Epicurus on Coping with Abundance

Sam argues that our historically unprecedented levels of wealth changes the equation for virtue and vice. Humanity has for nearly all of its existence lived on the knife-edge of starvation, and it only makes sense that norms and instincts developed under those circumstances would not necessarily set us up for success in a wealthier world.

Virtue and vice as Aristotle understood the terms were preserved to the present thanks to Christian scholars who continued to write within the tradition. The Christian version, however, like Christianity itself, was meant for everyone; Nietzsche famously referred to Christainity as a “slave religion”; Deirdre McCloskey, a Christian herself, spoke of Christian virtues being “peasant virtues”.

Originally, however, the Hellenistic schools that developed a eudaimonistic concept of virtue were comprised primarily of the well-to-do (McCloskey thus refers to their continued influence on us in the form of “aristocratic virtues”).  While their wealth was nowhere near ours, they did experience genuine affluence, and developed their ethical theories in that environment.

Consider Epicurus, who history remembers as a hedonist. Epicureanism, unlike the moderns who inappropriately use the label, was not so very far from Stoicism in a number of regards, a fact recognized by later Stoics such as Seneca. While Epicurus made pleasure synonymous with the good life, he also radically redefined the word “pleasure”—to the point where the Cyrenaics, who were actual hedonists, referred to Epicureanism as “the philosophy of a corpse.”

Why consider Epicurus in the context raised by Sam? Epicurus was fixated on what we might call long term thinking. Boredom was not his enemy as much as pleasures that we might indulge in today that could hurt us later. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in eating delicious food—unless we become dependent upon having such culinary quality in order to be happy. Since humans, in general, do tend to develop expectations in line with our typical day, an Epicurean approach to food is perfectly consistent with eating mostly bland things in order to avoid being disappointed in the long run.

It may seem ironic given the popular perception of Epicureanism, but the ataraxia of Epicurus may be one of the best guides for moderns seeking to cope with abundance.

Blood Disease: A Metaphor

AG writes that he agrees with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and profane are inseparable. Spivonomist starts it when he observes that honor is hard to define, distinguishing two of its meanings as sacred (honor) and profane (prudence).  SH really gets things cooking with his wonderful example from Schopenhauer, exposing those Greeks for the troublemakers they are. It’s not their fault, really, driving into the realm of ethics the notions of virtue, that is, putting into the realm of pure intellect those matters unseen, that which is cooked in the human liver. And heart. A physician, for example, must distinguish blood from bone in order to make a diagnosis of indications. But where does blood come from?

If the blood is diseased, it stands to reason that the bone is diseased, and the flesh. Even if the disease is not actually observable in the one, but only in the other, no one says, “Gosh, only my blood is diseased; I can live without that.” A painful disease to the bone is a painful disease to the entire body, and a deadly disease to the bone is a deadly disease.

When we say that the sacred and the profane are inseparable, we are really making an observation that the sacred intertwines the profane in the same way that blood vessels intertwine flesh and bone. Where does one end and the other begin? Nevertheless, we must distinguish, knowing that the distinction, like this metaphor, will cease to serve our intellectual pursuit of what is virtue versus what is prudence, and which has what effect on the other.

What we’re trying to do, of course, is diagnose indications, usually in an effort to treat our ills, beginning with the self, extending to the community, then, finally, to the society. A society filled with Schopenhauer’s Tituses would be ideal because his liver is healthy. Nevertheless, a society filled with Caiuses would be a good society, though short-lived because his liver is not healthy.

Thus, it is easy to change minds, and you can do it by force, as we have seen in the realm of American morality over the last several years. The goal to have many Caiuses is achievable. The goal to have many Tituses is hopeless because it is impossible to change hearts.

Impossible? Near-impossible. To borrow from a possibly-deceased pastiche twitter account, whom I looked to as a father figure: when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, “What was the last thing about which you changed your mind? And what was the last thing about which you changed your heart?” And the dagger, I think: “How do you know you changed your heart?”


Prudence is Good, but Not By Itself

The discussion started by Sam boils down to this: honor is a sacred quality, and prudence is by necessity profane, worldly. People have always in the back of their minds, or explicitly, believed that we should be able to embrace with sacred without resorting to incentives which derive from profane motivations.

When all is said and done, however, I agree with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and the profane are deeply intertwined, inseparable even. To speak of a human good we have to consider human nature. If our ideal is utterly unmoved by honors then our ideal is unattainable, even by approximation.

Aristotle’s mean, or intermediate, never involves discarding motivations entirely, but rather experiencing them in the right way, in the right circumstance, in the right amount, and so on. An honorable person will do what is right even when no one will honor them, but the prudently honorable person also understands that much of the time this does work out to your advantage. That does not mean that prudence justifies honor—just that the concerns of the sacred and the profane must work together (not simply be balanced) in subtle ways that require experience and practical reason to judge, not to mention peers and community.

Just as the tension that the artist feels between their vision and the demands of making a living can yield work just as great (and arguably greater) than the independently wealthy artist, so too does the tension the actual person feels between honor and prudence yield more truly honorable behavior than the person utterly indifferent to what is honored by other people.

Why Eudaimonia?

In an unacknowledged, but award-worthy tweet I asked, “Why is the telos of arete eudaimonia and not makarismos?” Since eudaimonia is the telos of arete (as developed since Classical times as Virtue Ethics), it has a well-known, broadly discussed definition, which you can find all over the place, starting here (I mean, ad fontes, eh?). But why not makarismos? The two words share most of the same semantic field, and any debate about what makarismos is vis-à-vis Virtue Ethics would fall along pretty much the exact same contour. I wonder, then, why the one over the other? Did they flip a drachma? Or does eudaimonia lend something to the Gestalt of Virtue Ethics that gives the term its advantage? Let’s explore just a bit. Consider the following diagram:


Except for the terms “acquired” and “bestowed,” each of the vocables within both semantic fields are read for both (I didn’t run a search on frequency distribution, but this is good enough). I have added the distinguishing terms, basically out of sense. When eudaimonia is read, generally the actor is active; when makarismos is read, generally the actor is passive. Divine beings, or those attributed as being divinities, possess eudaimonia. Naturally, those who are going about the work of ethical virtuousness are pursuing eudaimonia. Ethical virtuousness is not a requirement for the bestowal of makarismos.

A question, then, which I think is obvious: why bother with all the labor of ethical virtuousness if I can get the same benefits without working?

Before I ask, however, I pause: neither did I search for provenance. Perhaps makarismos is just a dirty, stinking, rotten Macedonian word, not fit for the sterile Athenian marketplace.



Instrumental or Inherent

I want you guys to help me out with something, which I’ve been struggling with lately. Is there such a thing as something being good in itself? Is all value in some way derived from either evolution or some version of felt satisfaction and pleasure, or both? Does this question even matter?

Of course, at the end of the day there has to be some final good or goods in order for anything to have instrumental value. By definition, something being instrumental means its value is derived from its ability to serve as a means to some valued end. In other words, the value is from the end.

But a lot of people feel that pleasure and its more healthy cousin satisfaction are not good enough (not satisfying?) as ends. And a lot of people recoil at the idea that it’s all just derived from what enables effective reproduction across generations (which is what any evolutionary account boils down to).

This was on my mind again today as I read Rupert Read and Nassim Taleb’s paper on religion as intergenerational risk management. Taleb’s whole worldview, the thing that has made him famous, is entirely consequences-oriented: if you don’t think in terms of bounds rather than attempting to master probability distributions you can’t actually know, a black swan will come and kick your ass and your loved ones’ asses and your civilization’s ass and probably the ass of the whole human race. His arguments are given their bite, in short, by the threat of catastrophic consequences.

Yet Taleb says left and right that we should only do things because it is our duty to. He is clearly some kind of deontologist with a fondness for virtue ethics, especially the Stoics. But should we do our duty because of the categorical imperative, which is indifferent to consequences, or because it is the right thing to do, in itself?

It seems to me that there is no getting around the fact that human morality emerged through the evolutionary process, and any morality that results in the destruction of the peoples who adopt it is unlikely to last for long. It also seems to me that you should do the right thing even when it might mean very bad consequences, at least in the short term. I’m not comfortable making the logical leap from there and saying that the right thing inherently means doing what has the best consequences in the longest term and the largest scale.

I have more thoughts on this, but I’d rather leave it as a question now than attempt to answer it any further. All thoughts are welcome.