In the mid 1990s, I asked an assortment of people to describe their favorite simple pleasures. As I expected, the responses were wide-ranging, everything from feelings of accomplishment (perfecting a Chopin étude on the piano) to intimate moments (nursing a baby) to bringing order to chaos (the zen of vacuuming). There were innovative comforts (storing sheets in the freezer for hot summer nights) and quirky delights (reading Hegel at 3 am at the all-night diner) and uninhibited messy moments (eating watermelon shirtless on a sweltering day with juice and seeds dribbling down your chest).
I remember being struck both by how pleased interviewees were to be asked about their pleasures, which they often described eloquently and at length, and by what often seemed like faint embarrassment, as if there was something a little improper about feeling so attached to experiences that weren’t somehow useful or productive. Disapproval of the deliberate pursuit of pleasure is nothing new. The Athenian philosopher Epicurus built an entire treatise around the pursuit of pleasure in the third century BCE. He was roundly criticized for it then, and Epicureanism, though it has attracted followers for more than two thousand years, is still widely dismissed as a celebration of unrestrained hedonism. Not only could nothing be further from the truth, but Epicureanism may be the philosophy best equipped for the navigation of our present age of high anxiety. More on that later. Read more »
A dear friend of mine recently passed away unexpectedly. He had recommended I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which I gobbled up in no time, yet it was too late to talk to him about it. That’s destroying me a bit these days, so I’m writing about it instead.
Frankl survived several concentration camps, the near starvation and typhus that took many others, and explains how he coped and designed a form of psychotherapy in the process. He kept his mind on the future, imagining better days after the war, back with his wife again and lecturing about his experiences. I’ve read it trying to use his word to better tolerate the less acute, more chronic threat of Covid. It might seem trite or contrived to make such a comparison, but consider that more people have succumbed to Covid than Jewish prisoners in the camps and it continues because we are living blindly to it, unthinking. I’m hoping to learn something from his work beyond the obvious problems with allowing unfettered discrimination.
The book is in two parts. In the first, originally published in 1946, he describes his experiences living in a death camp and the three phases of survival in camp life. He wrote it after being released and returning to Vienna to learn that his pregnant wife, parents, and brother had all died in the camps. In the second half he explains how to cope with it all, but I’ll save that for next month. Page numbers throughout are from the 2006 edition.Read more »
If philosophy is not only an academic, theoretical discipline but a way of life, as many Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought, one way of evaluating a philosophy is in terms of the kind of life it entails.
On that score, if we’re playing the game of choose your favorite ancient philosopher, I would say I’m most inspired by the vision of Epicurus. This is not because he had compelling arguments for his views. The fragments of original texts that we have, and the unreliability of many of the commentaries of his contemporaries, leave us with little knowledge of his actual arguments. What is attractive about Epicurus is the vision of a good life that emerges from his work and life.
Unlike Plato and Aristotle at their academies or Stoic sages who populated the ruling class (or endured crushing hardship from the wrong side of that boot), Epicurus presided over “The Garden.” In that tranquil private space outside Athens, he and his followers gathered to enact a humble life of modest pleasure enjoying the bounty of the harvest with friends in conversation. The ideal was that even people of limited means could live a life of contentment and ease if they thought clearly about the nature of pleasure, grasped the need for moderation, and rejected superstitious religious and political beliefs that caused psychological turmoil. Read more »