To My Friend, the Radical Leftist

Well, nothing new happens without some blood being spilled, I suppose. 

Dude. I really do not share your vision of the world. I think you know this, but I'm more reticent than you are about sharing my politics, so we've never talked about it explicitly. Also there's this disconnect between your Facebook voice (always out for blood) and your in-person voice on those rare occasions when we meet (warm, funny, kind). I'm not saying this is a good thing — the not-talking-explicitly. I just don't like ugly arguments and ad hominem attacks, which I fear (with good reason) is what would happen if I responded to your Facebook posts which, honestly, have gotten on my nerves to the point where I’ve hidden them from my News Feed. You are so certain in your beliefs about global hegemony and the primacy of Monsanto's stranglehold on the socio-economic order above all else. About warmongers and innocent victims and the atrocity of everyone's apathy. About the way the Western media characterizes this or that.

Here's the thing: There's very little you say that I fundamentally disagree with. Demographically speaking, I'm a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. From the standpoint of cultural politics, that makes me triple-privileged, and the oppressor. I believe there's such a thing as white privilege, hetero privilege, and male privilege. And that they're pervasive and pernicious. And I can even accept that as a white male I have the luxury of being "above" talking and thinking all the time about privilege and status. All of which is unfair. I accept that nations — especially nations with more power and weapons than their neighbors, do stupid, selfish, horrific things. Like nations, corporations are self-interested and, when left unchecked, often do things that are bad for humanity in general. All of this strikes me as undeniably true.

What's bugging me, old buddy, is that your political world seems to consist of heroes and villains. Evil companies. Evil governments. Good, hardworking people just trying to feed their families. Things look a lot more complicated than that to me. And the other reason I can't let this go, besides the fact that I value you as a friend and therefore care what you think, is that as a possessor of all the above-named privilege who hasn't chosen to live off the grid and devote my life to fighting the same villains you're at war with, I must (by extension) be one of your villains, too. You're always kind and sweet when we meet, but isn't it, mustn't it be so? I am the complacent bourgeois — guillotine fodder in a past revolution fueled by anger very much like yours. What's the final solution, taking your logic to its conclusion, I can't help wondering? You're basically a pacifist, but there's a punk rebel in you, too. Wouldn't the change you want to see in the world require the spilling of a lot of blood?

Well, nothing new happens without some blood being spilled, I suppose. July fourth, just passed, should remind us of that. Here I'm really out of my depth, because I have no idea, but what kind of world would you choose to build if you could start over? If you could light a sociopolitical version of one of those fires that allow forests periodically to replenish themselves? Would you abolish TV and cellphones? Would businesses be illegal? All government-run? Would cities be dismantled in favor of small farming communities? What would happen to science and medicine, supported as they are by the federal/pharmaceutical complex?

The deeper question is about power. How would you distribute it? How would you control it? As you know from your [Michel] Foucault: Power is slippery. It doesn't like to stay still, or balanced. And, of course, it corrupts, even when in well-meaning hands.

I have strong political opinions, but I tend to keep them to myself. Ghosts of dinner-table debates past, I suppose.  I hate racism, homophobia, political corruption, and the fact that income inequality just keeps getting worse and worse. I hate unreason and anti-reason as they manifest in the anti-vaccination movement and the teaching of creationism alongside (or in lieu of) evolutionary theory. I hate sectarianism, ignorance, and orthodoxy of any kind. I love communication, cooperation, collaboration. All the things that begin with “co.”

But I’m not out in the street marching against cops who shoot unarmed black people, or for gay rights, or for anything else. You are. You fight actively, explicitly for the world you believe in, and there, I think you’re doing a bit better than I am. I suppose I fight with words, but mine is a more circuitous battle. It comes back to our worldviews. I’m not comfortable with binaries. Even undeniable evils like racism and ignorance are slippery and metastatic when you try to get your hands around them. I think Foucault would agree with me, that fighting them head-on is a bit like fighting the mythical hydra who grows a new head for each one you lop off.

Is it cynicism on my part to suggest that the revolutionary spirit is in almost every instance motivated at least as much by the will to power as by altruism? Is anger at the prevailing power structures as much about the wish to concentrate that power in your own hands instead, as about what you'd do with the power if you had it? This isn't necessarily a "bad" thing. This is how new societies are made, or historically have been. The "Occupy" movement tried to sidestep the power question entirely, shying away from the demand for leadership, making all decisions by committee. Back to Foucault again: You can pretend power doesn't exist, but it permeates every relationship nonetheless.

So back to our relationship, yours and mine, old buddy. You live far away these days, almost on another planet. I see you once every couple years at most. And when we're together, the bond of kinship feels strong and permanent in spite of these differences. But something's out of whack and it's eating at me: the fact that something so apparently fundamental to who you are alienates and frightens me. And the fact that I have no idea how to talk to you about it, or whether there's even any point in doing so.


talk to @jgots on Twitter

. . . do you embrace the geek? Then you will love episode 4 of Think Again - A Big Think Podcast, LIVE on iTunesSoundcloud, and Stitcher. Bill Nye guests and Jason Gots hosts. 

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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