Perhaps the greatest challenge to a wilderness ontology or the thesis that being is without any form of transcendent supplement or that there is only nature, even at the heart of culture, is the way in which such a claim tends to devalue all “higher” values.  Let’s take the case of Epicurus as filtered through Lucretius.  Having heroically concluded that only material reality exists, that all of reality is composed of combinations of atoms in the void, and having thereby concluded that the self is the body and that therefore there is no afterlife, the sole aims of the good life become ataraxia (roughly, tranquility) and aponia (freedom from pain and suffering).  As Quine taught us, there is a web of beliefs and beliefs are dependent upon other beliefs.  If I’m an atomistic materialist, then this entails that I am also committed to some variant of physicalism where the nature of the self is concerned, and if I am a physicalist about the self this has consequences at the level of praxis:  the good life, the moral life, will be devoted to diminishing those things that trouble my mind and to reducing my suffering.  The moral good will be pleasure– and pleasures will be varied, ranging from the pleasures of sensation, to intellectual pleasures, to aesthetic pleasures, and social pleasures –and the moral bad or wrong will be pain.  We find a variant of this kind of ethic in Spinoza as well.

Anything that diminishes my ataraxia will be morally wrong, and anything that increases my pain will be morally wrong.  Of course, there will be caveats to this moral framework.  Some pleasures will be worth foregoing or avoiding because either a) they cause pain as a consequence (I shouldn’t drink or do drugs because of their health effects and, at the very least, the hangover the next day), or b) because they’re just too much trouble to get.  The life of luxury, for example, might seem very pleasurable, but the sort of labor I have to do to get these luxuries actually destroys my ability to enjoy them and fills me with stress that destroys my ataraxia or tranquility.  Conversely, there are some pains that are worth enduring because they give greater health, security, freedom, pleasure, or tranquility.  While exercise is painful, it is nonetheless good to exercise because it has tremendous psychological benefits combatting depression and anxiety (thereby increasing ataraxia), gives us energy, and improves our overall health.  It might be painful and unpleasant at the time, but the benefits outweigh that pain.  If we were to ask the epicurean whether or not it is moral to be a racist, she would no doubt respond that it is not, but not because racism hurts other people, but because racism hurts the racist.  Hate disturbs our tranquility by filling us with feelings that we are in danger from the other, that they’re getting a free ride, that they’re violating decency, etc.  If the racist wants a good life, they would do well to change their beliefs so that their minds aren’t troubled by, to use Spinoza’s terminology, “sad passions”.

read on!

It seems like the epicurean would end up being a pretty good person.  They would be law-abiding because they would recognize that violating the law could land them in prison, thereby decreasing their freedom and ability to have a tranquil life.  They would be kind and courteous to others because they would recognize that people tend to treat others as they are treated.  They would be drug and alcohol free.  They would be very healthy.  The true epicurean doesn’t look like Jim Morrison, but rather like a Buddhist or Christian monk.  Thus, we here encounter an ethical system that makes no reference to transcendent supplements, to rewards or punishments in the afterlife, to reincarnation or karma, but that nonetheless produces a pretty good person.

However, there are further consequences to this sort of position.  From the epicurean standpoint, any sort of “higher value”, takes on the appearance of being a fetish.  The “higher values” take on the appearance of being illusions we suffer from and from which we must be cured.  Lucretius, for example, devotes an entire book to love in De Rerum Natura.  Love is portrayed as a sort of sickness or madness from which we must be cured.  The person who truly aims at ataraxia or aponia would cure themselves of the desire for love because of all the turmoil and suffering it causes in our lives.  They would instead choose the far more stable relation of friendship.  When it comes to ideals like radical justice, we need only read Nietzsche or even Foucault– both of whom telegraph Thrasymachus across time –to see how the epicurean would think about these things.  At best, the passion for justice is a fetish, at worst it is a ruse of power that exercises power deviously and covertly to divide the powerful from what they can do (here there are echoes of Spinoza as well, but turned upside down).  Beauty and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake become, at the hands of Freud, forms of sublimation or displaced libidinal drives, and carry their own pathologies as a result (as Freud’s study of Leonardo would suggest).  And, of course, in Foucault, we must always think the power/knowledge, power/truth couplets.  Nothing is innocent.  There is nothing higher.  Despite the sensibleness and wisdom of the epicurean tradition, there nonetheless seems to be something empty or hollow within it, as if something is missing.  The epicurean would respond that we just haven’t worked through our fetishistic illusions; that we’re still superstitious or religious.

If, then, I think there is a splendor to Badiou– despite all of his problems –it is because he attempts to defend something like “higher values” within a wilderness framework.  Badiou attempts to defend the truth of love, justice, creative invention, and knowledge (though I realize that term is problematic in the context of his thought) in a framework of the wilderness or immanence without reference to skyhooks or transcendent terms.  This, perhaps, is why his distinction between subject and animal is so important.  A subject, for Badiou, is one who has been taken up by and captivated by one or more of these four things.  Subject is something that is capable of living for something other than tranquility and the reduction of suffering.  Indeed, subject is a being that is willing to abandon tranquility and the absence of suffering for these things.  More remarkable yet, Badiou refuses to treat these things as fetishes, and he refuses to treat them as fetishes within a wilderness framework that refuses any transcendent supplement.  We might disagree with his account or theorization of such values, but I do think Badiou’s splendor lies in seeing values such as courage, justice, beauty, truth, and knowledge as possibilities within an a-theistic framework, a framework of immanence, that is worth preserving.  Badiou theorizes what a philosopher might rightfully die for despite nature being all there is.