Monday, August 27, 2012

On Addictive Pleasures and the Fear of Death

I recently read Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, a book about the hiding and finding of the 1st century poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, which is a tribute to  Epicurus and his philosophy.  Lucretius writes of Epicurus, "When 'human life lay groveling ignominously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition' one supremely brave man arose and became 'the first who ventured to confront it boldly'" (72).  I'm not sure the poem ushered in the modern world when it was unearthed in the 15th century, as Greenblatt suggests, but the book is quite provocative nonetheless.  And then I read Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought - a trip through the major western philosophies, which almost completely ignores Epicurus.  Curious.  I'll get to Ferry's book another day.

Epicurus' philosophy was developed about 300 BCE, and a few centuries later people attempted to destroy it as it was totally incompatible with the Christian way of life - particularly the bits about all things being made of atoms (adopted from Democritus).  If everything's made of atoms, then nothing is better than anything else, so the entire hierarchy of the church is a problem as is our insistence that human beings are superior to all other creatures.  Also, it means we don't stay together as one being when we die, so the possibility of an afterlife falls apart (and the hopeful justice measured out in rewards and punishments to be found there).  And choosing a life of pleasure over pain?  That's just going way too far for many old school Christians .

I had a couple stop-and-think-about-it-for-a-few-days episodes reading The Swerve (these are off the beaten path from his general thesis):


On the Addictive Nature of Bodily Pleasures

Epicurus suggests pleasures are not of the flesh, but of the mind and character:  his disciple, Philodemus, explains,
"Men suffer the worst evils for the sake of the most alien desires, and they neglect the most necessary appetites as if they were the most alien to nature...It is impossible to live pleasurably....without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic" (77).  
I wish.  If it were true that it's impossible to be happy and corrupt, then the whole world would be a much nicer place.  This is more a testament to his character perhaps than a unbiased analysis of human nature.  It's cheating to insist it's not true pleasure if it's borne of greed or dishonour.  Evilness can be pleasurable.  Now what?  That first line, though - that we aren't good at measuring long term pleasures and pains - dead on.  

I also question that pleasures of the body are less pleasurable than of the mind.  Some bodily pleasures end up causing greater pain - like after a night of heavy drinking, but many don't.  I get that he wants to separate himself from the hedonists, but bodily pleasures feel good.  And can't it be both?  Isn't it more pleasurable to have a great conversation over a savoury meal than over the "bowl of barley gruel" (77) that he serves his guests?  The excellent meal adds to the pleasures of the day immediately and is hardly a distraction from the conversation that offers a pleasure that endures (although I've had some long ago meals I still salivate over through memory). 

After christianity, a cultural shift decided that we need to conquer pleasures through suffering so we don't let them rule our lives.  There's a story of a 6th century Christian who, when sexually aroused, rolled in thorns until the desire dissipated (103).  Epicurus suggests instead we satisfy sexual urges when necessary, so we can immediately stop that bodily distraction and get back to thinking about stuff.  But what do we do with the addictive nature of pleasure?  What if we get together for conversation and end up just eating all night and neglect to say anything interesting because we're so caught up in the food?  Some people can have sex to get the urge out of the way, but others won't stop at once.  No sooner do they finish then they start thinking of the next time they might be able to have sex and how they can make that happen.  The bodily pleasures take over their every thought.  Some people think only of what their next meal will be as soon as they finish their last, not out of poverty but plenty, through a plethora of choice.

Pleasures of the mind can be addictive also, but that's viewed as laudable.  Should it be?  We get greatness not through balance and moderation, but when people are obsessed with finding the solution to that one problem, or with writing stories, painting, building, etc.  Epicurus says happiness comes when we withdraw from competitive striving (223) suggesting that the attitude towards our thinking and creating is what matters.  If we write to the exclusion of all else for honour or wealth, we'll be miserable.  But if we do it for the joy of it, we'll be happy.  Makes sense.

So bodily pleasures can be dangerous if we don't have control over them.  We can get carried away like Louis CK with that one donut:



Epicurus wants us to approach these situations with prudence, to measure the long term gains of the bodily and mental pleasures carefully and individually. Perhaps he serves gruel because his guests might not measure well, or perhaps it's an indication of his own addictive nature.  Some people need to avoid certain pleasures that get the better of them.  I don't keep beer in the house because I'll just drink it.  But for many other people, it's not a problem.  They can have a good meal and one beer and talk brilliantly, while some of us keep drinking and stop making sense, and others are rolling in thorns trying to stop thinking about boffing the hostess.


On the Fear of Death

When Montaigne read Lucretius' poem, he agreed with Epicurus' ideas and wrote in the margins of his own copy, "Fear of death is cause of all our vices" (249).  But Thomas More, reading at the same time, opposed the entire poem and insisted we need fear of death in order to make people behave (251).  I lean towards Epicurus on this one.

It seems to me that much strife comes from knowing that there's an end to our existence.  If we didn't know or didn't fear the end, like many animals, I think we wouldn't compete so much and invade and destroy so much.  We wouldn't be in a rush to get to positions of greatness.  We use greatness as a means to be immortal, to be remembered after death.  If we can accept our finite nature and let go of our quest for immortality, then we won't need to leave behind books or territory or stories of our deeds.  We can just be and practice "no trace" living in which we actively avoid leaving a mark.  And I don't think we need to be in fear to be kind to one another.  Kindness comes with its own rewards.  It feels good to help people.  And if this is the only life we have, it wouldn't be rational to waste it harming others when we can get so much more from companions than enemies.

But is it possible to stop fearing death?

We're desperate for immortality.  Plato suggested (in The Symposium) that we typically try to assuage this anxiety either by having kids or leaving behind works of art: buildings, books, blogs, etc.  We can't stand the idea that we won't be here one day and everyone will forget about us. We can't abide by "no trace" living.  So can we ever get to a place where we don't fear death?

Epicurus' solution for this is to recognize that when we're alive, we're not dead, and when we're dead we're not alive to know about it, so we shouldn't worry about it.  I don't find that remotely useful.  Does anyone?  "Just don't worry about it" is right up there with "Relax" in terms of effective demands.  We can distract ourselves by focusing on the present - for a while - but then it all comes back to us in a wave of anxious urgency to get stuff done, to do something important before the time's up.

Freud said, "Our own death is indeed quite unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we . . . really survive as spectators. . . . At bottom nobody believes in his own death, or to put the same thing in a different way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality." People who express death-related fears then are actually trying to deal with unresolved childhood conflicts that they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge and discuss openly.

I don't entirely agree.  We have significant anxiety about, not just the pain of dying nor our friends and family dying, but about being gone, being missing from people's lives and about it all being for naught. We sooth the anxiety with the belief that we're doing something important here.  We feel okay about dying if we've accomplished something - but that merely satisfies an illusion.  The reality is that we're insignificant.  We've been dropped here for a short time for no real reason.  We should enjoy it while it lasts and not waste time working to be remembered after we're gone.  But it seems absolutely impossible to stop that wheel grinding, to stop wanting to be remembered.

We only live authentically if we accept that our lives are finite.  But perhaps it's necessary at times to find comfort in illusions of permanence. At the end of Reflections on War and DeathFreud allows us to go halfway,
"Were it not better to give death the place to which it is entitled both in reality and in our thoughts and to reveal a little more of our unconscious attitude towards death which up to now we have so carefully suppressed? This may not appear a very high achievement and in some respects rather a step backwards, a kind of regression, but at least it has the advantage of taking the truth into account a little more and of making life more bearable again. To bear life remains, after all, the first duty of the living. The illusion becomes worthless if it disturbs us in this....If you wish life, prepare for death."
But are we really accepting the finality of death if we hang on to a the hope of a lasting remembrance of ourselves?  A true acceptance, it seems to me, would create an entirely different lifestyle in which we are in the moment and enjoying pleasures but leaving nothing of ourselves for the distant future, nothing as a remembrance of ourselves.  Key to the ability to accept death, then, is staying in the moment.  But staying in the moment can just be another means to distract ourselves from reality, and how do we cope with the atrocities of our world if we don't have one eye on the future?

In the essay, When I Saw Chomsky Cry, Branfman compares Noam Chomsky to Winston Smith (1984) who gives up hope of changing the world today in favour of staying sane and committing the truth to paper for future generations.  Perhaps something for the benefit of others is compatible with authentically accepting death.  Is leaving a part of us behind as a means to help others a display of the acceptance of death or just a loophole towards the illusion of immortality?  It's all attitude.

In Ferry's book, he urges us to cope with death through love which is at once particular and universal.  It brings us out of ourselves and keeps us in the moment, but allows for concern for the world.  It seems trite, but maybe he's on to something.

4 comments:

  1. I just finished reading The Swerve and went looking for further reading. I hit your blog when I input "Fear of death is cause of all our virtues." (A Montaigne quote found in the margins of his copy of De rerum natura.) I really enjoyed your brief, but very insightful, analysis here! I wish we lived close by (alas I am in Texas), I would love to engage in conversation with you. Yours truly, Lisa

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  2. Aw, thanks Lisa! It's hard to find people who want to talk about books like this.

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  3. Wow, after I read your post on Civilization and Its Discontents, I decided to browse around your other posts. I think I could read your posts to help me understand my readings better. It's pretty fantastic. I discovered Lucretius last year and it's been a wonderful trip.

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  4. I'm glad it's helpful. It was a great book!

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