The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 1 Epicurus and the Right to Party

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“The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death. For living does not offend him, nor does he believe not living to be something bad. And just as he does not unconditionally choose the largest amount of food but the most pleasant food, so he savors not the longest time but the most pleasant.”

– Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Epicurus and the Right to Party

In 309 BCE, Epicurus settled permanently in an Athens that was the merest twitchy whisper of its former self. The proud democracy that stood resolutely against Persian tyranny and led a coalition against Sparta’s power had been broken by the Macedonians in 322 BCE, its political institutions gutted, and its glory never to return. In the wake of these events, new systems of philosophy sprung up, thick-skinned collections of pragmatic thought that peeled away the excesses of the Platonists to return reality to the throne.

This was the age of Hellenistic philosophy, and it is thoroughly gorgeous and delightful, though Christianity’s obsession with Plato and Aristotle would all but bury its significance in the ensuing millennia. The three major schools were Epicureanism, Stoicism, and skepticism, and all of them took as their starting premise that things had gotten way out of hand under Plato. The revered Athenian’s monomania for abstract forms and incorporeal perfections struck the Hellenists as dangerously idealistic, threatening to sacrifice entirely the good of the world as it is in the pursuit of artful fables.

Our guy, Epicurus, was a dedicated materialist and atomist. He held that, when the body dies, nothing survives. We are done, and need to make our peace with that fact. Further, in a move that would have to wait 1900 years for resurrection at the hands of Giordano Bruno (who would then promptly get burned at the hands of the Inquisition for it) he maintained that, to learn about the stuff of the heavens, you needed to learn about how things work on Earth and draw parallels. To understand stars and moons and eclipses, we need to understand the nature we have available to us, and not just throw up our hands, call everything in the sky “divine” and start recklessly philosophizing about what it all ought to be like.

He also wasn’t particularly fond of anything that denigrated our lived experience and perceptions in favor of realities beyond. He stressed the importance of each person’s different biological makeup, and how that biology might impact how we perceive the world, without then making the Platonic step of saying that, because we all perceive reality differently, we should abandon trust in mere perception. Rather, Epicurus hotly maintained, we need to learn to respect the individuality of perception, the reality of the mental event itself. Even when hallucinating, something very real is happening to our bodies, an event that deserves investigation, even if the objects of the hallucination don’t “exist” out in the world in the ordinary sense. He was a psychologist in an age of idealists.

Of course, we know him primarily as “The Pleasure Guy,” or “Dr. Hedonism.” And it’s certainly true that he maintained that the pleasures of humanity were important, and that friendship was the central fact of pleasant existence. But his writings, or the meager scraps that survive of his hundreds of volumes, are very explicit in their warnings against excess. Excess carries with it the stuff of pain, and cuts off the nurturing flow of those things that give us everyday contentment. Epicurus himself considered “a pot of cheese” to be a grand indulgence, a cup of diluted wine entirely sufficient,  and was probably a vegetarian to boot.

Shortly after the age of Hellenism, humanism would be forced underground, only daring to show itself when draped in a costume of religious observance that worked at cross purposes to its message. But here, in this tenuous blip between the fall of classical Greece and the emergence of world Christianity, humans were considering their humanity and, in a glorious moment too wonderful to last, deemed it to be enough.

NOTES ON THE COMIC: Epicurus, as far as we know, did not have a wife. Also, the overlap between the lives of Aristotle and Epicurus was only about twenty years, so Aristotle would have been long dead by the time Epicurus had grey hair.