Saturday, August 2, 2008

Stoicism versus Epicureanism

One of the books I'm reading is the third volume Will Durant's series The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ. I started with the second volume on classic Greece after making an impulse purchase at a used bookstore. I went to the store having decided that I would replace my knowledge of Roman history, which I had acquired largely by reading Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series of historical fiction, with non-fiction history, but I made a last-minute decision that I would be better off reading some Greek history first. The impulse turned out to be a good one; I was very pleasantly surprised by both the book and the author.

Will Durant
(1885-1981) was a progressive and a socialist who wrote a good deal about both philosophy and the ancient world. His history books are known as historiographies, which are biographies of a civilization. It's a fitting term; both the second and third volumes cover a diverse range of topics: politics and governance, economics and commerce, philosophy, religion, literature, art, architecture, science, technology, and so on. Both books provide a varied run-through of Greek and Roman civilization as well as expounding on themes of civilizations' rise and fall: individuals' security versus their freedom; agrarianism versus an urbanism; theism versus atheism; and, especially in the third volume, Stoicism versus Epicureanism.

Reading about this last conflict has reawakened my appreciation of philosophy, and I think I understand Durant's aim in writing about philosophy. According to Wikipedia, Durant thought that philosophy is a stagnant field because it fails to address real world problems, and Durant does well with relating the abstract with the practical in The Story of Civilization. The books narrate great states' cyclic path from being composed of a people possessing practical, Stoic attitudes to its people possessing indulgent, Epicurean attitudes.

I find this conflict between Stoicism and Epicureanism interesting because I've considered myself an Epicurean. This may surprise some who are accustomed to the modern definition of Epicureanism, which is quite different than the philosophical definition. Take this following maxim of Epicureanism (from the Wikipedia article):

Luxurious food and drinks, in no way protect you from harm. Wealth beyond what is natural, is no more use than an overflowing container. Real value is not generated by theaters, and baths, perfumes or ointments, but by philosophy.

Or this summary from Diogenes:

When, therefore, we say that pleasure is the chief good we are not speaking of the pleasures of the debauched man, or those that lie in sensual enjoyment ... but we mean the freedom of the body from pain, and of the soul from disturbance. For it is not continued drinkings and revels, or the enjoyment of female society, or feasts of fish or other expensive foods, that make life pleasant, but such sober contemplation as examines the reasons for choice and avoidance, and puts to flight the vain opinions from which arises most of the confusion that troubles the soul.

And this (also from the Wikipedia article):

Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

This last one is from Epicurus himself, and I'm fond of paraphrasing the first three lines to myself to sum up courage from time to time. The fourth line I'm not so sure about because chronic pain is by definition difficult to endure, and I know this from practice because I suffered from chronic pain when I was younger.

Epicurus founded Epicureanism -- or at least he popularized it -- and was an interesting fellow. He was what we nowadays call a minimalist or simplicitist. He thought the Good was easy to obtain because the Good was the pleasure of living a simple life free from worries and unnecessary upkeep. How can I not love Epicureanism?

Stoicism was founded by another Greek, Zeno, and is in many ways Epicureanism's opposite. Stoicism asserts that the Good is a firm self-control that allows the individual to overrule his emotions and to live for the good of the group firstly and his own good secondly. Stoicism also maintains an objective view of truth and reason. Stoicism appeals to me in ways, especially with its two foci of self-control and of abiding by the laws of society, but I too often struggle to mesh it with my nature.

One interesting thing about these two philosophies is how in both the individual's relationship to the world becomes corrupted when applied in the real world by real persons.

  • Epicurean ideals: relative truth, pursuit of pleasure for the self but where pleasure stems from a simple life free from dependency.
  • Stoic ideals: absolute truth, promotion of a life in accordance with duty to the state and to the community.
  • Epicurean reality: a life ruled by the immediate satisfaction of the senses through worldly pleasures.
  • Stoic reality: a life ruled by intolerance and the fear of God.

A major problem with Epicureanism in practice is that one cannot give real persons the green light for pursuing pleasure without expecting a good number of them to take to food, drink, and narcotics excessively. A major problem with Stoicism is that you cannot give persons the green light for an objective model of truth and reason without some of them creating intolerant, inflexible dogma. These are inevitable and unfortunate side-effects. However, I prefer Stoicism's side-effects to Epicureanism's when applied to a people even though I much prefer the Epicurean ideals to the Stoic ideals as an individual. The inflexible sheath created by a people ruled by dogma has cracks of opportunity for me to pursue my ideals. The wastefulness of a people ruled by short-sighted pleasure-seeking allows me nearly total freedom to pursue my ideals, but my corresponding disappointment with others' stagnation and self-destruction is inescapable.

Epicureanism is a dangerous philosophy. It's a disaster for people who are inclined to say "yes" too often. I read in horror and sick fascination about the early Princes of the Roman Empire -- Caligula, Nero, Domitian -- and their normal and their abnormal vices and the parallel collapse of Roman sturdiness amongst the Roman citizenry. This is Epicureanism on the grandest of scales, and it is ugly. But I am no Stoic. I will live by my Epicurean ideals while I hope that society chooses Stoicism.

No comments: