As I head out to New York City – land of Occupy Wall Street among many other historic struggles – I am reflecting on Lucretius and the Epicureans a bit further. One question that was posed in our Saturday discussion/lecture was “Are we approaching or even in a crisis of the public sphere world akin to Brotteaux’s Paris which might make an epicurean style of living an attractive alternative?.”
The Epicureans believed that beyond simplifying their desires, living outside of their society in the fellowship of others seeking the same path was the only way to contentment. What, says Lucretius, is the point of seeking honours and political offices when these only present the illusion of accomplishment?
“And Sisyphus exists in life, right here before our eyes:
The man consumed with seeking the accoutrements of office
From the people, who always comes back sad and beaten. To be driven
To seek power – an illusion after all – which is never given,
And undergo endless hard toil in striving for it still,
This is the act of struggling to shove a stone uphill,
Which, at the very peak, only goes bounding down again,
Seeking, quick as it can, the level field of the campaign.”
Indeed, what is the point of engagement in a world in profound crisis? To think we can effect change on systems so large and out of control seems ludicrous, while at the same time living within them is cause for continual discontent. Why not disengage entirely?
A tempting thought, and one which thousands of people in the last 2000 years have attempted through various pioneer, back-to-the-land, environmental, and religious movements. (And one so apparently threatening to the social order that in many instances this self-removal from society has brought the worst kind of repression and violence against its adherents.) At the very least, we remove ourselves from being contributors to the grasping nature of the world – the selfishness, the fear-mongering, the grasping for material goods beyond our actual needs – where is the harm in that?
As an activist, this is not the first time I’ve turned my thoughts towards such dreams – but as always I find myself questioning the base premise: that the point of life is simple contentment of the self. Or to put it another way – the purpose of life is happiness – something I’ve never been sold on as a philosophical starting point. Instead I recognize suffering as essential to self-knowledge, realize that we have a duty of care to others outside of our immediate sphere of self-interest, and believe there is a moral imperative to act *when* we can effect change.
To simply cultivate a rich inner life apart from the world to which we are born seems at turns
- necessary – in order to free ourselves of the want and fear which drive our most base actions and disatisfactions, and
- irresponsible – it by necessity excludes anyone who is not of pure mind and intellect, not to mention removes critically-engaged actors from a society which needs them.
And when I think about what would be implied in separating from all of our society – including our family who was not “enlightened” enough to follow in our communal footsteps – it also seems deeply cruel and a fundamental disavowal of those to whom we owe our lives (and often our sense of purpose in the form of our children).
None of this is to promote heedless engagement in the pursuit of political or social ends for as Lucretius points out, “Life is but one long labour in the dark,” and thus we can never know all the effect of or reasons for our actions. Nor do I believe that tradition or family loyalty must keep us chained to the yokes of superstition or material drives. So often, our adherence to social conventions, political convictions and so-called familial obligations, blinds us to the fact that our very energy is being spent in the most pointless of ways – and that really is a waste when it does not one jot lengthen our life, or shorten the period we are dead (to paraphrase On the Nature of Things).
Perhaps it is just that in this time of my life I am looking for more measured approaches than “all or nothing” – and look towards the philosophy of Mencius in pursuing right action or even Socrates’ pursuit of higher knowledge while still performing social obligations – for examples to live by. For Mencius, everything has a right order which supports everything else: a strong individual supports a strong family supports a strong village supports a strong state supports a strong individual and so on. Benevolence, humility, moderation, compassion and self-reflection are encouraged among everyone from the monarchs down to the people – and leadership is seen to be extended through ensuring that all who one is responsible for is provided. While his advice is directed to the rulers of the Warring Period in China, it is possible to cast much of his approach over everyday actions and obligations and to cultivate the inner reflection emphasized in order to find our Way through despair and difficulty. (Taoism has always been very attractive to me in this orientation).
(In the Greco-Roman tradition, I find myself more drawn to the Stoics’ approach to life which was both ascetic and social and pursued a self-sufficiency that did not seek external reward for validation.)
But since this is just a blog-post and not a term paper (which I should be working on next), I don’t want to go too far down the road of comparative philosophy. To my opening pretext – my trip to New York – I have to reflect that even as I question the efficacy of the protest at Occupy Wall Street, I strongly believe in the moral imperative which drives the occupiers of Liberty Plaza. Rather than retreating in the face of a seemingly impossible wall (of greed, corruption, cronyism, and the cruelty of a monolithic system that exercises little benevolence or compassion), they (and others around North America) are choosing instead to form a society internal to the heartlessness which surround them and are attempting the greatest possible inclusion inside that circle. It is not even possible to see how the folks who have taken their cause to the streets of NYC could live the Epicurean ideal even if they wanted to – most of them landless, broke, in debt, and living in a country which does not just let people wander off and live apart in the wilderness. And so what perhaps seemed a plausible response to injustice and crisis in the time of Epicurus or even Botteaux (during the French Revolution) is unrealistic in the panopticon of industrial life where every spare mile has been claimed for the machine.
While I can’t help but agree with Lucretius that the pursuit of powerful offices is useless and only leads to dissatisfaction, I can’t see that the crisis of this society is going to be helped by those most aggrieved of it just disappearing off to a garden of self-reflection – nor do those individuals even have that choice (America’s handful of communes can only hold so many people after all).