Saturday, May 17, 2008

Layer 39 The Consolations of Philosophy


Life In A Box

My cat lives in a box:
These days she never rocks
Or rolls on grassy knolls;
Though she’ll sometimes stroll
When the sun is shining
But soon starts pining
For life in her box.

These days I live in a box:
Protected by doorlocks,
Avoiding the pain,
All the slings, arrows and rocks,
The shocks and the wounds
Of outrageous fortune
Outside my box.

My cat and me:
We see things similarly,
We prefer lives of simplicity,
Predictability and pleasure - you see
Epicureans are we:
Happy and free
Enjoying lives in a box.

February 2008

Hamlet III 1

To be, or not to be:
That is the question -
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune . . .

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong . . . ?

Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is something I’ve thought a lot about these past 12months. Sooner or later I’ll make an effort to write something about them, and about the annus miserablis of 2007.


Alain de Botton’s “The Consolations of Philosophy” is a terrific book, and was made into an excellent TV series. And speaking of rocking and rolling, which I’m still very keen on, someone says on the back cover of TCOP, “No doubt about it, philosophy is the new rock and roll”. Really?
OK. Let’s rock.

The book begins with the death of Socrates, put to death by the citizens of Athens for failing to worship the gods, for introducing religious novelties, and for corrupting the young men of Athens. And to think that we reckon WE live in intolerant times.

He could have pleaded for his life and promised to change his ways, of course, but he calmly told the jury, “I shall never stop practising philosophy, and exhorting you, and elucidating the truth for everyone I meet.” And so he died for his beliefs and his principles. What a guy.

Now as it happens, I was born on a day that, according to a certain book I own, is The Day of Glaring Truth. This apparently means that people born on this day see themselves as representing a cause, and as such are idealists, no matter how negative the material they are revealing.

Little bit of self-revelation there. “They are not schooled or scholarly trained individuals but rather people who have learned through the hard lessons of experience. They can assume scholarly status through their own form of thorough study, and in their field they can come to be regarded as experts. It is usually difficult to disagree with their arguments since they are able to amass such an impressive body of knowledge to back up what they say.”

Their symbol is The Empress, who represents creative intelligence, and embodies mankind's dreams, hopes and aspirations. Strengths - curious and knowledgeable. Weaknesses - judgemental and accusatory.

Oh yes, j'accuse. I might change the name of my blog to The Glaring Truth.

However, I come to bury Socrates, not to praise him. What I’m interested in here is Epicureanism. And wisdom. Philo = love. Sophia = wisdom. And I'm interested in happiness. And the meaning of life.

Epicurus emphasised the importance of sensual pleasure. “Pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life. I don’t know how I shall conceive of the good if I take away the pleasures of taste, if I take away sexual pleasure, if I take away the pleasure of hearing, if I take away the sweet emotions that are caused by the sight of beautiful forms.”

By ‘emotions’ I believe he was really talking about awe and wonder, and what Zen calls satori, and talking about how we can access metaphysical, spiritual, sublime revelation, and experience satori, by using all our senses.

In my view the use of our physical senses can transport us into metaphysical realms, and the greatest happiness and feelings of well-being can arise from ‘ordinary’ sensual experiences. Perhaps even looking contemplatively at a photograph, for example, let alone a great painting. Awe and wonder.

According to TCOP, at the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that most of us are as bad at intuitively answering the question “What will make me happy?” as “What will make me healthy?” It seems the task of philosophy, according to Epicurus, is to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness.

Epicurus lived in a simple house a few miles from the centre of Athens, ate simple food, drank water rather than wine, and was happy with a dinner of bread, vegetables and a handful of olives. He had come to some striking conclusions, says TCOP, about what actually made life pleasurable. The essential ingredients may be elusive, but they’re not very expensive.

1. Friendship.

His house was essentially a commune, with common rooms for meals and conversations. Maybe he was the first commune-ist.

TCOP says the household of Epicurus resembled a large family, but without sullenness or sense of confinement, only sympathy and gentleness.

“In small comments, many of them teasing, our friends reveal they know our foibles and accept them, and so, in turn, accept we have a place in the world,” says de Botton.

“True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in; like ideal parents their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes or revealing we have made little money this year.”

A handful of true friends can deliver the love and respect that even a fortune may not.

2. Freedom

TCOP says “Epicurus and his friends made a second radical innovation. In order not to have to work for people they didn’t like, and answer to potentially humiliating whims, they removed themselves from employment in the commercial world of Athens. (‘We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and politics.’) They began what could best have been described as a commune, accepting a simpler way of life in exchange for independence. They would have less money but would never again have to follow the commands of odious superiors.”

They bought an allotment near their house, just outside the old Dipylon gate, and grew a range of vegetables. “Their diet was neither luxurious nor abundant, but it was flavoursome and nutritious,” says TCOP. Epicurus said, ‘The wise man chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most pleasant.’

“Simplicity did not affect the friends’ sense of status because, by distancing themselves from the values of Athens, they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis. There was no need to be embarrassed by bare walls, and no benefit in showing off gold. Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic centre of the city, there was - in the financial sense - nothing to prove.”

3. Thought

“There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought. In writing a problem down or airing it in conversation we let its essential aspects emerge. And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics: confusion, displacement, surprise.”

De Botton says there was much encouragement to think in the Garden, as Epicurus’s community became known. Many of the friends were writers. “There must have been unbroken opportunities to examine problems with people as intelligent as they were sympathetic.”

They were especially concerned to analyse their anxieties about money, illness, death and the supernatural. The spiritual aspect of life seems to have been a key issue. Epicurus argued that there is nothing but oblivion after death, and that ‘what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation’. It’s senseless to worry about a state one will never experience. “There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living.”

Wealth in itself should not make people miserable. “But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, without freedom and an analysed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”


Social injustice and economic turmoil may deny us prosperity, but this may be foregone without great regrets if we have the things that are essential for happiness.

Epicurus divided our needs into three categories.

a ) Natural and Necessary.

Friends . . . Freedom . . . Thought

Food . . . Shelter . . . Clothes

b) Natural but Unnecessary

Grand house . . . Private baths . . . Banquets

Servants . . . Meat . . . Fish

c) Neither Natural nor Necessary

Fame . . . Power

Happiness is thus dependent on some complex psychological goods, but relatively independent of material ones. These ideas are provocative for those who equate happiness with the fruition of grand financial schemes, and misery with a modest income.

“Money’s capacity to deliver happiness is already present in small salaries and will not rise with the largest. We will not cease being happy with a greater outlay, but we will not, Epicurus insisted, surpass levels of happiness already available to those on a limited income.”

To illustrate this point de Botton suggests we look at the need, or otherwise, of renting an expensive villa for holidays. It’s possible to spend money on a villa and still not be happy, especially if we feel isolated and friendless. Whereas we can be happy in a tent if we’re with someone we love and feel appreciated by.

True needs may seem very different from confused initial desires. “The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the agitation of the soul nor give birth to remarkable joy.”

De Botton says, “Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one”.

He also says, “Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasising luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one. And the way we’re enticed is through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten needs.”

A jeep instead of freedom. A house instead of friendship. A swimming pool instead of thought and conversation.

De Botton points out that we receive little encouragement to attend to modest gratifications - playing with a child, conversations with a friend, an afternoon in the sun, cheese on fresh bread.
Lucretius wrote verse extolling the virtues of simplicity and inexpensive things.

“People may recline in company on soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiles on them, and the season of the year stipples the green grass with flowers.”

In sum, we need a home (“a hut”); friends; to avoid superiors, patronisation, infighting and competition; we need time to think and mediatate and enjoy conversations; basic clothing; a sense of humour and spontaneity.

All of these are seen as requirements for Zen living as well.

De Botton concludes: “Happiness may be difficult to attain. The obstacles are not primarily financial.”

How come I never heard about Epicurus, let alone Zen, when I was in secondary school? And how come these philosophies are not required study in the National Curriculum?

The Consolations of Philosophy. Penguin 2001.


The full Shakespeare text:

Hamlet III, 1

To be, or not to be:
That is the question -
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep;
No more: and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.
To die, to sleep;
To sleep; perchance to dream; ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil;
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life,
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong . . . ?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave a comment