Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Epicureanism: an Introduction

Epicureanism is a humanist philosophical doctrine for human happiness. It requires us to make a firm resolution to live a happy life and to apply philosophical and empirical methods to the pursuit of happiness.

Its first tenets are contained in the Four Remedies:

Do not fear death
Do not fear the gods
What is good, is easy to attain
What is evil is easy to avoid

For non-believers, the first two negative statements may be translated as "Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering."

The latter two positive statements lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don't. By this process of an analysed life, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain. The best things in life are free.

"The wealth required by nature is limited and easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity ... Do not spoil that which you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." - Epicurus

The three goods are friendships, an analysed life, and autarchy which translates as autonomy or self-sufficiency. Epicurus taught that friends are the most important ingredient for happiness. Difficulties are much more easy to bear, and pleasures much more easily enjoyed, in wholesome association with our trusted friends. We should seek them often and blend our minds with them.

The process of living an analysed life leads to the cultivation of what philosophers called ataraxia: a state of satisfied serenity, content, and self-control. It translates as imperturbability. Its attainment signals philosophical maturity.

The serene grounds of the Epicurean Academy were known as the Garden. There, an egalitarian community evolved where men, women, and slaves discussed philosophical matters among equals. This was very progressive, and even scandalous, in those days. Epicurean Gardens flourished for over 700 years until the Christians destroyed all the philosophical schools and philosophy was banned.

We must not underestimate the influence of Epicureanism in contemporary political philosophy and in modern life. We ultimately owe the inclusion of the 'pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence to Thomas Jefferson, who was a disciple of Epicurus. In his letter to William Short, he said:

"As you said yourself, I too am an Epicurean ... I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy"

For a vast resource of writings by Epicurean thinkers throughout history, visit:

The following is a series of videos detailing Epicurean philosophy by youtuber Lootra:

Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012: The Awakening of the Sleeping Monster of Global People-Power

Thousands descended on Stonehenge to celebrate the 2012 winter solstice and busloads of New Age pilgrims from all over the world made their way to the Mayan ruins of Guatemala and Southern Mexico in celebration of what many considered the end of the world, but for others the world was coming to a start. Latin American celebrities and common folk went to Guatemala and participated in public cleansing rituals under the guidance of Mayan shamans.
In recent years, the Mayan script has been decoded and great advances have been made in our understanding of Mayan culture. This has inspired a renewal of interest in Mayan traditions, and has also called to our attention that the last day in their calendar was our winter solstice (December 21) of 2012. Our current 20-year Mayan calendar period or katún, from 1992 – 2012, is known as the Time of No-Time since these were the last years of the sun’s 5,125 year cycle in the Mayan calendar. Mayan elders believe that there had been many humanities before us and that the fifth humanity would emerge on this day from the ruins of the previous one.
There have been innumerable doomsday predictions. Ancient Vikings believed in Ragnarok, the Day of Doom. The authors of the Gospels said that Jesus announced his imminent return within that same generation, which never happened. Ever since, Christians have been postponing the end times.
The pastor of an early Christian American sect known as the Millerites convinced his flock to await the end of days on April 28 of 1843. Some of his followers sold everything they had and gathered on a hill to await Christ’s return. When nothing happened, the pastor announced a new date, December 31 of 1843 … then March 21 of 1844, then October 22 of 1844. Eventually, the disciples distanced themselves from Miller and renamed themselves the Seventh Day Adventists while others became Jehova’s Witnesses. These groups have continued to postpone the date and turned fear-based doomsday predictions into a tradition, as have Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their ilk.
More recently, homophobic preacher Harold Camping squandered millions on doomsday propaganda that assured his followers that the world would end May 21 of 2011 and blamed gays for just about everything he perceived to be wrong with our planet. When God failed to exhibit his wrath, he postponed the date to October 21 of 2011, and when nothing happened again, the fraudulent preacher stopped playing God’s ventriloquist and receded into irrelevance. He failed to offer a money-back-guarantee to his gracious donors.
It’s difficult to understand why some people get so easily seduced by doomsday prophecies: our species’ scientists have advised us that the sun is not scheduled to expand, swallow the Earth and explode as a super nova for at least another 3.5 billion years. Unless a comet hits before then, humanity should be fine and will probably have migrated to other planets by then.
One possible theory is that certain generations are more vulnerable to mass hysteria: this was certainly the case when the black plague killed a third of Europe and many people believed the end was nigh. Our generation has seen an increase in populist uprisings throughout the world. Increasing poverty in the US may also contribute to the phenomenon, as more people turn to faith for consolation.
The ancient Greek tragedy and our modern glorification of violence and gore in media, including violent apocalyptic imagery, may also have deep psychological roots. Carl Jung, the father of psychoanalysis, proposed that the mass hysteria and violence of the Third Reich and II World War was the result of generations of repression of the primal Odin principle within the culture of the Germanic peoples. He identified the ancestral deity Odin as symbolizing the savagery of the old untamed Germanic psyche. Perhaps humanity does need some form of controlled outlet for its repressed violence and anger just as volcanoes serve to vent the repressed magma within the Earth, and art can be explained as one such civilized, tamed, acceptable outlet.
But it would be unfair to say that all of the discourse around 2012 is fire and brimstone. 2012 is an indigenous American cultural phenomenon and its relevance must be understood within an indigenous and neo-indigenous context. No assessment of 2012 would be fair and complete without the voices of indigenous peoples. Prophecy can function as a generation’s assessment of its place in history and as an extension of vision-seeking, or framing the collective history and destiny of a group. 2012 represents a return to an ancestral continental American cosmovision.
There have been several Pan-American Gatherings of the Elders in Perú, where indigenous shamans and leaders from the entire hemisphere have come together in mountains in the Andes that have always been considered sacred to seek visions and are weaving a new continental myth-making tradition centered around the prophecy of the condor and the eagle. The elders say that when the condor (South America) and the eagle (North America) are seen flying together, there will be peace on Earth.
There are other hope-filled indigenous prophecies, most notable among them the Warriors of the Rainbow prophecy which emerges from the Hopi tribes and which the indigenous Bolivians associate with their rainbow flag. The Rainbow Warriors are said to be light-workers who will come from all the tribes and languages of Earth at a crucial time of near-destruction and will teach people through deeds, not words. They would help the spiritual traditions of the red man to reemerge within new cultural paradigms after 500 years of repression and marginalization. Invariably, these traditions reflect cooperative, egalitarian, community-based values and models of human interaction.
Of the films that cashed into the 2012 craze, the documentary 2012: Time for Change stands out. It features interviews with Jacques Fresco, a futurist architect that some consider a genius, and delves into complementary currencies, workplace democracy through worker cooperatives, sustainable energy, emancipation from oil dependency and other solutions to global problems that, whether or not we address them, will make our generation pivotal to humanity’s fate. The movie The 11th Hour also proposes similar shifts, but focuses on the environment and the creation of technology that seeks to imitate and weave itself into the cycles of nature rather than dominate nature.
Of equal importance, 2012 serves as an excuse for cultural renewal for people of Mayan and other indigenous ancestry in the Americas.
We of the last katún of the Mayan calendar are the generation that saw the first indigenous president ever in Bolivia, Evo Morales, whose first ceremonial act as president was to make a humble offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and whose nation was the first on Earth to pass a law granting rights to Mother Earth. This happened after all the water in Bolivia had been sold by the previous neo-liberal regime to one American corporation, Bechtel, and it had become illegal for indigenous and poor Bolivians to even gather rainwater. The water wars ensued in Bolivia, where people died on the streets to take back their access to the water that fell from the sky. In the end, the people won and Bolivia’s water is now in public hands again. While this was all happening the water wars were not mentioned in U.S. corporate-owned media.
Our generation also saw a Zapatista revolutionary uprising among the modern descendants of the Mayans: the indigenous people in Chiapas, rebelling against attempts by corporate powers to penetrate their society and dismantle their societal values after NAFTA was approved. In these days of corporate lack of social and environmental accountability, acts such as these represent a paradigm shift.
The Arab Spring, the Indignados, the Occupy movement and similar populist ones focusing on the 99 percent effectively changed the discourse and countered generations of corporate, elitist and political propaganda and tyranny. This global awakening is exacerbated by the fact that we were cast into the information era in an evolutionary blink of an eye. We’re all rapidly reinventing ourselves and re-contextualizing ourselves in the midst of more changes within one generation than any other group of humans has seen. Global access to the internet did not even exist twenty years ago.
It was a curious fact that the NATO gathering in Chicago occurred during an eclipse, bringing into focus the international military industrial complex and all that it evokes. For all these reasons, it was not at all difficult for 2012 prophecies to gather this vast constellation of cultural memes around itself.
Thomas Jefferson once said ‘When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; When the government fears the people, there is liberty.’ There is a sign that one would see at the boundary of the autonomous territory of Chiapas that reads:
“You are in Zapatista Rebel territory.
Here, the People Command and the Government Obeys.”
Indigenous groups have always been community-oriented, collectivist cultures and in Chiapas today all decisions are made communally, by vote and by consensus, not too different from how the local assemblies at Occupy make their decisions. Chiapas has become a model of decentralization of power and participatory democracy, and of course a huge challenge to the power of the corrupt Mexican state.
Post-insurrection Chiapas remains a stateless society where the mothers and grandmothers make sure that no one goes hungry, without an education or any of the basic requirements for human dignity. It is there that the Mayans originally made their home.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Autarchy and Its Relevance Today

The word autarchy derives from the Greek: αὐτάρκεια, which means "self-sufficiency" (derived from αὐτο-, "self," and ἀρκέω, "to suffice").  Today, it's used mostly to refer to the self governance and self sufficiency of small states or provinces.  There is also military autarchy, and some libertarian thinkers today have proposed that autarchy should replace anarchy in contemporary libertarian discourse.

Autarchy, in its original context, was one of the goals of life in Epicureanism.  The philosophy of Epicurus has been subjected to so many layers of misunderstanding and bias over the centuries that today most people link epicureanism with gourmet food and unrestrained hedonism.  Like many of the things that Epicurus taught, autarchy has also shifted in meaning.  In this case, it has been reduced to the realm of politics and economics although Epicurus himself encouraged his disciples to never get involved in politics. Epicurean autarchy does involve self sufficiency, and economics are inescapable from this, but the philosopher stressed mental and emotional autarchy: the ability to be independent, content and happy with the simple things in life.

Epicurus taught that there is an economic component to a good life and encouraged simple living and self sufficiency.  In the year 306 BCE, he acquired land outside of Athens and founded The Garden, where he lived with his close friends and disciples and where they discussed philosophical matters.  The Garden evolved into a model of Epicurean community and became their Academy or philosophical university.

The ideal of simple living which Epicurus proposed has today been resurrected in the frugality movement.  Yet, simplicity is not just a lifestyle for hippies or the poor: it is also one of the main roads that can lead to riches. 

Years ago, I read the book The Millionaire Next Door, where the authors tracked 7 habits of first-generation self-made millionaires and found that --contrary to what was expected-- most of them lived a frugal life.  They lived below their means, drove normal cars and lived in normal homes: no mansion, no Lexus, just your normal average Joe.  The authors of the book discovered, among other things, that people who are ostentatious about their wealth are generally in debt: frugal people who care more about financial independence than keeping up appearances are oftentimes the ones who end up truly wealthy. 

The ideals of frugality and autarchy resonate profoundly with the financial times in which we live and I think they're deeply interrelated: simplicity can and does lead to mental and financial self sufficiency, just as Epicurus taught 2,300 years ago.  Perhaps with the cultural awakening of the so-called new atheism, we'll begin see his Gardens mushrooming again in the modern world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Epicureanism Vlog Series

A new series of videos by youtuber Lootraevefan explores the philosophy of Epicurus in detail.  Of all ancient philosophies, Epicureanism is perhaps the most wholesome and complete.  Nietzche said that after Epicurus, Greek and Western thought only went downhill.  Christopher Hitchens considered himself an Epicurean and so did Thomas Jefferson.  I mentioned Epicurus, my favorite philosopher, in my piece Death and the Skeptic which was featured in The Humanist.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Will Egypt Degenerate into a Theocracy?

One year ago, our planet lost eminent author Christopher Hitchens whose book God is Not Great had as subtitle "How Religion Poisons Everything".  Thousands of atheists throughout the world raised their whiskey glass --Hitchens' favorite-- to his memory over the last several days.  And how relevant is his message still today!

Egypt in recent times had a revolution where people died on the streets thirsty for freedom and furious against tyranny.  Now, as the dust is settling, the draft of a new constitution seems to have been hastily voted on by a slim majority that re-establishes shari'a as the basis of Egyptian law and gives too much power to clerics from Al-Azhar University, to the president and the military.  The process was so lacking in transparency that liberals, Christians and secularists walked out in protest at one point, leaving mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of the contents of the new constitution.

An article in the Economist claims that the new constitution would bring Egypt back into the Mubarak era.  Among its provisions, the constitution gives the military the dubious right to arrest and subject to trial citizens independent of the judiciary, a clause that made many international defenders of human rights cringe.  It reminded many of the recent arrest and torture of hundreds in the Queen of the Nile boat for the imaginary crime of homosexuality.

During the vote, the city of Alexandria witnessed most of the violence as women protested a polling station where they were being prevented from voting because they weren't veiled.

Another minority that stands to suffer are the Baha'is.  Not only is the new constitution based on shari'a but it also limits religious liberty to the so-called 'heavenly religions' of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  Article 37 grants the right to build a house of worship only to these three religions.

As such, Baha'is and members of any other religious tradition would find themselves second-class citizens just as they were under Mubarak, when they were denied the right to carry a national ID card for refusal to identify as either Christian or Muslim.  Without this card, they were unable to enjoy basic social services and rights in Egyptian society.  The new constitution clearly indicates that religious discrimination will continue even as it supposedly guarantees religious liberty.

And so if the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, nothing has changed in Egypt and the blood of its martyrs was spilled in vain.  I don't know if, as Hitchens said, religion really poisons everything but I can at least say that Egypt's revolution has been poisoned by religion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I had the pleasure of witnessing Bhi Bhiman in a live performance. Many of his songs had an endearing effect.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Your history is not your destiny.
- Alan Watts