Saturday, July 10, 2010

Epicureanism and Buddhism

Last night, I noticed we owned a brand of food processor called the "epicure" model. Now, when I see the word "epicure," I think of Epicurus, Greece's third century BCE sage of the good life. But the name of the processor reflects, of course, the pervasive conception of Epicureanism: that it's basically the foodie philosophy. I hesitate to call it a "misconception" of the original philosophy of Epicurus, though, since the foodies at least acknowledge that pleasure in life is good, and so did he.

The actual philosophy that Epicurus espoused, however, went deeper than merely having good taste. That is a somewhat watered-down version of what his ideas were. To be sure, Epicurus was a hedonist. And hedonism is the view that pleasure should be the goal of life. But pleasure, to Epicurus, did not imply physical indulgence. Rather, pleasure was the avoidance of pain and fear. Through this way of seeking pleasure, one also achieves the state of ataraxia, or tranquility.

How can there be too much pleasure in life? In the Epicurean view, excesses of physical pleasure inevitably lead to some kind of pain (e.g., too much alcohol leads to a hangover, binge-eating leads to a stomach ache, too much amplified music leads to tinnitus, etc.). All physical or sensual pleasures, therefore, need to be experienced in moderation. In a sense, moderation makes the good experiences even more enjoyable.

Epicurus himself wrote this pithy quatrain to describe the path to happiness:
God should not concern us.
Death is not to be feared.
What is good is easy to obtain.
What is bad is easily avoided.
The second line above is one of Epicurus's main points. The fear of death is the main fear to overcome. "Death," he wrote, "therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not."

So simple. So logical. At the same time, so hard to really embrace. Isn't fearing death built into us over eons of evolutionary time? Without the fear of death, for example, our species would never have feared predators. We'd never have gotten off the ground. So, to lose the fear of death is to turn against our very survival. But to lose the irrational or obsessive fear of death is different and is what I believe Epicurus was talking about.

His whole approach reminds me of the Middle Way of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the extremes of asceticism on the one hand and indulgence on the other were both misdirected paths. Such extremes lead to attachment, which the Buddha's Second Noble Truth tells us is the cause of suffering. The term craving is interchangeable with attachment. For example, as an ascetic one can become obsessed with self-flagellation, self-denial, purity, holiness, or simply the release of endorphins. Any obsession is a form of craving.

What, then, does an attitude free from craving look like? Almost echoing Epicurus, the Dhammapada describes happiness this way:
Health is the greatest of gifts, contentedness the best riches; trust is the best of relationships, Nirvana the highest happiness.
In these terms, Buddhist Nirvana sounds much like Epicurus's concept of ataraxia. The goal is to remove fear, pain, and anxiety from your life rather than to add happiness and joy. Now, I know I am generalizing about Buddhism when, in fact, there are many different schools of thought about the Buddha's teachings, mostly grouped in either the Mahayana or Theravada divisions. But the upshot here is that Buddhism generally shares with Epicureanism a value on the avoidance of extreme states in life and the recognition of a path out of suffering.

Buddhism also shares a similar view on deities. Often, Epicurus is claimed as a proponent of atheism, since he had a well-developed theory of atomism to explain Nature. But he himself denied being an atheist, at least being an atheist per se. He was more of a deist. "First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed," he wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus, "according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness."

In the Epicurean worldview, however, the existence of God or of the gods is irrelevant to how life should be lived here and now. "For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions...." In fact, if the gods were to worry about humans at all, then the gods would not be tranquil, and certainly they seek ataraxia themselves, don't they? (In my next post, I'll discuss Epicurus's famous and brilliant formulation of the problem of evil as it relates to the existence of God.)

Even though the Buddha's teaching did not involve worship of deities, he too did not deny their existence. Some Buddhist sects still revere deities or god-like beings today: Pure Land, Vajrayana, etc. But, like Epicurus, Buddha taught that what humans can do in a virtuous life is at least on par with what any god could achieve:
The gods even envy him whose senses, like horses well broken in by the driver, have been subdued, who is free from pride, and free from appetites.
Being free from appetites seems almost as hard as to be free from the fear of death. But these philosophers doubled-down on their simple yet impossible-seeming ideas, creating communities to live out their precepts. For Epicurus, it was The Garden. For the Buddha, it was the sangha. Neither of them were satisfied with mere ideas. In that spirit, we in the West can revisit Epicurus, a "Western Buddha," and his ancient non-religious wisdom tradition. If our food processors pave the way, so be it.

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