In response to my provocation a couple weeks ago, folks raised some excellent points. In particular they raised Lacanian questions about desire and the repetition of jouissance or the death drive. This is precisely what I like about Epicureanism: it is an empiricist ethical system. What does that mean? It means that we can’t start from timeless ethical axioms, but that we need to know things about biology, economics, sociology, psychology, and so on. Where other ethical systems say “this is the goal and this is what we are”, Epicureanism is singular in saying “right now we think this is what we are, this is our hypothesis, but further inquiry might lead us to very different conclusions and historical and technological differences might lead to very different questions.”
To be Epicurean (or Lucretian) today is not to rotely follow a particular doctrine, but to adopt that spirit of empirical ethics. In other words, if we discover that Freud and Lacan were correct, the question of happiness is substantially transformed. We end up in a place such as Freud outlined in Civilization and its Discontents, where he talked about the goal of analysis as that of transforming misery into ordinary human unhappiness, or where Lacan suggested that the end of analysis consists in identification with the symptom rather than belief in the symptom. Jonathan Lear has also been tireless in reworking questions of happiness and eudaimonia in terms of psychoanalytic theory (hopefully he’ll branch out into neurology and ecology at some point). In other words, the question of happiness and justice must always be posed in terms of– I hate to use the term –our “existential condition” and what our “nature” is, and answers to these questions are “moving targets”. The strength of Epicureanism is that it makes room for that.
This is the power of the Lucretian-Epicurean orientation. It doesn’t begin from the premise that we know what we are and therefore that we know what the telos of our ethics ought to be, but instead begins from the premise that we must learn and discover our nature, our ecological conditions, our social conditions, and pose our questions of happiness within this framework, fully recognizing the limits on that happiness by virtue of being finite, material, embodied, beings. Being Epicurean or Lucretian today does not entail a Talmudic relation to their thought, but rather an orientation from their thought that squarely faces the problem of inquiry with respect to our psychological being, our ecology, and our social relations. It is not a dead text that we perpetually return to as a source of authority and answers, but a sort of methodology or inspiration. In this regard, the ethics of “not giving way on your desire” (in the Lacanian sense, not “American” sense) is thoroughly Epicurean insofar as the title of Lacan’s 19th seminar is Ou Pire, “or worse”. To betray your desire through pursuit of the pleasure principle as opposed to the “one more” and “again!” of jouissance brings far more devastating consequences than living one’s desire. That’s an Epicurean argument if ever one I’ve heard.