The Covid-19 pandemic, pro-Trump protestors storming the Capitol, fake news, and global warming-it is true that we live in an age of crises, but we are not unique in this. For instance, the generation born in 1890s Britain would have experienced the consecutive crises of the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the great majority would have died during the Cold War with its many nerve-wracking geopolitical tensions. What is common to crises is that they provoke societies into reviewing their worldviews and asking whether they need to be modified or rejected because they are the cause of their difficulties. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, the Romans asked themselves what they had done wrong to cause this great humiliation. Many concluded that they ought to return to the worship of the traditional Roman gods who they thought were punishing them for embracing Christianity. However, despite this popular conclusion, Christianity was too deeply rooted as the Roman Empire’s official religion for it to be supplanted. But so great was the outrage against Christianity that the great Christian thinker Augustine was stimulated to write City of God to refute pagan accusations.
The philosopher Catherine Wood, in her recent article for the New Statesman called ‘Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now’, asks a similar question to that of the Romans: what is the best belief system to deal with the crises in our institutions and in our relations with the natural world and each other? Her conclusion is that we must throw off the deeply ingrained influence of such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, the early church fathers, and Kant who have demonized pleasure and instead be guided by Epicurean principles. For those who have not come across Epicureanism, Wood is an expert guide.
According to Wood, Epicureanism took its name from its founder, Epicurus, who was a Greek philosopher living in the third century BC. His definition of what is good is pleasure gained through our senses. Watching a beautiful sunset is a sensory pleasure. Wood does not believe that Epicurean definitions of pleasure are limited to the senses. In contradiction to Stoicism that holds the pleasure principle responsible for reducing humans down to the level of primal sensuality, Wood argues that pleasure drives our rational thinking and communication because they are in themselves pleasurable. She also refutes the Stoic representation of Epicureanism as the uncontrolled and unprincipled seeking of pleasure. Epicureans are disciplined because they judiciously choose their pleasures to avoid causing themselves and others pain. For example, consumerism is consumption gone made. Epicureans are not consumerists because they wish to avoid the pain of environmental destruction, economic inequality, and the exploitation of shop workers that consumerism causes. Epicurean ethics boil down to a few simple dictums: avoid harming others and therefore making enemies, form agreements with others for mutual aid and seek the highest good which is friendship. Avoid wealth because having it causes anxiety. Avoid too ambition as it creates adversaries. Unrequited love and jealousy are terrible pains and so be careful when falling in love. What else does Wood find attractive in Epicureanism?
Wood values Epicureanism’s courage in the face of realities that we cannot change. Epicureans refuse to believe in gods and an afterlife. Their view of death is that living organisms decompose into their constituent atoms and nothing more. Death, however, is not to be feared because although we will experience dying, we do not experience our deaths as we are not conscious. We also have experienced a kind of death before-the time before we were alive and that never bothered us. Wood’s question therefore is why would anyone reject such a great philosophy?
Her answer to that question is that we are taught to be ambitious for wealth, power, and fame at the cost of our enjoyment and often at the cost of our health and relationships with others. Another reason is that suffering is tolerated as it is regarded by some as an inherent part of the cosmos and so only a lucky few will experience pleasure. Religion prevents people from seeking pleasure amid their suffering by teaching that suffering is the means to salvation and that it will be compensated for in the next. But Epicureans argue that this life is all we have and so according to Wood, Epicurean politics and economics would aim for the protection and pleasure of all in the here and now, a principle far superior in managing the political, economic and health crises of the present age than the obsession with free markets, unequal capital acquisition and consumer output that is burning up our planet. But there is another reason why someone would reject Epicureanism and that is Christianity. Christianity offers as much as Epicureanism and more when it comes to pleasure and suffering.
If this is the case, why does Christianity have a reputation for being a faith about suffering? Hagiography’s many martyrdoms, excruciating penances, barefoot pilgrimages-such practices appear to justify this reputation. For Epicureans, Christian theology is imbalanced and the Christian mind morbid in contrast to Epicureanism’s healthy embrace of pleasure and avoidance of pain. There are other reasons, however, for why Christian culture is legitimately so deeply concerned with suffering. First, Christianity is founded on Jesus of Nazareth’s dolorous death. The full theological and existential implications of this history-dividing event of everlasting consequences are still being understood. What is clear, however, is that Jesus’ death was the price God was prepared to pay for the ineffable pleasure of reconciled relationship with humanity, a pleasure that overrides this life’s pains in the here and now and forever. Second, unlike godless Epicureanism, Christianity faces this serious question: why would an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God permit humans to be evil to each other and to suffer disease, pain, and natural disaster? This question is a profoundly searching one on philosophical and pastoral levels, hence the amount of emphasis it has received within Christian thought.
The accusation that Christianity causes people to endure suffering patiently and meekly because of the promise of an everlasting afterlife compensation is true if one half of the Christian message is ignored. It is true that Christianity offers everlasting compensation for the hardships and horrors of our mortal lives. Nothing less could be expected from an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and everlasting God who desires ceaseless relationship with people. In the New Testament book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is described as a place where God ‘will wipe away every tear’ from his people’s eyes and there shall be ‘no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying’ and ‘there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’ (21:4; NKJV). Such a prospect is comforting for those struggling with life’s pains. Nevertheless, Christianity is no less concerned with this present life’s quality. For example, the Old Testament makes it clear that ‘the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern’ (Proverb 29:7). One of the signs that people are genuine followers of Christ is how they alleviate suffering in this life (Matthew 25:31-46). If Christianity is indifferent to present suffering, why have so many Christians over the centuries labored hard to alleviate it? The historical and contemporary record of Christianity’s humanitarian acts such as establishing hospitals, charities and schools is impressive. Such philanthropy is hard to explain if the present is of no consequence. As Christian Aid’s slogan reads: ‘We believe in life before death.’
Wood declares that Epicureans avoid suffering through making judicious choices. Christianity does so no less. The Book of Proverbs is filled with advice and admonitions about the importance of being wise and discrete. Solomon, who is traditionally held to be the author of Proverbs, wrote this: ‘My son, let them not depart from your eyes-keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul and grace to your neck. Then you will walk safely in your way, and your foot will not stumble’ (3:21-23). Christian teaching is clear: a life of judicious moral choices prevents people from falling into dangers.
What evidence is there that Christianity not only seeks to prevent suffering, but promotes pleasure? The creation narratives reveal that God intended the world he had created to be one of pleasure. God himself took pleasure in what he had made because he saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Life was intended to be satisfying for Adam and Eve. They had meaningful work such as the supervision of God’s creation, the pleasure of reproduction, a plentiful supply of healthy food and leisure due to the institution of the Sabbath (1:28-30). The garden of Eden where humans lived was filled with trees that were ‘pleasant to the sight and good for food’ (2:9). Adam and Eve enjoyed friendship with each other and with God, something that Wood says Epicureans value highly (1:28; 2:18-25). Intellectual pleasures were available also. Adam at God’s invitation engaged in taxonomy, or the naming of the animals, and whatever names Adam gave them, that was its name (1:19, 20).
Human enjoyment of God and the Edenic paradise were lost by Adam and Eve’s injudicious choice of eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (3:1-the end). This was a loss of cosmic proportions according to Christianity because it is the source of all moral evil and suffering. Atheist Epicureanism does not accept the historical truth of the Genesis account, but whether or not it is true, because of it Christian belief cannot be described as one of pro-suffering and anti-pleasure. On the contrary, Christian belief is about the restoration of friendship with God and each other and the restoration of the natural world made possible by the atoning death of God the Son incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection (John 3:16; Romans 8:19-21). Again, Epicureans are atheists and so would not accept these assertions, but because of these assertions, Epicureans cannot describe Christianity as less concerned with pleasure than they are.
Although Epicureanism has much that is morally worthwhile, philosophically it suffers a decisive weakness which is exposed by these questions: who is to tell us what is pleasurable and who is tell us that we are to choose our pleasures judiciously? The answer to this question might seem obvious since there is remarkable agreement over what causes pleasure and suffering, the desirability of pleasure and the undesirability of suffering and the need to make sagacious choices if we are to flourish. For example, millions of people find vacations pleasurable and will organize vacations with reliable travel companies to give themselves and others pleasure. Each human finds toothache painful and so will try to avoid it through good oral hygiene and regular dental checkups if those things are available, and will advise others to do the same so they can avoid this pain. Taking vacations with reliable travel companies and looking after our teeth are judicious choices for, they are a secure way of gaining pleasure and an easy way of avoiding pain. Most people take most of their pleasures in ways that do not cause others pain. Jimmy might enjoy listening to heavy metal music in the early hours, but he wears headphones so as not to cause his housemates and neighbors the pain of disturbed sleep. Epicureans therefore feel morally justified in advising people to seek what causes them pleasure and avoid what causes pain in sensible ways.
What then can Epicureanism say to the psychopath who sees pleasure and pain differently to the rest of us? Why is the psychopath’s pleasure in torturing and shooting his victims any less of a pleasure than innocently going on vacation? Why should he not be allowed to pursue his passion of killing? The Epicurean could appeal to the fact that murder is an illicit pleasure as it causes the victims pain. The Epicurean could also tell the psychopath that the great majority of people do not enjoy killing and therefore he ought not to either. Finally, the Epicurean could appeal to the psychopath’s sense of self-preservation: if he attempts to kidnap and murder someone, he might end up being killed by his victim who reaches for her gun first. It is therefore not judicious for him to murder. The psychopath could argue that he adheres to another moral philosophy called violent hedonism. This is what he calls seeking the pleasure he needs from killing others and his pleasure is far more important than anyone’s suffering. In fact, others’ suffering is vital to causing him pleasure. The possibility that he might be killed by one of his victims heightens his pleasure because he enjoys risk-taking. The psychopath therefore sets his own ethical rules. As the psychopath cannot see the Epicurean’s point, what can be done?
The Christian certainly agrees with the Epicurean at this point. Torture and murder are profoundly wrong. There is Scriptural warrant for agreeing that the great majority of people condemn murder as wrong for Romans 2:14, 15 states that generally people, whether they know God or not, have a conscience.
However, the psychopath ‘problem’ reveals a serious problem with Epicureanism. For the Epicurean to be right contra the psychopath, she would have to demonstrate that people are intrinsically valuable as a fact, something which the psychopath cannot see, but is objectively true. As the contemporary Epicurean is an atheist and post-Darwin, she is committed to the theories of evolution and natural selection as the origins of humanity. Unfortunately, intrinsically valuable humans do not emerge from valueless, unguided forces. We can treat each other as if we are intrinsically valuable, but this is exposed by the psychopath as a useful fiction. If the Epicurean’s ethics are the result of evolutionary forces, so too are the psychopaths and therefore no less justified. As the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer asserted with vicious clarity, if there is no God and everything happens naturalistically, God is not needed and he, Dahmer, owned himself and could set his own rules.
The Epicurean has discerned objective moral values but cannot ground them as objective in the face of the psychopath because of a naturalistic world view. Christianity, on the other hand, presents humans as intrinsically valuable because humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), a maximal being who possesses maximum value. Christianity’s ability to ground human value depends on its truthfulness, but Christianity has no more burden of proof than Epicurean materialism does. The psychopath may not be convinced any more by the idea of the image of God than the idea that inflicting pain is wrong. For that to happen, God would have to work an act of grace inside the psychopath. However, the argument from intrinsic value grounded in God may well prick the consciences of selfish, but non-psychopathic people more quickly.
At the beginning of this blog, we noted how Wood admires Epicureanism because it calls on people to be brave in the face of their extinction in death. Bravery certainly can fit within the Epicurean moral economy. Being brave can be frightening, but the fact that one has been brave is a source of pleasure. Being brave can also reduce pain. The big brother, or sister, who stands up for a younger sibling against bullies is taking away the pain of being bullied. What is clear is that many people are brave in the face of death, even when they are convinced it is the end of them. Many people on the other hand are also very frightened of dying and being dead because the first can be very painful and the second appears to mean extinction or the possibility of an afterlife that is very unpleasant.
Epicurus regarded extinction as an advantage because he believed it removed the fear of suffering in the afterlife. To resolve the fear of extinction, there are two arguments within Epicurean literature.
- The No Subject of Harm Argument
As the dead no longer exist, they cannot experience death. As the living are not dead, they cannot experience death either. Being dead therefore is nothing to be feared because it cannot be experienced by anyone.
- The Symmetry Argument
This argument says that if anyone fears death, s/he ought to consider the time before he was born. As we do not think not existing before we were born a terrible thing, so we ought not to think that our non-existence after death is a terrible thing. Our non-existence before our birth is mirrored by our non-existence after our deaths.
These assurances are problematic. Being extinct may not be a problem to the inexistent one, but it is the anticipation of being inexistent that is so painful to the existent one. Death is an interruption of love which is regarded as the greatest pleasure and the thought of losing it either by dying ourselves or through the death of others is a horrendous pain. Such pain will end with death for the dead one, but whilst we are alive, we can think about our deaths, even though we cannot experience death on an Epicurean view, and that is this great pain’s source.
It is true that our pre-natal non-existence never bothered us because we were not around to be bothered by it, but that non-existence was not going to go on forever; it came to an end eventually. However, our extinction will never cease, and it is our anticipation of this that can horrify.
Both these assurances reveal a contradiction in Wood’s thinking. She has censured religion for using post-mortem existence as compensation for present life sufferings yet advances post-mortem non-existence as compensation for the suffering incurred by the anticipation of death in the present life.
Another problem with Epicureanism is that its post-mortem non-survival view is challengeable. First, the correlation between the brain and mind does not necessarily mean that the brain and the mind are identical. The brain will die, but the mind will not necessarily die also. Second, descriptions of what happen in our brain clearly do not do justice to the richness of our conscious experience. Consciousness stubbornly refuses to be confined to a materialistic conceptualization. Third, if epiphenomenalism is true and consciousness is a by-product of material processes, it is hard to see what biological role it would play and therefore it would be inexplicable on naturalistic terms. Finally, university research into near death and after death experiences suggest that consciousness is more than brain function. What can account for consciousness is a mind-or non-physical reality-in perpetual interaction with the brain. This view does not entail necessarily the cosmic panorama of post-mortem existence of Christianity, but it is the beginning of a move towards the proposition that we remain conscious after death as described by Jesus in his parable of Lazarus and the beggar (Luke 16:19-31).
What Christianity offers to those who cling to Jesus as his or her sins’ atoning sacrifice is not personal extinction of all and the universe’s heat death, but an everlasting enjoyment of relationship with God and his people. If people are willing to accept it, Christianity offers quantitatively and qualitatively pleasure and the absence of suffering on a scale beyond the Epicurean’s imagining. This is not a promise for the future. It is a promise for the present, for everlasting life begins the moment a person is ‘born again’ and is a potential infinite that stretches through and beyond his/her death. Christianity also provides an energy for the reforms needed to mend the institutional, social, and ecological crises Wood lists at the start of her article. Those who govern and employ exploitatively, those who ostracize others and those who damage the earth in pursuit of profit need to reflect that there is one who establishes authorities, is the creator of human beings and the earth, and will return one day as a judge. Better that people reform because it is the right thing to do, but fear can work the same results.
All of the above is conditional upon Christianity being true, of course, but the arguments for Christianity are arguments for another time and one which I should heartily recommend the unbelieving reader to investigate.