Sunday, 19 August 2012

I'm a secret Epicurean...

Clearly, I'm in a philosophical frame of mind recently! I've recently come across something else that I find fascinating, namely classical philosophy and the study of the purpose of life. 

The aim of my blog post here is not to discover the meaning of life, but to discuss what other folks have thought of as the purpose of life. I would like to differentiate between these terms, because while they appear to mean the same thing, I rather feel in this context they need to be separate. In the OED, "purpose" is used as a synonym for "meaning" along with "significance" and "underlying truth", yet the entry for "purpose" defines the word as an "object" to attain. So the "meaning of life" encompasses more than just its "purpose". 

Aristotle, one of the greatest of the classical philosophers to have come down to us, has quite the controversial view on the subject, as he does with many ideas. According to Aristotle, the ultimate objective of human life is happiness and well-being, which does sound rather blissful, don't you think? This is not what is controversial about his views, however. The best way to attain happiness and well-being is through leisure, or more to the point, 'leisure well spent'. So what is leisure?

In today's society, 'leisure' is often defined in negative terms as the time left over after work. In everyday life, we define ourselves by our jobs and professions, "Hello, I'm Mark, I'm a civil servant", not "Hello, I'm Mark, I like reading, the opera, and visiting interesting places. I fund all this by being a civil servant". To Aristotle, however, leisure was a very positive thing. Broadly speaking, leisure is any activity that one does for its own end - if there is some ulterior motive for doing anything, then it is not leisure. So if you go running to get/stay fit, you are not at leisure. If you go to work to earn money, you are not at leisure. If you play games to relax after a day of work, you are not at leisure. In fact, games are specifically described in Politics as being almost a kind of medicine that is required - after a day at work, you need to relax your body or mind in order to bring it back into balance. 

Added to this, there is a 'function' to being a human being, in the same way that other things have functions - flautists and sculptors being his examples in Nicomachean Ethics. The function of the human being is then described as the exercise of reason, as everything else humans do - eat and grow, sensing the world around us - we share with animals and plants. It follows from this idea that there is a human function that it is possible to be good at being a human, and to be bad at being a human. Aristotle tells us that the function of the lyre-player is to play his instrument, but to be an excellent lyre-player is to play that instrument well. On this premise, then, to be a human is to exercise reason, but to be an excellent human being is to exercise your reason in such a way that is 'good and admirable'. 

This is all well and good, of course, but Aristotle then makes several controversial claims about who in society can be an excellent human being, the answer being only a select few. Children, it is assumed, have not yet learnt to exercise their reason well enough, so will never be excellent human beings, but rather chauvinistically, he claims that women, while capable of making rational choices, are never very good at acting upon them, so will also never be excellent human beings (it might be worth noting that the Greeks thought "hysteria" a disease of the womb, at this point). He goes on to explain that slaves do not use reason, and some people are 'natural slaves' who will never make a rational decision in their life. This is paralleled in modern society by the idea of "some people are leaders, some are followers" - these followers are the sort of natural slaves who will never become excellent human beings because they do not exercise their reason, they just go along with whatever anyone else tells them. 

The only people who are capable of being excellent human beings, therefore, are the people with enough leisure time to pursue reasoned, intellectual matters, and to reflect upon them. Because to pursue an intellectual matter in and of itself has a purpose, of course - to learn about said matter - and so is not a leisure activity. But when you know the subject matter, and you reflect upon it in a philosophical way, then you have become an excellent human being: you are pursuing the real purpose of life. 

It all seems very grand, doesn't it? 

By contrast, the philosopher Epicurus has a much simpler, but much more all-encompassing, view of the purpose of life. According to Epicurus, the purpose of life is to obtain a healthy body and a tranquil mind. Quite in keeping with Aristotle's first notion of the purpose of life as health and well-being, really. It is a very idyllic picture, wouldn't you say? To shy away from pain and to dedicate oneself to the pursuit of pleasure, who would balk at that? Certainly not a hedonist like myself, let me tell you! But of course, there is more to it than that. 

The exercise of reason is still a valid requirement of the human being to Epicurus, but not as an end in itself, but in order to weigh the pains and the pleasures, and to see whether some pain is perhaps necessary in order to attain greater pleasure at the end. The notion that one must work in order to then have the money to live comfortably comes at once to my own mind here. A notion that is refuted by Epicurus' further claims that the best life is the simple life. Pursuing pleasure unfettered can lead to a dangerous road, one of debauchery and gluttony. One of the biggest aims of the Epicurean is to be content with what one has, to become 'accustomed ... to simple and inexpensive foods ... [so that] when at intervals we approach luxuries we are in a better condition to enjoy them' (from the Letter to Menoeceus). Almost utopean, you could say.

This check on what is pleasure is necessary, I suppose, because pleasure means different things to different people. I said before that I enjoy going to the opera, and I derive great pleasure from that. But to someone else, they may think of going to the opera as barely a step above Chinese water torture, and would liken the sounds coming from the stage to the results of such. But suppose someone derives great pleasure from killing people, or from theft, or other such negative acts. Should we try to stop them? Do we have the right to deny someone else pleasure, if the pursuit of pleasure is the purpose of life? Surely, to deny them this, we may as well kill them now, for we are denying them the purpose of being alive. 

Philosophy is of course replete with such ethical dilemmas. I am hardly original when I present my own view, that people should have the right to pursue pleasure so long as it does not interfere with someone else's rights to the same. By killing someone, you are denying them the chance to pursue pleasure, so while it may give you pleasure, it is wrong to so. However, if you happen to be the kind of person who derives great pleasure from killing, and you happen to meet someone whose greatest pleasure would be to be killed, then get to it and be done with. The separate can of worms that deals with mental capacity is not going to be dealt with here, though this line of thought is certainly a fascinating one.

The simple life is something that continued on into Imperial Rome, both Cicero and Horace were great Epicureans. The idea of having luxury every day will desensitize you to it, and possibly even drive you to further and further flights of fancy. Life is to be enjoyed from the simple things, a yearning that is present in most people, if we're honest with ourselves, to this day. Certainly, to have every day off work would lead to boredom, but to have the weekends only makes them times to be cherished and to look forward to them. This leads to the idea that to have unbridled choice is to have no choice at all, which I won't get into right now. 

For Epicurus, everyone can be an excellent human being, because even children will instinctively shy away from pain but respond well to pleasure. 

The pursuit of pleasure leads into the idea of American philosopher Robert Nozick of "The Experience Machine" - a device where you can float in a tank while neurological machines stimulate your brain into thinking you're experiencing whatever you want. You can pick and choose whatever you damn well like, "plug in", and away you go. If you're worried you might miss out on the real world, you can come out at intervals, catch up on latest developments, then program your next stint. It sounds good, no? 

"No" is my answer! 

To abdicate from your life in such a manner seems utterly unconscionable, and as our old friend Aristotle would say, you'd be reduced to a plant, as you would no longer be exercising your reason, or even sensing the real world around you. You'd have choice, of course, but if everything always goes exactly the way you want it, you'd get bored, surely? Where's the fun of trying if you know you're always going to succeed? You may as well just say "Yes, I've achieved my life's aims, I've done x, y and z, and wasn't it amazing!?!" then immediately shoot yourself. You'd die thinking you'd done them, without ever having lifted a finger, which is precisely what Nozick's thought experiment is all about, to my way of looking at it. 

So I heartily disagree with Aristotle, only inasmuch as the purpose of life as defined by him seems too narrow to my way of thinking. Epicurus, however, presents a view much more in keeping with my own personal thoughts on life. To pursue pleasure is admirable, and so anything done in that pursuit is to be commended. For one, I enjoy learning about new ideas, or discovering old ones as the case may be. It is an activity which has a purpose, so would be dismissed by Aristotle, but because it gives me pleasure, I'm sure I'd get a big thumbs-up from Epicurus. But the tedium of trying to get my head around some fairly huge concepts is part of the pleasure of discovering these ideas, I wouldn't want to miss out on all that by abdicating my life to "The Experience Machine", no thank you sir! 

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I am forever indebted to Jon Pike and Carolyn Price of the Open University, for passively introducing me to these wonderful concepts. A big thank you to you both!