Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Two-Headed Beast (Epicureans on the Broken Man)

This article continues the "Broken Man" series, describing the opinions of the various schools of though in the ancient world concerning what is wrong with human beings and why happiness is so difficult. Today, I will turn to the Epicureans, who were what were called atomists. They believed that everything that exists consists of two things: atoms, indivisible bodies; and the void, empty space in which those atoms move. This led them to different beliefs about the nature of happiness and misery than man of the other schools I have looked at, and it is to those beliefs that I now turn.

Epicureans were materialists, who did not believe in either an immaterial soul or in immortality. The goal,they believed, was not to reach any sort of immaterial heaven or even any abstract state like virtue. Instead, the goal is something quite concrete: tranquility or "ataraxia".  This is reached through attaining two things.  First, one must remove from oneself as many disturbances as possible.  Secondly, one must attain the right sort of pleasure, specifically, the kind of pleasure that does not harm tranquility.

However, there are large barriers to reaching this state of tranquility.  The primary source of disturbance, they believed, was fear created by belief in a life after death, and fear of death itself.  They believed that atomism removed both of these fears.  Since there is no life after death, there can be no punishment after death, and there is nothing to fear.  Further, since there is no life after death, there will be no one to miss the lost life, so we need not fear that we will miss it.  Those who fear dying imagine what life will be like when they don't exist, which is a patent contradiction.  However, these two fears are very hard to get rid of.  First, our very language works against us.  It treats "death" as a thing with its own term, as though it is something we can understand and fear.

Second, our impressions of the outside world can be confused when the simulacra or appearances of things mix together.  When we see, we see these simulacra, but we also use them when we imagine.  They mix things together into non-existent shapes that confuse us.  This includes things like "immortality", something impossible for human beings, and something that would not improve life any way.  It also includes the idea that having statues built is really friendship, or that worldly power is really security.  We develop a number of empty desires based on confusion created by the simulacra, and, as a result, spend our time pursuing empty goals that cannot satisfy us.

Certain types of pleasure also disturb us.  Epicurus believed that there were two types of pleasure: "kinetic" (moving) and "katastematic" (state-based).  Kinetic pleasures are those pleasures we gain only when we repair some problem in our body.  For example, in order to enjoy eating, we must be hungry.  The second we stop being hungry, we stop enjoying eating.  The problem with these kinetic pleasures is that, in order to have them, there must be some sort of corresponding pain.  Kinetic pleasure is a "two-headed beast", to borrow Socrates' phrase from the Phaedo.  We get more overall pleasure by eliminating kinetic pleasures as much as possible than by seeking them, as the pain always causes more disturbance than the pleasure causes happiness.  Instead, we should seek "katastematic" pleasure, the kind of pleasure we have from being in a good state, per se, like a state of being healthy or having knowledge or being with friends.

Epicureans, like the Skeptics, believed that happiness is ataraxia, a state of tranquility.  In their case, the difficulties with reaching tranquility came from two areas.  First, we have incorrect beliefs that are difficult to remove, like belief in immortality and fear of death.  Second, we have a tendency to kinetic pleasures that make us more miserable than they do happy.  Both of these problems are rooted deeply in human nature, which is why happiness is so difficult.

Painting: "Heracles and the Hydra" by Antonio Pollaiolo.