Should We Be More Epicurean (and Less Futurist)?

Don’t worry. Be happy. Live in the present.  The philosopher Rousseau said that was the natural condition of man, before he was screwed up by self-consciousness, time, awareness of death, and delayed gratification.   So the key to happiness is to be really, really stupid.


But the Epicurean philosopher actually says the rational person can achieve the same result.  He finds serenity now by living beyond hope and fear.  Fear of death is unreasonable.  So too is our unreasonable hope to somehow get out of dying.  The key to happiness is wisdom, which is more than being really, really smart.

Here’s a thoughtful article by Particia Vieira and Michael Marder that suggests we get over being obsessed with the future by being better Epicureans. It goes without saying that I’m going to give my own spin on that suggestion.

It’s true that people are less and less obsessed with the past, maybe especially (but not only) in America.  We have no historical sense, a sense which could give us a sense of place, purpose, and limits, as well as the chastening that comes with reflection on experience.  That’s both good and bad. But surely it’s  good not be saddled with too much traditional baggage and ancient grudges. 

We’re obsessed with the future for a variety of reasons.  For one, we think the future is actually in our own techno-hands.  We used to think “climate change” was up to nature, and now we think it’s up to us.  That means we might have trashed the planet beyond repair.  It might also mean we can save ourselves from our own mess if we act aggressively now.  It might also mean that we’re developing the techno-means to bring the climate change—which used to be caused by chance and necessity—under our personal control.  That would mean no more natural climate change—such as an inconvenient ice age—that we can’t believe in.

We’re also obsessed with our personal futures.  That’s partly because we don’t often believe that our personal beings are sustained by the grace of a personal God.  We believe, with the Epicureans, that biological death is the end of ME.  But we’re less accepting of that fact.  We believe that death is more in our control, because we know so much about risk factors we can avoid.  And there is, of course, no one who obsesses more about his personal future than he who has the transhumanist hope for the Singularity and all that.

The trouble with being obsessed with the future of those not yet born or our species or all life  on the planet is that we sacrifice the interests and enjoyments of people today to a rather speculative cause.   Communism, everyone agrees, was evil because it justified terrorizing and slaughtering individuals we can actually see in the service of an imagined future paradise.  Our obsessive futurology, arguably, is evidence that we haven’t yet learned enough from the monstrous failure of the ideologies of the 20th century.

There is, of course, a difference between obsessing about oneself and subordinating oneself to the interests of people or ecosystems or whatever not yet born.  But, in both cases, we’re diverting ourselves from what we really know about ourselves and our limited future.  Surely the authors are right that we shouldn’t let the future divert us from what is.

But there is something wrong, after all, about being Epicurean.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his most private letters that he was an Epicurean.  That means, in a way, his teaching about natural rights was public and provisional, as was the depth of his concern about protecting the rights of others.  Jefferson wrote eloquently about the violence slavery did to particular persons, but he wasn’t as obsessive as we might have hoped about keeping slavery from having much of a future in his country.  According to Jefferson himself, what’s wrong with Epicurean thinking is it produces a selfish negation of the natural instinct we all have as beneficent social and relational beings.

So the least we can say is there’s a middle point between the indifference of Epicurean serenity and ideological obsession when it comes to controlling the future.  Our concern for past and future is properly relational.  It begins with our parents and our children and extends, if more weakly, to our ancestors and to the future of the children of our children.  It also begins with everyone we know and love in our particular place.  It might have begun with Jefferson’s concern for his own slaves, whom he knew well and even loved.  It did begin (even if it didn’t go far enough), Jefferson wrote, with the effects of tyranny on the souls of his own children.

Thinking of the person in isolation and thinking of the abstraction humanity (or the abstraction species) are both pathologies of our very personal and excessively unrelational time.

.A Christian might say that out of love of God we should love all those made in his image.  That's true.  But that doesn't mean we have to be obsessive about keeping them around.  Their future is in the hands of their personal Creator.  Christian environmentalism, although reasonable enough, is saved from obsessiveness by that personal fact. 

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting

The tactics that work now won't work for long.

Politics & Current Affairs

Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent.

Keep reading Show less

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

What if all humanity had to do to save itself was listen?

By working together, and learning from one another, we can build better systems.

Videos
  • Many of the things that we experience, are our imagination manifesting into this physical realm, avers artist Dustin Yellin.
  • People need to completely rethink the way they work together, and learn from one another, that they they can build better systems. If not, things may get "really dark" soon.
  • The first step to enabling cooperation is figuring out where the common ground is. Through this method, despite contrary beliefs, we may be able to find some degree of peace.