) of sentient beings? Environmental concerns? We care about pollution only because it hurts poor people and animals. Equality, fairness, freedom? We care about those, because otherwise the oppressed suffer. It always boils down to pleasure.

    Where is the line between “absence of pain”, “wellbeing”, “pleasure” and “happiness”? In practical situations those tend to overlap. If I have good health and I’m lounging on a comfy couch and eating tasty food, I am happy, I’m doing well, I feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain. It’s all of these. Yet these different terms (loaded with positive or negative connotations) are used for the purpose of controlling population and forcing people to behave in whatever way the elites want. If I snorted cocaine off the upturned buttocks of a sex worker, I would feel pleasure and I would be happy. If instead I had a glass of wine and some sex with a spouse, I would also feel pleasure and be happy. Yet in the first situation a priest would say that this is pleasure seeking and hedonism and that’s bad. In the second scenario that’s happiness and fulfilling basic human needs. Where is the real difference? In the second scenario people are working hard, donating to the church and providing the priest with kids for religious indoctrination. In the first scenario it is “Fuck the church! *snort* Yesss!” Same goes for political elites, who just want you to work hard, pay taxes and provide kids for the army.

    The Cyrenaics and the Epicureans did differ: Epicureans thought the pleasure of good company was really important, whereas the Cyrenaics would say that the pleasure of a foot massage while snorting coke off a hetaira was more important.

    Why not have both? I’d say those can be mixed. I like both interesting conversations and sex. And it’s even better if one and the same person can provide me with both. Add some tasty breakfast in bed and it gets even better. The result is that the easiest way how to get in my bed is by being the smartest guy around (bonus points for good cooking skills). I don’t see a point (besides political control) in dividing pleasures into good and bad ones. The rush of dopamine you feel is always the same anyway.

    I like that Epicurus tries to make a case for asceticism: it’s to prevent you from depending on external things. and Still, I don’t have a lot of respect for ascetics. . . . The buddha supposedly sat under a tree and didn’t eat and became very thin

    If you have rich parents, you don’t even have to think about asceticism. Otherwise it is a very good idea. I really love smoking jackets. They look cool. But they are also expensive (the good ones, which are made from quality fabrics and are tailored to actually fit you). If I wanted to buy one, I would have to work for many hours to earn the money. But work = boredom = lack of pleasure. Buying a smoking jacket would mean a net loss of pleasure for me. So I wear cheaper clothes instead. Pursuing cheap or free forms of entertainment is a reasonable decision, once you don’t have any inherited money.

    I once read an old text where the author predicted that by year 2000 people will be working very short work weeks because of all the work automation. I would say that less work and more free time for pleasure is desirable. Yet instead Americans chose (and are taught) to work 60 hour work weeks and seek pleasure in buying stuff (there is no free time for fun activities anyway). Incidentally, buying stuff never works. You buy something, get a jolt of pleasure, soon you get used to your new toy and then you need to buy another new toy. And ultimately you get rid of all your hard earned purchases once you realize that your home needs some decluttering (and of course you pollute the environment in the process as well). So I do support the idea of asceticism to some extent. I would never starve myself or refuse tasty food or seek pleasure in sitting under a tree in an uncomfortable pose. And, to be fair, some toys are really fun to have (for me: a digital camera, a computer, books, sex toys etc.). But sometimes it does make sense to limit the amount of stuff you use.

    It’s amusing what reactions I get once I say that I consider myself a hedonist. I don’t behave exactly like the stereotypical hedonist. I eat healthy food and I don’t smoke, because I don’t want to prematurely end my pleasurable life by getting a lung cancer or a heart disease. I don’t even drink much (tried it, didn’t like it). I also don’t pay to sex workers (there is no shortage of volunteers willing to entertain me for free). And I care about what happens around me, so sometimes I help others. Yet “pious” people still call me evil, immoral and egoistic. Well, yes, I do have a preference for open relationships and I don’t intend to ever get married or have babies. And that supposedly makes me selfish and egoistic. It’s amusing how those people who call me selfish for not wanting kids say in the very next sentence that kids gave them so much happiness in life. Having a baby to increase your happiness is ok, but not having any babies to increase your happiness is not ok? Now we are back to religious and state indoctrination about which pleasures are good or evil.

  10. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#9:
    I find pleasure seeking (a.k.a. hedonism) the only rational purpose for my life.

    I do too, but I had to work through the problem of “why do we do things at all?” and concluded that a lot of our actions could only be justified aesthetically. That leads to the conclusion that much of what we do is for our own pleasure, therefore hedonism. It’s a better justification than “why not?” though we have to be careful because the sadistic aesthetic can be brought in to justify doing horrible things in the name of “because I can.” When I was a kid I remember being wrapped around the conundrum of “do people who think that they are doing good things do those really just to please themselves with the idea ‘I am a good person?'” Hedonism and aesthetics are not a very strong response to nihilism but they’re actually non-contradicting and they give a good enough excuse to get out of bed in the morning.

    I believe it’s worth making artworks even if we know that someday the beautiful painting will crumble to dust.

    I agree – creating brings creative people an intrinsic pleasure, and “art for it’s own sake” appears to me to be “art for the artist’s sake” It doesn’t matter that The Sun is going to burn out because I enjoyed making the art at the time when I made it, and it’s OK if nobody ever sees it (or enjoys it) but me. We have to be careful with that argument, though, since there is some art that is so closely tied to current events and culture that it may not be interesting (except to cultural historians) in the future. I hope that some of Banksy’s pieces (“caution: Americans working overhead”) lose their meaning in the not-so-distant future. But I doubt they will.

    What’s left is either my pleasure or the pleasure of sentient beings I like (family, friends, other humans, animals). I find those are the only things I can rationally choose to live for.

    I agree.

    I don’t exactly buy the argument that absence of pain equals pleasure. Absence of some kinds of pain are definitely a prerequisite, but I’ve met people who I don’t think would be pleased with any circumstances, at all, they don’t know what to do with themselves when there is no immediate crisis demanding their attention. In my life I have known four or five such people and I am bemused by them. For example, I know a person who’s been through some tough economic times but as soon as they came out the other side, they switched to being unhappy about their back-side. It creates an conundrum for the epicurean because the epicurean is tempted to deny the validity of the other person’s experience and tell them “you should be happy! Stop trying to make yourself miserable!” but that places my interpretation of their situation about their self-assessment of it, when I suppose I should be accepting their opinion since it’s the only one that’s really relevant.

    Yet in the first situation a priest would say that this is pleasure seeking and hedonism and that’s bad. In the second scenario that’s happiness and fulfilling basic human needs

    You’re also helping the cocaine dealer and buttocks-provider’s personal economies! So far I haven’t heard any evangelists use that line of argument when they get caught. I’m surprised, to be honest with you.

    I like your example because it embeds an opportunity for critique about relative values. You can say that you enjoy the wine and dinner with your spouse more, because that’s what you both like, and the other less, because of the labor relations. There is a Marxist critique that can be made regarding the economic opportunity to the buttocks-provider or to the spouse, though I don’t think Marx’ theory of value holds up to even casual scrutiny. An outside observer, however, doesn’t know what’s going on and really has no basis for declaring one situation “immoral” or not. That won’t stop them, of course.

    If you have rich parents, you don’t even have to think about asceticism. Otherwise it is a very good idea.

    That’s a fun point to make about the buddha if you want to see buddhists’ heads explode: he started off wealthy and powerful, and was only able to achieve enlightenment by experiencing and rejecting a youth of privilege and strife. So, I’m still in the cocaine and buttocks stage of the buddha’s path, could you bring the bentley around front and make sure it’s gassed up, I have to get to the opera.

    Incidentally, buying stuff never works.

    Alain De Botton did a smarmy video series about epicureanism, which I generally disliked, but he did a good job of hammering on that point. He found and interviewed a few people whose lives have become empty consumption as a substitute for satisfaction. Of course, I can always find someone like that, somewhere. But I did know a fellow whose hobby was buying Rolex watches. He was a rich Saudi guy who – if he ever felt uncertain or depressed – would go buy another watch. The ways we gain our sense of purpose…

    Having a baby to increase your happiness is ok, but not having any babies to increase your happiness is not ok?

    I’m not sure that having a baby isn’t one of the most selfish and egotistical things a person can do. And, of course, you bring a child into the world knowing that it’s going to die. I’m not fond of children (or I’d be selfish enough to create a few) so I have never had to resolve that issue for myself.

  11. says

    When I was a kid I remember being wrapped around the conundrum of “do people who think that they are doing good things do those really just to please themselves with the idea ‘I am a good person?’”

    I have thought about this as well. Most people enjoy thinking that they are good. In order to keep considering yourself a good person, you must periodically do those things that you believe good people should be doing. So I suspect that this might be a reason sometimes. But there are other reasons. Being able to feel empathy motivates us to help others. And sometimes people do good things for logical reasons, because they believe that is the right thing to do.

    I don’t exactly buy the argument that absence of pain equals pleasure. Absence of some kinds of pain are definitely a prerequisite

    I define “absence of pain” as a state where there is no discomfort. I’m not hungry, freezing, tired, injured, sick etc. But this is a “neutral” state. I don’t feel bad, but I’m not feeling pleasure either. If I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and nothing is wrong with my body (no pain, no hunger etc.), then it’s a state of absence of pain. But it is also a state of boredom. For me to feel pleasure in this scenario I would need something extra – a good book, an educated conversation partner, a sexy person willing to join me in bed etc. However if something is wrong with my body and I feel physical pain, then the same good book won’t be able to turn the whole situation into something pleasurable, because it still sucks being in pain.

    You can say that you enjoy the wine and dinner with your spouse more, because that’s what you both like, and the other less, because of the labor relations.

    I can accept the argument that large part of people (not everybody though) enjoy sex more when they love (or at least care for) their partner as compared to random strangers. But it is also possible to have a friendly relationship with a sex worker. I once read about a sex worker who ended up in hospital, and her regular clients cared for her during her illness and helped her recover.

    But let’s be realistic “sex without love is less pleasant” is simply a badly camouflaged argument, which is used when people really want to say that “sex without marriage is evil, because God says so.” And this argument doesn’t hold water. What if I happen to not be in love with anyone? And what if I happen to not fall in love for a prolonged period of time? Should I abstain from sex for years? Of course I won’t, that would mean denying myself a very pleasurable activity. And what about all those people who just don’t care about love? Conclusion: every person knows best what they enjoy more and “pious” and “caring” people should keep their noses out of other people’s business.

    I’m not sure that having a baby isn’t one of the most selfish and egotistical things a person can do.

    I agree. Especially now that humans are pretty much destroying the planet.

    Almost everybody else in my part of the world disagrees. Birthrate in Latvia is very low. Currently the total fertility rate is 1.52 children born/woman. Some years ago it was even lower at 1.25. Here people just don’t want to make babies, so Latvians (whatever that means) are dying out. Politicians keep on talking about the demographic crisis and how people must make more babies. Some sexist/nationalist politicians even talk about how women’s mission and the sole purpose of their lives is to make Latvian babies. Currently the country is literally paying people to have babies (government gives money to parents for the first few years of the child’s life and additional tax cuts until the kid grows up), yet people still don’t want to breed. My decision not to have babies is supposedly selfish, because my nation will die out because of me. Of course this line of thinking reeks of racism and nationalism. The overall number of humans on this planet keeps increasing and humans aren’t going to die out because of a low birthrate anytime soon.

    And, of course, you bring a child into the world knowing that it’s going to die.

    So what? I find it great that I’m alive. I’m certainly enjoying myself. The fact that someday I will get old and die does not change the fact that I’m having fun now. If at any moment my life stops being pleasant, I will just kill myself. So I’m perfectly fine with having been born. Of course if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t know or care or mind my nonexistence either…

    I’m not fond of children

    Same for me.

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