Category Archives: Epicurus said…
In Asia, it’s common to look at a new baby and say “wah… he’s very ugly,” whilst screwing up one’s face into a tight grimace. Most Westerners are offended by this. We’re accustomed to cooing over new-borns whilst complimenting the parents on their great good luck. So, why the difference? It’s all down to culture. The Asian belief is that the gods can hear what you say and if the baby is deemed to be sweet-looking or well-behaved, the compliments will attract heavenly curses, damning the infant to a life of hard knocks.
This isn’t such a rare concept. Throughout the Mediterranean people believe strongly in using talismans against the Evil Eye. Greek fishing boats bear a painted eye which never closes, thus always alert to potential danger. Turks wear the Evil Eye around their necks or paint it by their doors to keep malevolent forces at bay. Sicilians, Spaniards, the Ancient Egyptians, in fact, most known cultures identify that when someone looks at some aspect of your life with envy whilst praising it (could be your spouse, child, possessions, appearance or success), they may be casting their jealous vibes or Evil Eye on you, with disastrous consequences.
This week a beautiful Vietnamese poem came my way. Called TheTale of Kieu, it addresses this human flaw of jealousy.
Where bamboo covers case Old manuscripts of countless price Preserved in fragrant spice, Sit by a lamp and study well The story that they tell How in the dynasty of Ming When Jia-ching was the king And all his empire was at rest, Among those who were blessed With learning was a man named Vuong. He had a son, the young Vuong-Quan, to carry on his name And literary fame; And two girls, Thuy-Van and Thuy-Kieu, Who were as slim as two Young poplar trees, as pure as snow. But Kieu was yet more fair, The elder’s merits took the prize. Like autumn seas her eyes, Eyebrows like spring hills far away. Flowers wished they were as gay; The aspen shook with envying her. One glance of Kieu’s could stir Cities or empires to revolt! Her beauty had no fault, Nor in her mind was any flaw She’d write in verse, or draw, Excel at playing on the lute, And, choosing tunes to suit, Compose songs for herself to sing. One such, so sad a thing The listeners wept, she called “Cruel Fate”. It’s always been the same: Good fortune seldom came the way Of those endowed, they say, With genius and a dainty face, What tragedies take place Within each circling space of years! “Rich in good looks” appears to mean poor luck and tears of woe; which may sound strange, I know, but is not really so, I swear, since Heaven everywhere seems jealous of the fair of face.
Vietnam identifies itself with Kieu; it is a country that has been punished for unwittingly attracting the jealousy of others, creating great problems for itself. However, in spite of all the hardships, Vietnam bounces back time and time again. It is a stoic culture.
In life, people are seldom happy with their lot. They’re single and want to be attached. They’re attached and feel suffocated, wishing for freedom. They live in a good house but covet their friend’s larger one. They wish they were as slim as so-and-so, or had their neighbour’s smart new car. They want a colleague’s job or a friend’s success. It’s symptomatic of the materialistic world we inhabit.
How does this attract the Evil Eye? Well, in order to get the colleague’s job, one might let slip gossip of colleague’s transgression at work. In another case, a compliment may come across as bitter or sarcastic, making the recipient feel bad. Perhaps an otherwise strong relationship may falter beneath the all-consuming green-eyed monster. Where human nature is involved, anything’s possible.
So, why can’t we just be happy for our fellow man? Would it really be so hard to say “well done, you deserve it.” when a friend is promoted, or “he’s worked hard to achieve that weight loss, and doesn’t he look great?” when discussing a friend’s new, svelte look. Such encouraging words are generous and kind. Surely it feels better to make someone’s day rather than sit around and bitch about them.
Epicurus would relate this to desire and the pain related to not getting what you want. We weren’t born with friend’s good looks, we can’t afford Bill’s new car, we don’t have a designer dress for so-and-so’s party on Saturday. The Epicurean recommendation? Modify your desires. If you desire less, you will be happier because you will find that what you wish for is easier to achieve. Once achieved, your desire will become satisfaction, which, in turn will create pleasure.
A side-effect of the Epicurean way of thinking is that we will feel better about ourselves and therefore the grass will be greener on THIS side of the fence, thus removing the need, subconscious or otherwise, for casting the Evil Eye on our friends. We could spend the previously negative energy on being proud of each other, helping each other and learning from each other. After all, no one has everything. Even the richest person on the planet has sadnesses and insecurities, so when we see someone doing well, we should be happy for them. Surely this will strengthen our relationships and improve the quality of our lives so that we no longer look over the fence, wishing we were on the other side.
Death is feared by most mere mortals. Having said that, the way people drive in North Africa is such a case of vehicle leap-frog that it’s almost like a test of their faith in God: “Insh’Allah!” the Egyptians exclaim as they challenge an oncoming Goliath lorry with their twenty year-old David of a sedan.
To have such faith in God is admirable. The cynic in me nags, however: “what if God thinks it’s your time to be crushed by Goliath? What then?” It’s this sort of fear that Epicurus is talking about; fear which is, to me at least, quite rational, as we consider the distress our demise will cause loved ones, count how many bills there are still to pay, regret all the things we have left undone or unsaid, and wonder, “will it hurt?”.
That’s just when we think about our own death. What about the deaths of others? That can often be worse. Any parent who has lost their offspring will readily state: “it’s not meant to be this way; children are supposed to outlive their parents.”, and most would have happily given their own lives to let their child live.
As a true cynic once said: “there are three things you can be sure about in life – birth, death and taxes.” Birth is the easy part. We don’t have much say in how we come into the world. The decision has not been ours. Then there are the omnipresent taxes. You pay them (or not, in some cases), or save up for a multi-million pound studio in a tax-haven like Monaco, but the tax-man is always there, ready to take your money and promptly forgetting to invest it in basic civic needs like road repairs, choosing instead to use it to fuel a war or rescue a building society with whom you’ve never held an account. It’s out of our hands. Unless, of course, we are a government minister.
So that leaves us with the third assured aspect of life: death. From the moment we’re born, we know we must die one day. Most hope it will be a long time in the future. With death, however, there are so many different ways of dying that surely that is where a lot of the anxiety develops. Will we be squished by a 137 bus as we cross King’s Road? Is that headache the onset of a deadly tumour? Will a routine operation expose us to that deadly flesh-eater, MRSA? How old will we be when we die? Will we go in a flash or have a long and painful demise? Will I resolve that rift with Auntie So-and-So beforehand? It’s that unknown quantity of not knowing when and how that feeds the fear.
Epicurus lived in a world where the Afterlife was firmly established in the local belief system. People were buried with items to help them in the world hereafter – vases of oil, tools, accessories, food. If an Ancient Greek didn’t behave well in this life, he might end up in the dark hole of Hades (hell) instead of roaming through the Elysian Fields (heaven). What if his family forgot to pack something vital in the tomb? Would he be able to buy another in the Afterlife?
Epicurus was an atomist. That is, he was one of the first to believe that we are all made of invisible moving particles. What does this have to do with death? Well, if the mind is central to who we are, and the mind is made of these tiny particles, then on death these particles must dissolve into the nothingness from whence we came. Therefore, following death, we are no more. He calls this “total annihilation”. What a comforting thought.
The Epicurean argument following this total annihilation is that if we dissolve completely on death, then there is nothing to fear from the Afterlife because, obviously, there isn’t one. His definition of the living is that they have not yet been “annihilated” and, as they are still alive, death cannot possible affect them and is therefore not a bad thing.
The next part involves the dead. For something to affect a person, that person must be alive because if they are dead, they cannot be affected by anything because they are no more. Therefore, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead because the dead do not exist. Got it?
On the subject of pain, if you are dead, pain cannot reach you because you don’t exist. Therefore, fear of pain on death should not be a consideration. Well, I’m glad we got that clear!
Given all the different beliefs we have in the modern world, this all seems very simplistic. The easiest part to understand is that we don’t know what comes after life. We don’t know if there is an Afterlife. We don’t know if we disappear into a great void of nothing. We don’t know if we will be recycled into a new human or a bee or an elephant or a tree. We simply don’t know. So while we are alive, perhaps we should just enjoy each day as it comes and follow the old adage: Carpe diem! Seize the day.
Epicurus recommended to his acolytes that they not fear God. The fact that he lived from 341-271BCE means that by mentioning ‘God’, it is not necessarily the god that springs to mind when we read that statement. Why?
1. Christianity’s official start date came 271 years after the mortal demise of Epicurus,
2. The Prophet Mohammed was born in 570 AD, 841 years after the death of our illustrious philosopher, so his godly teachings were of a later thought set,
3. Depending on whom you are listening to, the Exodus of The Old Testament took place in either the 13th or 15th Century B.C., making the Old Testament tales quite ancient indeed, and as Judaism uses the same first five books as their holy book, The Torah, we are talking about the same god, yet again, i.e. a god of hell-fire and brimstone.
4. The ‘god’ that Epicurus referred to in his writings must have been influenced by the gods of Ancient Greece, i.e. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and that gluttonous, grape juice-quaffing Dionysus. They weren’t always such a nice bunch.
As Epicurus must have been had the precepts of Ancient Greek theology directing his thought processes, let’s look at why he might have thought that man feared god/s in the first place.
According to mythology, Zeus, the head honcho of Ancient Greek heaven, had a thunderbolt that he’d fire at mere mortals whenever they did something he didn’t agree with. That story is enough to make anyone quake in a thunderstorm, although rationale should tell them that a thunderstorm affects more than just one person so if you believe what you read, a whole cloud-covered region must have annoyed Big Old Zeus at any one thundering time.
If you were a Greek who sailed for a living, you’d be careful to make lots of flashy offerings to the almighty Poseidon, god of the sea, lest he decide that you and your sailor friends have upset him, encouraging him to stir up a shipwrecking storm.
Hades, god of the Underworld, was a pretty unhappy chap who never felt the need for charm. He kidnapped his wife, Persephone, holding her to ransom in his very own hell, where he spent his time ruling over the Dead. He only liked people who added to his population, presumably murderers and warmongers. Not exactly the sort of god you want infiltrating your dreams.
Speaking of warmongers, Aris, son of Zeus and Hera, was god of war. In fact, he was so nasty that neither of his parents liked him. Oh dear.
Then there was Athena, goddess of war, who popped out of Zeus’s head one day when he had a headache. If you read the mythological accounts, it sounds like a particularly painful way to give birth. On top of which, in spite of Athena’s numerous attributes, she was a dab hand at flinging Zeus’s weapons about when she’d had a bad day.
And if the people displeased Demeter, she might go off in a huff causing crops to wither.
That’s just a basic summary of some of the gods Epicurus was dealing with when he said we shouldn’t fear them. No wonder there was agitation among the people! If we believed in such tales today, we’d all be nervous wrecks with sleepless nights before a harvest, concerned that our every human error could elicit devastation, quaking under tables during thunderstorms and signing up for cryogenic burials, lest we should be confronted by the wrath of Hades.
Now that we’re clear on what the problem was, what did Epicurus want us to do about it? In a nutshell, the Wise Man himself realised that the gods were nothing but representations of human ideals that we could aspire to. Having said that, I don’t know if I’d strive to be like Aris, although George Dubbya is almost there…
So, if we’re dealing with ideals, as opposed to real entities, there is surely nothing to fear apart from our own imagination.
Epicurus also sought out scientific explanations to explain things like earthquakes and thunder, so that his followers could wake up to the fact that just because there’s a storm today doesn’t mean we’ve upset a celestial being somewhere. His thoughts were so new at the time that for some poor, nail-biting folk they must have been the equivalent of philosophical prozac.
Lastly, some say that Epicurus taught his following about the presence of evil in the world. Given that in teaching the concept of evil, he referred to the benevolent gods by way of contrast, I wonder which gods he was talking about?