Category Archives: Epicurus

The Life of Stuff and the Life of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

(photo/graphic above (on website only) by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

(1 minute 25 seconds)

In the video clip above[1], George Carlin asks with his inimitable humor, “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it: trying to find a place to put your stuff?”  In questioning “stuff” he’s making a very similar point to the question Epicurus asked in my most recent post about Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “why did you buy all this crap in the first place?”

I wrote last time about Kondo’s methods, my own desk piled with papers and stuff, why Epicurus thinks Kondo does not go far enough, and the ideal of simplicity.  Some of you wrote me that Kondo’s method and the feeling of control brought by keeping only what brings you joy really works.  Some wrote wittily that your own working conditions are quite different from Kondo’s ideal.  One friend wrote, “My desk is about like yours, and I like it that way-it is comforting and makes me feel attached to life; however, I do declutter now and then.”  Another wrote, “I have a dual approach to my cluttering/hoarding/neurotic stacks, piles, and general messes:  avoidance and denial, which has long served me well; and motion—every time I move a pile it gets smaller, motion = attrition.”  A third wrote, “I am inclined to delete this challenging email, so I don’t have to think about the stacks of stuff in my office until they start toppling over.”

Several of you shared in different ways this later-life sentiment: “Being executor of my brother’s estate and having to deal with his entire lifetime of voluminous and useless clutter has at least made me think: I DO NOT want to leave tons of useless stuff for my kids to have to deal with when I am gone.”  And another friend said, “When I travel abroad, and especially to places like rural India and rural Jamaica, my sense of how much ‘stuff’ is really necessary gets – well – turned upside down. Basic needs must be met, of course, but we Americans live in what is arguably the most materialistic culture on the planet and we are products of our culture, whether we like it or not.”

These last two comments bring us back to “useless stuff.”  Epicurus asks us a question that goes far beyond Kondo’s book:

Why do you buy all this crap in the first place?  Why have you bought an enormous home and then tried to fill every part of it with expensive items?  Aren’t you constantly worried about paying the mortgage and buying even more expensive stuff that you see on the strange screen where you stare at this enormous marketplace?  

The Hedonic Treadmill

(photo/graphic above  by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

One pervasive force in accumulating stuff is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”[2] (“hedone” is Greek for “pleasure”) :  the belief that gaining that new car or new shirt or a 5% raise that I see in front of me on the treadmill will finally bring me happiness.  However, as Jonathan Haidt writes, “Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but gradually they ‘habituate,’ firing less to stimuli that they have become used to.”[3] Instead, over time and due to hedonic adaptation, that object attained loses its initial excitement and hope, and is replaced in our view by another object or later a bigger raise which we think will bring us happiness.  And our striving and stress on the treadmill goes on and on and on.

So perhaps we should do as Epicurus argues and focus only on the simple pleasures which have almost no negative consequences:  eating simple food and drinking inexpensive wine; reading; philosophical conversation; and friendship. In fact, however, the ideal relationship between material goods and the good life is complicated.  After all, even with all his emphasis on focusing in simple pleasures, the life of Epicurus and his followers required money to acquire the school he opened in the garden (“The Garden”) of his house.[4]

American History and The Ideal of Simplicity

A study of American history also demonstrates a frequent avowed love of simplicity but also the difficulties in living that life, as David Shi masterfully illustrated in his book The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture .[5]  The proper balance between achieving the necessities of life and following the higher calling of man, hoped the Puritan Governor John Winthrop, could make America a “shining city on a hill.” To help people achieve the good life, the Puritans enacted laws that prohibited the wearing of any vain accumulations of stuff:  gold buttons or silk scarves allowed.

So whereas the Epicureans invited followers to join them in choosing and living a simple life, the Puritans decided to cut out that cumbersome individual decision process and force citizens to live such a life.

The founding fathers of this country were strongly attracted to the histories of the late Roman republic which “portrayed the Republic as a serene, pastoral nation of virtuous citizens.” For a number of years, Thomas Jefferson hoped that the United States could be an industrial yet decentralized nation, and thus could maintain agrarian values. Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean, stating in a letter that “to be accustomed to simple and plain living is conducive to health and makes a man ready for the necessary task of life.”[6]

Of course Jefferson didn’t lead a particularly modest life, as knowledge of his slave plantation and a visit to Monticello make clear. But Jefferson stated an ideal that remained strong in America.

The individualistic spiritualism of the Transcendentalists in the mid‑19th century led to fascinating attempts to live out the simple life.  Emerson restates the idea of the Epicureans and Stoics when he writes, how “to spend a day nobly is the problem to be solved.”[7]  But Emerson’s home required domestic servants, which friend Thoreau criticized severely.  Thoreau went to Walden Pond (on land Emerson owned) to learn the necessities of life, and to write. His two‑year stay there relieved him of many illusions. The Indians and the farmers he met in his travels were not the noble children of nature his romanticism had pictured. He once was excited by meeting a Canadian woodsman who told Thoreau that if “it were not for books,” he “would not know what to do [on] rainy days.” Imagine Thoreau’s disappointment when he discovered that the man’s only books were “an almanac and an arithmetic” and that he knew nothing and cared less about spiritual views  or current social issues such as the antislavery movement.[8]

Thoreau decided that wilderness and the primitive life were necessary but not sufficient for the simple life, a view that became increasingly popular around the turn of the century and remains so today in somewhat different form, as we Americans climb into our “recreational vehicles” or take luxury cruises and either way take our computers with us on our return to nature, where often the first thing we do is to check the phone reception to see if it’s adequate for receiving internet.

What’s the Answer?

President Jimmy Carter addressed the growing consumerism of America in his famous “malaise” speech of July 18, 1979, saying, “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or meaning.”[9]

Epicurus pursues that meaning by focusing on some simple pleasures.  Instead of just carefully going through your stuff and getting rid of it, quit organizing your life around material possessions that ultimately distract you from a life spent on more important things, like friendship, reflection, memories that matter and the joy of being alive.

The Reverend Scott Killgore, once my student, now teaches me as he insightfully puts it all into perspective:

“I would argue that our cultural addiction to material possessions is a spiritual issue. Unless that spiritual struggle is acknowledged and dealt with, then we will find ourselves to be like addicts who struggle to break free, but repeatedly fall back into the clutches of whatever destructive addiction has taken hold of their lives.  Simplifying our lives in terms of material possessions is commendable, desirable, and something that would benefit most anyone. But, it may be more difficult to simplify our understanding of what makes us genuinely happy. 

“Simplifying our lives when it comes to material possessions is a good way to start, but it marks the beginning of a journey, not one’s arrival at a desired destination.

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[1] From YouTube, search “George Carlin Stuff.” Thanks to two friends who suggested this video.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 86.  Haidt attributes the concept of hedonic adaptation to Brickman and Campbell’s article, “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society” (1971).

[3] Haidt, 86.

[4] John Cooper, Pursuit of Wisdom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012),145.

[5] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[6] Shi, 77.

[7] Shi, 130.

[8] Shi, 147.

[9] Shi, 271.

Marie Kondo, Me, and the Philosophy of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

Marie Kondo is quite the thing these days.  Her New York Times #1 best seller book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and her Netflix series on the same topic both appeal to the desire of countless Americans to get rid of much of their material stuff and to live a less stressful, simpler life.  Kondo’s magic focuses on several intriguing ideas, including keeping the things in your house which “spark joy.”  As you can see from the picture of the shelf behind my desk, it’s apparent I really need help!

The method works well, according to many who have tried it.  Kondo explains it very clearly and appealingly:   declutter first, by category, starting with all your clothes, then books, then papers, etc., going by category through the entire house, holding each article and keeping only the ones which bring you joy.  Then organize.  She takes the reader and viewer through every step.  What’s most interesting to me is why the whole process of discarding objects and organizing our lives is so attractive to us.

Kondo says that the “magic of tidying” is that it gives you “a new start on life.”[1]  As we declutter and look at the piles of bags we’re filling up we will ask, “Why on earth did I bother keeping all this stuff?…If you tidy up in one shot, you can dramatically change your mind-set.”[2]

Okay, that is appealing.  A new start on my life…changing my mind-set.  Because what do I find when I study the picture above? Going from left to right, a pile of CDs accumulated over many years, an office phone that I use about once a month, a stack of papers awaiting shredding, family photos, a radio and CD player (yes, you do need a player for the CDs) which has another stack of CD’s in front of it (which I used months ago in writing about my friend David), a box of Kleenex — useful for weeping students as we discuss their grades  – carefully wedged between the CD player and the 3-hole punch to keep apart these two well-known antagonists, and finally a jumble of manila folders crammed into the vertical file intended for a few ready-to-hand topics.  Whew!  I need help!  What’s wrong with me?

Kondo suggests that attachment and anxiety may be the cause of my messiness:  there are really only two reasons we can’t let go of an item that does not bring us joy, “an attachment to the past or anxiety about the future.”[3]

How about that I am a stereotypical philosophy professor who is often oblivious to my surroundings?  Until the mess suddenly starts to drive me crazy and I tidy up…some. To be fair to her, she’s right that there is definitely an attachment to some of the CD’s.  And perhaps an anxiety that if I discard any of them…or the “invaluable” contents of those manila folders, I will realize with alarm that I needed that!

Kondo writes, “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy…..[4] Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time,” so “your real life begins after putting your house in order.”[5]  These first two statements make good sense to me, even if the one that “your real life begins” is hyperbolic.  Just as we can have a limited number of complete friendships, as opposed to acquaintances, so it is with the objects we really need.

“The true purpose of tidying up is, I believe, to live in the most natural state possible.  Don’t you think it is unnatural for us to possess things that don’t bring us joy or things that we don’t really need?”[6]  There does seem to be something “unnatural” in having more objects than we need, although the idea of what’s “unnatural” and “natural” needs a good deal of analysis.

Happiness and What’s “Natural”

Marie Kondo touches on two ideas that are important not only in the traditional culture and philosophy of her native Japan and Asia, but also in Western philosophy.  The proper place of material things in our “happiness” can be traced in Western philosophy at least as far back Socrates (c. 469 – 399 BCE), whose indifference to fancy clothing and wealth inspired both the Epicureans and the Stoics, both schools of philosophy and life that began in the latter part of the 300’s BCE.  Epicurus taught his disciples that we are by nature creatures who seek pleasure, but since we are also by nature creatures who can think, we need to pursue pleasures as rationally and intelligently as possible.

He argues that simple pleasures are the best pleasures.  Luxuries, in addition to being vain, call for feeding unnecessary longings and for a constant striving that inevitably brings anxiety and stress.  Pleasure is “the state where the body is free from pain and the mind free from anxiety.”[7]  In such a state, one can enjoy the amazing simple pleasures of friendship and of the joy that I exist, now, in this day.

So just as anxiety plays a role in the thought of Kondo, it always plays an important part in the thought of the Epicureans.  If Epicurus somehow time-travelled and showed up at your door with a translator to help you declutter your house, – as Kondo  does in the Netflix series — he would not only be a swarthy man instead of a lovely Japanese woman with an charming accent, but he also would be saying something quite different to the home-owning couple.

Instead of saying, “Now let’s put all the clothes in your house into a central location so we can go through them and then tidy up,” he would say, Why do you buy all this crap in the first place?  Why have you bought an enormous home and then tried to fill every part of it with expensive items?  Aren’t you constantly worried about paying the mortgage and buying even more expensive stuff that you see on the strange screen where you stare at this enormous marketplace?  Instead of just carefully going through your stuff and getting rid of it, quit organizing your life around material possessions that ultimately distract you from a life spent on more important things, like friendship, reflection, and the joy of being alive?

What a downer!  His book will never be a best-seller! The truth is that most of us really want it both ways:  we want to have both an uncluttered life and also an abundance of never-ending material pleasures.  We don’t want to start a whole new life.  If we feel down or bored, just let us buy some new clothes, a new tennis racquet, or one of the latest-generation electronic gizmos.  Then we feel better.  For a while.

I feel pretty good that about my connecting and contrasting Kondo and Epicurus.  But as Kondo might remind me, all that stuff is still sitting in my office, exactly as it was when I took the picture.  Maybe the philosophizing just delays my doing the real work of de-cluttering or pushes down my anxiety.

Next time:  more about what the best simple life looks like.  And for added fun, maybe a little more about anxiety.


Photo: Norris Frederick

[1] Kondo, 7

[2] p. 16.

[3] p. 181.

[4] p. 38.

[5] p. 203.

[6] p. 197.

[7] Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus.

Fixin’ Things

by Dr. Norris Frederick 

My family preferred to deal with challenges and craziness with humor, thus the plaque my sister Virginia gave to me on a recent birthday, “Just remember: as far as everyone knows, we are a nice, normal family.”  I laugh every time I see this sign, as does everyone else.  We can all see, in retrospect, the craziness in our families, and if it was not too harmful, we can laugh about it.

My parents, siblings and I lived in a house originally occupied by my mother’s parents.  The small house, with three rooms on each side of a central hall that ran the length of the house, was typical of modest homes in Charlotte built around 1920.  By the time I was a young teenager, the house was definitely aging.  Things needed fixin’.  But we had neither money nor the know-how.

One evening we heard loud noises coming from the attic, much too loud for a squirrel.  As we read and watched television in the living room, we were concerned. What was that?  Since we couldn’t figure it out, my brother Charlie and I and our father repaired to the kitchen to get a bowl of ice-milk before Gunsmoke began.  We later drifted to sleep, accompanied by the rumbling in the attic.

The next day I was pitching a rubber ball against the front steps when I saw movement on the lower portion of the roof.  I saw a large, fat possum ambling toward the side of the roof.  It then disappeared. I walked closer to the roof, where I could see a possum-sized hole in the lower left corner of the house, just above the roof. Ah-ha!  Mystery solved!  I was excited to tell everyone what was causing the noises in the attic.

And what did we do with this knowledge? Well, mostly it enabled us to say with a rueful smile when we heard noises in the attic, “There’s that possum again.”  It seems that the six of us living there, including our father, never thought of canvassing our neighbors to see if anyone had a ladder that would reach up to the roof.  Perhaps the thought that we’d additionally need a board and some nails to make the repair made it out of the question.  Our dad would hear the noise, glance up and then go on reading the paper.

Learning to Solve and Think About Problems 

As I became a teenager and later when I had my own family, I began to see ways to live other than ignoring the possum or contemplating the possum.  I learned how to fix some things:  a flat tire, an electric dryer, an attic fan, loose bricks in a chimney, etc.  As long as the result did not require too much precision, I did okay and took great pleasure in solving problems.  In fact, I became a bit proud. There are ways to keep the possum out of the attic!

My actions in fixin’ things connected well with ideas.  I came to realize there is a conceptual aspect to fixing things, including gaining knowledge about the underlying structure of a thing, and in all cases defining what the problem actually is rather than just what it first appears to be. In philosophy grad school, I was delighted to learn that the philosophers known as the American pragmatists – Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey – wrote that philosophy itself is an attempt to solve problems.  Belief is a satisfied state that is interrupted when doubts begin to arise about the workability of those beliefs.  We believe the roof is in good shape, but then water stains appear on the ceiling.  We believe that our race is superior to others, but then we encounter folks of other races who demonstrate the falseness of this belief.  Doubts arise.  The doubts lead to an attempt to clarify and then to address the problem.  Peirce even wrote an article entitled, “The Fixation of Belief,” about four methods to move from the problematic feeling of doubt to the settled state of belief:  tenacity (stubbornly hanging onto whatever beliefs we have); authority (of others, societal leaders who tell us what to believe); pure reason (looking for a consistent set of beliefs); and the scientific method (which goes beyond just consistency to find ways to test various hypotheses about the world).

So now I could not only fix some things, I could think and talk about methods to solving problems!  I was feeling pretty good.

The Stubborn-ness of Reality

One Saturday after I’d left grad school, in the year I first began teaching – in a high school, while I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy – I walked out into our carport and saw that my left rear tire was flat.  Ah, a nice easy problem to fix on a pretty fall morning, with plenty of time.  I opened the trunk to pull out the 4-way lug wrench, popped off the hubcap, fitted the wrench to the tire to loosen the lug nuts, and turned it to the left.  Hunh!  This nut was really tight.  But I was young and relatively strong, so no problem.  I bent my knees, grabbed the wrench tightly, and turned left with all my strength.  What!  Instead of the lug nut coming off, the wheel stud broke off from the wheel!  How the heck did that happen? It must be some freak incident, perhaps due to a weakness in the bolt.  I was agitated, and at the same time a bit pleased with my strength.

Okay, I thought, I’m sure after I remove the lug nuts on the other wheel studs, I’ll still be able to drive the car until I can get it repaired.  I moved the wrench to another nut, braced myself, and turned strongly to the left, and broke off another stud.  What the hell??!!  Now I was furious.  This stupid car!  I tried another nut, turned with all my might, and  – you guessed it – broke off that wheel stud too.

Having spent all my adrenaline, I sat down on the steps and cooled off.  I thought finally to look at the car’s manual in the glove compartment, turning to the section on changing a tire. Crap!  As I read I remembered:  this Dodge Dart is a Chrysler, and Chrysler have left-handed threads on the left side of the car, so to remove the nuts, you turn to the RIGHT, not to the LEFT as on every other car I knew!  Omigosh, how humiliating.  I went back to the wheel and looked at the lug studs and saw an “L” clearly stamped at the end of each stud, indicating a left-handed thread.  I felt all the energy drain from my body.  I finally recovered enough to remove the other lug nuts and drove slowly to the filling station where I sheepishly explained my problem and let the professionals fix the problems I had created.

What caused this minor disaster?  Certainly a lack of knowledge of the underlying structure of the bolts.  However, the real cause was my pride and then my anger.  I threw myself into the torrent of pride and anger, and then found myself swept downstream, ultimately wrecked.

A year or so after My Humiliation I read a book that greatly influenced me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  The book is both about the most lofty metaphysics and also about…well…fixin’ things.  In the 1975 Bantam Books paperback I’ve held together with tape, the frontispiece quotes two statements from the book: “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’….Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.”

That’s it.  My ego demanded some magic by which a piece of metal would submit to my strength, anger became my dominant emotion when it did not, and much to my surprise that did not end well.

Reading Pirsig’s Zen led me to be curious about Buddhism, and I learned that one of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that “clinging desire” or “craving” is the cause of much suffering.  “Clinging desire” is the result of my belief that there is nothing more important than my individual self, and if I can just cling a little tighter to what I want then I will be satisfied.  If I just cling to my righteous anger then the wheel lugs must come off in the direction I turn them, cling to my desires that my friends and loved ones will change to be exactly as I want them to be, cling to my demands that my cravings be ceaselessly met, then I will be happy.  In fact, since these desires are based on a false view of reality, this attitude results in unmet desires and living in a continuing state of dissatisfaction.

There are some possums we probably should just leave alone.  And there are lots of problems we should resolve the best way possible.  Either way, rather than demanding of reality that our desires be met, Buddha advises that we get rid of those clinging desires and cravings.  If we do, he says, that sense of things being unsatisfactory and unworkable will go away, or at least lessen.  We can train ourselves — through meditation, mindfulness of the present, and practicing compassion — to lessen our desires and paradoxically increase our sense that this life is satisfactory.

Death: Out of Sight, or Front and Center?

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Second in a series

My thanks to you for the many thoughtful responses, both on my website and on Facebook, about my first post on death.  A couple of you wrote that you don’t fear death, thus challenging my idea of “that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.”  Everyone, however, offered some explanation of the role of death in our lives.

Urban living and modern science and medicine have changed our experience of death.   In earlier times, death occurred in the home and often rather quickly.  People grew old, perhaps got pneumonia (“the old person’s friend”) and died in the home.  Even young children observed the death of their elders.  Today for many of us the death of those we know has become a bit more “out of sight, out of mind.”

Death Front and Center

Seventeen years ago I was a faculty leader on a Queens University of Charlotte student study tour of Italy.  We started the tour on the beautiful Amalfi coast, where our hotel overlooked the sparking Tyrrhenian Sea.  We took a boat to Capri, rode a taxi to the top of the island, where we sat under a restaurant umbrella enjoying the world’s best cappuccino.  It was morning, we and the world were young, full of possibilities, relaxed and enjoying life in the best Epicurean fashion.

The next day we rode the bus to Rome, which was beautiful in its own way, but also busy, noisy and crowded.  We had to be alert when crossing the street to avoid being hit by cars.  The students adapted, though, and quickly found the best clubs and bars, staying out just as late as possible.

One morning our itinerary showed we were to visit Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins).  The students assumed it was yet another church where we would see and “appreciate” sculpture.  Neither they nor we faculty were fully prepared for the key feature of the church, The Capuchin Crypt.  We faculty walked to the entrance of the Crypt, paid the entrance fees for us all, and stood aside to let the students go in first.  Their initial responses of “Oh my god!” appeared the most reverent of any church we had entered — except their “Oh my god!” exclamations were closer to disgust than to awe.  Before us in the first of six chapels/crypts were displays of bones arranged to form a theme.    We were overwhelmed both by the gargantuan number of bones as well as by the arrangements where bones had been clothed to resembled a body.

In all, there are the bones of about 4,000 skeletons.  The students who had been out late at the bar may have been thinking about how good it would be to take a nap, but this tableau no doubt left them wide awake.

For the professors who hold the knowledge in their brains in such high esteem, there was also this in The Crypt of the Skulls.

We no longer felt young and relaxed, with the world at our fingertips.

Bringing It Home

When the Capuchins, an order of the Franciscans, moved to this location in 1631, the Vatican ordered that they take with them the remains of their deceased brothers The Capuchins went one step further than “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They apparently decided “when the Pope gives you bones, make art.”

Just as we whispered to ourselves little jokes and smiles as we went through the Crypt twenty years ago, I find myself even now trying to make light of the all-too-real bones.  The whole crypt does seem macabre.  Why would anyone construct such a crypt?  In fact, why would anyone visit there?

The answer, and the very most chilling thing we saw, was a small plaque among the bones, which read

“What you are now, we once were;
What we are now, you shall be.”

Oh. My. God.  They were once like us, young, happy, excited.  And we shall one day be as them:  mere bones.

We could not wait to get out of there.  After exiting we dispersed quickly to find a late cappuccino or an early lunch or even better, a beer.  Whew….  We smiled, we even laughed, but for a while we could not shake off the image of our own deaths.

Was it worth the shock?

The Capuchin friars clearly want to remind us of the temporary nature of our life here on earth, in hope that we will be reminded of the eternal life to come after this one.  We need to be oriented toward the world to come, and to rid ourselves of the vanity of putting too much emphasis on this life.  We aren’t all that.

The Epicureans also recognize that life is fleeting, but they offer no hope for a life after this one.  Instead, they urge us to live this life as fully as possible.  As the poet Horace writes,

“While we are talking, jealous time has fled. 
So seize the day, and do not trust the morrow!” [1] 

Carpe diem.

The Capuchins and the Epicureans hold radically opposite beliefs about an afterlife.  However, they share the belief that it is important that we face the reality:  we will die.  Facing reality is a good thing.  Our own culture has as much as possible removed death from the home, placing it in sanitized hospitals and funeral homes, lessening its reality.  People in the developed world spend a great deal of time in the virtual reality of the internet.  National politics in the U.S. are often divorced from reality.

So the Capuchins have done a good thing in helping us to face reality.  It’s up to us now as to what we do with that knowledge.  Thinking of all those bones and the reality of death, we could do a lot worse than to follow Horace’s advice:

“Persuade yourself that each new day that dawns will be your last.  Then you will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.”[2]

To be continued

 


[1] Horace, Odes, I, 11, 7, in Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy, 126.

[2] Horace, Epistles, I, 4, 13, in Hadot, 126.

Picture credits:  Norris Frederick; http://tripfreakz.com/offthebeatenpath/the-capuchin-crypt-in-rome-italy ; and http://www.romeing.it/museum-and-crypt-of-the-capuchin-friars-rome/ .

Death: Many Questions

By Dr. Norris Frederick

There’s been way too much death in my world in the last year:  four nearby neighbors, three cousins, two close high school friends, and one Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that had an enormous influence on me.  These deaths have affected me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  They may have something to do with the writer’s block that has locked my mind and typing fingers.

Objectively, ten deaths is nothing in this world.  Eighteen people died just yesterday in the terrorist attack in London, just as they were going about their normal day, going to work, shopping.  And that pales beside the years-long carnage in Syria.  When I hear about those deaths, I suffer briefly with them, but typically go on to the next thing and their deaths fade from my being until some event brings it back.  But for most all of us, when our friends and family die, we feel the loss in a deep, existential sense that rocks our world.

I talk every week with a very good friend who lives near D.C.  He’s listened sympathetically to me talk about the deaths of my friends, but it wasn’t until recently when he had a close friend die that he really felt what I was experiencing.  Words failed us both as we tried to explain, but now we share the experience.

Aristotle writes that one of the essential goods of a person’s life is friendship.  Who would want to live a life without friends?  We realize that by paying attention to the feeling when a friend moves away and most vividly when a friend dies.

One conception of philosophy is that it deals with far-out, abstract ideas that have no connection with reality.  Guys and gals sit around, drinking or perhaps smoking dope, saying, “Hey, man, what if ….?”  But in fact the best philosophy begins with wonder or mysteries or problems or deep experiences, and tries to think about those problems and experiences in ways that connect back fruitfully to our lives, so that we both understand better and live better.

The full experience of death raises so many questions:  Do we just live and die, fini, that’s all, folks? Or does something transcend?   Does some part of us survive in another world, or perhaps are we re-born into this world?  Does death take away the meaning of life?  Is death the ultimate proof that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing?”

There are some strange asymmetries in the way we think about death.   Adults have no trouble conceiving of a time before we are born (after all I know I was not alive during the Civil War), but it’s difficult for us to conceive of a time after we are dead – how can the world go on without me?

Ancient Greek philosophies offer ways for us to distance ourselves and think rationally about death in order to live a better life now.  The Epicureans, who believe that everything is composed of atoms, say that when I die the atoms that are “me” disperse, so “I” no longer am.  Thus, “When I am, death is not; when death is I am not.”  The key is to enjoy life while we are alive, and to realize that we should not fear death, for when it occurs we will have no pain.  The Stoics argue that when we die, we return to the Logos, the eternal ongoing impersonal, rational process of the world.  “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be:  short or long.  What is yours is to play the assigned part well.”

The reasoning of the Epicureans and Stoics each make sense, at least to a certain extent.  They capture what I often think during the daytime.  They don’t capture what I feel and think when I wake up in the middle of the night.  For that I need to turn to the 20th-century existentialist Miguel de Unamuno who writes in The Tragic Sense of Life, in an attempt to capture the way we really feel about death, despite listening to good reasons:

I do not want to die – no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  I want this “I” to live – this poor “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.

That’s it.  Unamuno nailed it that feeling of existential terror that we all feel at some points of our lives.   I do grieve, truly grieve for the deaths of those I know, and for their families and friends.  But I also grieve for me.  I want to live for ever and ever and ever.  That wild, deep feeling he describes is perhaps more “me” than reason.

So, you ask, what good is there for my life in recognizing this existential terror?  There are three goods that come to mind.  First, you now have admitted to consciousness knowledge you did not have before. Second, you move from being alone to being companioned; we are all in the same boat regarding death. Finally, realizing that there are no easy answers to the questions of death, you can do the best thing someone can do for a bereaved friend:  just sit with them, just be with them. Just sit with yourself, just observe, just be,

To be continued


Photo credit:  Norris Frederick

 

Philosophy Unlimited: Intelligent Pleasure

by Dr. Norris Frederick

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One of the joys of travel to another country is the discovery of new landscapes, new customs and cultures, and new people.  We find some ways in which the culture and people differ from our own, as well as ways in which they are similar.  If we are open, we find we can learn from both the differences and similarities. This is especially true if we are not just tourists (spectators) but are being-with the people of that country.  Upon return we think about some ways we might think and live differently, and are reaffirmed about other of our current habits of thinking and being.

The same is true of traveling to other philosophies and their worldviews (which is a darn lot cheaper than travelling to other countries, not that it must be an either/or).  Everyone has a worldview, and a key value of philosophy lies in helping us bring our worldviews to consciousness and thus enabling us to compare them to other worldviews.  Maybe I will name this type of travel “Philosophy Time-Travel Unlimited:  Experiencing Worldviews since 600 BC.”

If we reverse the metaphor of our travel abroad, visitors to the USA from developing nations are often overwhelmed by the vast array of goods in our stores.  If you are like me, you’re having a related experience as you enter stores from early October on: astoundingly, even though I know it happens every year, Christmas decorations and items are already appearing in stores.  Nerves tense, stomachs tighten, with the obligation to buy gifts that will bring the requisite pleasure to friends and family.  All this is just part of a bigger picture of the race for pleasure in which many of us engage.  “Buying and selling” has become so dominant that it threatens to enslave us.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with pleasure; in fact, a life without any would be very grim.   It’s just that we go about seeking pleasure in such an unintelligent manner.  We can learn much from philosophy traveling to Greece, about 300 BC, to experience being-with Epicurus, whose worldview is all about pleasure, but an intelligent version of it.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the ultimate good, “the alpha and omega of a blessed life.”[1]  Although he was a hedonist (from Greek, hedone,  meaning “pleasure”), his hedonism is quite different from ours.    To experience his worldview, we need to listen to a few of his central ideas about his metaphysics (what’s really real) of the physical universe and the self, and his view of what’s valuable, which Epicurus says is pleasure

Epicurus was a materialist, writing over 2,000 years ago that everything in the universe consists of “atoms” (from the Greek word meaning “not divisible”).  Unlike modern scientists who used sophisticated equipment to discover the atom, Epicurus used only reason.  Take any object, such as a tree.  Divide that tree by cutting off its limbs and sectioning its trunk.  Start cutting a limb into as small parts as possible.  Ultimately, continuing this thought experiment, one gets to the point where the matter that is left can’t be cut any smaller: the atoms of the tree.  Not only the tree, but all beings in the world – including humans – are made of atoms.  Our minds consist of “fine atoms,” which register the sense-impressions of other atoms.

As the several types of atoms move through empty space they “hook up,” creating objects:  trees, cows, humans, you name it.  The huge oak trees in front of my university succumbed to disease last month and now they no longer exist.  Through one process or another, all beings – including humans – perish.  Only the atoms are eternal.  I will not live forever.

While not living forever sounds incredibly depressing, the realization of that truth can actually be liberating.  Epicurus teaches that if we reflect on our material nature, we see that we have nothing to fear from death.  When the atoms that form “me” are no longer connected, I no longer exist. “Death, therefore, thought 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.”[2]

Epicurus certainly did not think that someone hearing or reading these words for the first time would be rid of their fear of death.  But the friends who lived with him in the community named “the Garden” outside of Athens learned to tame their fears by frequent repetition of the phrase:

“Where I am, death is not;
Where death is, I am not.”

But you, being a critical thinker, ask Epicurus, “Shouldn’t hedonists, even if they don’t fear death, bemoan the loss of future pleasure?” Not so, he replies, if we understand the nature of pleasure.  Seeking pleasure intelligently does not mean that we “choose every pleasure whatsoever, but we will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them.”[3]  Many of us are caught on the hedonic treadmill.  If I just had the next thing, I would be happy.  But then i get the next thing, and soon that’s not enough and I’m back to being unhappy, so I say to myself if I just had one more next thing I would be happy.  The process is repeated.   And I continue anxiously looking for the next thing that will make me happy.  Worrying that death will cost us future pleasures is yet another way of missing the enjoyment of the pleasures are right here in the present.

Instead, says Epicurus to his community, we should choose pleasures that are simple and that are not followed by painful consequences. “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.”  Simple food and wine, friendship, reading and thinking are the type of pleasures that make for a good life.   The expensive meals, cars, and houses not only don’t bring happiness because they are part of our being on the hedonic treadmill, but because they also bring about the anxiety of being able to pay for them.  We are enslaved by our desires and our objects.  Pleasure, properly understood, is “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”[4]

To our 21st century minds, Epicurus’ definition is not at all what we mean by pleasure: it’s not Disney World, or the new cell phone, or the ability to spend $5,000 on a dinner as celebrities are reported to do.   Epicurus’ pleasure is in a sense negative: the absence of pain physically and psychically.  What’s the good of that?

The good of an Epicurean understanding of pleasure is that it opens us to something broader and deeper and infinitely more satisfying, the awareness of being, the astonishing fact of being alive when I might not exist at all.[5]  Like everything else in the universe, I might never have existed, and I might not tomorrow, but I do now!  It’s astonishing to be here, in this place, right now.

I suggest you try going beyond just thinking about his ideas and try them out.  To experience his philosophy, remind yourself that you have all the simple pleasures you need.  Then step out into a quiet place on one of these cool fall mornings or nights, and contemplate these words of Lucretius, a Roman follower of Epicurus in the first century B.C.E.:

First of all, the bright, clear color of the sky, and all it holds within it, the stars that wander here and there, and the moon and the radiance of the sun with its brilliant light; all these, if now they had been seen for the first time by the mortals, if, unexpectedly, they were in a moment placed before their eyes, what story could be told more marvelous than these things, or what that the nations would less dare to believe beforehand? Nothing, I believe; so worthy of wonder would this sight have been.  Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky![6]

 

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References and Credits:

[1] Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” translated by Robert Drew Hick, http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/menoec.html
[2]
“Letter to Menoeceus”
[3] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[4] “Letter to Menoeceus”
[5]  Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?,  translated by Michael Chase, 126 (Belknap Press, 2002).
[6]  Luretius, On The Nature of Things, as quoted in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. by Arnold Davidson and translated by Michael Chase (Blackwell, Publishing 1995), 258.

Photo Credit:  Norris Frederick