If 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.