I’ll probably regret writing this post, but I would like to return to the question of Epicureanism as an ethical and political philosophy. In her description of Epicurean thought, Catherine Wilson writes:
There is no ambivalence about pain in Epicurean morals: it is an unqualified evil. Because death is the end for each sentient being, we should enjoy ourselves to the extent that our enjoyment of present pleasures does not diminish the quantity of pleasure we can enjoy in the future, to the extent that our present enjoyments do not destroy health, bring down the wrath or contempt of others upon us, or subject us to the torments of guilt and regret. Moral wisdom consists not in ascetic practice, but in prudence and foresight, for the age-old experience of mankind assures us that moderation and avoidance of dissipation tend to make for a less painful life. Endurance of our mundane sufferings has, at the same time, its own dignity, although it is not a foretaste of hell or morally glorious. The recognition that human life is temporary and fragile follows from physics, as does the recognition that all suffering comes to an end. ‘[A]ll the punishments that tradition locates in the abysm of Acheron’, said Lucretius, ‘actually exist in our own life.’ An emblematic figure for the poet is the mythical giant Tityos, whose type, he thinks, exists among us. ‘He is the person lying in bonds of love, and consumed by agonizing anxiety or rent by the anguish of some other passion.’ Lucretius’ pacificism, his sense of closeness to the animal world, and his sympathetic portrayal of the effects of romantic uncertainty and jealousy, but also the reawakening, and renewing effects of the goddess Venus, are still moving to his readers (Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, 5)
I don’t wish to get in a debate with my medievalist friends about the merits of Wilson’s book (they’re right), but rather focus on the content of this ethics itself. Epicureanism is perpetually derided, but why? Why is this framework not all that we need for an adequate ethics and politics? What is missing here?
Drawing once again on Lacan’s borromean knot, we here seem to have an ethics that embodies all three orders in the name of minimizing suffering or, as Freud put it, for transforming “neurotic suffering into ordinary human misery”. At the level of the order of the Real we have our material bodies– the body as described by phenomenology doesn’t count here –as well as our ecological relations. There are certain ways in which we should relate to our bodies in terms of diet and exercise, to maximize health (clearly these will differ from person to person insofar as people are individuals). Additionally, it is not simply a question of our own individual bodies, but of our ecological relations. Insofar as our bodies are necessarily embodied and insofar as we always exist in an environment, we should also be concerned with the environment in which we find ourselves embedded. As Alaimo teaches us, our bodies are never purely our own, but are transcorporeal or interpenetrated by a variety of other foreign bodies. At the level of the Symbolic, we get our social relationships. Our social relationships include not only our relationships to other people and how we should conduct ourselves with respect to other people, but also our relationships to the nonhuman animal and mineral world. If we wish to minimize both our suffering and the suffering of others, then there will be optimal ways of relating to our human others, as well as our animal and mineral others. Finally, at the level of the Imaginary we have the psychological or our cognitive and affective relationships to others. There’s a tendency to reduce pleasure to the five senses, but our enjoyment is not simply a matter of the pleasure we can gain through our five senses. It involves aesthetic enjoyment, fulfilling relationships with both human and animal others, our appreciation of beauty and wonder, and so on.
So why isn’t this enough? Why do we need an ethics and politics that is anymore than this? The standard rejoinder is to evoke the case of the psychopath/sociopath that has no empathy for others, or the sadist that takes pleasure in causing human and nonhuman others to suffer. But is it reasonable to take pathological cases and treat them as the norm that should decide the rule? Is there any ethical and political framework that will persuade the sociopath and sadist? I don’t think so. If that’s the case, why organize our politics and ethics around these forms of subjectivity? Another rejoinder, found in Badiou’s Ethics, is that this is a reactionary ethics that conceives humans only in terms of their frailty, their possibility of suffering pain and being killed, ignoring our higher vocation found in fidelity to truths and commitment (Love, Politics, Science, and Art). However, isn’t this a repetition of the standard thesis that Epicureanism conceives our being entirely in terms of base pleasures revolving around the five senses, ignoring that we as humans have a variety of higher needs such as friendship, love, service, empathy (towards humans and nonhumans), beauty, intellectual stimulation, and so on that we require in order to live satisfying lives? Yet a third criticism might suggest that such an ethical framework is intolerant towards other cultures. Here the idea is that Epicureanism is problematic insofar as it might suggest that cultural and religious codes pertaining to, for example, whether or not women should show their hair or work, are absurd and destructive. Yet this criticism is problematic for two reasons: It is problematic first because it ignores that the entire point of philosophical ethics is to provide rational criteria for deciding what norms are worth advocating and what aren’t (as opposed to criteria that are simply inherited from some authority in the form of tradition, culture, sacred texts, kings, or priests). It is problematic second because such an ethics, at the level of the symbolic, recognizes that there are good reasons for recognizing reigning norms inhabiting a community except in those circumstances where those norms cause undue oppression and suffering.
So if we grant these points, I’m led to wonder why epicureanism isn’t all that we need? What is missing here at the level of the material, the social, and the psychological? At this point it’s customary to evoke Kant’s categorical imperative. “What will lead us to keep promises?” “Why won’t we kill others?” But here I’m led to wonder whether these aren’t questions that only arise under very specific historical, material, and social circumstances where social relations have become so diffuse that attachments are no longer functional. It never occurs to Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, or Epictetus to wonder why we shouldn’t break a promise or contract, steal, kill another person, rape another person, and so on. Why do they take it as obvious that we shouldn’t do so (in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle even cites these sorts of things as forms of sickness or pathology)? If we recognize that something has changed in the social organization that leads these things to become crises or questions, shouldn’t those material changes at the level of scale, the body, the social, and the psychological be the issue rather than some artificial categorical imperative that will never persuade the psychopath or sadist? What am I missing?