Freedom and happiness, minimalism and communitarian fraternity. Epicureans speak truthfully as part of an effort to live for real. From them we inherited utilitarianism, but also the pretty communitarian symbol that was the first frozen food.
If there is a subversive doctrine at the very origin of Western thought, it is that of the Epicureans. Even the biography of Epicurus by Diogenes Laertius devotes its first half to pick up much of the infamies and outrages of various kinds that were invented about its author during the first centuries. Although in the end he categorically denies them, at first he accepts them, with the sole objective of turning them upside down and damage his memory. In fact, very few texts related to this movement remain today. From Epicurus himself, three letters, some maxims, a few fragments isolated from each other, a few citations in the works of his disciples, and comments from Seneca and Cicero. And above all, the beauty that is the “Rerum Natura” of Lucretius, a long poem explaining the basics of Epicureanism.
The fact is that thanks to the influential contemporary resistors for six hundred years, and the phobia of Christianity for almost two thousand more, even today, for many the word “Epicurean” is associated with excesses and luxuries, when in fact Epicureans lived a minimalist life that simply refused to preach asceticism. But why so much animosity? What were the Epicureans all about?
The Epicurean narrative
As we saw in a previous post, Aristippus‘ response to the death of Socrates is based on raising the foundations of a utilitarian ethic. Epicurus and his followers built from it a whole worldview that can be summarized in three points: materialism in their vision of Nature, pursuit of happiness in their ethics, and fraternity in their conception of community, the only social structure they were interested in.
For centuries, they were the most important supporters of the atomic theory inherited from Democritus, but releasing it from the rigid determinism of its original creator. Epicurus introduces for the first time the role of chance in both nature and society. That materialism without final destinies or grand “necessary outcomes” will be their big disagreement with the Stoics. For the Epicureans, necessity (causality) is balanced with the denial of doom introduced by chance and spontaneity in Nature itself. This natural triad -necessity, chance, spontaneity- is for them the base for human freedom in society. The Epicureans considered themselves much more autonomous than the Stoics because they simply thought they had a stronger influence on their real environment. Their serenity, their ataraxia, doesn’t require so much separation neither asks for renunciations as the Stoic ataraxia: it is simply the product of a balanced set of good choices that allowed enjoying life, knowledge, and simple everyday pleasures – from contemplating to eating – without guilt or torments.
So was that it? Was that the reason why the Epicureans were portrayed as a bunch of revelers given to excess? No. In fact, the Epicurean ethic was a minimalist ethic, a prudent strategy for the search of pleasure – primarily intellectual pleasure, but never rejecting, much less condemning, sensual pleasure – that rejects excess and even admits that it is legitimate to trade off present “pain” for greater future pleasure. Surely all this will today sound familiar for anyone who has studied an introductory course in Economics: Epicurean ethics, its arithmetic of attractions and aversions where pleasure adds and pain subtracts, doesn’t differ much from the logic of Bentham‘s utility function. And let’s not forget that Catholic economists as illustrious as Pareto, the first source of inspiration for fascism in economics, devoted their lives to trying to “remove” utilitarianism from economic analysis.
A task that the Church Fathers had already undertaken against Epicurus, even resorting to the Old Testament to discredit the pig – the favorite pet of the Epicureans – presenting it as “a filthy animal that is slave to its instincts.” The implied associations were obvious, and ignored precisely what the Epicureans valued the most from the animal: affective bonds as the basis of their small social structure, living “inwardly”, their passion for play and interaction… and its utility as a food sources, of course.
But actually, caricaturing Epicurean ethics was just a hypocritical way of attacking what was really considered more subversive.
And that was not their atheism, even if the Internet is still full of Epicurean arguments against the existence of an omnipotent and good God, and even if it is hard to forget the strength of their complaint against the professional “pious”:
The godless are not those who supress the Gods, but those who conform them to the opinions of mortals.
What is really subversive and hated is their love for fraternity. The largest area of personal sovereignty claimed by the Epicureans, following the metaphor of their conception of matter, led them to think of themselves more as nodes than atoms, and to focus on building communities that were not only conversational and focused on knowledge, but also on celebration. Thus, the Epicureans conclude that friendship//fraternity is the source of any significant social bond:
We do not need help from our friends as much as we need to long for their help.
And they see fraternity as intrinsically united to true learning:
Of all the things that wisdom gives us, the greatest is enabling us to make friends
Fraternity will be the main binder of their communities, and therefore of not only a theoretical but a real apolitical ethos which annoys even the theoretically apolitical Stoics, not to mention Cicero, who despite having been tutored by an Epicurean master and being a supporter of the school, dedicated his life and career to the turbulent politics of the final years of the Republic. But as Filodemo says:
If we were to investigate what is most opposed to friendship and the most fertile of aversions, we would see that this is simply politics
As the Mithraics, to whom they seem to have influenced, even if to a lesser extent than the Stoics, by the Stoics, the Epicureans seem to have intuited the Dunbar number. They not only preach the apolitical, they also divide their communities to not become so many as to not be able to enjoy fraternity, which in practice seems to be as important as freedom for the pursuit of happiness.
This subordination of the external, of the public to communitarian logic, is embodied in what is probably the least known legacy of the Latin Epicureans: frozen food.
The invention of frozen food
Epicureans groups gave banquets regularly. They were all about uniting conversation and joy on a regular basis in a small order that would be the delight of contemporary atheists 2.0. One of the popular dishes of those banquets were asparagus, a nice minimalist symbol for its simplicity and delicacy, but also the triumph of natural spontaneity versus effort as a merit in itself, exalted by the Stoics. The problem is that asparagus are seasonal and Epicurean feasts were distributed throughout the year.
What to do? While civil wars that would end with the triumph of Augustus and the end of the the Republic bled Rome and the empire, the Epicureans of the entire Italian peninsula created a huge logistics network outside battles for power. They didn’t carry any weapons or messages, and did not interfere with the warring factions. They only transported fresh asparagus to the Alps, where they kept them in deep holes dug in the rock and covered with ice. The state could sink, but the Epicureans would not take part in its battles, and fresh fresh asparagus would not go amiss in their cliques.
There can hardly be a more radical and insolent example of communitarianism. Because the Epicureans had tried a drug that the Stoics hardly new: if parrhesia, speaking truthfully, was the heart of philosophical life from the time of Socrates, living it in the fraternity of the community was something even more powerful. The Epicureans speak truthfully as part of a conscious effort to “live for real”.
Translated by Alan Furth from the original in Spanish.