America’s Epicurean Side

epicurusIf I said America had an Epicurean side to it, most people would either blink their eyes and fuddle their brows in a vain attempt to understand what I said or let out a collective sigh or a sarcastic exhalation. But I am serious.  American has an Epicurean side.  And by Epicurean I do not mean the easily lampooned version of Epicureanism which amounts to perpetual and severe over-indulgence.  The correct term for that is hedonism.  Rather, I mean Epicurean philosophy can be seen as a unifying principle behind several key and seemingly disparate aspects of American society.

First, background.  Named after its founder Epicurus, who lived in Greece in the 4th Century BC, Epicureanism espouses a view of life which exalts pleasure as the supreme good.  The chief tenet can be summed up simply as “Relax.”  Avoid things that bring you bodily pain or mental anguish.  Don’t work too hard or think too much.  Epicureanism is also agnostic about the existence of the divine.  In the opinion of Lucretius, the main Epicurean philosopher from Rome, the gods probably don’t exist, but if they do exist, though wouldn’t concern themselves with or be involved in human affair.  To be a god means to be completely blessed, which means completely pain-free.  They wouldn’t concern themselves with us, because to act in our world would cause them work and therefore pain. Even to think about humans and our miserable lot would depress and worry the gods.  Epicureans think gods probably don’t exists, and if they do, they don’t care about us.  So we shouldn’t care about them either.

So how does this all help understand American society?  Here you go:

Aponia, the epicurean doctrine of avoiding bodily pain or exertion, explains the American fascination with efficiency and technology.  Sure we want to work, but we strive to accomplish as much as possible with the least amount of exertion.  The perpetual focus of all American work is the 3 vacations, weekly vacation called the weekend, the yearly vacation, and the end of life vacation called retirement.  We as a society are in perpetual search for the key to maximizing our return and to getting us the most bang for the least amount of pain or exertion.  And the goal of all work is seen as a state of being relieved of work.

Ataraxia, the epicurean doctrine of avoiding mental anguish (literally not getting yourself worked up), explains the perpetual criticism of Americans being apathetic, anti-intellectual or uninvolved in our political life.  Despite our constant saturation with political news, voter turnout always seems to stay under 50%.  Pester any American too long on almost any topic and you will eventually get a smirk and a sarcastic “whatever.”  Most Americans seems to have an understanding that getting themselves worked up about some things just isn’t worth the pain and anxiety it causes.

Agnosticism explains the general lack of concern of Americans for deep thinking about religion.  Sure, most Americans believe in God.  It just seems that most people would rather not think about god.  God seems distant or disinterested in them, so they remain content to remain disinterested in God.

Now, I am not arguing that this template is a Procrustean bed on which all Americans can be made to fit.  Nor am I endorsing or signaling my agreement with any of these ideas. Rather, I am simply suggesting that to engage with a large segment of Americans what is required is not continental condescension but rather an understanding that several key aspects of American society might not be the haphazard idiosyncrasies of a ignorant or apathetic people, but rather a philosophically consistent and unified approach to life.

Whether America’s Epicurean side is a product of enlightenment materialism, or industrial pragmatism, or religious skepticism …or whether its a good thing…or even how to engage such a culture…are subjects for later posts.

2 responses

  1. Surely, though, it is worth mentioning that Epicurus and his followers would find the vast majority of us — even those who claim to reject hedonism, consumerism, etc. in favor of a simple life focused on what really matters — outrageously self-indulgent gluttons. To let the master speak for himself: “I am thrilled with pleasure in the body, when I live on bread and water, and I spit upon luxurious pleasures not for their own sake, but because of the inconveniences that follow them.” His own idea of a treat was to have cheese with his bread. Unlike most of us, Epicureans wouldn’t strive to get “the most bang for the least amount of exertion,” but to minimize their desires and accustom themselves to being perfectly content living at a level of material wealth that most of us would intuitively regard as intolerably impoverished. It’s also misleading at best to say that the Epicureans were agnostic about the gods; they seem to have believed that gods definitely exist, but that their very excellence and divinity precluded their interfering with human affairs or caring about them. To my mind, that gives the Epicureans a more noble and exalted conception of divinity than many of our fellow citizens have, who imagine God — whether he exists or not — to be something like a disembodied mind with superpowers who gets mad when humans take his name in vain or eat shrimp. The Epicurean conception of divinity is crude, but it’s closer to the classical theism of Augustine and Aquinas than the popular American idea of an incorporeal old man. You say you aren’t talking about the “easily lampooned” version of Epicureanism, but I’m not sure how your version is much closer to the real deal.

    Then again, if anybody reads this and learns something new about Epicurus as a result, I can’t complain!

  2. Interesting. Somehow I feel like things make a lot more sense now.

    Side note: The grammar Nazis wan you to fix this sentence: “In the opinion of Lucretius, the main Epicurean philosopher from Rome, the gods probably don’t exist, but if they do exist, though wouldn’t concern themselves with or be involved in human affair. “

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