Epicurus the epicurean

Posted by kc on April 20, 2012 in Epicurean Delights, Philosophically speaking |

A few days ago, back when I was deciding that I couldn’t legitimately call myself an accidental dog owner but that I was fast becoming an accidental if completely amateur gourmand, I was having a little difficulty determining if I should label this new facet “epicure” or “epicurean,” both used as the noun. I was quite surprised to learn that “epicurean” comes in two flavors.

Time out. I’m sitting outside Chez Wildmoon whilst I write, and so the goings on around me are in full view. Including some episode at a neighbor’s wherein a woman is leaning in the sunroof of a car and removing items. Apparently, the keys are lost, but it seems to me if you can lean in the sunroof to retrieve items, you could also lean in the sunroof and open the door. Ah. From the shouts of joy, I see the keys are found. Back to the epicurious. Although the whole lot of them, and there are a lot, seem to have the street completely blocked to passing cars. Curious indeed.

So there’s the usual meaning of epicurean, which means the same as epicure, that is, a person with somewhat refined tastes, who rather enjoys food for the sheer joy of it as well. But the second sparked my interest.

Turns out, the word also means a follower of a philosopher from Greece, one Epicurus. In ancient Greek, the man’s name meant “ally” or “comrade,” so it’s clear the meaning had no bearing on our use of the word today regarding food.

But Epicurus was a curious character, and it’s quite interesting, to me anyway, that all these millennia later we don’t think of him whenever we think of Greek philosophers. not that we do that often.

Plato and Aristotle are names known to many these days, and although Epicurus was every bit as well regarded as those two gentlemen, we just don’t hear much about him anymore.

I won’t venture to figure why a fellow who was instrumental in the early development of scientific and ethical study would be nearly forgotten today. And I’m not even very concerned with his thoughts on those matters, although I must tell you that he predated the Christian “Golden Rule” with his Ethic of Reciprocity by quite a distance. Truth be told, though, most religions had something along those lines, long before Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Instead, I found that the core of Epicurism, which Epicureans believe, is that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that what is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is pain. Therefore, one should spend one’s life avoiding pain because if there is no suffering, then there is no need for pleasure and one enters a perfect and calm mental state the Greeks called ataraxia. Interesting from a guy who died of very, very painful kidney stones.

Me, I think he may have just barely missed the point, and it’s pretty obvious when the above is taken in along with some of his other musings, such as his belief that the gods, if there are any, really don’t give a shit about humans, and certainly don’t punish or reward them for anything done or undone.

Actually, I’m pretty down with that part myself.

But I think Epicurus was off base to think that one could avoid pain and suffering. It’s just part of life. Take my recent misfortune, for example. I was in a good deal of pain, which, Epicurus would have it, is evil. But there’s nothing I could have done to avoid the pain, short of staying home that day and not driving. That, of course, is probably what Epicurus would have done. He lived simply and did his best to do nothing that could cause him pain, which didn’t save him from the kidney stones.

I don’t know where this Greek guy got off worrying about good and evil, and I don’t think he meant either in the kind of moralistic sense that religions tout today. But I do think that’s a dualism that just gets us caught in a loop, a vicious circle of never ending madness, and a product of our minds at that.

Good and evil — they exist only when we name something good or evil. Think about it.

Actually, the Old Testament book of Genesis says a little about this. The story of the Garden of Eden, wherein the talking serpent tells the First Woman that if she and the First Man eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they’ll become as gods themselves. The First Man thinks this is a good thing, and so they do, and what’s the first thing that happened? They saw they were naked and decided it was Evil. Prior to that, they were still naked, and they saw it, but it wasn’t evil. Not until they decided it was, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and thinking they were godlike.

See, humans have no business thinking they can decide what’s Good and Evil. If Good and Evil actually exist, it’s way above our pay grade. Here on earth, life just is. But according to Western religion’s earliest creation myth, humanity got off on the wrong foot early on and have yet to correct the mistake.

The pain I felt (and sometimes still feel) after The Accident isn’t Evil. The Accident itself wasn’t Evil. It may have been karmic, which stems directly from that other part of the Ethic of Reciprocity, What goes around comes around, or, scientifically speaking, For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. That’s another story in and of itself, however, and doesn’t make The Accident and my pain any more than just what is.

So, while Epicurus was after avoiding suffering, I think that’s impossible. Suffering exists. Trying to avoid it is kinda like when bigots say they don’t believe in homosexuality, as if we’re Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Oh, of course, we do obvious things to avoid pain, like not sticking our hands on stove burners right after we shut them off. But that’s just prudent. In life, there will be pain. Live with it.

And try to help others who may be suffering. That’s what I think the lesson of pain is. That we will hurt, but if we all try to help one another, it’ll be just a little bit better, not just for the helpee, but for the helper as well.

It’s just good karma.

And as for why Epicurean came to be epicurean, maybe it’s a misunderstanding of Epicurus, who was not a hedonist seeking pleasure, really, but a simple teacher trying to do the impossible and avoid pain.

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